THE WORK OF AWARD-WINNING PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHER AND VISUAL ARTIST BRETT CANET-GIBSON HAS BEEN SEEN ALL AROUND THE WORLD. BUT HE LOCATES HIS MOST INTERESTING SUBJECTS ONLY METRES FROM HIS FRONT DOOR.
By all accounts Brett Canet-Gibson should never have been a photographer. He was just 14 when an optometrist discovered he was short sighted and would require prescription glasses. It was during that same appointment the same eye specialist revealed the teenage patient sitting in his chair was also colour blind.
But as the son of a keen amateur filmmaking father and the child star of many of his own feature films, Brett knew that the different way he visualised the world would one day prove his greatest asset. After a decade playing guitar and travelling around the country in bands, Brett was in his mid-20s when he finally decided to enrol in a photography course at Perth’s Metropolitan College of Art and Design. He was 25 by the time he completed his studies majoring in photography with a minor in film and television.
Now 51, he says he has been learning ever since. In his early editorial days, Brett’s work appeared in many national and international publications with The Bulletin, Rolling Stone, Inside Sport and The West Australian Newspaper among them. But it is for his work as a visual artist specialising in street photography – or more specifically his unique take on portraiture and still life imagery – that has seen demand for his work skyrocket.
His name makes regular appearances in portraiture competitions here and abroad where his accolades include being named a Gold Award Winner in the Paris’ PX3 Pre de la Photographie Awards and securing second prize in the 2016 International Fine Art Photography Awards in London. In addition to a host of other awards, he has also been named a finalist in the National Photographic Portrait Prize each year since 2015.
Over the past two years Brett’s work has been exhibited all over the globe, from New York to London, Paris, India and Kuala Lumpur. His most recent exhibition was staged a little closer to home, taking place in Perth and involving the pairing of vintage glass plate portraits by famed ‘turn of the century’ Perth photographer Denis Dease and contemporary black and white portraits of people from the local Chinese community. More than 25,000 people viewed it in just one 10-day period.
While he struggles to recall his first job in the field, Brett believes he can trace his success to three pivotal moments in his career. The first occurred when he was still a first year photography student and he received a cheque for his first published image. “The photo appeared in a local music paper and I was paid the princely sum of $15. To this very day I still have that cheque in a frame so I can recall that feeling of pure exhilaration for getting paid for doing something you love.”
The second was when he was named runner-up in a national portrait competition run by a high-profile magazine his reward for which was, ironically he says “a Nikon camera”. A poor student at the time, Brett sold it on the very day it arrived.
The third and most significant moment came in the form of a lesson from Perth photographer Barry Williams whose studio walls were lined with multiple national awards. Brett recalls that every time he arrived to work he would become overwhelmed by the shear majesty of the images and assuming, wrongly as it turned out, that the more senior photographer only ever took one frame.
“Early, on a Monday morning he got me to sit on the studio floor and spend the whole morning looking through all his negatives that were neatly filed in cabinets running the length of the studio. As I looked through portraits, landscapes and product images both colour and black and white, neg and transparency it slowly dawned on me that these award winning images only got to be applauded after an accumulation of prior photographic experiences. Roll after roll after roll of film gave insight into how the photographer worked with a subject, changed his point of view and ultimately ending with the desired image. The only way to scale the summit was to take one step at a time and do the work.”
He launched his own creative agency, Twine – Ideas that Bind, in 2014. Brett has been using Nikon exclusively now for over a decade. With the majority of his work done on the street with natural light and with people he has just met, Brett says his approach is quite simple.
He carries just one camera, a Nikon D3X together with a NIKKOR AF-S 50mm f/1.4G prime lens, and a backpack that contains a small folio. Despite travelling extensively, he says he has never had the desire to wander off to far-flung locations in search of the perfect picture believing there is so much to see right outside his front door. “I love finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and you don’t have to look far too find it, whether they be faces or places.”
Yet despite his successes, Brett says it has been a constant challenge to remain true to his individual freedom of expression, claiming he would be much more financially secure if he had a dollar every time someone described his photography work as “arty”. It is, he says, an issue that is ongoing still.
“My greatest successes (and for that matter, failures) have occurred when I have solely set out to please myself. Most days I find it extremely difficult to execute another’s concept visually and spend most of the time second guessing what is desired, so a few years back I decided to set my own assignments and projects and let that be the starting point. In essence, now I do the work and then seek the client.”
Brett’s tops tips for those interested in street photographers
* Know your place – Although all of my work is done on the street I could in no way be classed as a traditional street photographer, a true street shooter would burn me at the stake for suggesting such! I basically use the city as a casting agency and the sidewalk as a studio. I love the freedom to roam and the endless possibilities that can arise at any given moment. One question I get asked often is, ‘how do you ask a complete stranger to make their portrait?’ Simple – I just ask!
* Rapport rules the roost – It is just as important, if not more so, as your camera settings or your attention to light quality. The old adage ‘first impressions last’ is all too true. I never work candidly and always ask for consent, so rapport is crucial and is the foundation of making a great portrait.
* Be polite – Each day I head to a different location, park the car, and meander looking for people to photograph. Nine out of ten people I ask say yes. I tend to shoot very quickly and usually only take between five and 10 minutes. I have found that the folio I carry to illustrate the style of my work helps immensely. I also always grab an email address and send the sitter a high res version of their portrait.
* Be adaptable – The issue of weather very rarely plays a role in how I work, in fact, winter is my favourite time of the year to be out and about on the street. If the street is quiet on a certain day I’ll shoot some found objects as a still life or seek a landscape or two until the hustle and bustle returns. I discovered early on that if you become fixated you become frustrated so I created my own personal mantra ‘every object is a subject’.
Words: Tracey Porter