IN THE THICK OF IT

Martin Kan­tor’s strik­ing im­ages cap­tured a time of great cul­tural up­heaval, writes Richard Guil­li­att

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Photography - Kan­tor, Photo by Martin

At the western edge of Mel­bourne’s city cen­tre stands the Em­pire Apart­ments, a three-storey res­i­den­tial build­ing whose ar­chi­tec­tural lines are to­day talked up by prop­erty agents as “au­then­tic art deco”. In 1979, when a teenage Martin Kan­tor turned up there to start his first job as a news­pa­per pho­tog­ra­pher, the build­ing was known less salu­bri­ously as the of­fices of The Truth, the sala­cious tabloid whose muck­rak­ing hacks had oc­cu­pied the place since it was built nearly half a cen­tury ear­lier. By the time Martin ar­rived there the place was owned by his un­cle, a ris­ing me­dia mogul named Ru­pert Mur­doch who’d bought The Truth in 1960 and turned its no-holds-barred for­mula of scan­dal and sport into an ex­port in­dus­try.

Martin’s aes­thetic was al­ready form­ing — black-and-white pho­tog­ra­phy was a pure art form to him, a phi­los­o­phy he’d ar­rived at largely via his own read­ing. He was the first per­son I knew who owned the now-clas­sic 1972 mono­graph Diane Ar­bus. He had an equal pas­sion for the great Euro­pean pho­tog­ra­phers such as Henri Cartier-Bres­son and Man Ray.

As a cadet pho­tog­ra­pher at The Aus­tralian, he was handed more pro­saic as­sign­ments: footy matches, po­lice press con­fer­ences, horser­aces and union dis­putes were the weekly sta­ple. We met while doc­u­ment­ing a protest rally aimed at prime min­is­ter Mal­colm Fraser, then loathed as a fas­cist by most peo­ple un­der 25 (ah, nos­tal­gia). We shared the same cul­tural ref­er­ence points: Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Hunter S. Thomp­son, John Wa­ters, Eraser­head. Martin pos­sessed a ki­netic en­ergy that was not so much in­fec­tious as fu­tile to re­sist; he spoke rapidly, smoked fu­ri­ously, of­fered opin­ions bluntly and walked with a rest­less head-down tra­jec­tory that ac­cen­tu­ated his hawk­ish pro­file. His strik­ing looks — the long an­gu­lar face framed by a halo of curls — gave him a vaguely Euro­pean air.

Mel­bourne’s un­der­ground cul­ture was in the grip of a cre­ative fer­ment in the early 1980s, partly in­spired by the Lon­don and New York punk scenes but in large mea­sure a home­grown counter-re­ac­tion to 25 stul­ti­fy­ing years of con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment. In St Kilda, a dark and scuzzy en­ergy was be­ing un­leashed on the red­light strip of Fitzroy Street, where the ball­room of the cen­tury-old Seav­iew Ho­tel had been turned over to an in­sur­gent breed of con­fronta­tional bands whose guid­ing spir­its were the Birth­day Party, led by Nick Cave.

In his darker mo­ments he was prone to dis­miss pho­tog­ra­phy as “just snap­ping pic­tures”, as if cap­tur­ing an im­age in the lens in­volved more serendip­ity than ta­lent. It was an in­se­cu­rity made more acute by his ad­mi­ra­tion for pain­ters, who be­came his favourite sub­jects.

We last worked to­gether in 1987, a year af­ter I’d moved to New York. Aus­tralian singer-song­writer Paul Kelly and his band were tour­ing the US for the first time, and I’d in­vei­gled my­self on to the tour bus for their fi­nal swing through the south­west. Martin joined us in Lub­bock, Texas, the home of Buddy Holly, where we found the band in a state of white-line delir­ium from the warp­ing ef­fects of driv­ing nearly 6000km from Los An­ge­les to New York and then back west.

Martin was a nat­u­ral com­pan­ion for this as­sign­ment; ma­nia didn’t faze him, and he was alert to the tem­per­a­men­tal cross-cur­rents that run through any band on the road. In truth he was look­ing a lit­tle ragged him­self; his frame was thin­ner, his en­ergy more scat­ter­shot. But he still had an eye for cap­tur­ing a mo­ment in the frame. When he found out there was a town called Truth or Con­se­quences in New Mex­ico, 50 or so kilo­me­tres off the high­way we were head­ing west on, he some­how con­vinced Kelly to de­tour the bus to the town’s out­skirts so he could cap­ture a shot of the singer stand­ing in front of the sign that an­nounced this fate­fully named me­trop­o­lis. This is an edited ex­tract from

pub­lished by Hardie Grant Books and ac­com­pa­nied by an ex­hi­bi­tion at Mel­bourne’s Brightspace gallery un­til May 13.

Martin Kan­tor

Clock­wise from main pic­ture, Martin Kan­tor sub­jects Paul Kelly, Nick Cave, Carmine Cop­pola, Charles Burns, Jana Wendt and Iggy Pop

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