I’ve always known you as a voracious reader. Do you reread photography books?
Yeah I do, I must have read the book Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers three or four times now. I pick it up every five years.
Who are the classics that you always return to?
Always Robert Frank and I still go back to the 1960s and 1970s Japanese photographers.
Which Japanese photographers in particular?
Shomei Tomatsu, Masahisa Fukase, Eikoh Hosoe and my favorite Daido Moriyama. They always stay in your mind!
One of your earliest series was shot in Japan in the 1980s. What made you go to Japan?
I always wanted to go and I am obsessed with everything Japanese. I met three Japanese travelers on a boat on the Nile in 1976 and they were my entrance into the place. They were doing the same trip to Africa. I lived there in 1983-84 for nineteen months.
What was interesting was until I got to Japan, after I graduated in 1980, I came to the point where I had nothing else to talk about and I didn’t take any photographs for two years, because it didn’t seem like I had anything to say. I have this theory that you can use up all your ideas and then there’s nothing more. So I lived in Japan and then I started to read and set things up.
It’s really interesting that you say that you didn’t take photographs for two years. I have heard other artists talk about the same trough after they finish art school. What was Japan like as a tourist back then?
Japanese fashion was very much in – Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto. Japan had picked up on that whole black and white thing. Japan is a place you go to stay. You don’t go there to go through. Initially I didn’t like it. There wasn’t a lot of English spoken in the 1980s, but over a period of time I came to love it. What drove us to leave Japan was our visas.
What sort of visa did you have?
I studied Bonsai for a very traditional nursery and I would go two days a week. They never let me do too much – just bits and pieces. It was more that I had to do something to extend my visa. But I had a hell of a job getting placed, because they don’t want Gaijin [tourists] and it was only because of this fantastic woman that looked after the English school that I worked at. She rang around and they got fed up of her ringing up and said, “For Christ’s sake send him over”. But they never called me by my real name the entire time. They just banged on the table with a big stick and pointed at me to do things. It was hysterical.
I love your image of the woman lying on newspaper. Tell me about the story behind the photograph Zen Zen Chigau (1984).
That was an idea that I had that I worked on for about four months. I would put things together and make drawings – not very good drawings – and I placed things together. I read a lot of Japanese novels by Kōbō Abe and by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki and also by Yukio Mishima and I would get ideas from there. When I read my imagination works overtime.
We read in the newspaper about a Japanese man called Issei Sagawa who was living in Paris and was convicted of murdering and eating parts of his classmate, a Dutch woman called Renee Hartevlt. I’m not sure of all the gory details but then I started reading more Japanese literature and found that cannibalism wasn’t so uncommon in certain Japanese novels. I don’t know why but I decided that I wanted to make an image of it. It was probably one of the most difficult images that I’ve ever had to make because I didn’t want to make it sensational but I wanted it to be creepy. But also it was very difficult to put together – to get a Japanese person and a Western person and put them together and I had to borrow someone’s apartment and it started to rain so there was no light.
Did you pay the Japanese model?
No, she was a friend and the guy was an older student.
When you were teaching English?
Yeah, I used my students or friends of friends. All the people in the Japanese shots are people that I’ve got out of shops and classes and she was actually a nude model working in universities where she earned a lot of her money. Her name was Sandra. What’s fascinating is that on the two proof sheets that I did, I never got a shot of him and her together with their faces.
What’s your process for shooting portraits?
I have this strange rule where I do three rolls of film and I talk to the models and explain what I’m trying to do. I set the first roll up and set them up how I want it. The second roll I ask them to put in. Should we move or should we do it this way. I take as much time as necessary. And then the third film is what I’ve seen through the camera and I start to slide into the whole process and see where the photo is going. Usually the first film I’m so nervous, I don’t know what’s going on and I have to set myself a list which says, check light readings, is it in focus, have you wound the camera on, otherwise I just get so excited. It’s great to look through a lens when your drawings and ideas come together. And this [image] was scarier than what I had in mind.
I wanted the photographs to appear like they could possibly be photojournalism. But they were also about my Western idea of being in Japan, or things that were affecting me. A lot of the ideas were really mulled over. I don’t mind if people don’t understand what the photographs are about. I want the images to stay with them or come back and have multiple readings.
Who would you say that you are most influenced by?
The artists that I always go back to are Robert Frank, Weiner Bishop, Edward Weston, Joseph Koudelka, Diane Arbus, Sigma Polke and Joseph Beuys. I never get bored of ‘The Americans’ by Robert Frank. It’s one of the seminal books. I also love Koudelka, but the first book about gypsies. I also like the first Diane Arbus book.
Your Gardens series was shot on a plastic camera, how important is technology and equipment to you?
One of the things that I love about these artists is that they don’t let the camera limit them. And that’s when things happen. One of those moments was with one of the garden shots in Lisbon. You know the guy didn’t even charge us to go to the gardens because he said, “Its going to rain… it’s too dark… you’ve only got an hour… you’re wasting your time… you might as well come back tomorrow.” And we got in and there was only a little bit of light and it’s an amazing shot. I know when things are going to work. But then if things aren’t going to work, you put it down the other end and hold your breath. If the camera is shaky, who gives a fuck! It’s out of focus – who cares! There are too many blacks and there’s hardly an image – fabulous! It’s about the feeling!
That must be quite liberating to have no restrictions on your work?
My only problem is I get caught up in the research and doing the drawings and I’m terrified to actually start because its always never what’s in my head. The one of the bed blew my cover in terms of what was in my head. At the time I didn’t want to take it because I thought, why should I share this with everybody. Thank god I did!
Did you have a studio or dark room in Japan?
I didn’t have a studio. Everything was shot out in the street or in my bedroom and we developed everything in the toilet. I read in a magazine that if you buy a metre of black velvet and then you put a negative in front of it, you could see the proofs. I used to run the film in front of the black velvet. It was pretty arrogant not to print any of the pictures and just use this piece of black velvet.
How important is having a consistent style to you? You once said to me that when you have your retrospective, you want it to look like a group show?
Exactly, exactly! I’ve always been influenced by Sigma Polka, Christian Botanski and Anselm Keifer – these are people that I’ve seen retrospectives of. I remember going to LA, on my way down to shoot Mexican festivals in 1987 and I had this idea that I was going to do something like Weiner Bishop. On the way down there I saw two exhibitions: one was by Anselm Keifer and the other was by Christian Botanski. The Botanski was more theatrical and I thought WOW. Around the corner was Anselm Keifer and I thought it was a group show. When I got to the door and realized it was by one person, it really shocked me. I thought what am I doing pissy little photos for. Why can’t I be more adventurous? Anyway, I bought the catalogues from both shows and I realized that it’s about ideas and challenging yourself and not repeating yourself.
This was your epiphany?
My Japanese show was very successful. I made enough money to go back overseas and I just couldn’t print them fast enough. Everybody loved the show, I got great reviews and it seemed like everybody wanted another Japanese show. A lot of people kept saying to me that I needed to make a signature look. And a lot of people kept saying that I kept trying to re-invent myself. Some people think it’s very brave and some think it’s very stupid. But after spending three years at Art School I think its about ideas, otherwise there’s nothing to talk about.
You’ve influenced a lot of younger artists with your role as head of the photography department at VCA. How did that role come about?
At that stage I never imagined myself being Head of anything. I started teaching in Japan and then went back to working in factories in Australia. My partner was at Prahan College and she asked whether I wanted to share a part-time job. I was advised not to go for it [Head of the Photography Department at VCA] because I didn’t have my Masters. At the time I was with Anna Schwartz gallery and I had some work in the National Gallery. I had also been working in Japan and exhibiting overseas. To show how nervous I was I went and got a cheap haircut and looked like a maniac. The reason I got the job was because I was the most obsessed about photography.
Do you still travel now?
I’m really most comfortable when I’m traveling. I think you give up all responsibility. I’m quite happy to get on a train and go to Geelong.
Interview Melbourne 2015