Rod McNichol, Poli 1986/2006
In Robert Hughes’ history of modern art The Shock of the New, he described Picasso and Braque as being like a fox and a hedgehog. The fox, Picasso, knows many things, but the hedgehog, Braque, knows one big thing.
If this metaphor is valid in art, then you could say Rod McNichol is a hedgehog. He has consistently pursued his ‘one big thing’ since the 1970s, a reductive, serial exercise in straight portraiture. An exhibition of his work at Monash Gallery of Art surveys this long project; it’s called mememto mori.
McNichol works in one of the most defined areas of photography, the frontal portrait. He shoots his subjects flat against against a wall, with strong eye-contact to the camera. No props are used, and they are distinctly straightforward pictures. He’s used the same wall, the same light, the same distance, possibly the same camera, for much of intervening decades. It’s a simple project but it’s ripened over time.
McNichol is clearly not a restless photographer, always exploring new territories of the medium. He’s content with a sort of parlour-photography: domestic, subdued and intimate. The only significant shift in all this time is from black & white to colour, but that doesn’t disturb the calm.
His subjects are friends and locals, a circle of acquaintances who are posed simply and gaze into the lens – and thus into you. That stab of connection is strong in his pictures – they are speaking to you with their eyes.
He often re-photographs the same person over time so further layers of human experience are added, age and change. Look at the wealth of identity in the two photos above of Polixani Papapetrou, separated by twenty years. It is worth noting that the word identity stems from the Latin idem meaning the same: you are not only ‘you’, you are always you, your character continues throughout your life. Experience may give it inflection but your selfhood is an essence; thus Papapetrou changes but remains the same. It would take a novel to express what is captured in these two photos, and each taken in an instant.
McNichol’s title, memento mori, is an old Christian warning to the sinner: remember that you will die; it’s the same sentiment as vanitas still life. But it’s not the ageing of his sitters that I find compelling. In each face, a living individual looks back – not someone who is going to die, but someone whose life force is fixed forever in the print. In a sense, as long as the pictures last, so will these people.
A publication accompanies the exhibition, aptly titled The Existential Portrait.