Categories: Art, Culture

Ross Waterman in focus with Nick Cave

Andrew Browne Ross Waterman followed Nick Cave around with his camera over the course of Cave’s entire career, you can see it at Block Projects from the 18th November onwards.

The 1980’s and 1990’s were the wellspring of Nick Cave’s imperial period, where much of his lyrical innovation, gallows humour and ‘Grand-Guignol’ subjects coalesced into delirious narratives and portentous anthems. Central to this was the delivery – a delivery of both declamatory certainty and mesmerising performative form. The guttural frenzy, staccato rhythms, and meandering instrumentation of The Birthday Party gave way to a (albeit highly physical) stately demeanour, alongside a (amusingly at times) shambolic poise, as Cave increasingly inhabited his ‘live’ persona.

As any audience member from those days would attest, his shows were highly theatrical and intense at one moment, occasionally off-hand and humorous at others. But that audience would also have attested to innumerable cherished moments as Cave built complex and exhilarating mood, abetted by his complex lyrical songbook and his cohort of multi-talented collaborators. But memories are all well and good, so it’s just as well that singularly focussed archivists, in the guise of photographers, were there to record those seconds, minutes, hours of revelation.

Driven by an epiphany in the early 80’s, when Cave crowd-surfed over his head during a typically chaotic yet exultant moment, the artist/photographer Ross Waterman has maintained a marathon focus on recording this artist/musicians extraordinary performances across all the subsequent years and tours, documenting many if not most of his Australian shows, and a number across other countries. Through countless ‘shots’ he has captured the energy, the atmosphere, the expression of Cave’s weighty evocations of a multitude of darkly drawn characters and tender and tragic ‘lovers’.

And through that almost obsessive focus Waterman has fixed in time a great number of iconic images that have forever helped raise that lowly photography genre – Rock Photojournalism. And by their example these photographs underline one of the salient qualities of this genre – that the best and most resonant of these ‘time capsules’ only get richer, accumulating history and sentiment as we come to cherish, each in our own way, the memories evoked in their layered yet stilled reportage.

Tracing a time-line through the images here, we firstly encounter darkly ‘gothic’ scenes as Cave’s visage emerges from stygian darkness – hair askew, crucifix swinging wildly, all heightened expressionism in often-intimate proximity, as Waterman gets tantalizingly close to his quarry. “Nick on head” 1985, wholly indicative of this period of his photography, is initially ambiguous as an image, as we attempt to reconcile the spare visual clues – a jackets collar, the nape of a neck, a hunched back, the loops of microphone lead – and realize we are literally ‘there’, inches from this intense performative moment. The photographer has always maintained that it is his obligation to be part of the ‘crowd’ – usually right up againstthe stage and fully immersed in the physical drama of Cave’s evocations – his concentration ultimately reconciling the fracture between recording the moment and experiencing the sensation. In ‘Dance’, an even earlier photograph from 1983, his subject is captured as if in a private reverie, eyes closed and seemingly descending, his hair idiosyncratically caught akimbo as his body succumbs to gravity. Lost in music, Cave seems the epitome of a heightened Romanticism or perhaps more correctly of the existential man, unrestricted by anything but his free creative choices. But in another later photograph “The Carny’ from 1990, Cave is pictured more down-to-earth anddishevelled, his eyes blearily closed, comically wrangling cigarettes, a microphone and his notebook of lyrics – this image leavening the predominant mood of many of the other photographs included in this presentation.

Over the years, and through the various permutations of Cave’s music and band-mates, Waterman has caught the hypnotic presence of his ‘live’ persona, a gripping avatar for his rich and emotive output, as it plays out unfettered on the public stage. Whether assuming the hectoring guise of the skeletal preacher, or leaning tenderly into his microphone during one of those more intimate narratives, or playing a totally believable if tongue-in-cheek ‘rock’ star, the photographers subject is alternately frozen in wild gesture, stilled in concentration, bathed for the duration of the performance in the artificial light of the ‘show’. Cave’s notable physique – reed thin and usually immaculately suited – is without doubt a visual asset on those stages, and Waterman has caught his striking silhouette in any number of images, exhaustively recording its permutations, whilst also carefully editing and highlighting Cave’s wildly emotive physiognomy. Yet within the parameters of this engagement with such a striking and iconic figure there is some lighter nuance – a fine photograph captures him dancing, arms swinging, in what appears to be sportswear, adding a ‘casual’ flip to his normal sartorial style and focussed intensity. And in “Red hand” from 2003, Cave with uncharacteristically cropped hair that suggests (admittedly for only a second) a public servant rather than a prophet, it’s his red left hand rather than right that draws our attention.

An important key to the success of so many of Waterman’s photographs, and this exhibition only features a tiny fraction, is that combination of proximity to subject and concentrated patience. By placing himself fully in the audience, jostling at one with the multitude of other fans who all press forward, his camera in effect becomes their eye – a roving and forensic eye that fixes in time and on paper those ‘decisive moments’ that might otherwise only exist, after the exhilaration of Cave’s performance, as hazy impressionistic memory.

Andrew Browne Oct 2020. All images by Ross A. Waterman.

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