This month we have the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Moorfoot. Jeff has been on the Victorian photography scene for many years and has been involved with a large variety of projects over the years including being the founder and former festival director of the Ballarat International Foto Biennial, founder of the Free Radicals photographic community and former Vice President of the Victorian division of the AIPP.
Jeff recently received an OAM for his work in the visual arts and we’re very proud to have the opportunity to discuss his work and experiences.
You have been involved in many projects, publications and organisations over the years. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you juggle having your fingers in so many different pies?
I grew up as a dreamer, never treading the common path. I was a terrible student, I just never found anything they taught was of much of interest to me. I used to wag school a lot and took 2 years to complete 4th form, I think they gave me a pass to get rid of me. I come from a blue collar background and am the middle of three boys. We were never a really close family, so by default I became pretty independent and never really developed a fear of failure. I travelled the world for around six years in my 20’s, and once again by default, learned to exist on the smell of an oily rag.
I would work until I saved enough to travel, then not work again until the money ran out.
I think those four things, being a dreamer, independent, resourceful and not having a fear of failure have delivered me to where I am today. You can probably also add that not being obsessed with perfection and having an awareness of my limitations have made a contribution.
Being the founder of The Ballarat International Foto Biennale is quite an achievement, what inspired you to start this significant photographic festival?
Sitting around with too much time on my hands!….. In ’98 I shot Fosters annual report, and with a nice cheque at the end, bought some land at Lyonville between Trentham and Daylesford in the Central Victorian Highlands. At that stage I was still shooting and teaching sessionally at RMIT. I designed and built a house backing on to the Wombat State Forest. I had read about some of the international festivals of photography, mostly the Rencontres d’Arles, the granddaddy of all the festivals, and surmised that Daylesford had an established arts community, tourist infrastructure, reasonable proximity to the population centres of Melbourne, Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo, so establishing a similar month-long event shouldn’t be that difficult. At this stage I was unaware of the event in the west, Foto Freo, which had its first iteration in 2002, but saw Daylesford, which later morphed into the Ballarat International Foto Biennale, as being the first such event of its kind in Australia. But eventually the festival became a monster that dominated my life and became way too corporate for my liking. I’m mightily proud of my achievement, but have no regrets about moving on.
You started your photography journey later in life and had different jobs before finding photography. Tell us a bit about what made you pursue photography and did you face any challenges?
I became a photographer by circumstance. I had travelled extensively and had a little point and shoot camera which always seemed to be at the bottom of my pack so it got hardly any use, I think it took 126 film. In 1978 I found myself living for a year on the side of a mountain in North East Tasmania in a log cabin with no electricity or running water. Prior to that I had tried my hand at many things. My varied employment history, most while I was travelling the world, included stints as a roughneck on North Sea oil wells, shop assistant, roadie for an Irish pub band, gravedigger, production welder, market gardener, flat cleaner, delivery van driver, firewood supplier, etc. etc. My nearest neighbours, who lived at the bottom of the mountain, were doing a photography course and I was down there visiting one night when they were printing in the bathroom. I saw an image come up in the developer and was hooked. I don’t use a wet darkroom anymore but I still love the smell of hypo. I ended up back in Vic, as caretaker on a farm at Aireys Inlet where I saved up my pennies and invested in my first SLR, a Zenith TTL. I enclosed part of the house veranda, built a darkroom and taught myself photography. I learned most by trial and error and guidance from the two magazines of the day, Camera Craft and Australian Photography. I had a few photos published in the local newspaper as well as the Geelong Advertiser for which I got paid, as well as shooting portraits for a few of the locals. Then along came the Ash Wednesday bush fires and burned everything down. I got a payout from the bush fire appeal fund and decided to apply for a few uni courses to see if I could learn how to become a professional photographer. I applied for, and was accepted into the BA course at RMIT and had a great three years learning my craft and upon graduation went straight into my first studio with a couple of classmates and the rest is history. I consider my life to be charmed. I have done more things, travelled to more places, experienced life on many different levels without any major travails by following my instincts than most could expect in a couple of lifetimes. I continue to live and enjoy my life by circumstance rather than by design.
The Free Radical Group is very impressive, boasting 850+ members since its inception in 2002. Do you have a tactic for keeping a creative group together?
Free radical has been in abeyance for some years. It grew out of my dissatisfaction with the state of photographer’s organisations and their seeming inability to get anything meaningful done for fear of putting someone’s nose out of joint so I started my own group. Like all things, forward movement depends on somebody driving it, and once the Biennale got up and running and became a full-time job, the free radicals sort of ran out of steam. I plan to get things up and running again as soon asI have some spare time to digitise the database I have some spare time to digitise the database.
What are your thoughts on the relationship between the internet and the creative industry? Being involved in something like the Free Radical Group gives you an insight into how a creative community can be formed, do you think the internet can complement this or is it more isolating?
Free radical came about before I ever got involved in social media. Communications went out via email, a hundred at a time. We have had a couple of basic websites, but they were dependent on someone else managing the content. Facebook is the only social media I use([and wechat for Chinese friends} and I use them as a social tool and not for business. Even those pages that I manage – free radical, BETA developments in photography and Galeria Bezdomna/Homeless Gallery don’t get much traffic. I can’t say that I am much interested in amassing likes. The information is out there for those who want to access it. I think there are other more sociable avenues for attracting the truly interested. Never tweeted. Don’t instagram. Never used a hashtag. Social media exists for someone to make a lot of money, not to make the world a better, more creative place. Embrace it at your own peril!
You started your career in the era of film, so print must be quite important to you. What has it been like watching the development of imagery changing to digital form?
As an exhibiting artist the printed image is pivotal to what I do. Living in the country without town water I have embraced the advent of digital to some degree, I no longer operate a wet darkroom but still shoot and scan film occasionally and always make my own prints. Even if I shoot digital I use the computer as much as I would when making a darkroom print. Certainly some aspects such as spotting, contrast and density control are so much easier to manipulate. Ultimately, it matters little what medium or piece of hardware/software an image was made on. What matters is its ability to communicate with the viewer. I always try to maintain a degree of believability in my work, so I try to keep my flights of fantasy in the cerebral domain. Image makers abound, but true photographers are thin on the ground.As well as producing work you’ve also judged photographic competitions and conducted portfolio reviews. Do you have any advice for emerging photographers showcasing new work?
Photography is such a subjective medium, and what someone else might see as brilliance another might see as dross. Do your research. Know the background of the reviewer from whom you are seeking feedback, otherwise you are probably wasting your time. You might even get a negative response to your work. Most reviewers will try to give positive feedback, but sometimes it’s challenge to offer positivity when confronted with a body of work which is obviously highly significant or cathartic to the author, but otherwise lacking in merit. Be aware of your inadequacies. Be honest with yourself. Be true to yourself. A line I have used often over the years is ‘if you want someone to say nice things about your photography, show it to your mum!’
When did photography become a realistic way for you to make a living?
It never has really. As a commercial photographer I was no more competent than the majority of shooters in my market, and in fact, because I had a somewhat unconventional view of this world, it was never really a concern. As an educator I became rapidly disenchanted with the University system. As a festival Director I paid myself only what the budget could afford, which was a pittance and as a fine artist I was, and remain, more interested in making the work than marketing it. Now that I find myself on the age pension gravy train I’m thinking life is pretty good. Photography has been my sole means of support for more than 30 years. My saviour has been my philosophy to always spend less than I earn.
You received A Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) last year for your services to the Visual Arts. (Well deserved!) Did it come as a shock to receive such prestigious recognition of all your hard work?
Not a shock, but a pleasant surprise. Given my propensity to kick back against convention, I was somewhat conflicted as to wether to accept the medal or decline, but in the end decided that it was just another of those many contradictions of life.
You don’t seem to be shy in front of the camera, do you think self-ˇportraiture is important for the development of ones photography?
Important? Not necessarily. I started doing self portraits when I put together a folio to see if I could get into uni. Living alone in the bush, I had many landscapes and a few still lifes, but no figurative works, so to round out the folio I included two selfies. During class assignments, then in the studio when times were quiet, which was quite often, I would work on ideas where turning the camera on yourself was much more expedient than finding a model who would show the required amount of commitment to make an idea work. I have never been a great people person. I would be an abject failure as a wedding photographer. Eventually I had an accumulation of self portraits that I put into a hand-made book titled ‘I eye – a book of self portraits 1983 – 2000’. For me, photography is about line, shape, form and tonality. Subject matter is less significant to me,
so there is not much deep and meaningful in my self portraits, it’s just a convenient means of expressing my craft, but it’s a good way to experiment and learn techniques which can be applied to whatever you point your camera at.
Questions by Jo Nixon and Georgia Quinn
Photography by Jeff Moorfoot