Coastal man, columnist and cockeyed observer, Stu Spence, explains that with his photos sometimes it’s not the universe playing tricks on you; it might all be in his, or your, head.
In one photo there are four bins lined up outside a home: a red lid, a blue lid, a yellow lid and a purple lid. The caption: “The Wiggles, share house, the college years.”
In another, a man is working on a rooftop while some distance from and almost behind him, is a ladder. The caption: “To keep their relationship interesting, Dieter’s wife would often quietly reposition his ladder.”
In a third, a pool scene sees a deckchair unencumbered while a companion chair is floating in the water. The caption: “Survival of the fittest.”
The works of Stu Spence, a Sydney-based artist whose portraiture is exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery, under his When A Man Snaps moniker – photos caught on the hop, his eye snared by an image; then a caption bringing, or adding, a level of absurdity and cockeyed humour to proceedings – are not normal.
Oh they look normal enough. They’re real things photographed as he found them by Spence, who spent several decades as a photographer for magazines and newspapers shooting music and film stars in unexpected situations before turning to almost painterly, immersive art photography, and writing columns.
But with a mix of sharpness, eccentricity, comic timing and straight out silliness in both the captions and the juxtapositions, the photos can flummox you before you start laughing.
“I was told by my editor at the Huffington Post [where some of these first appeared] that one of the reasons he believed it hadn’t taken off in a social media sense was that it takes a couple of seconds to compute the whole package,” says Spence. “So people don’t have time and they scroll on.”
Of course the whole point of an image that is an arresting photo itself, then has a caption that makes you go back to the picture to see if he really did mean that – and yes, he did – would seem to be a brilliant interregnum in a day’s social media grazing. But what do I know? I laugh every time at When A Man Snaps.
ABC broadcaster James Valentine said that Spence had “developed a new form”, that doesn’t even have a name. Yes, people putting captions on old photos, making mock or playing with the anachronistic elements, is familiar to us. But actually setting out to see, then shoot and then satirise your own image is just strange.
Of course, what Spence has is the eye for that image in the first place. For example, there’s the cover of the first When A Man Snaps book: why would anyone think to take the photo of a deckchair with its canvas blown up by the wind in the first place? To then caption it “ …. and that was the last we ever saw of great grandad”, is like the very funny/silly cherry on top of the cake.
“A lot of [the captions] I tinker with for a long time but I remember having that one quickly, this idea of a beautiful, frail old man flying off,” says Spence who is a fan of the absurdist whimsy of cartoonist Michael Leunig. “There’s something whimsical in that.”
Given his experience and talent, there are plenty of these photos which would stand alone, especially among Spence’s art photography. One such is a beautiful image of a swimmer’s arm emerging from the water off Sydney (caption: fatigued long-distance swimmer spontaneously introduces himself to the sun). Another is a mauve light shining from a window in a building seen in shadow so that its roof looks like a castle wall (caption: “tanning studio, Camelot”).
“I often say they are just snaps but then I remember some quite nicely crafted pictures in there as well,” says Spence. “The dance between the words and the pictures is like solving a problem: how can you keep the integrity of this photograph and have something whimsical, or hilarious, or absurd so they are wedded nicely?
“I guess there’s a certain similarity to songwriting, a little bit: you’ve got a great melody, why put words to it?”
Why? Because the combination is so sweet, and the impact exponential, when done well.
Doing this new angle in a long photographic career, Spence reckons, has changed him again. After 25 years of shooting on film and needing to be precise and tuned to processing, when “I never took snaps”, he’s now hardwired himself so that with a camera in his hand “you don’t have to think”.
“This is instantaneous: digital is just there. So it’s lifted this huge weight off my shoulders,” he says. “Suddenly it was like the emancipation of this part of my brain that wanted to freeform the whole time, to take whatever you want and think about it later most of the time.”
But really, what normal mind sees these things? Or is this just the universe at play?
“You become tuned [to the world’s oddities] and maybe the universe isn’t magically providing these things; maybe they are there all the time,” Spence says.
“Maybe it’s putting on a different pair of glasses with different lenses and then it’s, oh fuck there it is, that weird thing I’ve been walking past for ages.”