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People are people

by Sandra Bruce, 5 July 2022

Orlando and Wilson, 2021 Chris Budgeon
Orlando and Wilson, 2021 Chris Budgeon. Courtesy of the artist

In March, I and my fellow judges for the 2022 National Photographic Portrait Prize selected a work by Chris Budgeon for inclusion in the exhibition. I sat down for a chat with the Canadian-born, Melbourne-based photographer to discuss his works and career.

Sandra: Let’s start by going back to how you began as a photographer;
it is a pursuit that you embraced from early on, isn’t it?

Chris: When I was at college, I shot bands; so I can say I started in the music industry. A friend (who is still in the industry) used to take me to showcase gigs. We were just babies, and we’d go to the clubs and bars in Toronto and Montreal, and down to New York, to CBGBs. And so now I have this amazing collection of images of bands in tiny venues from a certain – now historical – period. Maybe five years ago, my partner’s band opened for Devo. I met Mark Mothersbaugh [lead singer] and we got chatting. I said, ‘You know I saw you in 1978 in a little bar in Montreal.’ And he went ‘Club Soda.’ I said, ‘Yeah that was it.’ He asked if I still had the photographs and gave me his email address. I found them, two rolls of colour and a roll of black and white, and a year later I get a call from the Museum of Modern Art in Denver – they wanted my photographs for an exhibition. I was literally a 19-year-old kid taking pictures, and then 40 years later they’re in this exhibition touring around the world.

I am still interested in musicians, and I do photograph them whenever I get the opportunity.

Fast forward to today, and you appear to have created a balance between commercial work and your artistic output. Do you find that one side of your practice might inform the other? For example, a commission might inspire the direction you go in next time you start playing with your own creative output?
I’d say it’s the other way to be honest. I find my own work, my own practice, that’s where I get to experiment, and that’s where I try new ideas. Quite often if I have developed an example of that, I can take it to a client who commissions me for work; I go ‘What do you think about this look, etcetera.’ So I would say it travels back the other direction. If I haven’t seen an art director in a while, the first thing they ask me is ‘What are you up to? What projects are you working on?’ That’s the work they’re interested in and want to see. I’m very lucky because my vocation is my avocation. I can make a living at commissioned work. But really, I always secretly think that it just funds my other work. For my own work, I don’t need to compromise. I can just do what the bloody hell I want.

That’s a great segue into exploring your history with the NPPP, so let’s look at your works that have been selected for the prize over the years. The first was in 2007, which was also the inaugural year of the prize.
I started my career using film, but when the first portrait got in, that earliest work, Rosita, that’s when I was first using big format digital. I didn’t do any retouching on my images; they are all straight off the camera, nothing done to them. With digital you know exactly when you’ve got it.

So even though you shoot in digital, you’re not tempted to work on the composition and edit the image once you’re back at your desk in the studio?
I rarely touch my own imagery; I think because my commercial work is so heavily touched. I’m more and more interested in it being a bit more chaotic, where I can’t control the elements anymore. In 2009 I had a shoot with Ruby, a little girl that lived across the street from my partner’s parents up country in Malmsbury. I met her parents and there was this amazing tree and I thought we should do something there.

It was a very low-key production, we found that outfit for Ruby by hunting around in some op shops, and I did light the shoot, but that finished image is exactly as it came off camera. She’s just this gorgeous little country kid, with this great dramatic tree. The tree’s not there anymore, and Ruby lives in Melbourne now.

And then we get to your entry in the next year, 2010. It is a bit of a shift from Ruby to the front man of Daddy Cool and Mondo Rock; was The Boss, Ross Wilson another private project, or a commission?
My partner is a musician so I do meet quite a few musicians in my travels, and I had met Ross a couple of times over the years. I was talking to Gibson Guitars – I have a connection there, and it’s always been on my bucket list to get a Gibson – and they said they had a project with Ross, and if I got a great photograph of Ross they would give me a guitar! So we did a portrait, and it was completely our vision.

The portrait definitely has a real sense of atmosphere and mystery about it; tell me about the shoot.
We had found this old building that had this amazing hundred-year-old patinaed peeled wallpaper. They were demolishing the building, so we cut a piece of the wall out and brought it to the studio. When Ross came in we got him to come to a couple of the op shops up the street and found a really snazzy funny suit, which he took and kept. I see him wearing it once in a while. When I think of it now, that portrait was a sort of a funny love project. And I did get the prize guitar. A lovely Les Paul.

1 Ricki, 2016. 2 Catherine in black silk gown, 2014. Both by Chris Budgeon.

I love that it was essentially a barter that came about as a result of connections and conversations. You’ve talked a little bit about working in digital – I think every one of your portraits that has featured in the prize over the years is in that medium, including Catherine in black silk gown from 2015 and Ricki from 2017?
I’ve always done film and still do; film is about chaos because it is harder to control. I love the mystery of pulling a roll out, and looking, and like ‘Oh my god, there it is, you got it!’ And since good digital came onto the market, I’ve been doing more big format, colour stuff. Thinking about Ricki, that work was part of a series that was going to be exhibited in February 2020, it was ready to go. And then, the whole thing, of course, just exploded. It’s a really good exhibition that never got to go out.

And in that year of disruption, 2020, your portrait Phoebe turned one hundred was in the prize; we opened the exhibition for a week or so, then had to close it, but fortunately we did manage to reopen later in the year. How did you find Phoebe?
I spotted Phoebe on the news one night. She was in an Anzac Day march, and someone said ‘Phoebe, a hundred years old’ and I went ‘wow.’ I found out that Phoebe was at the Frankston RSL, so we took a drive down there, and I got in touch with her son, and went and met Phoebe. And then, she agreed and I made a time to go back and photograph her.

Now we come to this year’s entry; let’s talk about Orlando and Wilson, which was shot during the annual family holiday.
The house is owned by Orlando’s grandmother, it’s the classic fibro Italian kind of house, down on the [Mornington] Peninsula where he
spent all his childhood summers. The photograph was taken at Christmas, New Year, when we were down there, and it’s the last time we’ll be able to do that, as [Orlando’s grandmother] has had to go into a home and the family unfortunately has to sell the house.

And the subjects featured in the work are your nephew and his best friend Wilson.
Orlando is one of the family members that I have photographed since they were babies; you develop trust early and they become very immune [to being photographed]. And as they get older, particularly when they’re teenagers, they don’t have that self-consciousness when you use them as portrait subjects. Orlando just completely ignores me now; his friend Wilson, I’ve photographed him a couple of times, and they always get desensitised to it.

This last year they went to separate schools for the first time, so Orlando was really excited about Wilson coming down to the family house for the holidays. When the two of them got together, besides giggling, they barely spoke to each other. I would watch them, and I thought they were just gaming but they’re actually talking to each other, using their phones. You would never hear a word that was said between them, and I was fascinated with that.

There is a beautiful purple light that floods across the façade, that I think really speaks to the time of day. Do you find you read a narrative or some symbolism into this dusky, dark palette that you captured when creating this portrait of two seventeen-year-old boys?
I generally don’t post-rationalise. I walked outside and that was the scene that I saw. It wasn’t set up, it was dusk. And as it got darker and darker, the light in the living room was glowing, it was virtually moonlight – and so I got the camera and put it on the bonnet of my truck. It was all a completely natural evolution, and it’s about that faint little glow that pops up on Orlando’s face.

I’m looking at him thinking, you’re talking to that guy, but you’re not looking at him. For me, it’s very much about their relationship, and also, it was the last time that they’ll be in that environment, at that house. At that moment, they’re still boys, but next year it’ll be all over.

When we look across your portraits that have featured in the prize over the years, we see a fascinating range of sitters, particularly in age, captured in equally distinct circumstances. How do you decide whose portrait you want to capture?
Ultimately, there’s no question, I’m endlessly fascinated by the human condition. Some I’ve known and photographed since they were babies right up to adulthood. Some people I spot on the news, on TV or in newspapers and magazines, and I’ll hunt them down. People are people; it’s the human story I love. 

Related people

Chris Budgeon

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