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An image of Life and death dash by Mervyn Bishop

Mervyn Bishop

(Australia 1945 – )

Life and death dash
printed 1991
Media category
Materials used
gelatin silver photograph

40.4 x 30.1 cm image/sheet

Signature & date
Signed and dated lower c. verso, ink "Mervyn. S. Bishop 14th June, 1991".
Hallmark Cards Australian Photography Collection Fund 1991
Accession number
© Mervyn Bishop. Licensed by Viscopy, Australia
Not on display
Further information

Born and raised in Brewarrina, New South Wales, Mervyn Bishop was encouraged by his mother to take his first photograph. After witnessing the 'magic' of the developing process, he became passionate about photography. In 1963 he successfully applied for a four-year cadetship at the Sydney Morning Herald, and completed a Photography Certificate Course at Sydney Technical College during these years. Bishop continued to work for the Sydney Morning Herald, and was Australia's first Aboriginal press photographer. In 1971 he won the News Photographer of the Year Award with his front-page photograph, 'Life and Death Dash', 1971. In this startling image, composition, contrast and Aboriginal social commentary combine. It is a classic example of photojournalism that has since transgressed its original context and come to insinuate the impact of religious missions within Aboriginal Australia and, in particular, on the Stolen Generations.

Bishop started work at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra in 1974, in the early years of an important era in Indigenous self-determination. Here he covered the major developments in Aboriginal communities throughout Australia, including the historical moment in 1975 when the (then) Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, poured a handful of earth back into the hand of Vincent Lingiari, Gurindji elder and traditional land owner. This image – representing the Australian government's recognition of Aboriginal land rights – became an icon of the land rights movement and Australian photography. In 1989 Bishop received his Associate Diploma in Adult Education at Sydney College of Advanced Education, and went on to teach photography at Tranby Aboriginal College in Glebe, Sydney and the Eora Centre TAFE (Technical and Further Education) in Redfern, Sydney.

Bishop's diverse career, combining journalistic and art photography, was celebrated in 1991 in his solo exhibition and accompanying monograph, 'in Dreams: Mervyn Bishop Thirty Years of Photography 1960-1990'. This important exhibition was curated by Tracey Moffatt and opened at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, before touring nationally and internationally. The timely and intimate photographs celebrate Bishop's contribution to Australian art and photojournalism. In 2000, Bishop was presented with the Red Ochre Award from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Board of the Australia Council, in recognition of his pioneering work and ongoing influence.

Jonathan Jones in 'Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia', Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2004

© Art Gallery of New South Wales

Bibliography (9)

Judy Annear, From the street: photographs from the collection, Sydney, 1996. no catalogue numbers

Judy Annear, Look, 'From the Street - photographs from the collection', pg.18, Heidelberg, May 1996, 18 (illus.).

Natasha Bullock, Australian postwar photodocumentary, Sydney, 2004. no catalogue numbers

Hannah Fink, One sun one moon: Aboriginal art in Australia, ‘Self-evident: Indigenous artists and the photographic image’, pg. 310-321, Sydney, 2007, 315 (colour illus.).

Jonathan Jones, Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia, 'Mervyn Bishop', pg. 32, Sydney, 2004, 32 (illus.).

Robert McFarlane, Critic's Choice, Sydney, 1994. no catalogue numbers

Hetti Perkins, Art + soul: a journey into the world of Aboriginal art, 'Bitter + Sweet', pg. 174-239, Carlton, 2010, 201, 202 (illus.), 204, 248, 281.

Hetti Perkins and Jonathan Jones (Editors), Half light: Portraits from black Australia, 'Mervyn Bishop', pg. 48-55, Sydney, 2008, 48, 49, 53 (colour illus.).

Sandra Phillips (Editor), Racism, representation and photography, Stanmore, 1994, 83 (illus.).

Exhibition history (7)

In Dreams, Australian Centre for Photography, Paddington, 13 Mar 1991–14 Apr 1991

Recent Acquisitions - Australian Photography, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 10 Oct 1992–06 Dec 1992

Photographs from the Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 30 Mar 1993–09 May 1993

Critic's Choice, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 22 Apr 1994–10 Jul 1994

From the Street - Photographs From the Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 27 Apr 1996–14 Jul 1996

Another Country, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 04 Jul 1999–02 Apr 2000

Australian postwar photodocumentary, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 12 Jun 2004–08 Aug 2004