The Restorative Photographer – Verity La interviews Jonny Lewis

Verity La Lighthouse Yarns

‘Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited, and the wealth and confusion man has created.  It is a major force in explaining man to man.’  So said American photographer Edward Steichen.  No doubt Australian photographer Jonny Lewis would agree.  A member of Sydney’s infamous Yellow House, an inner-city terrace frequented by artists such as Brett Whitely, Martin Sharp and Peter Weir, Lewis first exhibited in 1974. In 1977 he was a founder of Greenpeace Australia, which led a successful campaign to end the slaughter of whales around these shores.  His work is held in collections at the National Gallery of Australia, Bibliotheque National in France, and the Polaroid Collection in Germany; Elton John is also a fan.
Jonny Lewis says his interests are reflected in his photography, and when not ‘on the hop’, photographing or teaching, lives in the Southern Highlands of NSW, where he ‘schemes for sponsorship, reads, writes and hunts wild pigs’.  To my mind he’s one-part searching artist (if an artist can ever not be such a thing), one-part punk activist, and one-part bloody lovely guy.
Verity La goes looking for the man behind the images.

Aboro Mud Kid, Tarawa, 2009

Nigel Featherstone: Little fascinates me more than those who’ve made a life out of the creative journey.  Was there a moment when you thought, geez, I’m gonna be an artist?  Or was it something that you always thought you’d pursue?
Jonny Lewis: I remember renewing my passport.  It must have been when I was in my 20s (so it would have been in 1970s) and I wrote ‘photographer’ as my ‘occupation’.  It was such an intimate and proud moment (just) for me.  I knew then I was ‘somebody’.  I had a gig.  Note: I never thought of myself as an ‘artist’. If someone calls me that now then fine, but I’m quite happy being a ‘photographer’.  Maybe these days there are too many so-called ‘artists’ and the word has lost its magic, or it needs qualifying someway – ‘conceptual’, ‘photographic’, ‘performance’ etc.
As a school boy I was interested in hunting rabbits – trapping and later shooting.  I didn’t get many.  I cried in the [1957 Walt Disney] film Old Yeller in the scene where the old dog had to be put down.  I loved the adventure of the bush.  Later I became interested in surfing and the whole lifestyle of surf-bums and travelling and surfing the coasts. After an unhappy boarding-school and home life, with no real skill at any sport or any academic qualifications, I had a vague sense of being a bohemian, not that I knew quite what a ‘bohemian’ was.  I was interested in pot, LSD and somehow gravitated to likeminded people.  It was then I stumbled into the Yellow House, near where my Mum had an apartment in Potts Point, and I found a wonderful group of people who accepted and encouraged me.  A (new) family.  Here I discovered art and stared to explore ways to be a part of the art world.

Odd Flippers, Bondi, 1984

NF: Interesting that it’s taken years for you to be comfortable with the word ‘artist’; it does seem to come with a shit-load of baggage.  But surely it’s the right word to describe your work: you explore, you question, you document.  Can you tell us more about your Yellow House experience?  It’s one of the most iconic of all Australian creative places.  What of that has stayed with you after all this time?
JL: I’m (still) happy with being called a ‘photographer’.  I find it a great privilege acknowledging I’m a photographer.  If someone asks ‘what do you do?’ I always reply ‘I’m a photographer!’  I’m proud of the moniker.  The Yellow House was my education.  There I was exposed to art and artists.  I felt that I had found my family or tribe.  I was accepted, tolerated and encouraged.  I liked the people, and still do.  People were kind to me, and I began to think about what I could possibly do to ‘contribute’ somehow, not just to The Yellow but what I might create in my life.  There was an enormous amount of energy and optimism; I became completely engulfed in it.  I was 19-20 years old, little had meaning up to this moment in time, except surfing, the allure of which was fast evaporating.  The people have stayed with me, my co-Yellow House artists, and I have a sealed bond that has endure to this moment. We created something extraordinary special and magical.  We share a secret life of having been THERE!

Aussie Soldier in Ainaro Hospital Ruins, East Timor, 1999

NF: Much of your work focuses on environmental themes, most lately climate change, which is no surprise for someone who helped establish Greenpeace. How does environmentalism influence your art? And what hopes do you have for art in general to have a positive impact on our environment.
JL: Most of my work focuses on people – some in war zones, some threatened byclimate change, Indigenous Australians, beach peoples, Muslim people etc.  Photography is ideal in discovering continuously who we are, or who we may be.  Photography, I feel, is the medium for people.  If the portrait is ‘good’, the subject lives twice.  I photograph because I’m interested in something, and I want to find out for myself and experience that, and in the case of climate change a sense of those who are most vulnerable. I tell my story (mainly) through the people.  Even in the bush I find the tracks and faces of the ‘ancestors’.  Art, and indeed photography, has the facility to educate the eye and soul in the mysteries of life, be they ‘environmental’ or human.

Wangenderry-Natti National Park, 2010

NF: So where to from here for you?  What can you see on the horizon?
JL: More of the same.  I feel really good in myself.  I’m healthy and fit and my best work is before me. I like the idea of photographing and exhibiting to the end of my life.  I will do more humanist/environmental stuff.  I have three exhibitions planned for 2012.  I remain optimistic about photography.  The good stuff will see the distance.  (I tell students, make photographs forever.)  Despite the ebbs and flows of life that challenge us, it is all quite extraordinarily, mysteriously wonderful. I hesitate to say it [but] the spiritual nature of photography and art appeals to me greatly, the restorative healing qualities of the medium I find incredibly up-lifting. We have a future!

Nyirigira's children being Muslim, Western Sydney, 2006