1940- | VIC | Photographer
Postle is one of Australia's greatest and most highly decorated photographers. For 50 years he has taken stunning pictures of Australian news, sport, entertainment, tragedy and the small moments in ordinary people's lives. He began his career when the new medium of television was threatening press photography's dominance of the visual news image. Postle helped lead the way for his generation of photographers to redefine the craft and prove that a picture could not only be worth a thousand words, but sometimes kilometres of videotape or gigabytes of digital data.
Bruce Postle was not quite born with a camera in his hand, but it was near his crib. By age seven, he was learning the basics of angles and backgrounds while taking pictures of the family cat with his press photographer father’s Graflex.
Sixty years later, Postle had one of the most remarkable collections of photographs documenting the major themes of Australian society in the second half of the 20th century – the politics, the sport, the arts, the tragedies, dramas and joys. From rock and roll to bionic ears. Postle was one of the leaders of a generation of press photographers who proved there was still an important place for still pictures after the dawn of television.
Postle would risk almost anything to get the picture or the angle no-one else had. He lost, broke or drowned more than 30 cameras during his career, smashed a small fleet of office cars and had more lives than the cat that helped shape his career.
One word sums up Postle’s best 1000 photographs: wizard. He was a wizard in the sense of being exceptionally clever and skilful. And he was a wizard for being able to conjure or create a stunning picture from routine ingredients. Some of his most memorable shots were staged or composed, a technique that brought equal amounts of admiration and controversy.
Postle can take comfort from the assessment of Swiss-British philosopher Alain de Botton who says ... “the central mission of modern art, that it is by distorting what we take to be the real appearance of something that we can often get closest to its true reality.”
Exhibit A: Postle’s 1977 picture of 73-year-old horse trainer Tommy Woodcock laying in his stable with his horse Reckless on the eve of the Melbourne Cup. Postle had heard rumors that Woodcock, the legendary strapper of Phar Lap nearly 40 years earlier, sometimes slept with his horse. It was not true, but Postle wanted it to be true and pestered Woodcock for weeks to pose for the picture. No deal. Finally, Postle took an air bed into the stables and tried Woodcock once more. The ageing trainer gave in and laid down on the mattress. At that moment, Reckless sat down and nestled his head on Tommy‘s chest. The picture was the talk of Flemington on Cup Day. It was a staged picture, but it told a great truth about the bond between a man and his horse.
Postle’s ability and style enabled him to create much more than just composed pictures. He photographed some great sporting action shots in the days when the equipment allowed only one frame a second.. And he portrayed human emotion and personality with rare skill. Some of his pictures of well-known people were more poetic portraits than photographic images.
Exhibit B: Postle’s photograph of Sammy Davis Jnr in concert in Melbourne in 1977. Postle took his first outstanding pictures at rock and roll concerts in Brisbane in the 1960s – Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Bill Haley. In 1965, Postle climbed on stage at Brisbane City Hall to get a memorable shot of the Rolling Stones strewn with streamers. But the best show business shot was Sammy Davis Jnr singing Mr Bojangles in Melbourne. Bruce combined exquisite lighting with impeccable timing to capture the essence of the American entertainer, oozing with intensity and displaying all the signature gestures and accoutrements – the cigarette, a hand raised with thumb pressed on a furrowed brow, rings on his fingers and gold on his wrist. Pure Sammy, captured in a single image. Sammy later said it was the best photograph ever taken of him and rewarded Postle 18 months later, with tickets to his show, including a bottle of French champagne on his table.
Exhibit C: Dancing at the Meatworks. This wonderful image came after Postle was sent “on spec” to a meatworks at Brooklyn, near Melbourne, after the pictorial editor, desperate for any sort of picture that day, heard that migrant workers were entertained on site by a band during their 25-minute lunch break. Postle arrived to a fairly flat scene until he spotted the band’s singer with a tambourine. Postle grabbed the tambourine, held it aloft and asked the workers if anyone could play. There was a volunteer and Postle asked him to stand near the drummer. “Anyone dance?” shouted Postle, and a couple from the boning room jumped up to the rhythm of the Rolling Stones’ song ‘Satisfaction’. The result was an engaging front-page picture which Postle says tells a powerful story about the hard work and fun enjoyed by a generation of post-war migrants in the toughest jobs.
Postle had great technical skills, including the gift of superb eye-to-shutter co-ordination. And years before digital imaging, he was the master of the double exposure on one negative. But the technical skills were released explosively only when Postle applied his personal qualities of passion, persistence, charm, cunning and sense of humor and mischief. Only Postle could talk his way into a Prime Minister’s bedroom and only Postle could take an elephant to a pub bar for a drink.
Bruce Postle was born in Brisbane and began his career in 1958 at Queensland Country Life before moving to the Courier Mail. On his first assignment, he rolled an office car and destroyed a camera on the way to a fire. He moved to The Age in Melbourne in 1969 and on his first day he took a sports picture that appeared on the next day’s front page. There was also a picture of a truck smash on page five. He had taken it on the way to the office from the airport, before he had even officially started work.
Those two first days were typical of Postle’s career. He would risk limb and sometimes life – and certainly a camera – to get the shot that no-one else had. And he was always on duty; some of his best shots were taken on the way to or from another job.
Postle remained at The Age for nearly 30 years, entertaining and thrilling reporters and editors with his passion and determination to get where no-one else could get. He believed there was a front page picture in any assignment, any situation, any event. Often he found it. He was the antithesis of that tiresome newsroom blowhard, the nothing-in-it-man.
Michael Smith, a former editor of The Age, worked with Postle for 25 years and many of his stories were elevated to the front page because of Postle's accompanying pictures.
Tommy Woodcock and Restless. Courtesy of Bruce Postle.
Sammy Davis Jr. Courtesy of Bruce Postle.
Meatworks. Courtesy of Bruce Postle.
Malcolm Fraser after the 1980 election, Windsor Hotel. Courtesy of Bruce Postle.
The Image Maker, Bruce Postle, Elm Grove Press, Melbourne, 2011
Images of Our Time, Bruce Postle and John Lamb, Viking O’Neil, Melbourne, 1989.