Modern-day troopers stand and deliver for a challenge
Joseph Mcglennon was perplexed. At 54 and still relaunching his first career as a fine art photographer after a gap of several decades, he had been issued a challenge he was not sure he could deliver.Photo: Joseph Mcglennon
Could he create a suite of images celebrating the cultural significance of 150 years of Nswpolicing?
‘‘It was an open brief,’’ recalls Mcglennon, a branding consultant who divides his year between homes in Singapore and Sydney.
‘‘My first thought was to use some of the museum’s superb collection of old glass plate negatives of convicts,’’ he says of the creative process which led him to come up with the arresting image at right.
‘‘That led me to thinking about bushrangers, which in turn made me think of horses.’’
The results are spectacularly beautiful photographs which cast present day members of the mounted police in guises that might have been painted of their forebears in 1862.
Tomorrow seven mounted police will participate in the Sea of Blue Parade along George Street to kick off celebrations commemorating the creation of one of the world’s oldest police forces – in 1862 – replacing the old civilian night watches that had existed since Governor Phillip’s day.
Even more pomp will come in May when 19 members of the mounted police unit and their horses will fly to England to perform in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant at Windsor Castle. They will be among 500 horses and 800 humans invited from all the countries Queen Elizabeth II has visited during her reign.
But Mcglennon knew nothing about that when he opted for horse and rider as the emblematic image symbolising 150 years of continuous service to law and order.
‘‘In Australia, for some reason, the police are treated with suspicion,’’ explains Mcglennon, who was born in Scotland but moved to Australia when he was nine, and went on to study fine art at Adelaide University.
Like most Australians, he grew up hearing stories about bushrangers like Ned Kelly and Captain Thunderbolt, who are treated as heroic figures in the country’s mythology.
‘‘But in reality the bushrangers were the bad guys, ’’ says Mcglennon. ‘‘No one ever gives the mounted police credit for taking them on, for protecting the settlers who were struggling to make a living. Even in Waltzing Matilda , the troopers are cast as the villains.’’
As he researched the history of the Nswmounted police, he discovered that, in many ways, they do epitomise both the changes and the continuity in the police over 150 years.
Today, he points out, the mounted police unit has two main duties and they are are poles apart. The horse-and-rider teams are seen in public usually on either ceremonial duties (such as the Sea of Blue parade) or on occasions which could degenerate into public disorder or even riots.
These days they are mainly deployed in urban situations, whereas in the era of the bushrangers their theatre was the endless plain.
Mcglennon talked to Inspector Kirsten Mcfadden, head of the mounted unit, asking if he could take some photos. He also gave her a copy of the Strange Voyage catalogue which accompanied his first Sydney exhibition in decades at Dank Street Galleries last year – highly stylised photographs of kangaroos and other ‘‘weird’’ Australian fauna which echoed European paintings of the early 19th century when such creatures were still a novelty.
He painted backdrops which he felt would best show off the horses, arrived with his cameras at the stables, and prepared for the shoot.
‘‘The officers were all dressed in contemporary uniforms and we started talking about the old days when the mounted police were called troopers,’’ Mcglennon remembers. ‘‘And they said, ‘We still have the uniforms, which we use on ceremonial days.’ So they put those on instead.’’
The photographer showed the officers his first shots. But still they had little idea of the finished images. Later he added up to 30 different layers of detail, shot under the same light conditions and married, he says, ‘‘with as little Photoshop as possible’’.
The finished articles are highly theatrical and totally staged, reminiscent of the European tradition of painting subjects on horseback surrounded by symbols of their grandeur.
Here, Mcglennon points out, he has used many. Pomegranates: ‘‘In the Bible, Moses is given pomegranates when he’s seen the Promised Land. That’s what lots of immigrants thought they were buying into when they came to Australia.’’ Foxes: ‘‘Symbolising the immigrants who were brought over here and then treated like vermin’’. Blackberries: ‘‘I suppose that is the English notion about trying to tame the land.’’
So what does Inspector Mcfadden think? ‘‘It is something totally out of the realm of what we normally do. But they look fantastic.
‘‘They don’t look like our horses. He’s made them look manly. Our horses don’t have manes like that, but he wanted that historic effect.’’