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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

A spectral sentience

by Aimee Board, 5 August 2019

Self-portrait, 2015 by Rod McNicol
Self-portrait, 2015 by Rod McNicol

When you look at a Rod McNicol portrait, there is nowhere to hide. The piercing immediacy of the subject’s gaze places the viewer in a somewhat disconcerting space, raising the question, ‘who is observing who?’ The discomfort might subside as the viewer is drawn further ‘into the sitter’s sentience’, gleaning that the fixed gaze is an existential concern – that it’s a meditation on simply being. Stark to the lay eye, McNicol’s simplified portraits are laden with historical references, and – as I discover whilst chatting with him in the Fitzroy studio he’s lived and worked in for four decades – there are layers beyond the concept of sentience to which the photographer refers in his portraiture. There is time and patience; there is even a certain sufferance.

McNicol’s sitters are stripped of all context, exposed in a process the artist describes as ‘ruthless but tender and gentle’. In their very fierceness, his portraits reflect the precision of the purist behind the lens. Set against a dark background – with a straight-backed kitchen chair to restrict the posture, and every detail evenly lit via clerestories above – his sitters evoke, as McNicol describes, ‘the existential trace of time and mortality’. With the reference to mortality, Rod taps into philosopher Roland Barthes’ ‘eidolon’: the phantom contained within the image that actively transforms and regenerates the static figure into the imagined. And it is this haunting presence – the spectre within the image – that has occupied McNicol’s entire oeuvre, from the 1970s through to the present day.

Born in 1946 in Melbourne, McNicol would move to France in late 1968, where he was exposed to the progressive, heady ideals of a Paris transformed by the nationwide civil unrest of that year. Over the best part of five years in the French capital, McNicol associated with artists, writers and actors, occasionally participating in café theatre performances, and coming under the influence of European theatre collectives. This included the likes of revolutionary practitioner Jerzy Grotowski, who called for a ‘Poor Theatre’, an experimental approach where the theatre is stripped of all its superfluous elements, the actors making minimal use of set, costumes, props, and make-up. Grotowski’s purity of approach, which emphasised ‘the actor-spectator relationship of perceptual, direct, “live” communion’, would be an influence on McNicol’s future photographic practice.

McNicol returned to Melbourne in 1973, and enrolled for a semester at Prahran Technical College’s department of photography the following year. Under the tutelage of preeminent photographic portraitist Athol Shmith, he was drawn to ‘straight’ portraiture, and the directness of the fatalist stare characteristic of nineteenth century photography (a product of the long exposure times of the period). As well as taking up the camera, McNicol resumed his interest in the theatre, joining the Australian Performing Group at The Pram Factory, a progressive theatre company in Carlton. There he found a like mind in playwright and actor Phil Motherwell, along with others interested in challenging and subverting artistic conventions.

1 Phillip Motherwell, 1978. 2 Carol Porter, 1978. 3 James Shuvus, 1978. 4 Greig Pickhaver, 1978. All by Rod McNicol.

In 1978 McNicol accepted a role in Motherwell’s radical play, Dreamers of the Absolute, playing the historical character Yevno Azef, who led a group of young anarchists/terrorists of the pre-revolutionary communist party out to do away with the Tsarist aristocracy of 1904 Russia. As part of the set design, McNicol prepared the actor’s mugshots to appear as on-stage projections. It was a revelatory moment for the photographer. As though conducting a Grotowski-inspired shoot, McNicol presented the four terrorists – his subjects, Phillip Motherwell, Carol Porter, Greig Pickhaver and James Shuvus – in direct communion with the lens, with his images becoming an intrinsic element of the play. Treading the boards would continue to provide an outlet for his practice to emerge; it was in McNicol’s following production, Artaud at Rodez, that he would express one of his foundational photographic influences.

McNicol’s broader early influences included photographic luminaries Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, with their neutral, pared down backgrounds informing the development of his practice. So too did the work of the ‘father of American documentary photography’ Walker Evans, whose intimate images of The Great Depression were as poetic as they were precise, as exemplified in his 1936 photograph of Allie Mae Burroughs. The work of German portrait and documentary photographer August Sander was also influential, particularly his monumental series People of the 20th Century, a project documenting social structures in Germany. Sander’s Political Prisoner (1943) is from the group of works in the People series titled ‘The City’; its subjects are men incarcerated in Siegburg Prison, devoid of expression, their identities discarded. Sander sought not to convey the inner character of these subjects, but rather to document or classify them in their bare, stripped back state.

1 Allie Mae Burroughs, 1936 by Walker Evans. 2 Political Prisoner, 1942 by August Sander.

However, it was the images of nineteenth century Italian anthropological criminologist Cesare Lombroso that would have a direct and pivotal bearing on McNicol’s practice. Lombroso – a scientific racist who systematically documented ‘criminal types’ to support his theory that criminality could be identified by a person’s physical features (consistent with the pseudoscience of phrenology) – captured a particularly haunting dissociation in photographs of his subjects. It was this element of Lombroso’s mugshots – the spectre of mortality previously alluded to – that McNicol found so compelling. Upon viewing a 1981 touring exhibit of Lombroso’s images at the University of Melbourne, McNicol recalls thinking ‘My God; we’re working in a similar space but for completely different reasons’.

The direct reference to Lombroso’s work is evident in McNicol’s ‘headshots’ of actors for the 1981 Pram Factory production of Artaud at Rodez, McNicol’s self-portrait included. The play is about the tumultuous relationship between French dramatist Antonin Artaud and his treating physician, during Artaud's confinement at a psychiatric asylum in Nazi-occupied France. McNicol’s reflection of Lombroso’s subject matter of documenting marginalised people (in Lombroso’s case for very different reasons), tie in with derisory attitudes towards mental illness, a central theme of the play.

One of Artaud’s greatest works, published in 1964, was his The Theatre of Cruelty manifesto. It was designed to shock and confront the audience – to go beyond words and reason and connect at a more reflexive, emotive level. He wrote:

‘The theatre of cruelty
Is not the symbol of an absent void
Of this void’s appalling incapacity for realisation in life
It is the affirmation
of a terrible
and moreover overwhelming necessity’.

Artaud’s version of ‘cruelty’ was in its broadest sense – that of a ‘relentless hungering after life … a necessary pain without which life could not continue’. In terms of the link to McNicol’s portraiture, the photographer knew that his sitters – all friends and acquaintances – were, like him, functioning as outsiders on the margins of society; accordingly, they all shared in a similar sense of the cruel, unremitting existence to which Artaud refers.

1 Katharina, 1980 by Cesare Lombroso. 2 Self-portrait, 1981 by Rod McNicol.

The cruelty of humanity is also conveyed in Lombroso’s mugshot of a young woman suspect, Katharina Milek. She stands with hands held to her chest, and a mirror above her right shoulder capturing her reflection in profile. The sense is of Lombroso positioning his subjects to intrude on their identity from all angles. For his part, McNicol’s sitters are also constrained – restricted positioning, animation in expression, and, typically, no hands in the image ‘so they can’t put on an act’ – but his subjects retain their dignity and retain a sense of self. His portraits are not nearly as harsh as Lombroso’s mugshots, whose subjects’ identities are stripped bare. Australian author and activist Beatrice Faust notes, ‘McNicol’s sitters are not allowed to present themselves but they are allowed to be themselves’.

Exploring further, McNicol’s use of the mirror in his self-portrait elicits the concept of the Fourth Wall, a nineteenth century theatrical convention whereby an imaginary wall separates the actor and audience – the subject and spectator reflected, as it were. The convention holds that the audience can see the actors, but the actors must act as though they cannot see the audience. Both Pram Factory plays, McNicol recounts, involved a breaking of the convention, with very direct eye contact with the audience. ‘At the same time I was moving away from the conventions of portraiture, I was moving away from the idea of being watched.’ On breaking through the wall between actor and audience, between subject and spectator, McNicol characterises it as, ‘I’m present, staring back at you and you’ve got nowhere else to go but to look at me’.

1 Carol, 1985. 2 Poli, 1985. 3 Ramesh, 1985. All by Rod McNicol.

McNicol’s referencing of nineteenth century mugshots and his interest in experimental theatre and the work of Grotowski marked a departure from the way in which most photographers were defining postmodernist practice in Australia in the 1970s, and into the 1980s. The new postmodernists were leaving realism behind – questioning ideas of photographic truth in the image and looking to more conceptual approaches to their practice – with some moving further and further into theoretical and de-constructivist philosophy. However, McNicol’s approach put him at the forefront, a pioneer of deconstructivist photography in Australia, culminating in his first major series, A Portrait, a series of 40 portraits which were exhibited in Melbourne in 1985, Poland in 1986, and Paris in 1987.

Another Australian practitioner at the fore during the early 1970s was Australian feminist photographer Sue Ford. Whilst McNicol was honing his craft in ‘74, Ford was creating her renowned Time series, a group of works documenting the physical changes in the faces of her sitters over a decade-long period. Joy 1964, Joy 1974, a work from the series, reveals the changes, presenting Ford’s intent to highlight time as a process of transformation and becoming. The images also clearly reflected mugshot and ‘straight’ photography ideals, per Evans’ depiction of Mae Belle earlier, in a departure from formalism.

Influenced by Ford’s series, McNicol decided he would use the portraits from his original series, A Portrait, as the foundation for a time-based series of works. Like Ford, McNicol’s intent was to reflect on change – to bare witness to the ‘archaic trace of time’. Debbie is one of 24 portraits in the series, A Portrait Revisited 1986-2006, a ‘then and now’ photo-essay produced over a twenty-year period. Two of his subjects passed away during the period, and, seeking to capture this explicit link with mortality, McNicol photographed a vacant brick wall and placed the empty space to the right of the earlier portrait. The inclusion of the vacant space to mark the subjects’ passing was a distinguishing feature of the McNicol series.

In his portraits of Debbie, a viewer may find themselves analysing the change in the sitter’s physical appearance, or drawn in with the directness of her gaze and, further, into a deeper comparison of the sentient presence within either portrait. Debbie also projects a calm that is telling of the trust McNicol develops with his sitters, of the gentle manner in which he operates. Of his approach and interaction, McNicol explains, ‘there’s a stilling down process and, in that quiet stillness, there’s a distillation that takes place’.

With regards to depictions of the direct gaze, McNicol makes mention of English painter Stanley Spencer as one artist from the early twentieth century who caught his eye. Spencer’s 1914 Self Portrait displays a particular spatial intuition, the strong forms coalescing to create a sense of anticipation. In the work, Spencer’s first self-portrait, the artist manages to achieve an openness and fragility that approximates McNicol’s concept of sentience. Spencer’s portrayal is masterly in its complexity: his dark, questioning eyes; high, angular jawline; and brown locks atop long slender neck pulse with the layering of light.

1 Self Portrait, 1914 by Sir Stanley Spencer. 2 Tim, 1998 by Rod McNicol.

Similarly, McNicol’s 1998 image, Tim, from the series Portraits from last century, attunes the eye to the undulating highlights and sliding shadows rendered across the face. ‘Diffused daylight is the only brush I paint with – it doesn’t hide anything’, McNicol explains. Looking at the two portraits of Spencer and Tim more closely, stylistic tropes emerge: Spencer’s Self Portrait references the illumination techniques of the Dutch master, Rembrandt, while McNicol’s deep earthen-green palette – the principle pigment used by medieval artists as a preparatory ground for applying flesh tones – emphasises the photographer’s masterly approach. Tim’s directness of gaze, however, is not one of anticipation as in Spencer’s; rather, McNicol captures a self-assuredness and self-awareness in his subject.

Created in the late 1990s, McNicol’s Portraits from last century series would be McNicol’s first real foray into the world of colour. He had worked in analogue and black and white for a long time, but, as technology changed, he reflected on how drawn to colour he was in his personal surrounds and felt it time to break new ground in his practice. He was, however, wise to the dilemmas involved: ‘Black and white has got a capacity to render to simplicity immediately, but if you just start snapping the world in colour, then those colours within the image can be fighting each other. Moreover, ‘A painter, they start with a white canvas and they
build up a colour relationship – some painters are more colourists than others, but they’re bringing that phenomenon of colour in and negotiate it as they go. So, I wanted something of that control in the image.’

Rod revealed that while he knew that his proposed new subjects – ‘ferals’ from the environmental movement of the day – would be wearing quite rich colours, it still took him quite a few months to choose which single colour he would use as the backdrop. But after photographing still life images of flora and being drawn to the flat muted palette seen in Japanese floral paintings, he settled on the distinct ‘Renaissance-y’ green we see in much of his earlier work.

From the ferals in the late 1990s to the cultural pluralism of 2017, McNicol’s portraiture in recent times has reflected McNicol’s fascination with the ever-increasing cultural, ethnic and gender diversity of today’s generation. His series Portraits from my variegated village celebrates the younger village types in all their diversity in and around McNicol’s neighbourhood. McNicol notes, ‘At a time when powerful, isolationist forces around the world seek to stem the tide of such diversity, I cherish the fact that this wonderful cultural melange is flourishing right here in my own urban village of Fitzroy!’ Faust describes McNicol’s portraits as having ‘a lambent dignity that strengthens the sitters’ presence as individuals even though they are deprived of context’.

1 Claude, 1998. 2 Irene, 1998. 3 Saha, 1998. All by Rod McNicol.

Rod McNicol’s photographs are not utilitarian, nor are they intended to be attractive. They do however, ask us to reflect on our own mortality – our own existence and sufferance in an ever-changing world. In the artist’s own words, ‘there exists in a static, direct, full-frontal portrait a factor that has always haunted me … it inevitably raises the spectre of mortality of the subject-now-object in a manner that no painted or drawn image can ever do.’ And this is indeed what Barthes refers to as the eidolon emitted by the object, in this case the figure. Barthes arrives at the simple truth, as does McNicol: ‘A photograph is always invisible; it is not it that we see.’

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