Tristan Foster: I do recognise my city in your photographs and I don’t. The train stations are places I’ve waited, the staircases I’ve taken, the commuters are people I have been. But the shots are also evocative of another time, another place. They reveal but they also mask. This tells me that you look for the poetic in your surroundings, also something I do. I don’t find Sydney an inherently poetic place, so I like the challenge of seeking it out. How do you feel about Sydney’s poetry?
Knox Bertie: To answer this, I probably need to explain, at least to some extent, what I see. I’ve lived in Sydney for the past decade and, as a foreigner, I believe that the lens that you use to view a place is skewed by comparisons to a former sense of a place you called home while trying to make sense of the place where you now find yourself – and, attempt to make home. I will be honest in saying, that I struggled with Sydney in my first few years and, like you, didn’t find it to be a poetic place. In that ten years, my photographs have changed. They’re still dark, but less concrete and less harsh with more flow, movement and light – probably a reflection of my own journey in calling this city home. Most of my shots come from within walking distance of where I live and a few stations from there to the city. I don’t find much of it poetic, in fact, I probably see it as the opposite: dark, harsh, industrial, and in the blank stares of people just trying to get from A to B, cold. But, the light! There is no place in the world like it. A dull average platform comes to life as a streak of the harshest light in the world passes between buildings and falls like a spotlight on a stage, bringing these characters to life – like they’ve been chosen in that moment. And, the loneliness. There is a lot of talk about overcrowding in Sydney, in particular its transport system – and it’s true, but, I love to wander down to the station late at night or very early in the morning. An empty carriage or platform with a single person waiting, sleeping, or staring somewhere in the back of their minds brings with it a story that I have no choice but to ponder and perhaps capture in my photos – maybe that’s the poetry?
TF: You have a recognisable style: stillness within motion, the clash of extreme light and deep darkness, a narrative waiting to be uncovered. Can you talk me through your artistic practice? I’m wondering if there’s a uniformity in your approach to achieve this style or if you arrive at it from different angles.
KB: As a photographer, it’s a great compliment for someone to recognise uniformity in your style – so, thank you. Early on, when I first started shooting I took a darkroom course at the Australian Centre for Photography. I had a tremendous amount of respect for the instructor. The thing that stuck in my mind more than anything else from taking that course, at that time in my life, was him saying, “Don’t strive to be like anyone else, strive for a style that’s your own and you know you’ve got there when people can instantly recognise a photo as yours.” From that point, I’ve always strived for this in my work. I use all kinds of cameras and equipment, and thoroughly enjoy shooting with all kinds of old gear. But, as much as I experiment on that side of things, I am methodical about how I work in the darkroom. The “look” is created by a standardised approach to film, chemicals and processing. I do shoot digital as well, and have been experimenting a lot recently with video and am going through that same process with a digital camera – refining the process to achieve a look that I’m happy with – is complimentary to my film work and most importantly has a recognisable signature.
TF: We need to talk about the dead man. The man who is here but not. This is the man on the cover of my book. One of the dead men in its pages is Kabid Farooque — I found his iPod and tried to uncover who he was and soon realised I knew him well though I don’t know him at all. As with Kabid, I do and don’t want to know who the man in your photograph is... Can you tell me his story?
KB: There are a few lines in [your story] ‘Deadest Man in the Underworld’, that really spoke to me. You said, “The dead man watches as another man takes his place. Takes and absorbs it, filling the space he has left, doubling the dead man into nothing. He watches the world spin and spin and finds it very hard to look. He sits in the darkness, takes up smoking. The dead man is lonely.” The photo on your cover was taken six months ago and was part of an Instagram takeover for Magnum photographer, David Alan Harvey’s Burn Magazine. I hadn’t shot for months and was spending a lot of my time writing and thinking about the stress of jobs, life, family, etc. Impermanence was dominating my thoughts at the time. The request from Burn Magazine came out of the blue. It forced me to pick up the camera again. What it didn’t do was cure the insomnia that I was suffering from at the time so I decided to just go with it. Each night for a week I caught the last train to the city and the first train back – wandering and shooting the empty stations and platforms of Central Station through the night. The man on the cover of your book sat on platform 22 at Central at 4.45am. The sun, not yet up, provided just enough light to get the shot. He had a backpack and was waiting for the first train to the airport. It was just me and him on an empty platform but his mind and thoughts were somewhere far away. I sat on the other side of the glass waiting for the first train heading south – and home. I was playing around with the reflections of the first light over the city, changed my focus, and took this shot. We don’t learn who you are serving tea to in your living room in the following story – I’m glad you don’t tell us. The questions you left me with made that story for me. A great photograph should ask more questions than it gives you answers. I really do hope you feel that you have a great photograph on the cover of your book.
[21 photographs by Knox Bertie]
TF: I’m curious to know which of the photographs that you’ve taken is a favourite. Why is it especially meaningful for you?
KB: There is a photo of a man in a suit on the train as it rests at Tempe railway station. This photo was taken early in the morning on ANZAC day in 2009. The man was frail and obviously quite ill; he passed in and out of consciousness as we rode together to Town Hall. I rarely ask to photograph someone but, in this instance, I felt obliged. He shook his head and very quietly said: “Thank you.” I could tell that it took almost all of his effort to straighten for the photograph that I took. In that effort I could see a lifetime of pride, honour, and respect for his fellow man – old values, probably passed down from his father and his father’s father, and so on… I wanted to ask him a thousand questions, but, mainly, why was he alone? He fell back to sleep as we rumbled our way to our destination. I helped him off the train and thanked him. I love this photo and I really do hope that it pays respect to the subject.
TF: Experimentation forms a key part of my work and this is another resonance I recognise in yours. I need to poke, I need to test, I need to break. What drives you to experiment? I’d like to know about some of these experiments — those that have been a success but also those that have failed.
KB: I took a darkroom course in university, while I was studying chemistry. I teach chemistry in high schools here in Sydney. I believe that as humans we were made to experiment. From our first steps to our first experiences with love and, hopefully for life, we change things and then measure whether objectively or subjectively, whether they work or not. I fear a place where I stop experimenting – not moving forward. Contentment is scary to me. I experiment with: chemicals and processing, stacking negatives, double exposures, filters, taking photos of photos I’ve already taken, stacking digit files on top of film files – you name it. Most of my photographs are shockingly bad – and, I say that sincerely; most of the experiments don’t work at all. The amount of rolls of film I’ve completely wasted is impressive. But, sometimes it works – and to me, that’s the most exciting part of photography.
TF: In the past, you’ve spoken about the meditative elements of photography. The need for concentration, stillness, quiet. This thoughtfulness manifests in your photographs — but formally. On the other hand, your subjects are often weary commuters, making their way home — or possibly to work — in the hours before sunrise. If they are still or quiet or seem meditative, it is because they are worn out. What it is the attraction to your subject matter?
KB: I don’t shoot anymore – unless I have to. It’s cyclical and it comes and goes in waves. Months pass and my cameras sit staring at me while I write or read – or something else I feel the need to do at that time. Then, out of nowhere I can’t stop and again, I’m obsessed, shooting, scanning and printing 24/7. When I need to shoot, it’s from a place where I need to be still and to think about stuff. Riding trains alone at night or sitting on empty platforms – waiting and thinking. I started to become more serious about photography when I first moved to Australia. I was working in a very tough high school in Sydney. If I’m honest, looking back at that time in my life, I was exhausted and burnt out. It would have been easy for me put on a pair of headphones, stare at my screen and just sit back, accept my fate and tune out. The camera kept me in the now – it reminded me to stay alive. What I noticed was the machine-like nature of the commuters. The tuned out faces, the patterns of movements, the acceptance. I questioned it all, because I was questioning whether or not I wanted to be a part of it. I still question everything about how we live in cities. I have this great fear of just tuning out at some point – and maybe not noticing. I do meditate a lot while I shoot. And, I shoot very little. If I go out for a few hours to shoot, I’d rarely take more than five or six shots. Often a roll of 36 can last me three or four weeks. I suppose, when I first started shooting I was using the camera as a mirror and shooting those fellow commuters who I felt resembled my own state. Now, I’m shooting the state still – more as a reminder than anything else.
TF: You have a large following on Instagram. What role does social media play in what you do?
KB: I am a luddite by nature. I got my first mobile phone in 2010 begrudgingly. I joined Instagram more to just see what it could do – and then it went from there. As much as I was against it at first, it really has created opportunities for me that wouldn’t have happened without that platform. Although, it is overcrowded with mostly rubbish, from time to time I come across unknown artists who are producing amazing work. Its ability to connect these type of people with opportunity is huge. I am an average guy, who takes photos – I wouldn’t be talking to you right now without the platform and my photo wouldn’t be on the cover of your book. I have been converted.
TF: I want to ask a general question about photography now. What is the photographer’s goal and is this your goal? In other words, why does Knox Bertie take photos?
KB: The ego can get away from us; it can be destructive to producing art. When I try to shoot and it’s coming from the ego, my shots aren’t great. When I picked up a camera, it wasn’t to be recognised or to get my photos into magazines or to make money. I felt that I had to shoot and that photography was a way for me to make sense of my world. I would like to believe that that’s still my motivation although I feel the ego creeping in everywhere and have goals of producing books and exhibiting in galleries. I hope that I can do this in the future and for the right reasons. I hope to never lose track of why I picked up the camera in the first place. As I get older and thoughts shift and change, the ability to produce art that will allow me the time and space to really focus on art would have to be at the forefront of my goals.