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McFarlane remains one of Australia’s most distinguished documentary photographers due to his keen eye, which could recognize a defining moment quicker than anyone else. Some of his most iconic shots include images of The Beatles arriving in Australia and a young Indigenous activist named Charles Perkins. From Bob Hawke to Cate Blanchett, Robert sought to capture ordinary moments that became extraordinary through the connections made between his lens and his monumental subjects.

Robert not only shaped Australian photography but also shaped Australian photographers as practitioners and as individuals. The extent of his impact was easily recognisable through the multitude of online posts that poured in to commemorate a life well photographed.

Here are thoughts and memories collected for our friend, Robert.

There will be a memorial for Robert hosted by Warren at High Res in Mascot, 12:30pm 14 August. Please RSVP to attend

RSVP.

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Moshe Rosenzveig OAM
Robert and his son, Billy

I met Robert at the Australian Centre for Photography in the 90s, and we became great friends.

He was an outstanding photographer who captured the essence of life and a great storyteller visually, in person and in writing.

In 2004, I invited him to help select the work for the very first Head On Alternative Portraits, as it was called at the time at the late Michael’ Nagy’s Gallery.
As we went through the submitted pictures, Roger Scott turned up with some fresh prints of ‘Bea’; Robert’s face lit up as he recalled taking the picture.
Over the years, I spent many hours listening to his fascinating stories about other pictures, but his most precious memories were always about his son Morgan’s and his other son Billy’s adventures.

Robert loved people, life and nurturing new talent. He was also always very supportive of other photographers. He was one-of -a kind and we will all miss him dearly. 

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Moshe Rosenzveig OAM
Robert Mcfarlane, Roger Scott and Michael Nagy discussing Robert’s image ‘Bea’

Robert McFarlane was an esteemed Australian photographer and mentor with a talent for giving helpful feedback. He was known for his eloquent writing and erudite conversations and believed photography’s true power lay in its ability to speak to all levels of life. 

I remember when I gave my partner at the time Michael Snelling a book of portraits I have taken of him for his birthday. At the party, Robert was sitting in a big armchair, and he looked quietly at my book and then with gravitas told me he thought I had the makings of a good photographer. His words stayed with me always. 

It was a great honour for me as a young artist, to have the esteemed photographer, critic, mentor and leader in the art photography world review the show. I can’t say I agreed with all his comments though, especially when he complained “there is minimal evidence of the joy of constant, tactile monitoring that accompanies pregnancy and no evidence of the fathers”. It certainly is not constant joy Robert, which was one of the main points of my portraits! But his review, along with great media coverage on all platforms – print, tv, radio (pre-internet days), helped bring in huge audiences and turned out to be a huge success at Stills’ Elizabeth Street, Paddington gallery, and put my feminist photography on the map! 

His memorable images over his career are so important, providing a significant archive for our country. And his regularly SMH column was missed for much too long. Such a sensitive voice contributing to Australia’s photographic community. 

This accompanied image is of a group of ‘snappers’ taken (not sure what year or who took it) held on one of the gatherings on Anthony Browell’s tugboat Valiant Star. And such a slice of photographic history here as well, with Robert enthusiastically acknowledging in the midst of some illustrious photographers. Now sadly joining Lewis Morley and David Potts, all departed, but still surely practicing their skills ‘on the other side’.  

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‘Captain’ of Valiant Star Anthony Browell, Peter Solness, David Potts, Robert McFarlane waving enthusiastically in the middle, Dean Sewell, Lewis Morley, Jenny Templin, Roger Scott , Vince Lovecchio, ‘Doddie’ Ian Dodd in the middle and Tim Hixson.

Robert’s passing has the memories rising, the most striking occasion was when he offered to drive me to hospital for an unavoidable surgery. It was a very early appointed time so I was concerned that Rob could rise early enough to get me there on time, but as a man of his word he drove from Bondi Junction to pick me up in Annandale and delivered me to the door of Royal Women’s Hospital in Randwick. After the surgery he visited me daily in hospital arriving with an Iku sago pudding and a big smile and great conversations. He continued to visit me regularly with treats throughout my recovery.

We had developed a great working relationship over a few years, I assisted Robert with trying to organise his archive and general organising and tidying up. There was always a wonderful story to accompany the beautiful black and white portraits on vintage prints. He sometimes went out whilst I whizzed about and on his return he said ‘An angel has been here’. I will miss our conversations, his support and thoughtfulness to always enquire about my children. He was very devoted to his own.

I met Robert through Sandy Edwards, we were at an Artists house in Surry Hills where Robert was staying, and I took this photo in 2011 during that visit. He was so kind with his feedback regarding my photos and I was so in awe of him. We kept in touch through birthday wishes on Facebook and he sent me gifts of his beautiful bird photography. I am indebted to Robert for his gentle and generous soul, I am deeply saddened by his passing.

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Zorica Purlija

Robert McFarlane was a photographer who emerged in the seventies like many of us at a time in Australia when photography was coming into its own as an art formAs a photojournalist he covered social and political issues as well as the arts, mainly film and theatre. His photographs are quiet, but they strike human chords, he was not one for grandiose statements. He became a photographic critic published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. This is probably his greatest achievement, he became a voice for photography where nothing existed before.

I took this photo of him at his survey exhibition Still Point at the Western Sydney University in 2017. He is talking under a projection of his son Morgan. The Still Point is also the title of a documentary made about his work. Robert’s personal life was full of sadness, Morgan died as a teenager while travelling in India, and in his late life, Robert was confined to a wheelchair. This lack of movement must have been frustrating for him, but he still took photos, was cheerful and bore it all with good grace. Vale Robert McFarlane. 

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William Yang

Robert was a photographic institution in Sydney as I was finding my way as a young photographer. Not only was he a perceptive and poetic photographer, he was also an astute critic of the medium for publications such as The Sydney Morning Herald, in which he eloquently composed several very perceptive and greatly appreciated reviews of my exhibitions. Thank you for all you did for our medium, Robert. You have left a hole in photography as large as your heart. 

Robert taught me to take my time with an image, and truly think about what it is saying. Understand its visual language and how each image can talk to each other to create an overall narrative within a space or book. I learnt so much from Robert, more than any formal qualification could give you. Without him, I personally don’t feel Australian photography would be where it is today. 

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Paul McDonald

There will be a memorial for Robert hosted by Warren at High Res in Mascot, 12:30pm 14 August. Please RSVP to attend

RSVP.

Please add your comments below of your memories and farewells to Robert McFarlane. If you have any images or stories of how Robert impacted or inspired your photography, please email them to us at [email protected] so that we can continue to add to this testemony for a man who helped shape Australian photography.

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Image detail: Gary Ramage