Photographer Mervyn Bishop celebrated by new Canberra exhibition.

The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) will celebrate Mervyn Bishop, one of Australia’s most prolific and influential photographers, with a new exhibition opening in Canberra on 5 March.

Mr Bishop’s Images of culture, politics and people have significantly influenced our collective understanding of Australia’s history. This exhibition is drawn from the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) collection, the artist’s private archive, and enriched by sound and moving image from the NFSA.

Mervyn Bishop features iconic photographs that derive from his career as a photojournalist, alongside personal images of family and friends and intimate portraits of members of the Aboriginal community. Spanning the past 60 years, the exhibition provides a fascinating insight into Bishop’s life and work.

NFSA Acting CEO Nancy Eyers said: ‘We are pleased to bring the work of Mervyn Bishop to Canberra, and share his story with our audiences. Mr Bishop’s photographs present us with a wonderful combination of history, artistic excellence, and self-representation. In addition to the striking prints from the AGNSW, the NFSA’s audiovisual collection will bring a new dimension to the exhibition.’

Mervyn Bishop said: ‘Photography has been my life, my passion for 60 years: the art and technique, the stories I’ve witnessed and captured. I’m glad to be able to share my life’s work with the public.

‘This comprehensive exhibition was developed by the AGNSW, but there are new additions from the NFSA collection for Canberra audiences. It’s been fantastic working with them; there are not many exhibitions that combine photography with mixed media, and I think visitors will be amazed by this combination.’

AGNSW Curator Coby Edgar added: ‘Working with Mervyn Bishop and the NFSA to build this show has been a truly collaborative process with the aim to present Australia through Mervyn’s eyes. He has captured many of our country’s most pivotal moments politically and socially, and this exhibition is a celebration of his life and practice and the Australian peoples and cultures that he has documented.’

In 1963 Mervyn Bishop left his hometown of Brewarrina, venturing to Sydney, where he successfully applied for a cadetship at The Sydney Morning Herald. He became Australia’s first Aboriginal press photographer and in 1971 won the News Photographer of the Year Award with his front-page photograph Life and Death Dash, 1971.

Bishop went on to work at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra in 1974 where he covered the major developments in Aboriginal communities throughout Australia. This included his iconic image from 1975 when the (then) Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, poured a handful of earth back into the hand of Vincent Lingiari, Gurindji elder and traditional landowner.

Mervyn Bishop’s childhood, his life experiences and career will be explored by former Reuters journalist Tim Dobbyn in an upcoming biography tentatively titled A Handful of Sand.

The Mervyn Bishop exhibition will be open at the NFSA in Canberra from 5 March – 1 August 2021; tickets available from 15 February 2021 at www.nfsa.gov.au/mervynbishop.

The exhibition will be complemented by a suite of special events and public programs, to be announced in coming weeks.

Mervyn Bishop, the exhibition

Where: National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, McCoy Circuit, Acton ACT
When: Fri 5 March to Sun 1 August 2021; 10am to 4pm, Monday to Sunday.
Tickets: $13 adult / $10 concession and Friends of the NFSA / $9 groups / FREE for under 18s
For more information (including our COVID-19 safety measures) and bookings: www.nfsa.gov.au/mervynbishop
An Art Gallery of New South Wales touring exhibition, presented in collaboration with NFSA.

About Mervyn Bishop

Born and raised in Brewarrina, New South Wales, Mervyn Bishop was encouraged by his mother to take his first photograph. After witnessing the ‘magic’ of the developing process, he became passionate about photography. In 1963 he successfully applied for a four-year cadetship at The Sydney Morning Herald and completed a Photography Certificate Course at Sydney Technical College during these years. Bishop continued to work for The Sydney Morning Herald and was Australia’s first Aboriginal press photographer. In 1971 he won the News Photographer of the Year Award with his front-page photograph, Life and Death Dash, 1971.

Bishop started work at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra in 1974, in the early years of an important era in Indigenous self-determination. Here he covered the major developments in Aboriginal communities throughout Australia, including the historical moment in 1975 when the (then) Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, poured a handful of earth back into the hand of Vincent Lingiari, Gurindji elder and traditional landowner. This image – representing the Australian government’s recognition of Aboriginal land rights – became an icon of the land rights movement and Australian photography. In 1989 Bishop received his Associate Diploma in Adult Education at Sydney College of Advanced Education and went on to teach photography at Tranby Aboriginal College in Glebe, Sydney and the Eora Centre TAFE (Technical and Further Education) in Redfern, Sydney.

Bishop’s diverse career, combining journalistic and art photography, was celebrated in 1991 in his solo exhibition and accompanying monograph, ‘In Dreams: Mervyn Bishop Thirty Years of Photography 1960–1990’. This important exhibition was curated by Tracey Moffatt and opened at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, before touring nationally and internationally. The timely and intimate photographs celebrate Bishop’s contribution to Australian art and photojournalism. In 2000, Bishop was presented with the Red Ochre Award from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Board of the Australia Council, in recognition of his pioneering work and ongoing influence.

Biography by Jonathan Jones, first published in ‘Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2014.

Mervyn Bishop’s journey to be one of Australia’s best-known photographers is paved with triumphs, setbacks and tragedy. Bishop left Canberra in 1979 to return to The Sydney Morning Herald in a career choice that ended with his departure in 1986. While looking for work he was befriended by people from the Sydney arts scene, leading to his first solo exhibition in 1991, the In Dreams show. But this victory is forever linked to the death of his wife Elizabeth on the same day as the exhibition’s opening. His later work is dominated by portraiture that demonstrates his ability to put people at ease and a sympathetic appreciation for the human condition.

Synopsis from the upcoming biography A Handful of Sand, by author Tim Dobbyn.