Brenda L. Croft

Man about town
Stills Gallery, Sydney
15 October – 15 November 2003

Brenda L Croft’s most recent photographic series Man About Town is sourced from the contents of an old slide box discovered amongst her father’s personal possessions after his death. These photographs from around 1950–60 document aspects of his life as a young single man. There is nothing sensational or surprising in this material: these images comfortably precede those appropriated from the family photographic archive for the earlier series In My Father’s House (1999) and In My Mother’s Garden(1998). They are nevertheless striking examples of the genre. This good-looking Aboriginal man in his early 30s appears equally comfortable behind as in front of the lens. As the title suggests, these images document the life of a man about town, cruising through the streets of Melbourne, as in one image Beau Monde, taken at the crossroads of Flinders and Swanston Streets, with the familiar landmark of Young & Jackson’s up ahead. The movements of pedestrians and the solemn procession of cars are frozen in time to characterise the austere formality of the era and something of its more lurid commerce. In other street scenes, such as the aptly titled Shadowland, dominated by the monumental grandeur of Melbourne’s Victorian edifices, the long shadows cast by the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun would appear to divide day from night and perhaps, metaphorically speaking, darkness from light.

Outside of the metropolis, a different mood predominates: our man is portrayed out on the road as a public servant or businessman in the bush or on weekend jaunts with friends, in locations that range from the golf course to the airport and the various semi-rural or outer-suburban scenic spots. This is a world defined by the independent means of owning a motorcar or, as in Damned if he did (a take on the film Easyrider perhaps), a motorbike, shown here parked up against the wire fence in front of an inland water-development. Boy from the bush is one of several scenes photographed at an airport: if the rattan blinds in the restaurant above the tarmac are anything to go by, this could be Darwin or another Northern outpost. Posed before the barrier at Gate no.1, clutching a briefcase, A hostile landscape bears an uncanny resemblance to the airport scene from Emil Goh’s New Australian series (1996) in capturing a vision of the pioneering role of the air traveller in the 1950s. Provocative too, in this connection is Croft’s Colour bar, a captivating portrait of an unknown young woman who could be a recent migrant, perhaps a pointed reference to a potential social barrier, and having something of an affinity with displaced European migrants.

Indeed, what is left out of these pictures and what draws out the guarded secret behind their Technicolour perfection is the sense of a ‘foreign affair’, as Croft herself describes it in her catalogue statement. There is something perhaps vaguely uncomfortable or clandestine in these stolen photo opportunities that feature undisclosed relationships across different locations and contexts. Given Croft’s personal investment in filling in the gaps in her father’s life, these photographs become the body of evidence referring back to Joseph Croft’s early years and the consequences of his separation from his mother and family as a child: a victim of the Australian Government’s assimilationist policies who, against all odds, grew up to obtain considerable achievement in his education and career.

For Croft, these and other issues are of great personal significance: she is the first-born and only daughter following her father’s marriage to her mother, who is of European descent, a couple of years after these pictures were taken. Reproduced poster size, not unlike the projected image or film still, these scenes from a life correspond to contemporary film culture. I cannot help thinking, in particular, of the role of Sidney Poitier in Stanley Kramer’s film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Something of this legacy is conveyed in this conservatively dressed and debonair man about town, who represents to Croft herself ‘the savage un-made’. In the catalogue statement to Man about town, Croft fantasises that Jedda star Robert Tudawali (who played the charismatic Marbuk) is her father’s long-lost twin brother, in order to provide a counterpoint perhaps and underline their parallel roles as actors posing for the camera.

Guided by the act of selection and the provocative ‘signature’ of the accompanying captions, what nevertheless distinguishes the more recent body of work from the earlier series is the absence of an overlaid narrative to direct or fix our interpretation of the scenarios presented. As a personal tribute to the memory of her father, Croft has created a series of strong and compelling images that encapsulate much of the spectacle and contradiction of the era.