Thursday, January 31, 2008

Perfect Skin

Studio Sessions by Peter Brew-Bevan
(Murdoch Books, Sydney. 2007)

When Shoot arrived at my door my first response was to see if the bathroom scales were working. Unfortunately the battery was gone and I was too lazy to go buy another. Suffice to say Shoot is still just about the largest and heaviest book I have ever held in my hands, with The Holy Bible coming a rather poor second.

Art books tend towards the physically lavish, of course, and this collection of celebrity portraits by the Australian photographer Peter Brew-Bevan does not shy away from gravitas with gloss. Featuring images commissioned mostly for the likes of Sunday Life and The (Sydney) Magazine, the book’s immaculate conception takes you behind the finished images to witness proof sheets and facsimile pages from Brew-Bevan’s working journal.

Photographers might find Brew-Bevan’s notes on lighting, make-up and styling of technical value, though amid the sketches and scrawls I formed the impression he was not giving away too many trade secrets. In the meanwhile his diary entries on meeting the stars are banal to the point of soporific. To a large extent this renders the conceit of opening up his working process and taking us behind-the-scenes rather meaningless, especially in such a weighty coffee-table book – rather like embossing a Post-it note with gold trimming.

Asked how he would describe his work in a Q&A session that opens Shoot, Brew-Bevan says, “Since I am forever in the pursuit of creating something of beauty, whether it is a portrait of an 80 year old man or the newest Hollywood darling, my work has always been described as beautiful. My work has also been described as timeless, graceful, unique, honourable, masterful in its use of light, elegant, almost effortless… I would simply describe my work as my passion.”

There’s certainly no chance of the word ‘modest’ slipping into that list. Influences as varied as Rembrandt, Albert Watson, Michel Gondry and William Blake are freely cited, as if merely dropping those names marries you into their company. Born in Adelaide in 1969, much is also made of Brew-Bevan’s degree in Fine Arts by both himself and one of his portrait subjects, the actor Barry Otto, whose introduction graces Shoot.

The influence of classical painting – of highly stylised poses and well-placed objects that cater to a more theatrical vision – is obvious. Standouts include a weary and contemptuous looking Tim Freedman from The Whitlams amid a set of deserted chairs; and a close-up of the actor Brendan Cowell with purple writing across his face that says, “I am an Australian male. I believe in fear, pies, and low self esteem. Please hold me, please hold me.”

If the collection had focussed entirely on such local figures – Abbie Cornish, Akira Isogawa, George Gregan, Delta Goodrem and Ian Thorpe are among those photographed – it might have helped cohere the book around people who are forging a contemporary Australian identity. Instead Brew-Bevan sprinkles a few international stars among his predominantly Australian subjects: a Mikhail Baryshnikov here, a Jamie Oliver there. The binding theme becomes ‘celebrity’, which Brew-Bevan describes as “the new religion.”

The Dame Edna Everage (not photographed here) joke that “celebrity is the new non-entity” might be more meaningfully applied. A part of the problem for Brew-Bevan is his high aesthetic, the unremitting perfection of it, the glow of worship. Brew-Bevan is certainly frank about his interests in producing commercial work, and something he calls “beauty”, much of which seems dreadfully close to advertising. His dedication to this leaves you feeling curiously empty after seeing so many of his images, as if one has glided across the surface without ever really becoming involved.

It would nonetheless be unfair to simply slam Brew-Bevan’s work. There’s an accomplished smoothness to his photos that cannot be denied, and his pride in capturing depth of skin tones is justified. Many of the images have a quality so intense you feel as if you could reach through the photo and touch the person. Every now and then there is also a truly startling work, but it is often when Brew-Bevan is at his simplest and most direct.

A proof sheet shot of actress Kate Beahan lounging around in a field of grass in jeans and back singlet, sun flaring out behind her, is so striking and easy it seems to come out of nowhere and get left behind again and forgotten. Amid so much brash celebrity and processed ‘beauty’ it’s also ironic that the standout shot in the book is of the Egyptian feminist and author Dr Nawal El Saadawi. An elderly woman, she is caught looking sideways from the darkness of a leather chair, her white hair and quiet smile charged with energy. Truth and beauty - you get both sometimes.

- Mark Mordue

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