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Interview with Mark Tedeschi for the McGrath Magazine

Conducted by Michael Church, writer with Imageination, Sydney, June 2009

You describe your work as capturing ‘unrepeatable moments’. Can you describe this?

I like doing ‘street photography’ both here in Australia and overseas. What I try and do is to take pictures of people showing unusual emotions or doing unusual things. I try and catch images that have a universal appeal or a message that’s more than just a record of what’s in front of me, that conveys some quality of human existence.

Are there any examples that stand out to you?

One that sticks in my mind is one I took when I was in Paris recently with my wife that I call Kiss by the Hotel de Ville 2009 (see Gallery/street photography). I took a photograph of two young people who were camped out on the pavement of the busiest street opposite the Town Hall of Paris. They were lying on the footpath with a throng of people going by them. They were surrounded by all their paraphernalia – backpacks, sleeping bags and so forth - and they had three dogs with them. What was unusual was that they were not down and out people. They were just young trendy people travelling. I took quite a few photographs, circling around them, and all the while the public were just streaming by. I mean, this couple was very much in the road. They were lying head to foot and engaging in a very intimate discussion with each other and kissing as well. It was as though the rest of the world wasn’t there. It was just these two people and their dogs, and they were completely cocooned.

At one stage, I actually got a photo of the couple engaged in this intimate exchange and two of the dogs were playing and jumped up and were head to head, almost in the act of simulating kissing at the same time. So the synchronicity between the couple and the two dogs was absolutely amazing. I mean, you don’t get that kind of synchronicity very often. When I got home and downloaded the images, I realised that it was almost exactly the same spot as a very famous photograph taken by Robert Doisneau in 1950 called Kiss by the Hotel de Ville (see: www.robertdoisneau.com/robert_doisneau_hotelkiss.htm). It’s one of the world’s most famous images, of a young man and woman walking down the street. The man has his arm around the woman and they’re kissing while they’re walking. It was taken directly opposite the Town Hall of Paris (Hotel de Ville). This photo is an unrepeatable moment to me for many reasons. It captures the synchronicity between the people and the dogs; it captures something essential about this couple engaged in an intimate interchange totally oblivious to everything around them; and it conveys a sense of change from the romance of the 1950s to the romance of today. There’s a lot going on in that one image.

As a photographer, I’m very much aware of that sort of serendipitous, coincidental synchronicity. What I wasn’t aware of at the time was that we were standing almost exactly where that classic photograph was taken in 1950. That to me is a remarkable coincidence.

What inspired your love of photography? When did it become a passion?

I’ve always been interested in photographing people. I look back at some of my travel photography when I was in Europe in my early 20s, and I wasn’t really interested in taking pictures of the sights. I was more interested in people’s reactions to each other and the sights. I’ve been doing serious photography for some time, since about 1988. But in 2005, during my travels in Italy, I was in the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museum. The Raphael Rooms are part of the Papal apartments in the Vatican which were painted by the great Renaissance painter, Raphael. It was full of people and every square millimetre of wall and ceiling is magnificently painted, mainly by Raphael and some of his assistants. I became aware after a while that I wasn’t photographing the paintings. I was photographing people’s reactions to the paintings, and I remember being very excited by some of the emotions I was capturing with my camera. I determined then and there that I wanted to capture as many different emotional states as I could, and a lot of the rest of that trip was spent capturing people’s reactions to what I was seeing. So I was not only enjoying the sights, I was also seeing some very unusual emotions. When I was downloading them at the end of each day, I’d be trying to work out exactly what the emotions were.

When we returned to Australia, I decided I wanted to hold an exhibition. I had what I thought were about sixty of the best images of different emotions and states of being. I held an exhibition at an Italian Community Centre in Leichhardt, which was very well received by the Italian community. In fact, it was taken up by the Department of Education on their website for Italian language students. The students were asked questions in Italian about my images and they had to go to the exhibition, look at the photographs, and then provide their answers in Italian. Then the exhibition was accepted for the Italian pavilion at the Floriade in Canberra and then it went to the Wollongong City Gallery.

I had had several solo exhibitions prior to that, but it was this series of photographs from Italy which made me want to do photography really seriously, and from then on, on a year to year basis, I was probably spending almost as much of my time on photography as I was on my law career.

Perhaps the most thrilling part of all is that I’ve become a lot more involved in the Arts community. I’ve come to know some fantastic artists - painters, sculptors, ceramicists, writers, publishers - and that’s been terribly exciting for me.

Does photography essentially capture more of ‘the moment’ than other art forms?

What other art form could convey such a wide range of different emotions? I can’t think of a painter or a sculptor whose work can show sixty different emotions? I think photography is unique in that way, because it can capture something that’s more than just a moment in time. It has the capacity to capture a universal quality. I think photography is uniquely appropriate for conveying those sorts of things.

Ninety five percent of my photography involves people. Having said that, in the images shown at my last exhibition “Still Life, No Fruit” at the Francis Keevil Gallery, March-April 2009
(see: www.franceskeevilart.com.au/mark_tedeschi.htm) there was barely a person to be seen, but I’m essentially drawn towards photographing people.

The ‘Still Life, No Fruit’ exhibition you’re referring to was of abandoned buildings and objects...

It was something very different for me. I wanted to try it out to see how popular it was with people going to the gallery and it was very successful.

The textures and colours of old buildings are quite different after the process of age and decay and they have a raw beauty which can’t be achieved by something newly man-made. It’s that ineffable beauty that comes from decay that appeals to me.

Are you disappointed at what’s happened to some of Sydney’s original buildings?

Yes, particularly the gutting of the Sydney GPO, and what’s happened to The Block in Redfern. I feel very strongly about those two areas in particular.

The Block has been substantially knocked down, which I think is a great shame. At the moment, the local community is engaged in discussions with the NSW Government about rebuilding residential accommodation. There are some very good things happening in the Redfern-Waterloo area, like the CarriageWorks, and, yes, a lot of new people are coming into the area. But The Block contained a unique Aboriginal presence in the centre of Sydney that I think should be preserved, and might still be preserved. It’s not the same just having community centres there. You’ve got to have residential accommodation.

Do you have some favourite buildings in Sydney?

I love old courthouses. The Bathurst Courthouse, for example, is just fantastic. I love working in Darlinghurst Courthouse because it’s such a beautiful old building, inside and out. One of my favourite precincts is the area of the National Arts School at Darlinghurst. It’s the old Darlinghurst jail. It’s a remarkable site. It’s got this amazing contradiction of moods. You can almost feel the presence of the people who must have suffered there in years past, who were in fact executed there. Yet it has this contrasting sense of peace and tranquillity that comes from its present use. I was recently appointed to the Board of the newly independent National Arts School, so I have a great affection for it, and I’ve been a Member of the Friends of the National Arts School for some years. I also find the area around Middle Head Peninsular at Mosman – the old Barracks area – fascinating. There are some beautiful old buildings there.

“When I travel, architecture is one of the things of great interest to me. Again, when my wife and I were in Paris recently, we went on three architectural walking tours, which were just fascinating.

 

Some of your previous exhibitions include the ‘Gallery of Courage’ – portraits of Australian holocaust survivors and those who saved them, at the Australian Jewish Museum (1992 – 98).

That was my first big commission. I got it through the State Library because I’d sold quite a few of my photographs to the curator of photographs, Alan Davies, and he recommended me for the commission. They wanted someone to photograph about 40 holocaust survivors and the people at the time who’d saved them and were now living in Australia. There were something like 45 or 46 people that I photographed in all. It was a fascinating experience. Not only did I photograph them in their current lives, but I had to choose about half a dozen photographs that were taken of them, either before or during the holocaust, to exemplify their passage from that time of madness to now. So in doing that, I came to speak to all of these people about their stories, and their stories were immensely varied and very poignant. I had to constantly remind myself that all of the people I was photographing had lived miraculous out survival stories. Some of them had had not just one miraculous survival, but numerous occasions of survival. I mean, for every one person I was photographing who had a tale of miraculous survival, there were perhaps thousands who had not survived, who might possibly have had one or two miraculous survivals, and then perished. The commission came at a time when the Jewish Museum was being built and they wanted to open it about three months later. So there was a degree of urgency about doing the commission and I had something like a month to six weeks to photograph 45 people. So I had to really push myself to get it done. At the time, I was running a criminal trial, so I was also busy with that. It was quite strange to be doing those two activities in tandem with each other.

For the most part, the photographs I took conveyed a buoyancy, an incredible zest for life, and I think that’s what came out of them more than anything.

What I do with my portraiture work is try to engage with people and, although they know I’m taking their photograph, they’re more focused on an interchange with me or with someone else. I’m capturing them, not in an unguarded moment, but in a moment of expression, to reveal something of their inner selves. So it’s not just a straight portrait.

I took these shots for the Jewish Museum when I was still using black and white film, and I’d use up to a roll and a half of film (between 36 and 50 images) of each person, engaging with them, trying to get that one definitive image that summed them up. So I had to get to know each person very quickly in the space of an hour or so, and try to work out what they were about. I think in a large number of cases I was successful in capturing that. A lot of them said to me “you really did capture something about me”. Mostly they were pleased with the images that were shown in the Museum.

What is it you hope your images achieve for the people who view them?

What I’m trying to do is create iconic images - images that people will look at in the future and say “that’s a photograph that in a single image encapsulates something significant about 20th or 21st century life; something about a particular person; something about a human quality or emotion. So that people will go back and say “that image is not just a record shot, it captures something else. If I try to analyse what I’m doing, that’s essentially what I’m trying to do on an ongoing basis.

Do you have an image you’re particularly proud of?

II recently gave a presentation to a photography club in Sydney and I went through about 200 images to show the progression of my photographic career. It came right to the end of the presentation and I had to choose my favourite shot of all time taken in Australia and my favourite of all time taken overseas.

My favourite in Australia is a photograph of two young girls. They’re about eight years old, I suppose, and they were at a Design & Technology Exhibition at a high school. Included in this exhibition were objects made by HSC students involving clothing and other apparel items. One of the items in the exhibition was this elongated woman’s shoe, about 25 or 30cm long, but very delicately made, very feminine. These two girls walked up to the shoe and were just ogling at it, and in that instant, I could see their future as 20 or 30 year old women going shopping and admiring shoes. To me, it showed a certain precociousness in their fashion sense. They were undersized human beings looking at this oversized shoe. I call the image “Precocious Fashionistas” (see Gallery/general portraiture). It shows a quality in these two girls that I’d never seen before. I managed to capture it in a beautiful, completely unposed photograph. This wasn’t just a record shot. It was a shot that showed their future. What other art form could you use to show something like that?

My favourite image from overseas is one taken in New York on the platform of the 47th street subway station. It’s a photograph of a very elderly, wise and self-contained Hasid in his traditional black outfit. He looks like he comes from another age, another world. He has this serenity about him, a deep inner calm. There’s a train about to pull out from a platform behind him, and there’s a woman rushing past him, and there’s a clock. There’s a sense that the rest of the world is just rushing by and this man is firmly rooted in his own sense of calmness, knowledge and wisdom. Again, it conveys some qualities that only photography can capture, and I just love this image because he’s such a wise looking man. I was so lucky to get it. I was standing on the platform with my wife and I saw him and I thought I’ll photograph him. I took the camera out of my backpack and took a shot from the side which was very average. Just then, our train pulled in and I thought well, we’ve got to get on the train. My wife got on, I followed, and then I turned around, face to face with this man and just took one shot straight on. It was perfect. I call it “Time stops for no man” (see Gallery/general portraiture).

I have a third favourite shot which was part of the Italian series. It’s called “Femininity”. In fact it was the signature shot of the exhibition “Femininity & Other Feelings” (see Gallery/Femininity & Other Feelings). I was walking around taking shots of people in the streets of Rome near to the Italian Senate building and I saw this woman who was dressed quite bizarrely, but very flamboyantly. She could have been homeless and there was some ambiguity about her gender. Anyway, she saw me with my camera and made it known that she wanted to be photographed. I started photographing her and out of the corner of my eye I saw this nun, in a very traditional habit, coming towards the field of view and I thought: two very different women exhibiting themselves in two very different ways. I thought: wouldn’t it be wonderful to get them both in the one photograph, but I realised I’d only get one chance. So as this nun was walking behind the woman, I took the shot. You can’t see the nun’s face, but you can see her habit. It shows two completely different types of femininity being expressed in the one image – flamboyancy and subduedness. It’s my favourite black and white image.

What’s next?

I have a charity exhibition coming up later this year at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital and I’m in negotiations with a public regional gallery for another exhibition as well. Exhibitions of course provide me with the stimulus to do new work. It doesn’t always have to be new work that I exhibit. Sometimes you can get additional exposure for a series of works – Femininity & Other Feelings has been shown three times in different galleries since 2005. But on the whole I generally exhibit new work.