The Godfather: Peter Corris on photographs
I’m no photographer. I’ve never taken a photo that was worth anything more than a record of who was where, when. I know what a good photograph looks like – how the subject has been arranged, an expression caught, the light captured. There is one of my three daughters as children, taken by professional photographer Lorrie Graham, that displays these qualities – a perfect picture.
But, like most people, over the course of my life certain photographs have stayed in my memory, burned themselves there, as it were. Resistant as I am to the Gallipoli veneration and the imperial delusion that sucked thousands of young Australians into the mud of France and Belgium, one photograph of a group of soldiers dead and dying on a battlefield, several wearing gas masks, groping blindly, has stayed with me. It is something like a shot from a war of the worlds horror film.
Unhappily, two other seared-in images are also from a war zone. One is of the ARVN officer executing a prisoner in Vietnam. The bullet-headed executioner is expressionless, his arm outstretched, the pistol inches away from the head of the frail victim, who begins to fade away physically and as a person. It is horrifying to note how small the pistol is.
The other is the prize-winning photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running in terror from the conflagration behind her. She is the embodiment of Vietnam and the outrage that had been inflicted on her and her country by powerful people without compassion and without understanding.
What photographs can do is evoke emotion, promote thought, and stimulate the imagination.
There is something about the image of Gough Whitlam towering over John Kerr’s secretary David Smith, waiting to make his own statement about his dismissal that stirs something in me. ‘Well may we say …’ is great rhetoric. ‘Kerr’s cur’ is not; here Whitlam’s word sense failed him – it has been a long time since anyone referred to an unsatisfactory dog as a cur. But both remarks are stagey, as if not fully engaged with the reality. The immaculate grooming and light suit in the picture trouble me – they suggest a fragility that events would come to demonstrate.
On a much lighter note there are two more pictures that stick in my memory. One is of tough-guy actor Lee Marvin carrying a case of Great Western champagne down to the boat upon which he is to go fishing for marlin off the New South Wales south coast. I am reminded that best-selling Western author Zane Grey fished in the same waters. Marvin wears the grin he used in films whether he was being nice or about to shoot someone. It’s the Great Western that gets me – how Australian! How many, I wonder, would share it? Knowing his proclivities, it’s possible it was for his exclusive use. It is an image emblematic of worldly success and its unalloyed enjoyment.
In similar vein is a photo I remember of Mick Jagger at a soccer match. He is carefully carrying drinks. He is wearing floppy white trousers and a striped blazer and his white shirt is open far enough to reveal his scraggy but apparently sexy chest. Here is Mick, in part the boyo, in part the sex symbol and in part the establishment figure who would praise Margaret Thatcher and accept a knighthood.
But, to give him his due, it was reported that at his investiture he wore a suit with leather lapels.