1952 - | NSW | Photojournalist
Lorrie Graham blew away the ceiling of the male-dominated world of Australian press photography in the early 1970s. Dozens of other women followed in the next 40 years. After “knocking on the door” for a few years she was employed by the Sydney Morning Herald in 1975, International Women’s Year. Battling suspicion, sexism and hostility she preferred to let her photographs speak for her, and they spoke very loudly. In the late 70s, she was attracted to The Observer in London because of the paper’s dedication to strong imagery and willingness to allow pictorial essays to stand on their own merits without a story attached. This became her hallmark. Lorrie’s work has appeared in most of the great newspapers and magazines in the world and all Fairfax titles in Australia.
Lorrie Graham, one of Australia’s most celebrated and original photojournalists, was given her first camera, a Kodak plastic brownie, at the age of eight. Four years later, she discovered her first artistic inspiration when she received a book on legendary Life photographer, Margaret Bourke-White. These formative moments instilled in Graham an enduring passion for photography and belief in its power.
Born on 1 December 1954, Graham was raised on 25 acres in Windsor, once a semi-rural area in Sydney. Her mother was an accountant and her father an engineer, as well as an amateur photographer.
After leaving school, Graham decided to pursue a professional photographic career, but it did not prove easy in the early 1970s. Unlike the legion of male photographers who gained newspaper cadetships without experience, her trajectory was by necessity, more unorthodox. Graham’s first job was in a photographic lab, Berrins Brown, which serviced Sydney advertising agencies. At the same time, she began shooting concerts for Australia’s nascent Rolling Stone magazine, in exchange for free tickets and film.
Armed with her portfolio, Graham became the first female photographic cadet at the Sydney Morning Herald in 1975 and a trailblazer in a notoriously blokey and dynastic profession. It was not a straightforward appointment, and Fairfax only sanctioned a cadetship to women because it was International Women’s Year. For six months previously, Graham presented her pictures to Frank Bourke, the Herald’s photographic manager. He was very nice, and he would look “through my pictures every time, and he’d just say, ‘There’s no position’,” Graham remembers. “They made a lot of excuses, ‘Don’t know whether or not you’d be able to handle the language’ and ‘There’s no toilet on this floor’.” Graham was finally given a trial in the darkroom and then a cadetship.
Graham hungrily exploited the opportunities afforded by the Herald, and also contended with institutional misogyny and the deriding of photojournalism. Australian newspaper photography was still considered a trade rather than a profession; the nomenclature and even the concept of photojournalism were not widely adopted.
After her three-year cadetship and inspired by American and European luminaries, Graham moved to London in 1978 and began working for The Observer. The world’s oldest Sunday newspaper proved a cultural and aesthetic revelation. “It was,” Graham later said, “where my heart lay.” Photographers remained on the editorial floor and The Observer’s policy insisted on their photographers having a voice. There was an abiding “commitment to, and respect of, the power of imagery”, with the newspaper designed around photographs and the colour supplements showcasing the images. Graham recalls that “no photograph was ever cropped.”
In 1981, Graham returned to Australia as the staff photographer at The National Times, a weekly newspaper published by Fairfax. The Times under Max Suich’s creative vision was, according to Graham, “a very brave little paper within an organisation that allowed it to be that. It did an incredible amount of investigative journalism. It pushed the envelope quite a bit when it was going after people. And it did in-depth stories, great in-depth stories. It wasn’t always right. It was a very small, tight unit…I could come up with ideas”.
And many of Graham’s ideas were breathtaking. She had to produce something different from photographers working on the dailies – a shot that was strong enough to work days after the event. The illustrious American photo editor John Morris once told The New York Times that great photographers have to have three things: a heart if they’re going to photograph people, an eye to be able to compose, and a brain to think about what they’re shooting. Lorrie Graham possesses all three attributes.
Graham’s photograph of Labor leader Bob Hawke at the party’s 1983 election launch with two microphones covering his eyes reveals her imagination, technique, and capacity for whimsy. Graham saw the potential of the image the moment she walked into the Opera House. She had to crawl around the floor and “manoeuvre my way around the entire Opera House to get the position to get it. And it’s only one frame that it’s perfectly lined up”. It had taken three and a half rolls of film and most of the day to get the one frame where the microphones covered Hawke’s eyes. The resulting image of an insect-like Hawke led politicians and their advisers to pay greater attention to the physical surroundings of photo opportunities.
In 1987, Graham became the picture editor and chief photographer at The Times on Sunday, then worked on The Bulletin as a staff photographer in 1988 and 1989, before embarking on a successful freelance career in 1991. Like all thoughtful photojournalists, she continues to debate the ethical dimensions of photography reflecting on the duality of powerful images. “They can be used for great good,” she says, “and can be exploitative.”
It was the transition to freelancing, which provided Graham with greater autonomy to pursue assignments on social issues and reform, international development, natural disasters, the delivery of aid throughout the Asia-Pacific region with AusAID and UNICEF, politics and conflict. In 1991, when covering the first Iraq War for Rolling Stone, Graham managed to go “outside the wire” photographing the Kurdish refugees for a month travelling from Ankara to the border of Northern Iraq. A year later, Graham’s “changing world of Australia’s Farmers” series captured a struggling community closer to home. Her images evoke the human condition, conveying humanity, frailties and resilience.
Graham is equally skilled in conveying joy and light in her portraiture. From David Moore to B.B. King, David Gulpilil to Andy Warhol and Gorbachev to Mandela, she has photographed influential figures, artists, celebrities, and politicians. Her image of Paul Keating brandishing a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses on the cover of Rolling Stone and conveying his illusive cool is one of her most iconic.
Graham’s work has ranged from photographic commissions, solo and group exhibitions, books and stills shoots for films. Her photographs have graced the world's and Australia’s leading newspapers, and magazines, and her work is held in collections of National Gallery of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Library, the Museum of Sydney and the State Library of NSW.
In a career spanning over 40 years, Lorrie Graham has witnessed and navigated the seismic changes in the fortunes of the newspaper industry and Australian photojournalism. Her work is defined by masterful composition, creative storytelling, tenacity, and a strong social conscience.
Fay Anderson is a media historian and Associate Professor in the School of Film, Media and Journalism at Monash University.
Graham Barron, Wheat and Sheep farmer, main street, Ungarie, NSW, Feb 1992. Courtesy of Lorrie Graham
Hopevale Rodeo 1. From a photo Essay published in Bulletin Magazine, Dec 2003. Courtesy of Lorrie Graham
Hopevale Rodeo 2. From a Photo Essay published in Bulletin Magazine, Dec 2003. Courtesy of Lorrie Graham
Bob Hawke, ALP Federal Launch, Opera House, Sydney, 1983. Courtesy of Lorrie Graham
Paul Keating, Prime Minister of Australia, Federal Leader ALP, Sydney, 1993. Courtesy of Lorrie Graham
Mermaid Cheer squad, Stadium Australia, 1999. Courtesy of Lorrie Graham
Stockmen on the road to Canberra for a Land rights protest, 1981. Courtesy of Lorrie Graham
Women and children wait at the outpatient area at Tarin Kowt Hospital, Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan. © AusAID. Courtesy of Lorrie Graham
Shooting the Picture: Press Photography in Australia, Fay Anderson and Sally Young, Melbourne University Publishing, 2016.
'Lorrie Graham portfolio' website