IN THE THICK OF IT
Martin Kantor’s striking images captured a time of great cultural upheaval, writes Richard Guilliatt
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.
Clockwise from main picture, Martin Kantor subjects Paul Kelly, Nick Cave, Carmine Coppola, Charles Burns, Jana Wendt and Iggy Pop