Graham Miller Act-Belong-Commit Artist on the Move

Graham Miller. Image credit Jeff Atkinson.

Creative endeavour: “I hope that the jarring effect of the masquerade not only makes people laugh, but also encourages people to think about the difficulties of living up to ingrained notions of “Australianness” and also promotes discussion about what it means “to be a man” 

“Toughness, emotional stoicism, aggression, and suppression of any weakness or vulnerability were what was expected. We acted out these traits to each other as a means of survival and to prevent being picked on.”

Artist Graham Miller

About the Artist
Born in Hong Kong, 1966. Lives lives in Fremantle, Western Australia. 

Graham Miller is an Australian photographer whose work varies from narrative driven projects of the suburban and urban experience to more recent work involving self-portraiture and childhood memory. His photographs have been exhibited throughout Australia and internationally, including The Haggerty Museum of Art (USA), The Southeast Museum of Photography (USA), Pingyao International Festival of Photography (China), Kaunas Photography Festival (Lithuania), Mt Rokko Festival (Japan) among others. His photographs are in the permanent collections of The NGV Melbourne, The Art Gallery of Western Australia, Lawrence Wilson Gallery, Murdoch University Collection, Royal Perth Hospital Collection and Parliament House Canberra. He was included in the 2012 monograph 101 Contemporary Australian Artists produced by the National Gallery of Victoria and was selected for the inaugural 2015 WA Focus exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia that features new and recent artworks by outstanding West Australian artists. In 2019 his work featured in a major photographic exhibition Civilisation: The Way we Live Now at the National Gallery  of Victoria, produced by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, Minneapolis/New York/Paris/Lausanne and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea. Clients include the New York Times, Monocle magazine and Le Monde Paris.

What drew you to the world of photography?
I had interest in photography as a kid, learning from my father who had an array of cameras and gadgets while we were growing up in Hong Kong. Years later in my early twenties I saw a retrospective Richard Avedon exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Incredible, powerful black and white portraits shot in the American West that blew my mind. I went back to Perth and my partner, Nicole introduced me to the darkroom at a community centre in Fremantle. The whole darkroom process of watching a print emerge out of the chemicals felt like magic and I decided at that moment to pursue photography more seriously. I did a few TAFE night classes and then a communications degree at Edith Cowan where my mentors Max Pam, Kevin Ballantine and Norm Leslie opened my eyes to what was possible with the camera and enabled me to find my voice.

How did your upbringing influence the creation of ‘Playing the Man’?
This project is predominantly about my childhood memories.

My father was an airline pilot for Cathay Pacific from Mudgee, New South Wales and my mother was Hong Kong Chinese. I went to an international school in Hong Kong, but as was the norm in the 1970’s, expat kids were ferried off to boarding school at a young age to get a “better” education. I arrived at the boarding house in Perth aged 10 in 1977. It was a massive shock. The boarding house had its own internal culture and set of rules seemingly separate from normal school. At times it felt like “Lord of the Flies”. A sort of survival of the fittest. Australia was still coming to terms from emerging out of the White Australia Policy, a racist scheme which particularly targeted Asian immigration. I realised very quickly I needed to adapt. My English accent disappeared rapidly and, in many ways, I tried to disavow my Asian heritage in order to fit in.

l learnt that sport was an important way of assimilating. If you couldn’t play Aussie Rules or cricket very well (and I couldn’t!) then at least be able to talk about it. On Sundays in winter we religiously watched “The Winners” (as well as Countdown), and in the summer it was World Series Cricket.

Thinking back on my childhood, I recognised that the Scanlens bubble gum footy cards from the 1970’s and 80’s were a microcosm of the Australia that I grew up in. A collection of predominantly Anglo male heroes we were encouraged to aspire to. Noticeably absent from footy cards were players of Asian descent (with exception of my childhood hero Les Fong, who was on the harder to find BP and Ardmona footy card collections). Few Indigenous players were represented in the cards either.

Footy heroes from this era were the epitome of traditional notions of masculinity that were mirrored in the boarding house. Toughness, emotional stoicism, aggression, and suppression of any weakness or vulnerability were what was expected. We acted out these traits to each other as a means of survival and to prevent being picked on.

Using the Scanlens footy cards as a metaphor to discuss these issues made sense.

Can you describe the biggest challenges of producing this collection of work?
The original Scanlens cards themselves were relatively easy to find online, but there were some players I wanted to do whose cards were rare and so quite difficult to get. It required patience and constantly checking ebay to see if that elusive card would eventually emerge.

The biggest challenge was trying to make the photographs as close as possible to the authentic Scanlens cards.

Costume was very important and it took months searching eBay and Gumtree to acquire the vintage woollen jerseys that I needed. The project became a sort of performance piece as my own appearance began to change over the year as I was gradually transformed into a 1970’s footballer. I grew my hair to shoulder length and did my best to grow a moustache and sideburns (I’m not very hirsute) to replicate some of the bad mullets and facial hair from the era. When that wasn’t sufficient I used one of over 40 wigs (including bald caps) I acquired and a makeup artist to allow me to recreate players as diverse as Bruce Doull and Warwick Capper.

The vast majority of shots were shot in-camera. Because the backgrounds in the cards were quite variable this meant scouring for locations to shoot in which could be convincingly similar. This might be a particular shape of tree or building, the right shade of brick wall, or an old spectator stand on a suburban oval that looked similar. Lighting conditions were studied and replicated which might mean waiting for the day when the clouds or sky were just right or when the sun was in the right position.

Nailing the facial expression and the body position was probably the most important. Getting the hand position, facial expression, hair etc all at once for the shutter could be physically demanding. Sometimes things seemed to click and it would take less than a hundred shots. At other times, such as Mick Nolan, it would take nearly 400 shots before I was able to get my mouth just right. My face ached afterwards.

The project could not have happened without the assistance of my friend Jeff Atkinson on camera for many of the images, whose careful direction and humour enabled the project to be realised. At times it was hard to make the picture work because we were both laughing so hard!

What do you want viewers to take away from the exhibition?
On one level this exhibition is a celebration of Aussie Rules footy and a nostalgic and humorous look at 1970’s and 80’s Australia. On another level the work gives us an opportunity to reflect on issues of masculinity and racism and how far we have come. When I was young these footy players were revered as hard men, but when you look at their cards now they look surprisingly soft. By inserting myself into the frame, I hope that the jarring effect of the masquerade not only makes people laugh, but also encourages people to think about the difficulties of living up to ingrained notions of “Australianness” and also promotes discussion about what it means “to be a man”. Recent events including the vilification of Adam Goodes and Héritier Lumumba, the latest report into systemic racism within the Collingwood Football club, as well as the high levels of depression and anxiety in young men make these topics as relevant as ever.

What’s next for you and your practice?
The next project is a kind of extension of “Playing the Man”. I’m doing another series of self portraits replicating album covers from my teenage years. As I mentioned before, when we were young “Countdown” was an important part of our growing up and a formative part of our youth. Albums became a sort of soundtrack to our everyday lives and a way of finding camaraderie.

Playing the Man will be showing at Goldfields Art Centre Gallery from Fri 14 May – Sat 19 June.

You can find out more about ‘Playing the Man’ here and Miller’s body of work here.

This Act-Belong-Commit Engagement Program presented by ART ON THE MOVE is sponsored by Healthway promoting the Act-Belong-Commit health message.