The Photograph Explained: Portraits at Wylies Baths, Sydney by Peter Elliston
I used to live near Wylies Baths, a rock-cut pool at Coogee, Sydney, and it occurred to me one day to make a series of colour portraits of bathers at Wylies using my 8 x 10 camera. I wanted full colour with minimal shadows, so I had to rig up a couple of flash units to dangle from my tripod as close as possible to the lens. There were several logistical problems, not the least getting people to pose for me. I chose a moderate wide-angle 240 mm lens so that I could work at about 2 metres distance and stop the lens down to f45 or f64. Working any further away would make my small flash units less effective and also give a more flattened look in the portrait, which I don’t like because it makes it seem like there is less interaction between photographer and subject. Any closer than about 2 metres would generate distortion of the subject, which I also didn’t favour.
I’ve done a lot of work in black and white, but for this series I wanted the images to be full of colour. I ran tests with both negative and positive film but eventually I chose to work with positive film (Kodak Ektachrome 64) for maximum quality. Positive film is less forgiving with contrast, but by using flash I could avoid deep shadows, even on sunny days.
Working with a huge camera and heavy tripod has the advantage (apart from quality) of suggesting that the photographer is serious about what he or she is doing. I’ve made various series in black and white on beaches, before the public got paranoid about wayward characters photographing on beaches, and usually the large camera has helped break the ice when approaching strangers. I’ve had two photographer friends who were hassled by police when they were innocently taking photos on public beaches with 35 mm cameras.
To photograph at Wylies I set up the camera and had it all ready to go before I approached a subject. Photography is a mediated medium and although I didn’t want to make the photos that were too representative about bathers I did want a cross-section of what I thought would be interesting images. I made a small A4 folder of photographs and exhibitions to show potential subjects and told them that their photo might appear in a gallery sometime. I also offered to send them a copy of the photo. I had very few refusals. The photograph shown here, Wylies #60, is one of my favourites from the series and I informally call it Blue Eyes. It was reproduced on the cover of Photoreview. I made over one hundred portraits at Wylies and two exhibitions resulted from the series, one at Stills gallery and the other at Shapiro gallery. Some of the photos are in the collections of the Australian National Gallery and Monash Gallery of Art. The photographs were printed professionally on Ilfochrome (Cibachrome) with a height of about a metre.
Photographs from the Wylies series (and others) can be seen on my website
Photographs of Peter Elliston at work by Steve Turner.