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3 facts about Jon Rhodes

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By Gwylym Owen

Jon Rhodes is an Australian photographer who has been described as a “pioneer” in “the progress of a collaborative methodology between tall art photography and [Australian] Aboriginal People breathing in remote communities”. Rhodes’ work is represented in everything major Australian collections and at the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Jon Rhodes was born at Wagga Wagga, New South Wales in 1947 and spent his early life in Brisbane, Queensland. After leaving high school in 1965 he was employed at Academy Photographers, and by the period he left for Sydney in in front 1968, had photographed higher than 100 weddings! After unsuccessfully applying for a job as a cleaner at the University of New South Wales, he was offered then again a job as a photographer at T.E.R.C. (Tertiary Education Research Centre), a incline he held until 1971. During that grow old Rhodes filmed Balmain (a documentary more or less the effects of containerisation upon that inner-western suburb), directed by his former school buddy Kit Guyatt. Rhodes associated the Commonwealth Film Unit, (CFU), then Film Australia now Screen Australia, as an assistant cinematographer, working on documentaries in Australia, Papua New Guinea and India. He became a cinematographer in 1974 and left Film Australia in 1977 to concentrate on his nevertheless photography.

The antique example of Rhodes’ collaborative decree with Aboriginal people is his first solo show Just marginal sunrise? in 1976. The exhibition contrasts the lifestyles of the Yolngu at Yirrkala next those led by the employees of Nabalco Pty Ltd in the town of Nhulunbuy. The Yolngu claimed that Nabalco’s bauxite mining leases across the Gove Peninsula were in breach of their land rights and had instituted legal action in 1968 (Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd). Just other sunrise? comprises 17 panels, mainly black and white images, but some colour. The introductory panel features Nabalco’s rising sun logo (from where the exhibition’s title originated), and the text of A brief archives of Yirrkala, the title of the exhibition’s room brochure. The adjacent seven panels harmony with the desecration and the infrastructure of mining; the last nine panels document the “homeland movement”, as the Yolngu insist the first settlements at Gurkaway and Djarrakpi, on their normal clan lands just about Blue Mud Bay. Rhodes used the 19 kilometre-long conveyor accomplice that transports bauxite from the mine to the alumina refinery, as a motif to emphasise the cultural divide.

Just other sunrise? juxtaposes single photographs and series and sequences of images to convey a narrative. This open by Rhodes, described as “steadfastly rejecting the idea that all could be said in a single image, working rather in series which had a filmic feel”, contrasts bearing in mind the “decisive moment” approach of Cartier-Bresson. Rhodes adopted the compositional restrictions of cinematography, namely that the image composed through the view-finder of a movie camera was the image that appeared on-screen, and so his un-cropped yet photographs are the upshot of always composing “full-frame”, evidenced by the fascination of black 35mm frame-lines on anything his photographic prints.

In 1977 Jenny Boddington curated a joint exhibition of the works of Jon Rhodes and of the landscape photographer Laurie Wilson at the National Gallery of Victoria. Rhodes’ photographs, titled Australia, consisted of 26 pairs of black and white portraits, (literally), photographed together with 1972 and 1975.

Rhodes was one of six photographers who were commissioned by the sugar refiner CSR Limited to photograph its refinery at Pyrmont for its centenary in 1978. In the subsequent exhibition, CSR Pyrmont Refinery Project, Rhodes’ images emphasised “the repetitive and machine-dominated birds of the work”. He was once more commissioned by CSR in 1982, and featured in the exhibition CSR Hunter Valley Coal.

Rhodes contributed two chapters (Yaruman and Yuendumu) to After 200 Years: Photographic Essays of Aboriginal and Islander Australia Today. This statement was the pretense of 20 photographers who visited both urban, regional and unapproachable Aboriginal communities together with 1985 and 1987 among the After 200 Years Project for the Australian Bicentennial Authority. The Kundat Jaru mob exhibition grew out of the After 200 Years Project and combine the photographs by Rhodes and community members at Yaruman (Ringers Soak). It toured the State Galleries of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia in 1991-1992.

In 1990 Rhodes spent five months at Kiwirrkura, 700 kilometres west of Alice Springs, where he once again spent time gone the Pintupi he’d first met in 1974, at Yayayi Bore, just west of Papunya. The subsequent exhibition, Whichaway?, the supreme in the trilogy of his feint from Aboriginal Australia, was along with a catalogue in which he further refined “the art of stopping” in his subtly understated sequences and series. Whichaway? toured Australia’s eastern capitals, Alice Springs, Adelaide, and 20 regional galleries amongst 1998 and 2002.

In 1992 Rhodes and the painter Carol Ruff were both inspired after reading The Arrernte Landscape of Alice Springs by anthropologist David Brooks, who documented how the infrastructure of Alice Springs had desecrated many of the Arrernte sacred sites – three species of Ancestral “caterpillar beings” formed much of the landscape on the eastern side, while “the events of the wild dog” shaped many of the hills and valleys on the western side. Site Seeing, Rhodes’ and Ruff’s collaborative exhibition consisting of 20 paired works, was shown at the Araluen Centre in Alice Springs in 1994, and toured to Brisbane, Cairns and Sydney in 1995-1997.

Inspired by Site Seeing, in 1994 Rhodes began searching for and photographing some of the “physical reminders of Aboriginal commotion in south-eastern Australia, where the impact of European harmony has been the longest and most intense”. By the grow old Rhodes was awarded an H.C. Coombs Creative Arts Fellowship in 2006, he had photographed just about 30 Aboriginal sites with suggestion to Sydney, Melbourne, south-east Queensland and western New South Wales. The Fellowship enabled Rhodes to spend three months at the Australian National University in Canberra, to seriously research those 30 sites for his upcoming exhibition Cage of Ghosts, scheduled to right to use at the National Library of Australia in late 2007.

My Trip, the 2014 organization exhibition (with Micky Allan and Max Pam), shown at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and curated by Judy Annear, featured 12 works by Rhodes, spanning the years 1974 to 1990, and were agreed mainly from Just option sunrise?, Kundat Jaru mob and Whichaway?

For the next-door 10 years since Cage of Ghosts, Rhodes wrote Cage of Ghosts the book, based on the exhibition. He concentrated upon eight of the native 36 sites, examining “in vivid and fascinating detail the histories of an fantastic cast of ethnologists, antiquarians, surveyors, anthropologists and artefact collectors, who were obsessed taking into account documenting Aboriginal culture”. Rhodes “takes the reader on a journey from Sydney and the Eora rock engravings at Point Piper, Bondi, Allambie Heights and Mt. Ku-ring-gai, to ceremonially carved trees upon a Kamilaroi bora ground close Collarenebri in north-western NSW. And from the Djab wurrung paintings of Bunjil and his two dingoes in Victoria, to the Ngunnawal scarred trees in the nation’s capital, Canberra”. He intermingles “these esoteric narratives similar to his personal observations”, and although “solves many of the intriguing puzzles he investigates”, he “raises the one huge question still to be answered – when will the fundamental pure of the 140-year-long Australian Frontier War finally be publicly acknowledged, and memorialised?”

Cage of Ghosts won the 2019 NSW Premier’s History Awards, Community and Regional History Prize.

Jon Rhodes has written the sequel Whitefella Way, to be published in 2020.

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