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CONTENT WARNING: This website may contain voices, images or names of people who have died.
Rain is a myth haunting the arid places
And clouds are the dry eyelashes of the sun and moon. . ..
Its only protest is dust and the rivers drying
And the horrid gaping sores of a dying race.
Maria Reay, Poem from Brewarrina.
The year after Mervyn Bishop’s birth in 1945 the above lament of the heat, dust, and infertile hope, coupled with the dying Aboriginal race was published in Meanjin magazine. We could see it now as a somewhat lost prophecy at the beginning of 2012 given Merv’s extensive career, and the fact that Aboriginal people thrive in great, healthy, numbers, and that the described land is metres under flood waters.
One meaning of the name Brewarrina is the place of the Gooseberry Bush. Mervyn was born here  ‘under the gooseberry bush’, so to speak. The town is located amid the traditional lands of the Ngemba, Muwarrari and Yualwarri peoples. Like the Sydney Cove site, Brewarrina was one of the great inter-tribal meeting places of eastern Australia with the thousands of years old fishing traps, known in Aboriginal language as Ngunnhu. These extensive fish traps have survived for thousands of years sustaining the tribal gatherings [5,000 people and upwards] held prior to European settlement.
The first black and white photographic images of Aboriginal people were taken not long after, in fact in 1847. For most of the following history we were at the ‘victim’ end of the lens. Photographers of these times searched for the stereotyped ‘primitive’ and posed their Aboriginal subjects accordingly. Ultimately and blatantly photography became another tool of colonialism, a tool with which to label, control, de-humanise and dis-empower its subjects who could only reply in defiant gaze at the lens controlled by someone-else.
For most of our history we were at the ‘victim’ end of the lens and it was only towards the end of the 1800’s that some yet to be recognised Aboriginal people moved behind the camera to record their vision. Aboriginal photographer Michael Aird said recently that in his research for his 1993 Portraits of Our Elders exhibition he found an important shift. That in the 1920s portraits Aboriginal people didn’t look too happy. It wasn’t until the 1930s, possibly when Aboriginal people began to take their own portraits, happier subjects appear. A portrait is a field that is taller than it is wide. The word portrait has many meanings; it is a visual rendering, a picture, and a description but until the 1920s it implied a particular representation of a stereotype of how all Aboriginal people were supposed to look.
‘The tea tin’ and the ‘biscuit tin’. In every Aboriginal home, despite the disjointed removals of family members and from place of birth as a result of former government policies, is a set, a wall, or boxes of family photos where the lineage of family, extended family (clan), country, and spiritual memory are invested. It’s a common saying that the camera doesn’t lie. In a sense, to photograph is to produce an image of something by allowing light to fall on it and the film inside. For many Indigenous artists, to take up photography as an art form was often a conscious move to counter this history of the medium.
Teenage Mervyn had already in a sense begun his career in the mid 1950s. He started to take documentary family snaps on his mother’s Kodak 620, followed by a more expensive fifteen pound Japanese 35mm of his own in 1957. He was encouraged by with the help of a Church of England Bush Brother [priest] Brother Richard and Vic King a local photographer who had a dark room that Merv frequented. He then began to hold backyard slide nights of his family and neighbourhood snaps.
By the beginning of the 1960s the search for the exotic authentic had shifted from the south-east to northern Australia. Although Australian painters such as Russell Drysdale and Arthur Boyd had created images from their trips to western NSW post WWII, photographer Axel Poignant and US Life magazine photographer Fritz Gorro both visited Arnhem Land in the 1950s to document and ‘compose’ their subject matter.
Esse quam vediri – To be, rather than seem to be Dubbo High School motto
Dubbo is the place of the clay widow’s cap’, Aboriginal people have lived around the site of Dubbo on the Macquarie River for approximately 40,000 years. Mervyn had moved to Dubbo itself in 1960 and in essence this school motto inadvertently became the theme of his understated life and practice. Mervyn boarded at Church of England Boys Hostel, under a bursary provided partially by the Aboriginal Welfare Board with assistance by a group of sub-editord at the Sydney Morning Herald. Of course his mom dad family also assisted.
‘Merv Bishop Graduates from Photographers’ Course’, Dawn magazine’s headline said. After leaving Dubbo High in 1962 he spent a year as a clerk with the ABC before starting as a cadet photographer at the Sydney Morning Herald in 1963, (the first Aboriginal photographer ever hired by the paper) and entered the first photographic course at the Sydney Technical College, Broadway Sydney, graduating in 1966, Next year was the important year of the referendum concerning Aboriginal people and ‘the state’..
He won the Nikon-Walkley Australian Press News Photographer of the Year for Life and Death Dash, a photograph, which had appeared on the front page of the Herald in January 1971. Mistakenly seen and described as a ‘Stolen Generation’ statement, in fact, it was depicting Sister Anne Bourne carrying a child into St Margarets Hospital Darlinghusrt (he’d swallowed his mother’s prescription tablets.).
In 1974 in a statement affirming his Aboriginal identity Mervyn moved to become photographer for the newly established Department of Aboriginal Affairs. In this role he traveled the length and breadth of Australia to the most remote places with politicians of both races for what would prove to be historically important events.
In 1986 artist Tracey Moffatt and curator Ace Bourke exhibited Mervyn with five other Aboriginal photographers in the first Exhibition of Aboriginal and Islander Photographers during NAIDOC week at the Aboriginal Artists Gallery, Sydney.
In 1991 he had his first solo show ‘In Dreams: Mervyn Bishop Thirty Years of Photography 1960-1990’, at Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney curated by the now super star artist Tracey Moffatt. A society’s ability to construct it’s own self-image is central to a healthy society. Previously photographic images of us had in fact become substitutes for us.
Photography as an art practice in Australia changed profoundly between 1971 and 1990, from a type of documentary ‘craft’ to develop to be seen as an intelligent deeply analysed ‘read’ artwork by 1990.
Mervyn had lived in north Sydney with work friends when he first came to Sydney and then moved to inner eastern suburbs due to the shiftwork nature of the newspaper industry. His first visits to Redfern were to meet Brewarrina connection friends – his Auntie Ivy who lived in Elizabeth St. and cartoonist Danny Eastwood who used to live in Alexandria. ‘All the blacks knew one another and used to hang out together’; Mervyn remembers. He used to drink at the Randwick Royal Hotel opposite the Prince of Wales Hospital where many other shift workers drank. He married Elizabeth in 1970 and moved to Oatley in 1972 and by the mid-1970s had a son Timothy  and daughter Rosemary .
Following a lifetime career as a professional photo-journalist Mervyn Bishop has still been able to honour the heroes of his time into the new century; singer Jimmy Little, world champion boxer Lionel Rose [dec.], and others. One should remember that having someone wanting to take your portrait isn’t always thought of a positive thing, as happens here; timely snaps in the faces of a certain special set of Aboriginal people. They are both ordinary and famous, and come out of decades filled with moments of triumph and that of tragedy. The common stoic ‘presence’ is captured here in this set of strong character studies. Charming, charismatic, tense, nervous, grit, pain, bleak and just plain 'worried' portraits (and their communities) wistfully (perhaps cynically) stare at and study us in the series of the common, local, unglamorous, unheralded contest of life.
There comes a time when a photographer of celebrities becomes the celebrity photographer themselves. Mervyn was recently the keynote Redio National interviewee for The National Indigenous Photmedia Forum presented at Melbourne’s Federation Square by The Centre for Contemporary Photography preceding the first Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival. Mervyn’s is a life-time of picturing others, really looking at others and in a sense defining others. His is now an obligatory category of presence, attending functions like a witness. Like a Shakespearian ‘fool’ character; often the only one who sees the truth in each social gathering and interaction. Pointing and recording to the actual reality, the folly of each player, and the essential truth no matter how dressed up it is? Or like some social guardian angel presence, a kindly owl-like goshawk spirit traveling the land, hovering at every social occasion and enhancing the positives of each event, the strength of each character and to disguise and paint over the flaws of each interaction.
Djon Mundine OAM
Independent Bandjalung Curator