Introduction to Grain – By Robert McFarlane
Thirty years ago I had the privilege of shooting a very small part of the Time-Life book on Sydney - part of their Great Cities collection. The principal photographer, Brian Brake, was a legendary Magnum photojournalist, most famous for producing Magnum's then most widely published photo essay “Monsoon”. What I didn't know when we began, was that he was also a consummate aerial photographer, able to turn, for example, Bondi Beach crowded with sun bakers into a colourful carpet of male and female torsos resembling chromosome-like pairs. To do this Brake used his command of the prime visual vocabulary when photographing from on high - abstraction allied to compression of perspective. "My aircraft is my tripod," Brake would say simply when we discussed this approach.
David Flanagan has an equal, if different command of this unique approach. When I first reviewed Flanagan's black and white abstract aerial landscapes for the Sydney Morning Herald some years ago, I marveled at his creation of sensuous, anthropomorphic forms within his tightly controlled, elegant compositions - never an easy task when flying at speed from location to location. His photographs also had a coherence of composition reminiscent, though in black and white, of Australia's veteran master of colour aerial photography - Richard Woldendorp. Flanagan also brought to mind black and white images of a past U.S. master of this genre - William Garnett. But in retrospect, I felt a distinct difference emerged between the pictures of the U.S. photographer and Flanagan. This Australian has a darker, more Antipodean vision than the familiar, Edward Weston-esque interlocking nude-like forms of Garnett's merging sand dunes. Flanagan seems also to pay homage to another, far more ancient source - Australian indigenous culture - which almost always resonated with an aerial viewpoint as Aboriginal paintings plumbed the song-lined landscapes of remote, inland Australia. Strange faces emerged within Flanagan's photographs from this period - but not convenient, cosmetic Caucasian profiles - instead Flanagan found brooding, ancient faces almost hidden within cliff facades and rolling dunes - more then a little reminiscent of the landscape-like portraits Tasmanian master photographer Ricky Maynard would make in his memorable, still unsurpassed Wik Elder pictures.
There is something else in Flanagan's black & white aerial sorcery, however, which emerged after a longer, slower viewing of his work. Dark, abstract, secondary shapes often shelter beneath the landscapes nominally addressed by this photographer. Words from Diane Arbus came to mind. When asked what her photography represented, Arbus responded seemingly obliquely, perhaps informed by her own, ultimately tragic quest for mental stability: "Why ... photography is a process of recognizing what you've never seen!"
There is great darkness and light in the vision of David Flanagan - ominous archetypal shapes shelter behind the vistas his cameras records so well, literally. It is a measure of the depth of his vision that the pictures before us succeed so well - as both literal and allegorical statements. As Australian photographers come to terms with the antipodean landscape - an important part of this growing artistic fusion can be found in the fine body of work being produced by David Flanagan.