With an unusual eye in more ways than one, Perth photographer Brett Canet-Gibson has created space for himself on the artier side of the commercial sphere.

Image from the series ‘She collects sunlight’ made on the streets of Perth WA.

You have a very artistic approach to photography, but you’re making it work on a commercial level. How do you do that?

It’s interesting you say that because for years, whenever I shopped my folio around to clients, people said, ‘Brett, you’re very arty.’ It took me years to take that on board as a good thing. I tried to temper-down my work.

Three years ago I flipped it on its head by going out to create the work, then seek the client. Now maybe 80 percent of the time, instead of fulfilling a client’s visual brief, I shoot images, then find avenues to get them out there.

It comes from a music background where you create your own sound, your own style, then go out and sell it. I played in bands from the age of 18 to 25, and I’m 51 now. Photography became my main thing when I was 25, when I studied it at the Central Metropolitan College of Art and Design [at TAFE] in Perth.

Images from the series ‘She collects sunlight’ made on the streets of Perth WA.

When you’re conceiving a project or an individual shot, is finding a client for it in the back of your mind?

Yes. In a sense.

I live in the Swan Valley, on the edge of Perth, where all the wineries and rural properties are, and for 2 1/2 years I’ve been concentrating on a visual diary created from wandering around within about 40 kilometres of my house, which extends well into the city. It’s called ‘Meander Triste and Awe’. So far it’s about 300 pages of portraits, still lifes, landscapes, found objects, poetry and other words. I see every object as a subject. I’m in the process of designing the cover, but it’s just about ready for presenting to publishers.

Although all of my work is done on the street, I could in no way be classed as a traditional street photographer. I basically use the city as a casting agency and the sidewalk as a studio. I love the freedom to roam and the endless possibilities that can arise at any given moment.

I use a portable background, natural light, and I walk around with one camera and one lens. When I see someone I like the look of, I ask them if I can take their portrait. I’ve found that the folio I carry to illustrate the style of my work helps immensely, and they almost always say yes. I tend to shoot very quickly and usually take only 5-10 minutes. 

Page from visual journal ‘Meander triste and awe’.

What’s the relationship between the images you take and how you match them with client projects?

That’s a hard question…

My wife Yvette and I set up our business, Twine Ideas That Bind, a few years ago because we saw an opportunity to use our combined talents and work on a range of creative projects. We work with government agencies, property developers, arts-based community partners, large and small business – with everyone really. We brainstorm a number of ideas before we land on the one that best suits the event or art installation project. They all involve, in some form or another, creating an idea that engages and promotes a sense of belonging in the community.

Our photography and art is all-encompassing [Twine is described on its website, www.twinetheworld.com, as ‘events, communications, design and imagery’]. For example, at Bentley Harmony Day we were commissioned by the Housing Authority to create a range of community engagement activities for families from various ethnic backgrounds. We designed an Around the World theme, with different world zones that were both educational and engaging for people to visit around the event site. We also created an ‘Our Community’ book where residents had their photos taken and shared their migration stories and dreams for their new lives in Australia.

I’ve just completed an exhibition for the Office of Multicultural Interests’ Chinese New Year Festival. It involved curating black-and-white photographs of Chinese migrants taken by famed WA photographer Denis Dease, shot from 1900 to 1927. About 6500 images in 533 boxes of half-plate glass negatives from Dease Studios were found in the basement of a Perth fire station in the 1980s as it was being prepared for demolition. It’s believed the negatives had been purchased with the intention of using them in ‘Break glass in fire’ alarms. Thankfully, they were gifted to the WA Museum, and later the State Library of WA, for preservation. I combined them with contemporary streets portraits I made of people from the Perth Chinese community.

What’s the one camera and lens you use?

A Nikon D3x DSLR and a 50mm.

That’s putting a lot of limits on yourself.

My brother gave me his old Canon AE-1 35mm film camera with a 50mm lens when I first started in photography and I’ve never gone beyond that. When I’m out walking I don’t want to carry a lot of stuff, and I never snipe anyone for portraits, so I’m always close to them. A lens wider than 50mmm would capture too much information for me. My approach is simple. I like to focus on one element.

When Nikon interviewed me recently, one of the questions was: ‘Who haven’t you shot yet and where would you like to travel?’ My response was, ‘It’s all here. All I have to do is walk out my front door. In my own courtyard there’s a million and one photographic opportunities – flowers, dead leaves, shadows, puddles… I could be busy for a year.’

Portrait of Jessica – 2015 finalist in National Photographic Portrait Prize. Finalist 2016 Kuala Lumpur International PhotoAwards and Finalist Duo Percival Portrait Prize 2016.

I read that you do your own black-and-white printing and are also highly proficient with Adobe Creative Cloud software. You clearly like working in monotones.

From the age of 14 I knew I wanted to be a photographer. Around that time, it was discovered that I was short-sighted and would need prescription glasses. My consultation with the optometrist revealed that I was also colour blind. As we chatted, he asked if I had a specific career in mind, and when I told him, he said, ‘You can’t be a photographer – you’re colour blind!’ The comment, however well-meaning, still dwells in the back of mind every time I walk out into the street to photograph. I can see colours, but I can’t tell you the names of them beyond the bold primaries. That’s why a lot of my work is subdued colour, black-and-white or sepia-toned.

A lot of people, including my son, who’s studying photography, have suggested being colour blind has made a positive contribution to my work, but I’ve always felt it was a disadvantage. It’s another reason why I just do things my own way.

Zack from the series ‘Light enters upside down’. The series was a finalist at the 2016 London Photo Festival (Fine Art), won Silver in the 2016 International Fine Art Photography Awards, and received the Gold Award in the 2016 PX3 Prix de la Photographie Paris Fine Art/People category.
[Taking inspiration from a corrupt CF card, these images represent a
larger body of work exploring pictorially the perils of today’s digital image maker.]

Tiffany Toovey – Portraits from the Pavement. Portrait of Tiffany was selected as a finalist in the National Photographic Portrait Prize 2016.

Portrait of Indigenous actor, dancer, musician and storyteller Trevor Jamieson – finalist in the 2017 National Photographic Portrait Prize.

I think you should keep on doing that, and so do a lot of other people. The list of awards you’ve been shortlisted for and won over the years, in Australia and overseas, is a long one. You’ve been a finalist in the National Photographic Portrait Prize for the past three years running. Last year your Light Enters Upside Down series won a gold award at the Prix de la Photographie Paris and a silver at the International Fine Art Photography Award in London. You won the People’s Choice Award at the Head On Photo Festival in Sydney in 2015. What do awards mean to you?

Award competitions are a way to sustain your arts practice and hopefully enhance your profile. As with all creative endeavours, it can be a bit of an experiment. I might think something unusual is good, but do other people connect with it?

But this whole thing doesn’t depend on winning awards. Or making a living out of it. If I wasn’t getting paid anything at all, I’d still be wandering around with my camera, trying to capture the beauty and magic of everyday life.

To see more of Brett Canet-Gibson’s work, visit www.twinetheworld.com.

Article by Steve Packer

Excerpt from  Photo Review Issue 72  

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