By Neha Kale
29 March, 2022
This is a series of prose portraits responding to the work and life of the late photographer Carol Jerrems, based on time spent in the Carol Jerrems archive at the National Gallery of Australia.
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I knew it before I saw it, like an image from a dream or a fragment of a memory. A blonde woman, her neck adorned with an Egyptian ankh. She stares at the viewer, breasts bared, shoulders squared. The planes of her face are chiselled. The light hits her cheekbones at exactly the right angles. It exposes her beauty and every idea about beauty. Beauty as aesthetic symmetry. Beauty as social currency. Beauty as a projection, a story we like to tell and retell about whiteness and goodness and youth. She’s flanked by two boys. Their torsos are smooth, tattooed. They seem to emerge out of the darkness. Innocence and experience. Safety and danger. To me, the power of Carol Jerrems’ ‘Vale Street’ (1975) isn’t that it fetched $122,000 at Sotheby’s, the highest-selling Australian photograph in history. It’s about the way it shows us how fast one state can morph into another. How—with the click of a shutter!—an ordinary moment in the suburbs can acquire the status of myth.
The Joan Didion adage, ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’, isn’t about the value of ‘telling stories’. It’s about what we falsify to sustain ourselves. When I was younger, myth-making came naturally: stay out late, because you never know what can happen; speak to that person who might change your life forever. What is youth except for one origin story after another, attempt after attempt to chase experience to its very edges, in the hope you’ll be reborn?
In the last two years, time froze. Days bled into each other. So, I started looking for Carol Jerrems, hoping she would show me how to pan mundane moments for a glimmer of the mythic. Remind me how to see the extraordinary in the everyday—before I forgot.
Her life plays like a movie. Grows up in the middle-class suburb of Ivanhoe, where her father, Eric, an accountant, builds her first darkroom. Attends Prahran Tech, then Melbourne’s most innovative art school, where she studies under the acclaimed filmmaker Paul Cox. In an interview with Natalie King in the 2010 publication Up Close, he describes her as ‘totally unorthodox and original’.
1972: She exhibits as part of Three Views of Erotica at Brummels Gallery, the first space in the country dedicated to photography, alongside Rennie Ellis and Henry Talbot.
She shows the series Hanging About in which her friend Linda Piper appears nude in a Sydney laneway, light flooding in behind her. Now, I see film crews trying to recreate this composition on walks around my neighbourhood, when I squeeze through the Enmore Tunnel on the way to get my morning coffee. Her images somehow collapse time, covering the surface of the present with the patina of the ‘70s.1
There’s a portrait of Carol by Ellis that I love, taken in 1970 at her share house in Mozart St, St Kilda. She stands, hands clasped, hair floating around her head like a halo. Behind her, a bed, a dresser. Above it, a poster of Che Guevara, patron saint of revolutionaries.
Am I trying to write a hagiography? I spend two days in the Jerrems’ archive at the National Gallery of Australia. Her Pentax was everywhere. It’s hard not to be starstruck. Portrait after portrait of people who changed the culture. There’s Bobbi Sykes at the Black Moratorium march in Redfern. Anne Summers in Birchgrove and Kate Jennings in Glebe. A young Martin Sharp. David Gulpilil in the gelatin silver photograph, ‘Edels seeing Gulpilil with a bucket’ (1974), the great Yolngu actor standing in a Melbourne backyard, wearing a denim shirt, his energy incandescent against the humdrum setting.
Fame calcifies. It turns people into saints.
When Jerrems died three weeks before her 31st birthday of Budd-Chiari Syndrome, a rare liver disease, she was a star, one of the first Australian woman photographers to be collected by an institution.
Sylvia Plath. Amy Winehouse. Francesca Woodman. When female artists die young, they are fated to remain ingenues, reduced by a culture less interested in women’s achievements than their potential.
I look at her pictures again. Sykes, hands on her hips, her lips curled into a smile. She would win the Australian Human Rights medal and become the first Indigenous woman to attend Harvard. Jennings, four years after she made the speech at a 1970s anti-Vietnam War rally that would help spark second-wave feminism in Australia.
Jerrems performed a cultural telepathy. She seemed to predict her subjects’ trajectory.
Jennings looks at Jerrems, nose-ring glinting. Her gaze is ever so slightly hooded, as if wanting to protect a sense of herself, as if trying to hold back what a portrait could reveal.
The summer of love. All you need is love. From the vantage of 2022, the ‘70s counterculture feels like pastiche. A failed experiment. All that optimism and idealism, all those hopes for freedom and equality flattened by the consumerist impulse of the ‘80s, the false promise of neoliberalism. The fact of capital, encroaching into every conceivable space, like tear gas.
But explain this: every time I look at a print-out of Jerrems’ portraits next to my desk, my chest cracks open. Cynicism dissolves. There’s something in the way the mother is clutching her daughter’s hand, the fierce set of her jaw, in ‘Ningla A-Na, Black Moratorium, Sydney’ (1972). How filmmaker Jane Oehr rakes her arm across her head, hair loose around her shoulders, one eyebrow arched in ‘Jane Oehr, “Womenvision”, Filmmaker’s Co-op, Sydney’ (1973). It’s part of A Book About Australian Women, a series of 134 portraits of Australian women from every walk of life, published by Outback Press, alongside interviews by writer Virginia Fraser.
Jerrems’ inscription reads: ‘There is so much beauty around us if only we could take the time to open our eyes and perceive it. And then share it’. The last clause, the one I go over and over again in my head is ‘Love is the key word’.
The key word, the word that unlocks the door.
For Jerrems, art was a form of love. She taught photography to support herself, refusing to work for a commercial studio. She was dedicated to teaching yoga. She named her dog Free. ‘I think free is what she wanted to be’, says her friend and roommate, the couturier Mirta Mizza in Kathy Drayton’s brilliant 2005 documentary on Jerrems’ life and work, Girl in a Mirror.
It starts with Carol’s words, girlish and sweet, voiced by the actor Justine Clarke: ‘Any portrait is a combination of something of the subject’s personality and something of the photographer’.
Art, like love, is give and take. A matter of exchange. I look at ‘Boys’ (1973), a naked couple lying on bed, legs intertwined, their tendons and muscles a landscape. They reach for each other, two bodies morphing into one, the magnitude of their surrender enveloping them inside a forcefield.
In the archive, portrait after portrait of her long-time boyfriend and lover, the filmmaker Esben Storm for whom she moved from Melbourne to Sydney. ‘Esben Storm, cigarette in mouth’ (1976). ‘Esben smiling’, taken a year later after they split up. They read like an offering of the self, so tender, they’re almost bruising.
Jerrems liked to print her work in editions of nine, arrange them in sequences you could read from left to right. To impose order is to care is to build a bridge between one another.
‘These pictures are portraits, I love people, and am trying to communicate something of what I see and feel. Sharing. Please look at them, I have printed and arranged them, for you’, she wrote in her notes in 1975.
She signed off, as always: ‘With love, Carol Jerrems’.
I hate when people describe themselves as a voice for the voiceless. People speak. We choose not to hear. ‘The language of photography conjures aggression and theft: you shoot a picture. You take a photograph’, writes Leslie Jamison in ‘Maximum Exposure’, a 2019 essay, published in Make it Scream, Make it Burn on the American photographer Annie Appel.
But what if seeing was also to be seen, to surrender to a politics of looking? To cede the camera’s power. To make yourself vulnerable to another’s gaze. How does a woman brought up with the social mores of White Australia come to photograph those so unlike her? Black and brown people. Indigenous families. The sharpie gangs she taught at Heidelberg Tech, who grew up in Melbourne’s Olympic Village housing commission against a backdrop of violence and poverty. She set out to portray the subjects the culture wasn’t ready to notice. ‘I want to focus on the under-dogs, the underprivileged of Australian society and all the things people don’t want to talk about or know about’, she told Geoffrey Radcliffe in a July 1974 interview with Sunday Observer Magazine.
Portrayal, of course, is risky. Even the best portraiture reveals the portraitist’s bias. Jerrems’ images are frank, curious, oddly devoid of assumption. Take ‘Family Life’, her 1973 picture of the Indigenous playwright and activist Bob Maza and his family. They are at ease together. The image reveals deep comfort, a freedom, however fleeting, from the traps of representation.
Jerrems modelled herself after Diane Arbus, according to an interview in Up Close with the photographer Roger Scott, her friend and colleague. But Arbus, who worked as a highly-paid fashion photographer, was known to manipulate her subjects. Her loyalty was to the image. Her best-known pictures, the photographs of performers and nudists and sex workers expose the distance between the private self and public perception, what she famously called ‘the gap between intention and effect’.
In Jerrems’ work, I think, the private self becomes the public self. No one is truly other. ‘I try to reveal something about people, because they are so separate so isolated, maybe it’s a way of bringing them together’, she said in a 1977 interview for Men’s Vogue with Craig McGregor. ‘I don’t want to exploit people. I care about them’.
What does it mean to reveal something about people? To see them for who they are, not how they appear? I remember the jolt of emotion I felt the first time I saw ‘Sister and brother, Edgecliff Sydney’ (1973), a brown-skinned girl, flashing a toothy grin, cradling her infant brother. Her joy ignites the frame. Or the series ‘Regent Street’ (1975), three women, posing in front of a Redfern shop, relaxed in each other’s company, going about their lives. Each one tough and beautiful in their own way. Jerrems sometimes crossed the line. In 1973, she was chased out of a Redfern pub, her car smashed in. The series Redfern Life is a blur. In abandoning mutual connection and empathy, if only briefly, there’s a sense of infringement, a return to a photography of extraction. Of shooting. Of taking: the historic language of whiteness. The magic is missing.
But ‘Regent St’ is infused with her subjects’ personal magnetism, a quality that stems from individuality rather than difference. Their auras infuse the image like a 19th century spirit photograph.
I look at a sequence featuring Indigenous actor Sylvanna Doolan. In the first, she sits still, expression morose, hands crossed over her knees. In the last, she’s looking at Jerrems with a gentle smile. Her eyes hint at a sadness but also, somehow, an inner radiance that’s swum to the surface of the image, the consequence of the trust that’s unfolded over the course of the encounter. An agreement of consent. A concession to an open-heartedness that the viewer can’t see, but only feel.
‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves’. Who could I be without the burden of self-surveillance?
Some days, I forget to put on make-up. I doze off doing the dishes. As I get older, I care less and less about play-acting my femininity. I’m interested in self-possession. In merging my persona with my personhood. How do other women do it?
‘Men and women see differently’, Jerrems once said, offhandedly, during a 1978 interview with Jacque Braun, recorded in 1978. ‘Their art is different because they see different things’.
What did Jerrems see? Lynn Gailey, who she met in the Bondi office of Smart Street Films, the production company run by Storm and Haydn Keenan. ‘Lynn’ (1976). ‘Lynn Gailey Sewing’. And my favourite, ‘Thirty-eight Buick’. In the work, a masterclass in self-possession, Gailey stands in front of a Buick. She wears a vintage dress. She’s holding a cigarette. Her gaze is shy, even uncertain. But her body language is poised. Jerrems shoots her a third of the way across the frame, commanding the car, the fence, the whole world around her.
‘Lynn Gailey Sewing’ evokes a filmic intensity. Here, half her face is bathed in light. The backdrop is black, carefully burnt in the darkroom. She is the protagonist of her own story, completely alive yet mysterious and ineffable. Again and again, Jerrems portrayed women awakening to their interiority, coming into their own self-knowledge.
Fraser worked with Jerrems on A Book About Australian Women, published to coincide with International Women’s Year. In Up Close, she admits to being disturbed by the way Jerrems distanced herself from the women’s movement. ‘Everyone in our book had lived in an Australia with considerably less social, financial and legal freedom for women than present’, she writes. For Fraser, feminist strides—such as safe access to contraception—also enabled a ‘winner-takes-all sexual and emotional libertarianism’, one characterised by ‘bad sex, bad drugs and bad feelings’.
Jerrems, who suffered from depression, wasn’t immune. Free love didn’t inoculate her from heartbreak. A Book About Australian Women was intended as a ‘collective portrait’, a record of white women, Indigenous women, migrant women, women surviving their traumas and struggles. I also see the writer and activist Beatrice Faust in front of a typewriter, throwing back her head with laughter. Linda Jackson grinning at the camera, photographed at Flamingo Park, the salon that would reinvent Australian fashion. The great Thaynakwith ceramicist, Thanacoupie AO, posing in a garden in Glebe with the African-American choreographer and activist Carole Y. Johnson, who would go on to found Bangarra, Australia’s first Indigenous dance theatre.
Women in their element, revelling in their ability to define themselves. Women free to merge their persona with their personhood. Women who—through Jerrems’ lens—we are offered the gift of seeing for who they truly are.
The male gaze. The female gaze. Is looking always a form of possessing? On the news, more dispatches of male violence. Another man subjecting a woman to his will. To him, she’s a persona, not a person. A cipher.
There’s a famous image of Mark Lean. He’s a member of a sharpie gang, the subculture—‘sharpie’, slang for ‘sharp’—that thrived among working-class boys in ‘70s Melbourne. He lies on his stomach. His eyes are heavy-lidded. He clenches his left fist. The photograph, disturbingly titled ‘Rape Game’, is electric with erotic tension that could morph into danger any minute.
In 1978 Jerrems made a short film that explored rape called Hanging About. The ‘70s, Fraser writes in Up Close, plunged women into a ‘deregulated sexual, social, emotional and sensory environment’. It didn’t always reverse the balance of power.
Walking home at night, I still cross the street when I see gangs of teenage boys horsing around. I know this isn’t fair. But I’m scared to be caught up in the theatre of masculinity that’s staged by our culture. I don’t need to see what happens when it’s tested. Where it goes when it’s pushed to its limits.
Jerrems knew this. Lean was her student. According to a May 2002 essay by Helen Ennis, published in Art Monthly Australia, she made ‘Rape Game’ in 1975, the same period as ‘Vale Street’, a point at which she worked in a way that was directorial. She invited her sitters to try on roles, like actors, playing with ideas of fiction and reality. In ‘Mark and Flappers’ (1975), the light softens his features, rendering them boyish. His friend, Flappers leans on his shoulder wearing an impish expression. In the background, the scrub that’s a hallmark of Banyule Reserve, near Viewbank on the Yarra River, where she photographed her students sitting on top of her car, skipping stones into the river. His mask has dropped. Masculinity is just a game, a pose, a way for boys to rile each other.
In the archive, I can’t stop looking at a portrait of her friend, Peter Cleary, taken in the Blue Mountains. His long hair frames his face. His eyes crinkle when he smiles, as if he knows a secret. He acquiesces to her camera, the eucalypts behind him corroborating his serene nature.2
There’s a print, marked REJECT in Jerrems’ neat hand of the writer Colin Talbot, sitting by a window, hands on his knees. It was taken the year before he published his first novel Massive Road Trauma. Loose papers litter his desk. Half his face is shadowed. His mood is soft and reflective. We’ve caught him alone with his thoughts, with no one around to judge him. A state private enough to break the fourth wall of masculinity, if only for a second.
In the end, do we go back to being children? Jerrems loved taking photos of kids. Caroline Slade at her fourth birthday party in Toorak, her head cocked to one side, shyly appraising the viewer, too young to reject middle-class life around her. For now, her dress, probably chosen by her mother, blends into the wallpaper. The twin sisters, Maya and Bala Shuddhananda from Kew, a tribute to Arbus. Their floral dresses are identical. One glances at the camera, the other looks down, caught in a daydream, their personalities already diverging.3
In The Patient, the diary Jerrems wrote in 1979 when she was being treated for an undiagnosed illness at Royal Hobart Hospital, she reminisces about growing up with her brothers. She longs for her childhood pony. Devoted to yoga, she tells us that her spiritual name is Savita, to become more positive. She bares her fantasies and fears. ‘Ever since I was little, I’ve needed lots of love and approval’, she writes. She suffers debilitating symptoms: stomach ulcers, fatigue, an enlarged liver.
But she expresses her childlike optimism in bold cursive. She picks up her camera. ‘The ingredient for an artist is loneliness’, she writes. ‘But coming to terms with it is the important part’.
In the end, there are no myths, only truth. The raw fact of the body. Jerrems was never scared to study her reflection closely. She took ‘Mirror with a memory: motel room’ in Surfer’s Paradise in 1977. She was working as a stills photographer for the film In Search of Anna. Her relationship with Storm was deteriorating. In the image, she stands naked in front of the mirror. She captures herself with her camera as Storm takes a phone call. She fearlessly documents her need for connection, crosses the edge of self-exposure, confronts her own vulnerability but refuses to look away. In ‘Self-Portrait’ (1979), made in the months before she died, she resumes this stance. Her belly is swollen. A scar bisects her abdomen. With a click, an open shutter, she captures an ordinary moment, one state becoming another. She leaves it to us, her viewers. A reminder for us to look, with love and courage, at what exists that we may be afraid to see, deep inside ourselves.