Remembering Ian McKenzie OAM
Editor Paul Burrows looks back fondly on a 30-year-relationship with mentor and friend, the late Ian McKenzie OAM.
“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” is the famous line from Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and, nearly six months after his untimely passing, I’m only just starting to realise what we – and I – had in Ian McKenzie. He was, of course, a stalwart of the professional photography industry, but that word doesn’t even get close to just how much he contributed… and not just to the profession in general, but to so many of us on a personal basis.
I’m still getting used to the idea that I don’t get any more telephone calls – often at ungodly hours of the morning – to inquire about the suitability of a new piece of gear, to critique a recently published article or to simply chew the fat, usually about classic cars (another great McKenzie passion).
At the start of 1989 I was catapulted into the job of editing what was then called Professional Photography In Australia. I was undoubtedly green behind the ears and McKenzie had been involved with the magazine since I was in short pants. Incidentally, before we progress any further, he was always simply called “McKenzie”. I didn’t even know his middle name was Bruce until I read the first obituary back in October last year. As you assumed the status of friend, you could
then progress to “Mac” or, if you liked, “Macca”, but I don’t think he’d been called Ian by anybody since he’d left school.
I first encountered Mac at the Photographics ’83 convention in Melbourne when he was the driving force behind bringing Pete Turner – then, as now, my favourite photographer – to Australia. I remember Mac being as daunting in appearance as Turner… both favoured black skivvies, but Mac had the advantage of having about ten times as much hair as the American. From the point of view of somebody who is now follically challenged, Mac’s head of hair was always a thing of wonder and, remarkably, remained that way right up until the end.
Although he was a fixture at every IAP event, we really didn’t have much to do with each other until I assumed the editorship of the magazine which was, at that time, exclusively the Institute’s journal… and then, after my first issue, I got my very first McKenzie telephone call. It was, let’s say, typically forthright about the various aspects of the publication that he considered weren’t up to scratch… the delivery was robust, but even then I could see the intentions were meant to be constructive. Even after we became friends, he always started a phone conversation with the terse announcement, “McKenzie”.
Our friendship began at the 1993 AIPP national convention which was held in Canberra and was memorable for a great many reasons… no, not so much memorable, more like infamous (you all know who you are).
I was always a bit nervous about encountering Mac in person, especially since we’d had quite a few more ‘little chats’ along the way, but things changed one night when, at the bar, he introduced me to aquavit, a lethal Norwegian firewater that, before it’s bottled, is loaded aboard any cargo ship going to cross the equator and then returned. Apparently, the two crossings of the equator, not to mention the ship’s movement and the big variations in temperature and humidity, add a certain something to the spirit. McKenzie, also being a keen sailor, appreciated the mysticism of the open ocean and, besides, everything always had to have a story.
The next day we bunked off from whatever was on the conference program and took a Nissan 4WD I was road-testing into the Brindabella Mountains which had been blanketed in snow overnight. The ‘Road Closed’ sign was imperiously ignored by McKenzie who then introduced me to another element of his character which all of us who knew and loved him eventually experienced at some stage… his terrifying driving. Later, when questions were asked about why the magazine’s editor hadn’t been at any of the day’s conference events, I had a rock-solid excuse. The friendship was forged.
Looking back, I hadn’t really appreciated how much of a friendship it was at the time… it just was. When I was in Melbourne, I stayed at his place, listened to Handel very loud ( Zadok The Priest was a favourite) and drank a lot of red wine (plus the odd single malt or three). When he came to Sydney, he stayed with me… and, if I had the time, I was often his assistant (an experience I once wrote about in sister magazine Camera). We went to jazz concerts together. At his invitation, I spoke at the MG Car Club in Melbourne about competing in tarmac rallies. I bought one of his old Range Rovers. He even managed to get me on Supertramp, his racing yacht, but only once and we didn’t actually leave the mooring… We joined forces to continue the Contemporary Photographers: Australia series of monographs which he had instigated in the early 1980s and then eventually handed over to me to keep going. It said a lot that he thought I was up to the task. And, in a seemingly perverse piece of timing, the seventh book in the series – devoted to another great mutual friend, Rob Imhoff – was launched just a week after Mac’s passing.
But beyond all this was the continued support, the willingness to provide sage advice, the constructive criticisms (delivered more gently over the years, but
no less insightful) and the reassurance, which we all built up over time, that he was always there… because he always was. When I received my honorary fellowship from the AIPP in Sydney in 2011 and was still reeling from the surprise of the announcement, it was a guffawing McKenzie – clearly one of the chief schemers behind the award – who rushed over first and enveloped me in a bear hung which went on for a least a minute or so. It was probably at that point that I suddenly realised what our friendship meant to both of us… it was unspoken, but it was deep and it was genuine. I shall never forget that moment, especially as it was Mac in party mode, typically loud and larger than life as ever.
When, around the middle of last year, we learned of his illness, it was hard to comprehend that there was anything on the earth that could stop Mac… something you believed even more if you’d ever been on a racetrack with him in one of his classic MGs. A lunch was hastily organised in Melbourne and it was a typically rowdy affair which, appropriately, saw us threatened with eviction from the restaurant if we didn’t pipe down. Mac looked just like Mac always looked, but there was a sober few moments when he quietly, but authoritatively, handed over a few batons… clearly he had an inkling that time might be running out. Less than two months later he was gone. The day after the ‘last lunch’, I received an email from Mac – apparently each of us who was there did, individually – and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me sharing its message. It was very short, but powerfully moving to see the words written down, reciprocating exactly what I’d felt about our relationship.
“It didn’t seem to be the right moment for me to make a speech yesterday, but I didn’t want the moment to pass without thanking you for coming. Your friendship
and support over the years has been a source of many great enjoyable experiences, and I could not have done many of the things I’ve managed to do without your help.”
Fortunately, I was able to reply, and we made plans to meet in Melbourne prior to Rob Imhoff’s book launch in Ballarat, but the grim reaper had other ideas and so my last memory of McKenzie is of him holding court at the lunch table, ever the commanding presence, red wine glass in hand, loved by all those around him and loving them back.
By now, I suspect Mac has got quite a number of committees on the go in heaven, has given St Peter a revised set of guidelines regarding admissions, and made God wait while he painstakingly set up a 4x5-inch sheet camera. It could be a cliche, but in Ian McKenzie’s case it’s absolutely true… we will never see his like again.
Ian McKenzie OAM, St Kilda, Melbourne, 9 August 2014.
Partying with Sydney photographer Jenny Sanders. Leica Discovery weekend, Hunter Valley, NSW, June 1995.
Lying down on the job, Leica Discovery weekend, Hunter Valley, NSW, June 1995.
With L&P Photographic’s Bruce Pottinger, Leica Discovery weekend, Hunter Valley, NSW, June 1995.
Shooting for client Multiplex in Sydney, May 1996.