Exhibition review: Lovers and Misfits

Photographic portraits of the seminal punk movement in Australia.

Melbourne’s come a long way, baby. At the Monash Gallery of Art in suburban Wheeler’s Hill, a photography exhibition documents the Australian punk scene’s first wave during the 1970s. Curated by the ever edgy Angela Connor, the exhibition Lovers and Misfits showcases the work of Peter Milne, who is best known for his commercial photography and his photographs of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. It also features some surprising glimpses into the early days of some of our best known celebrities. 

Photography is a medium that can stretch a glimpse into a longer viewing. The iconic critic (and lover of Rolling Stone portraitist Annie Leibovitz) Susan Sontag said every photograph is like a murder because it stops time, and turns a subject into an object. If that’s true, then Lovers and Misfits offers a murder on the dance floor as it shows us music in bloom, close up and backstage.

While many of the photographs are unposed and taken from barbecues or parties, images such as the portrait of Tracey Shepard and Pierre Sutcliffe show how women were applying the lessons of second wave feminism and challenging the male gaze. Connor’s introduction itself points out how this exhibition gives voice to the forgotten women of punk, an otherwise male-dominated movement.

One of the interesting things to note is that all the curatorial labels are reproduced in a font of the artist’s own handwriting, which adds a personal touch.

The informality of the photos is made even more lively by the technology that created them. In the pre-digital era, photographs were printed onto negatives, which were developed in darkrooms with the option of printing onto slides and looking at a projected image of illuminated light. Milne says this is his preferred way of working and, if it seems romantic in the digital age, it can sometimes be a fumbling romance. One portrait of Anita Lane contains a smudge on the lip transmitted through the development process, which makes this found portrait seem like an art photo from the Camden punk scene in London. 

If there is the occasional mistake, that’s part of the charm of an exhibition that shows us what an image was when we were still making them by hand. To be fair Lovers and Misfits is also a display of Milne learning his craft, with all the improvisation and the margin for error that entails.

Read: Theatre review: A Simple Act of Kindness

Most captivating are the found images of everyday people, but you may see some faces you know, for instance Nick Cave, in the days before the Bad Seeds. The question on everybody’s lips: what’s Nick Cave like? Lovely, apparently. But you’ll have to see for yourself. 

Lovers and Misfits by Peter Milne
Monash Gallery of Art

Curated by Angela Connor
Lovers and Misfits will be on display until 15 January 2023.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin