Australian modernist photographer Max Dupain always said that versatility was the key to a successful career as a professional photographer. This was something he learned from his predecessors, especially Harold Cazneaux whom he described as the father of modern Australian photography. Cazneaux's versatility was evident in the wide range of assignments he tackled and in the different styles and techniques he explored during his lifetime in photography. Robert Imhoff, who began his career in Australia in around 1970, is also an advocate of versatility, working across the fields of film and photography, and developing a specialisation in lighting. His photographic output across three decades encompasses portraits and advertising imagery executed both in black and white, and colour, and ranging from relatively straight shots to those that are clearly highly manipulated.
The subjects of Imhoff's commissioned portraits are mostly notables in the Australian community: actors, celebrities (including Peter Russell-Clarke, one of the first breed of celebrity chefs), architects, sportspeople, businessmen, politicians and members of local government. What is most striking about these portraits is their warmth, with a great many subjects being presented smiling, their faces alive and active. Imhoff has worked with international celebrities too, such as glamorous Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida, who was brought to Melbourne as part of a promotional campaign for Italian food and cooking products. And then there are the not-so-famous subjects whom he photographed for personal reasons rather than on commercial assignments - ship workers on the docks in Jakarta and a chimney sweep who by chance came to Imhoff's home in Melbourne and subsequently agreed to a portrait session.
Imhoff's portraiture is distinguished by a high degree of deliberation. The subjects are typically posed in the pared back setting of the studio without any props or accessories that identify their professions. (The Mayor of Prahran is an exception, shown in the full glory of his ceremonial role, with his elaborate robes and hat.) In Imhoff's portraits all attention is directed to the subjects' faces, their stance and often their hands, which are further markers of individuality. Former Prime Minister John Howard smiles at the camera, obligingly taking up his position in the studio; the touches of red from his tie and handkerchief provide active elements in a composition dominated by blacks and greys. If drama is required it often comes through the use of theatrical lighting. In the black and white portrait of architect, Randall March, for example, the composition is energised by the single light source directed to the lower right corner of the image where Marsh is located; behind and above him is the expansive space of the studio wall. The architectural references here are subtle, pivoting on the creation and evocation of space.
The staple of Rob Imhoff's work has been advertising photography and the assignments he has undertaken have proved extremely diverse. For a time, photographing food was one of his specialisations. This followed his realisation that it was a stable and potentially lucrative area of practice due to the demand from lifestyle and specialist food magazines that began to proliferate in the 1970s. Other products Imhoff photographed are from the higher end of the consumer market: perfume, fashion, cars, air travel. In his images there is an element of drama that comes from an implied narrative, and strong graphic compositions that are suited to reproduction. This is achieved whether the shots are created under tightly controlled conditions in the studio or outdoors on location. For instance, in one advertising image, a bottle of French perfume is photographed at the beach in shallow water and is suffused with colour from a spectacular sunset. Here the appeal to the senses is overt and unabashed.
In all Imhoff's work one of the most critical elements is lighting or what he refers to as 'controlled lighting'. When photographing Australian actress Helen Morse at an historic home in Melbourne, he constructed a number of white canvas boxes to house his strobe lighting; these were placed outside the room in which Morse was positioned and delivered a controlled flood of light through the huge windows. This contributes significantly to the impression of luxury and grandeur that is dominant.
In the early years of Australian advertising photography, or 'illustrative photography' as it was generally known in the period before the Second World War, creating images did not involve a team as such. Instead the photographer delivered their negatives and prints to the client once the assignment had been completed. However, in modern advertising photography, such as Imhoff's, teams are involved from the outset and constructing images is a complex and collaborative enterprise. Advertising agencies have their art directors, production managers, writers, designers and sometimes their own stylists. Photographers have their own teams as well, selected according to the brief and the outcome that has been envisaged by the agency's creative director and or/art director. Imhoff appreciated the fundamental importance of his team, saying that: 'I always believed that I was as good as the team I had around me'. He worked with architectural model-maker Herman Witte over three decades and on at least one occasion had recourse to a puppeteer (Ron Mueck who was brought on to the production team for a Kodak Australasia advertising campaign). Imhoff's team effort also involved collaborating with specialists in the colour laboratories, which processed and printed his film.
Another feature of Imhoff's career is its internationalism. He undertook assignments for a variety of international agencies and multi-national companies, travelled extensively, and collaborated with numerous international practitioners based in Asia, the United States, Europe and England in particular. His citation of art director Alexey Brodovitch's work for Harper's Bazaar in the United States is significant because his visual style was internationalist in orientation. The great majority of his photographs, honed for mass circulation, were equally at home in international and Australian publications, part of the global marketplace.
Rob Imhoff's career in photography was not confined to practice. He has been a long-time advocate for professional and commercial photography through various roles. He was a founding member of the organisation ACMP (Australian Commercial and Media Photographers), which aims to raise the profile of commercial photographers nationally and internationally, and was the editor of the Fuji/ACMP Collection books, which showcase the work of commercial photographers. He also established a photography gallery, The Lighthouse, which was initially part of the innovative Lighthouse Photographic Centre, which housed photographers, offices and studios. Through these activities, combined with his own work, Imhoff has dedicated his life to creating and promoting professional photography of the highest standards.
Professor Helen Ennis - Director, Centre for Art History and Art Theory, Australian National University School of Art. 2014
I have been privileged to have enjoyed my working life as a photographer and film-maker. Early in my childhood I aspired to work for the United Nations in a capacity that would allow me to travel the world. To engage globally with humanity, explore different cultures and meet many people, regardless of their colour or creed. Little did I know that photography and filmmaking would give me that opportunity. Throughout my life I have been fortunate to have met many individuals that have mentored and influenced me. As a child I was taught practical and business applications by my parents who were involved in both wholesale and retail business. During my adolescent years, a close older friend and neighbour Alan Clarke taught me much about his family business, practical application and dealing with staff and union issues. A client of my parents retail business, the managing director of the Presige group of companies, George (Harry) Foletta taught me many things about his textile business and more importantly, his magnificent collection of personal photography.
My time at Lower Plenty Primary School (1955-1960) provided three significant influences. A class mate, neighbour and friend, Keith Calvert was cast, after an Australia wide search, to play the role of Smiley in the iconic Australian feature film Smiley Gets a Gun. Noted Australian actors Chips Rafferty and Ruth Cracknell both had leading roles in the film. Little did I know at the time, that nearly two decades later, Cracknell would play such an important role in my life. In 1978, she convinced me to start my own film production company and become a film director. Another significant influence was Tim Burstall, the father of two other school friends, Dan and Tom Burstall. In 1960 Burstall, through his production company, Eltham Films produced and directed the film The Prize in which both Dan and Tom acted. The other influence was the headmaster's brother, Dr Phillip Law, the director of Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE). Law often showed inspiring films of the Antartic that he had made. I recall these events as my early awakening to the fact that one could make a living from the film industry.
At Eltham High School (1961-1966) my list of influences and mentors was further expanded. Fate had determined that my art teacher, Kevin Engish, would have a profound impact on my life. English, along with the support of the strong local art community that included names such as Jorgensen, Knox, Skipper, Peck and Burstall; all played an important role. Engish coerced me into understanding basic design elements and imparted on me an appreciation for a variety of visual arts. For several years I studied and debated in depth such subjects as Renaissance Art, the Bauhaus and Cubism. I was subconsciously being led to my destiny. At the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (1967-1968) the list grew to include some of the countries best photographers. I was introduced to Athol Shmith and Wolfgang Sievers, both of whom were to become life-long friends. Alan Dott, Henry Talbot and Brian Brandt were other notable names that I met during this time.
My real education began when I joined Brian Brandt & Associates in late 1968 for work experience over the Christmas vacation, prior to my final year at RMIT. At the time, the studio was recognised as one of the leading studios in Australia. Working along side Brandt and Peter Bailey - who had previously worked for Sam Haskins in London - was to be a turning point in my life. After a few weeks I was offered a full-time job by Brandt and decided not to complete my final year at RMIT. Two years later I was given the opportunity to become a working photographer in my own right.
During the 1970s I was fortunate to gain further acquaintances both in Australia and overseas. In Australia, important friendships were forged with photographers John Cato, Max Dupain and David Moore. All three made invaluable contributions to my photography.
In New Zealand a strong bond was forged with the Magnum photographer Brian Brake. Brake and I spent time together both at his home on the outskirts of Auckland and mine in Melbourne, discussing photography. Brake was the first to articulate to me the importance of cropping and controlling the layout of images for reproduction in publications. In New York I spent invaluable time with Rudy Muller who imparted an enormous wealth of information and, in London, I was fortunate to meet with Brian Duffy at his Swiss Cottage studio. Duffy probably had the most impact of all on my career.
In 1983 I had dinner at the 'Tolarno' restaurant in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda with the acclaimed New York photographer Arnold Newman and his wife Augusta. During the meal I asked Newman a question that nearly made Augusta choke on her food. She quickly responded to me, "Don't go there! It's a sensitive issue, Rob". Out of interest I had asked Newman, that "If he had not been in America and had not had access to names such as Kennedy (JFK), Monroe, Stravinsky, Picasso, etc., would he have the profile that he has today?"
The previous year I had opened the Lighthouse photographic Centre in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran. The Lighthouse housed four studios, an adjoining workshop, a food preparation kitchen, administration and photographer's offices, as well as a large gallery. The basic philosophy behind the gallery was to showcase world-class photography and, in doing so, raise the awareness of photography in Australia. I had launched the gallery with an Arnold Newman exhibition - 29 archival prints that he and the Light Gallery in New York had entrusted to me. My question to Newman was not meant to hit a sensitive cord as Augusta had thought. It had been pertinent to my own career. I went on to explain to Newman that I did not believe I would personally build an archive of world famous American images as he had. Nor, of world famous English images as London photographer Brian Duffy had. I explained to Newman that I intended to build a personal archive of images based on my life as an Australian photographer. On another occasion Newman made a comment that has always stayed with me. He said that while he and many others may have been fortunate to photograph the famous, we must put it in perspective and give a thought to less known individuals that have made greater contributions to humanity. Newman referred to the work of fellow New Yorker, Jonas Salk. Salk had made an enormous contribution to humanity with his medical research which led to the introduction of a vaccine for polio. On two occasions over the last decade I have found myself lying in a hospital critical care unit, reflecting on Newman's words. On both occasions I observed members of the medical fraternity working tirelessly to resolve my issues. I thought to myself, how little my life's contribution had been by comparison to that of greater men and women, and how sheltered we are in the arts as we tend to sway our way through life.
On the following pages is a selection of images from my archive and accompanying essays. I hope they may convey a small example of the wonderful, busy and productive life I enjoyed as a photographer and filmmaker as I swayed my way through life.
Robert Imhoff. 2014