A charmed life
Iconic and intimate images from Australia’s first Aboriginal press photographer, Mervyn Bishop.
From the small town of Brewarrina, Mervyn Bishop became a cadet at The Sydney Morning Herald in 1963 — and Australia’s first Aboriginal press photographer.
A new exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW celebrates Bishop’s contribution to documenting moments, people and places in Australia’s history.
Launching the exhibition with a gallery talk in NAIDOC week, “Uncle Merv” beamed with pride as he talked through a slideshow of images before a packed crowd, including many family members and people depicted in his images.
“I’ve lived a kind of a charmed life,” he reflected.
Drawn from his collection of over 8,000 photographs, the exhibition weaves through news and daily life, hardship and joy. Family, dignity and strength shine through, in images of achievers (champion boxer Lionel Rose, dancer Roslyn Watson) and houseproud mothers alike.
Home in Brewarrina on holidays from his work at the Herald in 1966, Bishop captured a cheeky and intimate moment with his cousins Jimmy and Ralphy out in a boat on the property his grandfather and uncle worked on, Gundawera.
“They wagged school that day — you can see they’re in their school uniforms. They said we’re not going to school today cuz — we’re going with you!” Bishop recalled. Jimmy has passed away, but Ralphy was in the audience at the gallery.
“Life and Death Dash”, an image of a nun rushing a child who’d taken his mother’s prescription medication into St Margaret’s hospital in Darlinghurst, won Bishop the Nikon Press Photographer of the Year Award in 1971.
Bishop started work for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra in 1974, travelling the nation, in particular regional NSW, to document home and life for Aboriginal people.
The year 1975 brought what is perhaps Bishop’s most iconic image — his photo of Gough Whitlam pouring earth into Vincent Lingiari’s hands at Wattie Creek as the government handed back traditional lands to the Gurindji people. Red earth, blue sky, the Hasselblad-frozen colours sing. It’s an image that very nearly didn’t exist.
Bishop recalled that the formalities were done but the photos, taken inside a bough shed, just didn’t look right. Along with Women’s Weekly photographer Keith Barlow, Bishop worked to get another photo opportunity under that sky.
“I had to get them outside and pose them again. I had to ask Mr Whitlam, ‘Do you think you could do it again sir?’ and he said [affects a gruff voice] ‘Very well.’
“Vincent, he was soft-spoken. ‘Ok mate.’ He had the deeds in his left hand.
“Mr Whitlam turned around, he knew what to do. He bent down and got a handful of dirt. ‘Will this do?’”
It did, very well. The exhibition notes that during the press conference, Whitlam said: “Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.”
Lingiari replied: “We are mates now.”
Decades of photography taught Bishop nothing so much as the reality of change.
“That was on the 16th of August, 1975. Three months later, Mr Whitlam was gone.”
“Mervyn Bishop” is on show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until October 8, 2017
This piece is from Issue 89 (August 2017) of the Walkley Magazine.
All photos courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales / Hallmark Cards Australian Photography Collection Fund 1991