Entering the world of photographic artist R J Poole reveals a hauntingly beautiful place that simultaneously captivates and challenges the onlooker. A gothic, dream-like landscape stripped of power lines, motor vehicles or any reference to the modern material world. Populated by innocent looking women in long, flowing dresses staring unnervingly at the viewer.
Each carefully crafted scene of R J Poole’s photographic art suggests a story or event that begs us to enter, but only if we dare! His masculine self speaks to us through ghostly wraiths and iconic images, inviting the viewer on a spiritual journey.
R J Poole was born in Sydney, Australia in 1960. His father was a boxer and his mother a stern, former land-army soldier. In the family were also a number of uncles admired by their bravery at war. Growing up in this environment, there is little wonder that young R J felt his masculine and protective side encouraged. There is a photo in the family album portraying a 5 year old R J dressed in an army helmet, shouldering a rifle while patrolling the veranda outside their family home, protecting his mother and sister while his father was away.
While R J collected toy soldiers and played war games he could not help but also nourishing his other sides. R J had always been interested in history, music and had a great interest in art.
R J displayed a great aptitude for drawing from an early age. “My first living memory is showing one of my drawings to my father” R J recalls. “There were various members of my family who had the same skill – including my sister, aunt and grandmother. I always recall my parents saying art was in my blood”
R J did not have any formal art training and it was not until senior high school that he took art as a subject. By then R J had already introduced himself to artists such as Da Vinci, Dali and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The intricacy of these art forms stirred both R J’s love of detail and his desire to pursue his skills more seriously. Yet upon leaving school R J did not select the path of entering art school. Instead he entered military service with the regular army. As a young, naïve and unformed man this path was more attuned to the well-established patterns of his childhood; boxing, shooting, football and athletics.
After just a year and a half in the regular army, R J entered the SAS Regiment. “Most of my time in the military was spent with the SAS whose culture and training methods were extreme” explains R J. “I was a very inexperienced nineteen year old when I entered the SAS regiment. It was a difficult experience that has since moved me in the opposite direction, towards the feminine aspect of the masculine – the anima.” (See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoirzoKMSHA)
The challenges of R J’s early life are mirrored in the themes of lost innocence, spiritual awakening and the ghost-like forms that populate his art. R J’s signature work; The Anima Series is a response to the tradition of the ‘macho male’ with which he had grown up. Begun in 1984 this series is composed mostly of images of women who act as alter egos and who provide R J’s anima a female face through which he articulates this part of himself.
Initially, the Anima Series comprised works on paper drawn with pen or pencil. Having developed his drawing skills since childhood, R J’s drawings were typically a metre wide and executed in the traditional chiaroscuro method. R J taught himself this method by studying the masters. This crosshatch technique involves multiple layers of pencil painstakingly drawn on top of the other to create a sense of depth.
First exhibited in public at the Praxis Gallery, Fremantle in 1985, R J’s drawings attracted notice when later the same year he won first prize for works on paper at Perth’s Sabemo TLC Arts Award. His fierce sense of independence however, ensured this would be the last occasion he entered a contest, having since opted for a non-competitive approach to exhibiting his art.
Artistically, while drawing satisfied his love of detail, it was nevertheless a very slow and tedious process. “Typically a drawing would take me several months to complete,” explains R J. “I would often use live models, or photographs as a reference and eventually, I realised I could say just as much with a camera”.
Over time, the camera gradually replaced his pencil until by the mid-1990’s he stopped drawing altogether and the Anima Series has since been a purely photographic body of work. “The camera allows me to work with several people, who can move about as opposed to staying still for long periods while I draw them,” says R J. “I find it gives me greater freedom and spontaneity.”
R J’s interest in photography began in the 1970’s with his mother’s 35mm Kodak Retinette camera, where he learned to operate the speed and aperture settings manually. This grounding in traditional silver halide photography has served as the foundation for his shift into digital technology. Yet despite these changes, both his subject and work methods have remained consistent throughout.
“I like to collaborate with the people in front of the camera,” reveals R J. “Some of these collaborative relationships have been on-going for many years and have allowed me to get close enough to really ‘know’ each individual and to express myself through them.”
Rather than his models being positioned like decorative objects, as per the tradition of male artists, R J prefers to involve them directly in the creative process. This collaborative approach is evidenced in his portrayals of emotional and spiritual candour. The level of trust and emotional honesty expressed through his images are tangible proof of a working familiarity established over years of constant effort.
In 1993 R J began working at Lismore’s Southern Cross University library and was exposed to the fledgling technologies of the Internet and digital-based photography. This experience triggered a shift from traditional film-based materials and from the chemical-based darkroom to the computer. Having worked in a darkroom environment for twenty years, R J has been able to transpose many of his film-based techniques onto his use of photoshop.
By composing his subject ‘in camera’, he is able to limit the extent to which the resulting image is edited. Rather than dramatically altering or manipulating an image, he prefers instead to arrange his subject in a real-life setting using props, clothing and available light. Remaining faithful to the original subject in front of the camera, imparts a sense of gravity and real presence to his images.
Using the knowledge gained from years of experience, R J began teaching photography in public in 1998. Since then his teaching practice has grown to include photoshop and has allowed him to remain abreast of the constantly changing technological landscape. Having begun as a tutor at a local community education centre, he has since taught in private businesses and established a private tutoring business.
The end of the 1990’s witnessed the launch of www.rjpoole.com with both the web and local media outlets providing R J a regular public presence ever since. Since 2002, his letters to the editors of various newspapers have also given a voice to the political, cultural and artistic subjects that inspire him. Determined as ever, he has worked hard to maintain a public reputation on several fronts.
In keeping with his independence, the style of R J’s work is noticeably old-worldly, or Gothic in nature. His subjects appear in traditional, flowing dresses, suspended in time and devoid of modern trappings. His backgrounds are empty of contemporary references, or any allusion to the material world. The Anima Series seeks to remove us from our physical surroundings, from the ‘now’ and to immerse us instead in the enduring realm of the spiritual.
“I’ve always been moved by those artists who had a sense of history and tradition,” says R J. “Dali, De Chirico, the Pre-Raphaelites are all examples of artists inspired by a notion of belonging to something substantial and enduring.” A lifelong fascination with history has provided R J an understanding of the connections between different cultures. In particular, the writings of Joseph Campbell have influenced his interest in the spiritual traditions linking Europe with the Middle East.
Since 2008, he has travelled to Egypt and Europe visiting historic sites, museums and places of cultural significance. Travelling with a camera has allowed R J to learn more about the cultural and spiritual traditions of his European ancestors and to photograph in locations that mirror his interests. “I’m inspired by the anima part of the male psyche because it’s not only helped me to become more rounded and whole as a human being, but it also connects me with a long-standing tradition.”
While his work is inspired by personal experience, it also embraces the broader subjects of gender identity, cultural tradition and spirituality. These subjects are woven into his images as symbols, props and backgrounds to form a complex tapestry. This creative milieu transports the viewer into another realm populated by alter egos who speak for R J Poole about the other side of man – the side that includes woman.
To view more images of my art go to: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rjpoole/