News, Reviews, Visual arts

Nostalgia, critique… and footy

Review: Graham Miller, ‘playing the man’ ·
Turner Galleries ·
Review by Ted Snell ·

Local photographer Graham Miller is playing the man, quite literally! The joys, anguish, insecurity and wonder of childhood are revisited in his re-creation of the football cards he collected obsessively as a boy.

Born in Hong Kong, Miller arrived in Perth in 1977, aged 10. He desperately wanted to connect with his new community and the example of these heroic footy figures provided role models for belonging. Strong men, focused and determined men, members of a tribe, stoic and resilient. Like his fellow students at boarding school — all trying to fit in, to be liked and accepted — he gathered together his deck of heroes. They provided a template for behaviour, teaching him the rituals of passage toward manhood and guaranteeing that essential connectivity that formed bonds amongst his friendship group and lifetime links to his community.

Everybody wants to belong and in Australia that meant, and still means, belonging to the fraternity of footy. As I write this response to Miller’s wonderful exhibition at Turner Galleries, the radio, television and social media are proclaiming the sacred spectacle of Grand Final Weekend. The last Saturday in September is etched into our calendar as the annual tribal festival of belonging, when emotion is heightened, encouraged, and even celebrated. It is expected that raw emotions will be played out on the couch, in the backyard, and at the pub. This is the arena where men can love their heroes, weep for joy or explode in anger, and also the site where aggression, hatred and physical dominance are condoned. It is all part of the ritual of belonging, an essential alignment with what is expected of a man.

Graham Miller as David Dench, 1975.

In his new series of photographs, Miller becomes his heroes, adopting their mannerisms, absorbing their magical ethos, remaking himself into the man the community expected him to be. With mullet and moustache, steely gaze and hard body, dexterous and full of prowess he is transformed. A nickname appended and framed by a gaudy border emblazoned with the tribe’s name (Collingwood, Geelong, Richmond) he becomes the epitome of rugged masculinity. These footballers were “… hard men chasing an oval ball”, Miller explains, “It was tough to relate. These were the Aussie male heroes to aspire to. They didn’t look much like me”. Whether it is the determined grimace of Geelong’s Michael Turner or the gormless grin of Richmond’s Wayne Primmer, the wry smile of moustachioed “Lethal” Leigh Matthews or “the galloping gasometer” Mick Turner’s threatening glare, he embraces them all. Apart from “choppy” Les Fong, he may not have looked like them then, but he does now! The man looks back at his childhood, reconstructing his past and reflecting on his transition to adulthood.

Is this tongue-in-cheek critique or nostalgic reminiscence? Perhaps both. It is clearly a wistful affection for a period in his past when these garish images had significance and potency, yet these portraits cleverly mesh with a wry humour that acknowledges the simple, even comical representation of the subject’s iconic status. As a consequence, they help to undermine some of those ingrained ideals of Australian masculinity that many young men from diverse backgrounds have difficulty reconciling.

Miller is the quintessential chronicler of Australian suburban life, in all its richness and mundanity. This new body of work continues this project by exploiting the ambiguity of images, which, Robert Cook describes as “… the way that all photographs have elements of fabrication and truth-telling”. By mimicking the physical appearance of his childhood heroes, he reveals both the little boy’s awe and fascination for these men while concurrently interrogating how these tropes of masculinity have impacted on his adult self and those of his generation. The unsettling insight he presents to us in this body of work is that we may all be just playing the man we were conditioned to become.

Graham Miller’s ‘playing the man’ runs until October 19.

Pictured top: a selection of images from ‘playing the man’, by Graham Miller.

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