When we see a movie poster we tend to think about the film behind the image, rather than the painstaking work – the actors, the sets, the costumes and the hundreds of other photographs – that went into creating the image itself. But a new exhibition by the National Portrait Gallery and the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra will take audiences behind the scenes into the fascinating, if under-appreciated world of the stills photographer.

It was a visit by NFSA Curator Jennifer Coombes to the National Portrait Gallery – for an exhibition about television stills photography entitled Promo Portraits from Primetime three years ago – and a conversation with Portrait Gallery Assistant Curator Penelope Grist, that got the ball rolling.StarstruckToni Collette as Muriel trying on a wedding dress by Robert McFarlane, Muriel’s Wedding, 1994, Courtesy House And Moorhouse Films, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

“We realised that portraiture accompanies film making at every step of the way,” Grist says. “It is the most thoroughly documented creative process, and from the process of the making of the films and the marketing of the films, comes this incredible archive of portraiture.”

The exhibition, which Coombes and Grist have curated, focuses particularly on publicity and promotional images. “We’re showing day-bills and scrapbooks and posters,” says Coombes. “I think it tells you how incredibly hard the film crews worked to put together a final feature film. I think one of the really interesting things about this exhibition is that for every image that you see framed, there are hundreds and hundreds of others that led to that moment. It’s all about how you have to very carefully craft and select for those final, really well-known publicity images.”

The image, from the final climactic Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Championship scene of the 1992 film Strictly Ballroom, is a perfect example. “[It’s] just one sheet of hundreds of contact strips of transparency that were taken by the stills photographer, Philip Le Masurier,” says Coombes. “It’s this incredible process of going from the multiple to the singular, because the stills photographer’s task is to tell the whole story of that film in one definitive frame.”

Starstruck, Strictly BallroomPaul Mercurio as Scott and Tara Morice as Fran by Phillip Le Masurier, Strictly Ballroom, 1992, Courtesy M&A Film Corporation, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

“It’s kind of a celebration of a stills photographer, their eye and their skill,” she says. “There’s no Oscar or Academy Award or Bafta for Best Stills Photographer, but their job is incredibly important, and while the focus is, in some respects, on the stills photographer in the exhibition, it’s also about that collaborative, creative process that involves the director, the producer, the script writer and the actors, all to create this beautiful, fully-realised, believable world that the audience buys into.”

“One way of thinking about it is that every image in the exhibition, even if it’s one singular shot of an actor, is actually a group portrait of that whole crew that brought that fictional world into being,” says Grist. “Our guiding rationale for every selection was that every image had to encapsulate something about the real world and something about the fictional world. And the way that these images rest on a knife-edge in between those two.”

There were other considerations in selecting the photographs for the exhibition. “I’m going to be really shallow and say: we went for some handsome people!” Coombes says. “Liam Hemsworth in The Dressmaker was a popular favourite, as was Hugh Jackman in Australia. Of course there were other very strong aesthetic considerations besides that.”

StarstruckLinda Kozlowski as Sue Charlton and Paul Hogan as Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee by Jim Sheldon, Crocodile Dundee, 1985, Courtesy Rimfire Films, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

“There are some very well-known Australian actors, and you do want that recognisable factor as well – like Toni Collette in Muriel’s Wedding, Nicole Kidman in one of her early films, Dead Calm,” she continues. “Hugo Weaving is an actor who – while I knew he was well known – I didn’t realise quite how many films he’s in until I started working on this exhibition.”

It is also a chance to see Australian actors across the different stages of their careers. “We’ve got beautiful portraits of David Gulpilil’s first film appearance in Walkabout, right through to The Tracker,” Grist says.

But the exhibition as a whole isn’t arranged in a conventional sequence. “We didn’t want to do it chronologically,” says Grist. “So
we’ve arranged the portraits really as if you were walking through a screenplay.”

StarstruckTianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan and Everlyn Sampi as Daisy, Gracie and Molly traversing a salt pan by Matt Nettheim, Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002, Courtesy Phillip Noyce, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

The portraits are arranged therefore by where the particular scene they depict appears in the film. “It follows a kind of narrative trajectory, which is a really a new way of displaying a portraiture exhibition,” Grist says.

One particular surprise that came up during the curation process was discovering the stills for a 1969 film called 2000 Weeks. “The still images are beautiful, they’re taken by Mark Strizic and Robin Copping,” says Coombes. “There’s a wonderful passionate kiss that we’ve got – because every exhibition needs a passionate kiss in it I think!”

“But for me the interesting thing is, if you haven’t seen the film you put together quite a different idea about the film,” she says.

“We hold a lot of portraits by Mark Strizic in the Portrait Gallery collection,” says Grist. “So it was really fantastic discovering as a portrait gallery curator, that a lot of the highly, well-recognised art portrait photographers had spent some time on film sets at various points in their careers.”

StarstruckShirley Ann Richards, Lovers and Luggers, 1935, Courtesy Cinesound Movietone Productions, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

“One of my other favourite ones would be Shirley Ann Richards in Lovers and Luggers,” says Grist. “There’s a beautiful shot of her in a suit, a white suit, looking very sophisticated and elegant.”

The film is from the 1930s and was directed by Ken G. Hall. “It’s not a period of film history that necessarily the public know terribly well, but Ken G. Hall and Cinesound were really important, and there’s some absolutely beautiful portraits from that period in the exhibition.”

The exhibition isn’t simply photography. “We’ve got a few lovely costumes,” says Coombes. “It’s nice that the Portrait Gallery’s expanded their remit slightly to let us include costumes, because they are very much a part of the process of building a character in a film.”

For Coombes it’s this depth of immersion into a fictional world that’s significant. “I think the director Peter Weir once said that every film set is like a small world,” she says. “It totally consumes the people in it, for the time that they work on it. And I think a lot of the temporary stills photographers have mentioned that – that sense that you’re trying to capture a character, not the actor, when you’re taking the portrait.”

“These are working images, essentially, when they’re taken,” says Grist. “But when you interpret and consider them as portraiture within an art gallery, there’s this whole world of meaning and personality and character and that transitional space between the real and the fictional that opens up, and gives a life to these portraits that the public would never have seen in this way before.”

Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until March 4, 2018