The man who photographed his friends before they were famous never intended his works for a gallery, writes Jacqueline Maley.
Last year Michael Desmond, the deputy director at the National Portrait Gallery, received an email: ”There’s this really interesting photographer and I’d like to tell you about him.”
Desmond receives a lot of emails like that. But this one was from the film director Gillian Armstrong and, contrary to Desmond’s expectations, the accompanying images were good. They were strong, simple pictures, well composed and engaging – black-and-white stills that captured the young faces of actors, directors and writers who are now household names.
There was Robyn Nevin, with flowing dark hair, staring defiantly into the lens like she was challenging it to a fight; the Irish actor Colin Farrell’s 19-year-old jawline casting an angular shadow on his chest; and a bespectacled Peter Carey looking very young and very dorkish.
As Desmond says, there was a time in Australian theatre when you could not walk into an audition without a Stuart Campbell still in your portfolio.
A NIDA graduate who discovered he was a better photographer than he was an actor, Campbell, who died in 2009, earned a living taking arresting photos of his friends and contemporaries to help them land jobs.
”They are utterly simple,” Desmond says of the images. ”They have a classic feel. There is no Photoshop; there is no fancy lighting. The black edges on them are a device that says, ‘This is an honest shot.’ This is the extent of the negative. No mucking around. That sort of honesty was what he was offering.”
If Campbell’s stills were classic and restrained, his life was anything but.
Born in Ballarat in 1951, he was educated there and in 1969 enrolled in the Swinburne Technical College in Melbourne as an art student. There he met Armstrong, who cast him in her first film, Man and Girl. It was the beginning of a 40-year friendship.
At 21 he was accepted into NIDA, where he was a contemporary of Mel Gibson and Andrew McFarlane. On graduating he worked in theatre and landed bit parts on television dramas, but soon his acting tailed off as he focused on his photography.
He ran his unconventional studio in his upstairs flat in Hall Street, Bondi Beach, which also served as a drop-in centre and party house for the menagerie that made up Campbell’s circle: actors, directors, writers, musicians, backpackers, tradies and surfers.
Campbell’s close friend, the actor Simon Burke, lived across the road for many years. ”You would turn up to his flat and you might find Hugo Weaving, plus some bloke with his 15-year-old daughter who wanted to be an actress, plus some young actor, plus someone getting wedding photos done,” he says. ”It became a kind of salon.”
Burke says Campbell would disarm his subjects with: ”Come on, big smile for the dirty old poof!”
As well as portraits, Campbell did artistic male nudes, including some underwear snaps of the young Farrell, who stayed with him for a time while he was backpacking around Australia. Campbell later sold the photos to a British tabloid.
The satirist and composer Phillip Scott, another friend of Campbell’s, believes his works were in the same league as Robert Mapplethorpe’s.
Campbell himself had no pretensions to grandeur, though.
”I think he made beautiful photographs but I don’t think he was making them so he could be in an art gallery,” Desmond says. ”I think he saw himself as a working photographer. He was doing what most photographers do, which is recording a particular reality, being conscious of a particular moment and capturing it to savour later.”
Campbell’s strong personality may have cost him some work. In her Sydney Morning Herald obituary of Campbell, Lee Tulloch wrote that his famous tactlessness, which his friends found hilarious, did not always go down well in a professional context. ”His honesty was not always appreciated and sometimes it disguised the generous, loyal and affectionate man underneath.”
Campbell eschewed modern techniques entirely. He refused to move to digital cameras and would not computerise his images at all.
”Every morning you would find him hungover as a bastard, hand-retouching every single photo …” Burke says. ”But his photos would always capture a moment that could never be regained.”
Between Light and Shadow: Portraits by Stuart Campbell is at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, from tomorrow until July 17.