Prize Season

Jack Charles 2011 by Rod McNicol

Jack Charles 2011
© Rod McNicol. All Rights Reserved.

It’s that time of year again. What I like to call “Prize Season” here in Australia. Last Monday night the prestigious National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP) was announced in Canberra at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). A tall Melburnian, a photographer of some four decades experience, walked away with an extra $25,000 to his name. At the same time, 45 other photographers sighed, knowing they had come close, but missing out on the ultimate recognition.

And, in the coming months we’ll find out who most impressed the judges in the Headon contest, the Moran – the daddy of prize purses, with $100K awaiting the winner – and a slew of others. There are two certainties with Prize Season – someone will win and the judges’ decisions will be robustly debated by others.

The NPPP exhibition of the 46 finalists’ works opens to the public the following day. Everyone of them is a winner in my opinion – they all made the cut. And sure there has to be ONE winner, but while THE winner gets the money and “fame”, anyone of them could have been that ONE. I think it’s fair to say that this year’s batch are of a consistently high standard. In fact I’m not sure that it could be argued that any of the 46 shouldn’t be hanging in this show. As always, there is a diversity of subject matter and styles. The subjectivity of art appreciation is such that some will appeal more than others to you and me. But, the three judges, who somehow managed to wade through a mammoth 1500 entries and cull them to this gallery of portraiture in a single day – how do they do it? – are to be congratulated.

Jack Charles with Rod McNicol's winning image, 'Jack Charles 2011'

Jack Charles with Rod McNicol's winning image, 'Jack Charles 2011'
© Tim Anger. All Rights Reserved.

This year’s NPPP went to a Melbourne-based photographer, Rod McNicol.

More specifically he works out of St Kilda,the cultural heart of Australia“, he told me, with only a hint of a grin.

And as if to prove his claim, he told me his studio is located next door to the studio of last year’s recipient of the NPPP gong, Jacqueline Mitelman. It might pay to keep a close eye on this trend. Maybe hopefuls for next years’ prize should start looking for studio space on the golden St Kilda strip.

Rod McNicol has been in the finalist’s enclosure a number of times before, both in the Prizes’ current guise, under the care of the NPG and previously, as The Australia Photographic Portrait Prize, administered by the Art Gallery of NSW, and colloquially known as the ‘Photographic Archibald’. In fact he won The Australia Photographic Portrait Prize in 2004. And, in 2005 received the Director’s Choice Award and Highly Recommended Award in the Tweed River Gallery’s ‘Olive Cotton Portrait Prize’. So he’s certainly no flash in the pan. He is a tall man, seemingly gentle, quietly reassured and personable. His photographic style is well established. He shoots straight on studio portraits, from about waist up, hard up against fairly homogeneously coloured backdrops. They are quiet, contemplative and recognisable.

The subject in McNicol’s winning portrait this year is a long term friend. Watching them interact during the press launch of the Prize yesterday, their familiarity with each other was evident in the ease of each other’s company. Unlike Rod, Jack Charles, the subject, is a diminutive Aboriginal man with long wavey grey locks rounded out with a lengthy beard. He is also a story teller, though he uses words – many of them in the short time we spent together – instead of pictures.

Old mates, photographer Rod McNicol & Jack Charles share a laugh

Old mates, photographer Rod McNicol & Jack Charles share a laugh
© Tim Anger. All Rights Reserved.


Jack Charles is self described as anAddict. Homosexual. Cat burglar. Actor. Aboriginal. (sic)Although he has been proudly clean for about 8 years now.

Despite his short stature, he has a deep, mellifluous voice – probably the result of years of abuse. The pungent smell of cigarettes was obvious on his breath. He is vivacious and open about his former life of crime and addiction. He is also part of the ‘Stolen Generation’ having been removed from his mother at the age of 4 months. He proudly told me he has managed to trace both of his biological parents, allowing him in his older years – now 68 – to understand the origins of his soul.

When I’m first introduced to Jack Charles, his face is recognisable. No doubt evidence that I’ve seen him on the box in one of many acting gigs down through the years. His CV is long and ranges across TV & film, including the iconic Australian movie ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’. Strangely, the thing that first strikes me, quite insignificantly, is that I had imagined him taller – his picture on the wall opposite is testament to his scale, surely? Without wanting to draw too long a bow, what better evidence do we need of the preconceptions, misconceptions and personal interpretations that we bring to our appreciation of art, and particularly photography. The truthfulness of photography is a topic which is often debated, particularly in the digital era. People perceive that photographs are “real”, “a record of a moment in time”, despite the fact that composited images are as old as photography. Of course, photographs are often a faithful record of history, but the point is, we need to be mindful that this is not always the case.

In gaol Jack developed an elder’s persona, trying to keep his aboriginal brothers in line, “pointing the bone”, he told me, when necessary. More recently he has turned his attention to saving younger aboriginal men from the years of misery and dependency he served at the hands of heroin. Jack was the subject of a documentary Bastardy, in 2008 which traced his troubled life. He is now travelling with a show, a follow up to Bastardy, titled, ‘Jack Charles v the Crown’. He commented that his criminal record has made it difficult to take it overseas, most notably to the “homeland”, he says, referring to the United Kingdom. We joke that mother England has a well established history with crime – it’s called Australia. But Charles asks “why did I reform” if not to help others? His determination is evident. He beat addiction, “you can’t go back” he says. And this determination and forthrightness will, I’m sure see him travel widely and to acclaim with his current show.

Although I found the physical stature of Jack Charles, judged by McNicol’s image, fell short of my expectations, the truthfulness of this reformed man and his expressed desire to make the rest of his life count was borne out in the limited time we chatted in the gallery. It was this truthfulness and determination that the judges saw in his weathered face. A history which Rod McNicol’s beautiful image, informed by a long term friendship, ably exposed and which won the judges’ plaudits in the National Photographic Portrait Prize of 2012.

The 46 finalists’ images can be viewed at the NPG website here. And for those who are in the nation’s capital or likely to visit, do try to get along to see the NPPP exhibition, which is on until 20th May at the NPG. After that it travels to parts of regional Australia – see the website for details.


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