With a career that spans five decades, Australian photographer Robert Imhoff has many stories that point to his ingenuity in knowing when to make the most of a situation. Even as a child he was always looking for an opportunity. At the Melbourne Olympic Games village in 1956 a 7-year-old Rob slid between the legs of the adults and under a barricade to take a snapshot of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, with his Kodak Brownie E-box camera. This photograph features alongside numerous images taken over his career in the retrospective exhibition and book, Imhoff: A Life of Grain and Pixels.
The boldness that led to his photograph of the Prince, combined with a well developed sense of timing, and the ability to make his subjects relax, are hallmarks of Rob’s long career that has spanned continents and seen him photograph many Australian icons. So is his portfolio, in both photography and film – he’s directed more than 300 productions. Rob is considered one of the elder statesmen of commercial photography in Australia.
Portraiture naturally evolved to become an area of specialisation within Rob’s commercial work and many of the images in this retrospective are photographs that Rob took after he’d finished the commissioned work. “Pictures that you take for yourself, as you do,” he says jovially, a good sense of humour one of the attributes that saw him work with some of the biggest names in advertising.
Those of a certain vintage will be familiar with many of the subjects in Rob’s portraits – baby boomers in particular will know actress Gina Lollabrigida, Australian Rules Football legend Ron Barassi, and fashion designer Prue Acton. And of course his portrait of the former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, when he was leader of the opposition, is now considered iconic.
Rob has several favourite portraits in this collection, photographs that have been influenced by his study of Renaissance art and the artist’s use of light. “I know light,” he says reminiscing about his days at art school. “In fact I use my hand as a light meter, it’s my grey card”. He tells of the time he was in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia doing a “reccy” for the next day’s shoot. A storm was brewing and the sun had backlit towering thunder cells. Rob held out his hand to gauge the light. “I knew we were going to get one of those magic moments.” Not wanting to miss the opportunity, he rallied the crew and talent and did the shoot on the spot. “It was a wrap”.
Out of all of his portraits does he have a favourite? He mulls that question for a moment before nominating the photograph of English actor Sydney Charles Bromley taken in 1969 as perhaps his most sentimental, and one of the first professional portraits he shot.
“This portrait is about the connection between the photographer and subject, and it shows in the photograph. You can see we had a connection. Sydney was about the same age as I am now, in his sixties,” laughs Rob who at the time was a 19 year-old photography assistant. “Sydney loved the idea of my using a fan to blow his hair out because his hair was such an important part of his look.” This portrait features on the cover of the book also.
His encounter with Prince Philip wasn’t his only royal engagement and his photograph of Queen Elisabeth is the product of another serendipitous moment. On this occasion Rob was in London on a commercial shoot and just happened to be at the new City Hall when the Queen arrived for its official opening. “I had no idea what was going on,” he says before launching into a tale about how he found the right position, found a “Queen magnet” – a young girl with flowers – and positioned himself in the unsuspecting monarch’s pathway. Within minutes he was in a discussion with the Queen and he had his portrait of Her Majesty in the bag.
Being able to spot the opportunity, and then acting quickly has led to other portraits in Rob’s collection such as the one of the chimney sweep. In retelling this story Rob laughs uproariously and says, “I opened the front door and there was this little chap with his buckets and brushes and he asked me, can I clean your chimney? I was in the middle of a food shoot and I went into the studio, asked the client to go away, pulled the set apart quickly with my assistant and I got George the chimney sweep in for a portrait”. He paid George for the sitting and he left without cleaning the chimney.
This portrait is indicative of Rob’s ability to “capture the moment between the shots” as he calls it. “That’s the important thing. Would you take your hat off please? The hand goes up and bang got you got it”.
In conclusion Rob says that despite his international travels and assignments, “I always intended to build a personal archive of images based on my life as an Australian photographer”. In Imhoff: A Life of Grain and Pixels, his mission is accomplished.
Imhoff: A Life of Grain and Pixels
11 October to 7 December 2014
Ballarat Art Gallery
40 Lydiard Street North
Imhoff: A Life of Grain and Pixels
Publisher: WriteLight in association with the Gallery