Strangely underestimated, perhaps because his work has circulated more in the realm of documentary photography than art, Ricky Maynard has produced some of the most compelling images of contemporary Aboriginal Australia over the last two decades.
Largely self-taught, Maynard began his career as a darkroom technician at the age of sixteen. He first established his reputation with the 1985 series Moonbird People, an intimate portrayal of the muttonbirding season on Babel, Big Dog and Trefoil Islands in his native Tasmania. The 1993 series No More Than What You See documents Indigenous prisoners in South Australian gaols. He is the recipient of numerous grants and commissions, including a 1990 Commonwealth Govern-ment Award to study at the International Centre of Photography in New York. In 1997 he received the Australian Human Rights Award for Photography and is a recipient of the Mother Jones International Documentary Award.
The owner of an enviable collection of antique cameras, Maynard is a lifelong student of the history of photography, particularly of the great American social reformers Jacob Riis, Lewis Hines, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. He is interested in the power of the uninflected image – of sheer veracity – as an agent of record and change. Maynard’s images cut through the layers of rhetoric and ideology that inevitably couch black history (particularly Tasmanian history) to present images of experience itself. ‘To know the meaning of a culture you must recognise the limits and meaning of your own,’ the artist explains. ‘You can see its facts but not its meaning. We share meaning by living it.’ Maynard’s photographs are, he says, about ‘leaving proof’ – about ‘ … life in passing and in complicated times’.
The word ‘Wik’ has come to denote a historic decision of the High Court of Australia rather than the name of the Indigenous peoples from the western Cape York Peninsula in northern Queensland. In his intimate portraits of elders from these communities, Maynard aims to unpick this abstraction. Etched on each face is the complexity of an unspoken life story, delineated, one imagines, by hardship, perseverance and the burden – and wealth – of an extraordinary living memory. As he wrote in his artist’s statement for the exhibition Returning to Places that Name Us in 2001, ‘ … I wanted a presence and portraits that spoke, and through this process to present an idea, rather than preach messages.’ In this series, Maynard achieves his aim of capturing meanings that no other medium could convey.
Hannah Fink in 'Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2014
Artist Ricky Maynard