By Rita Bratovich.
If you were to ask the question “what is Bondi?” you might get answers like:
But if you ask “what is the real Bondi?” your answers will come in the form of candid portraits, amazing stills, surprising landscapes and sneaky snaps in the upcoming #whatistherealbondi photography exhibition at Bondi Pavilion.
The first solo exhibition by multi award-winning photographer, Jonathan Armstrong, seeks to reveal the bits of Bondi that don’t normally bask in the sun.
“Whatever people think Bondi is, they think that’s all it is…I’m just trying to present a few different alternative views of Bondi,” Armstrong explains.
“The only thing that defines it is that it can’t be defined…it’s very diverse and eclectic, and there’s lots of layers of history there.”
The title, #whatistherealbondi, is an active hashtag and people are encouraged to take their own photos and add them on Facebook and Instagram. (A selection of photos will be printed and displayed on a cork board as part of the exhibition.)
Armstrong’s own personal connection to Bondi goes a long way back.
“I grew up in the Bondi area and I’ve lived there all my life… and I’ve been surfing down at Bondi Beach since I was about ten.”
His affinity for photography is equally steeped in his upbringing. Armstrong’s father was an award-winning photographer and Armstrong recalls trailing him with a hand-me-down fully manual Minolta, and watching him work in the dark room.
“I absorbed his technical skills growing up and I think I absorbed his way of looking at life through a lens.”
Armstrong believes that photography helps you develop a curiosity about life, a particular way of looking at things – and an acute appreciation for the unexpected. When he is out and about – which is frequently – Armstrong always has a camera with him.
“The great thing about Bondi is that you really have no idea what you’re going to see from one day to the next,” he says.
With Bondi already being among the most photographed locations in Australia, if not the world, the challenge is to avoid cliches while still capturing its essence. Armstrong solves that by seeking out the unusual, the hidden, the transient.
Behind the facade of golden sand, high-end sneaker stores and lively bars is a less glamorous scene of neglected apartment blocks, graffiti, and homelessness – yet also old-world simplicity and quirkiness. One thing Armstrong loves about Bondi is that “you can just go up and talk to a stranger.” If he sees the potential for a portrait he doesn’t feel awkward about talking to subject.
One man featured in the exhibition is a local identity named Michael Sweet, a homeless man often seen in the park or on the streets. Armstrong sat with Michael and spoke with him for quite a while before taking the very engaging photo of him.
Another photo shows a cook flipping a pizza at Gelbison, a suburban style, family-owned pizzeria with lino floor, no tablecloths and no fuss, that has been a fixture in a Bondi side street forever.
Serendipity as well as preparedness are the formula for some of Armstrong’s best photos: a guy playing saxophone; a skater in mid-air; three girls draped in Australian flag dresses on Australia day. One of his most spectacular images is of an acrobatic couple Armstrong chanced upon while they were training on the beach.
It happens that they are minor celebrities having decided to document their “world wide wedding” (six continents, 83 days, 38 “I do’s”). When Armstrong asked if he could photograph them, Cheetah Platt (the man) said they were about to try a manoeuvre where he throws his fiancé high into the air, momentarily folds his arms and then “hopefully, I’ll unfold my arms and catch her while she’s on the way down, just before her head basically gets rammed into the sand.” He did and it’s an unbelievable photo.
Waverley Council are supporting #whatistherealbondi and encouraging interaction from the public. A spokesperson from the council described the importance of public art.
“Bondi is a beautifully dynamic place to live and visit and is linked to the popular imagination of Australian identity. Every year we have artists exhibit work with interrogating ideas that are timely and responsive to the local community. Jonathan’s exhibition has engaged the public in telling the story of Bondi. It’s an interesting way of exploring what makes Bondi so special, which is an on-going and ever changing conversation.”
The council spokesperson believes there is much to be discovered about Bondi from famous names on tombstones in Waverley Cemetery to the Sea Wall canvas of renowned street artists to the long rich history hidden in the narrow streets. Projects such as #whatistherealbondi help not only showcase these things, but preserve them, which is why the council is keen to support them.
“Photography and art are a lens from which we can understand history. In this case we have a local artist who is creating a platform to explore local identity, which while insightful now, will no doubt become even more valuable with time…[Armstrong] captures a genuine slice of the real Bondi in this exhibition. There is a wit and whimsy and sharp, yet playful critique of Bondi captured in this exhibition. From our perspective, the exhibition is about so much more than the beach.”
Dec 5-17, 10am – 5pm daily. FREE. Bondi Pavilion, Bondi Beach.