The Perfect Portrait

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Friday 21 June 2013
Jennifer French

My second day dawns early, due to the time distortions of a jet-lagged brain, and before 8am I am back at work with the others. It’s slower than I anticipated. I am also chasing the ‘hero’ portrait of Bill, who while being immensely affable and warmly disposed, is turning out to be extraordinarily difficult to photograph. So I leave the laptop to its own work converting raw files to chunkier formats, and attempt to capture the artist. We try a longish shoot in the room with Bebop, but the room proportions make Bill appear ill proportioned, as the artwork is vast. Everything appears out of scale. It’s frustrating, as it is the image everyone including me has pre-visualised as The Great Image. But it isn’t, so after working on it for too long with no good result we break for lunch.

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Bill Culbert at the entrance of the New Zealand Pavilion, La Pietà, for the 2013 Venice Biennale. Photograph by Jennifer French

After lunch the rain stops, and the wind has dropped, but it still feels like the middle of winter. I’m outside in the ‘wardrobe’ courtyard checking out the possibility of shooting something there later, after the tarps come off, when Bill pops his head out the door and grins at me before disappearing again. The light looks really beautiful. I go in and convince him to stand in the doorway again. Behind him on the other side of the room there is a delivery being made from a boat in the canal, so Bill says, ‘But won’t they be in the way behind me?’ I tell him it’s just a test shot, and so it doesn’t matter. Then I say, ‘Never trust a photographer!’ He laughs, and I get the picture I was after.

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Bill Culbert Strait (2013). Photograph by Jennifer French

The day progresses. HUT, the un-finished work, is still . . . unfinished. Bebop has a new element, a large pane of glass that reflects the open door with sky. Right. It’s important to shoot Bebop and Drop with the door open, with the glass in place. Okay – a reshoot. Also, it turns out that because I’m only five foot four, I have missed the light detail on the lids of the milk bottles in Strait. Another reshoot. Thankfully the weather is improving and we have some sunshine. More people arrive – the commissioner, the deputy commissioner, the ex-commissioner, gallerists (multiple and multilingual), some patrons, the artist Orlan with horns lightly gilded, British artist Mike Nelson (the toast of the 2011 Biennale in the British Pavilion). Bill’s show is very popular. And we are not yet open.