DETAIL: Michael RILEY, 'Untitled from the series cloud [feather]' Cloud series Feather 2000, printed 2005 Photograph chromogenic pigment print Ed: 1/5 NGA 2005.294.5, Reproduced courtesy of the Michael Riley Foundation and VISCOPY, Australia

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'A common place: portraits of Moree Murries'
Up in the sky, behind the clouds
Brenda L Croft

In 1993 Riley travelled overseas to see the selection from A common place: portraits of Moree Murries included in the major survey exhibition Aratjara: art of the First Australians. As Dreamings was to North America, Aratjara was to Europe.

Anthony ‘Ace’ Bourke
Armed with the trusty Nikon – and the idea of a simple backdrop taken from my copy of Irving Penn’s book Worlds in a small room (1974), which I was never to see again – Riley photographed his community in Moree (and later in Dubbo). These photographs were less stylised than Penn’s, more traditional and less posed than his early works. He asked people how they wanted to be photographed. A common place: portraits of Moree Murries is extraordinarily valuable documentation, and was an exhibition of exceptional insight and poignancy.

Riley’s work was always fully resolved, distilled, refined. He had an extraordinary aesthetic of elegance and simplicity. It was subtly political rather than overt, and probably more successful for it. It broke the stereotypes, or re-represented Aboriginal people, but in a non-confrontational way.

The meek Michael Riley
Nikos Papastergiadis
I met Michael Riley once. The invitation to his exhibition A common place: portraits of Moree Murries at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery in London had been sent to the journal Third Text. It was the summer of 1991 and it was quite warm. I was working as an assistant editor at the journal and when we received the invitation there was an instant recognition in the office that this was to be an important event. The journal’s editors, Jean Fisher and Rasheed Araeen, were intrigued by the card, and even though Rebecca Hossack’s gallery was not one of the usual sites for this gang. The word went out and most of the hard-core critics and artists that were associated with the journal came out for the opening.

The opening was packed but in the lower section of the gallery there was a series of photographs that maintained their equanimity. The space had been lit with care, enough to see each work with appreciation but not so as to disturb the quietness that had settled between each work. The photographs were portraits. Most of them were of individuals. Some were of families and friends. Every face was calm. Everyone looked directly at the camera with a warm sense of delight. The photographs had simple names: ‘Nana Riley’, ‘Nana with grandkids’, ‘Two mates’. It was obvious that Michael was at home. But more importantly the gaze and posture of everyone in the photographs was homely. The two mates stood shoulder-to-shoulder, one slightly leaning into the other. The dog at Nana’s feet was alert, his tail and ears up and ready – he cares that there might be something around the corner. All the photographs were taken with the same backdrop, a long white canvas sheet that also draped down to cover the floor. The background and foreground merged. It was a simple place of intimacy.

Riley took out all the jagged edges of the world in which these people lived but brought in the dignity with which they face that world on a daily basis. The scene is soft, but this does nothing to soften the reality. There is no sense that these people are posing in a fantasy world. They are in a state of repose and respite, but are not oblivious to and apart from their own lives. Their world is held in their bodies. This can be seen in their small gestures. It is evident in the way the knuckles and fingers in the hands are crossed together. It can also be seen in the fall of the arms from the slightly puffed torso of a younger man. Even the act of tugging of one kid’s arm to hold her in the frame is a kind of act of loving co-operation. In this image the gentle wonder and nervous compliance of the kids is counter-posed by the proud smile and firm stance of the mother.

Riley had created the most relaxed and real photographs of a community. He had not gone into their homes and asked them to be themselves. He had not followed them in the course of their working life or sought to place them in the landscape in a way that might reflect back their struggle and entitlement. On the contrary, he invited them into a space that was abstract. In this neutral setting he created their aura of their belonging through the small gestures of recognition. This effect was startling in its simplicity but it was also a turning point in the history of photography. It was in direct opposition to the history of colonial and ethnographic photography that sought to capture the noble savage in their primitive setting. It was also a radical departure from the more recent photorealism that sought to sink the subject into a landscape of grim exploitation and alienation. Riley did not set out to challenge these traditions by any overt act. At that time, the critiques of colonial and ethnographic photography were being forcefully argued in the pages of Third Text. Many artists were also determined to deconstruct the strategies of the past, appropriate and recontextualise images that had been taken of Indigenous people.

It seemed to me that Riley’s aim was more subtle and in a simple way more humble. He knew the people that he wanted to photograph. I also felt that he knew the way these people wanted to be photographed. I have seen numerous exhibitions where photographers have spent extended periods ‘in the field’. Where they have clearly worked hard to learn the habits, speak the language and even gain the trust of the people that they wanted to photograph. Many of these photographs have the power to reveal the details of people’s everyday lives. At times they hint at articulating a deep secret or creating an iconic moment that evokes a genuine sympathy for the subject.

It’s a record of a certain time and place and a certain people. I set up a backdrop and invited the people from the community to come and be photographed … It was all done in natural light, in the shade, it took about a week to do. It was a cross-section of … that community. They just walked in front of the camera, stood or sat in their everyday clothes, however they wanted to sit, in a very dignified manner, no snotty noses, no flies around the eyes. People were just the way they were.

I didn’t grow up in Moree; my mother comes from Moree and my father comes from Dubbo but that association with Moree, my grandmother’s in Moree, was very helpful in getting the exhibition together. Everybody knew who I was, knew what I was doing, so there was no problem in getting those images, in getting the exhibition together.

[A Common Place] got a good response in London, a positive, critical half page with about five images in The Independent newspaper. It was the first time that Rebecca Hossack Gallery had shown an Aboriginal photographer. She said it was the best response she’d ever got from showing an Australian artist at this gallery.

The response was interesting because I’d actually had A common place in Sydney a few months earlier at the Hogarth Galelry, and we didn’t seem to get as much attention as we did overseas.

Michael Riley, ‘Liking what I do’, interview with Andrew Dewdney (1989), in Racism, representation and photography, Chippendale: Inner City Education Centre, 1993, pp. 148.

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