Gold Coast City Gallery is presenting Flesh: The Gold Coast in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, a unique experience of Gold Coast visual culture from recent decades immortalised by acclaimed amateur photographer Graham Burstow.
Inspired by family vacations, the Australian experience, and the ugliness and beauty of the human condition, Burstow’s black-and-white hand-printed images capture the essence of an unabashed bygone era on the Gold Coast, and are yet timeless in terms of the stories and emotions they convey. Lizzy Keen spoke with Graham in the lead up to the exhibition.
Eleven years after your photographic book Touch Me, how has the exhibition of Flesh come about?
The exhibition has already been shown at the Powerhouse Gallery Brisbane, but because the images are of the Gold Coast, we had to have a show there too. The Queensland branch of the Australian Photographic Society, of which I’m a foundation member, also thought it would be a great idea. Not many people on the Gold Coast would have seen these images ever before.
When you first started to get to know the Gold Coast – and its fleshy beach culture – what did you think of it?
I have always particularly enjoyed people communicating with one another, which my work explains – I very seldom photograph someone on their own. The Gold Coast, during these years, was a prime spot of interaction and socialising. I don’t know if it’s my unusual sense of humour of what, but on the Gold Coast, I saw lots of little things, little moments happen.
As a photographer, I have learned to interact with people in a special way. One year a fellow gave me a 28mm lens and said, “Graham, I want you to understand the world of this lens,” which meant how to how to move into people’s personal space without upsetting them. This took me years to master. Instead of using a telephoto lens from 15 feet away, I prefer to mingle with people and tell them what I’m doing.
Every one of my images has a little story behind it, which I don’t think I could find in portraiture. I understand people in a certain way through the lens that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
How much of that Gold Coast do you see present today?
Not a lot, it seems to have become more sophisticated. The last Sun Girl Quest (bikini competition) I went to many years ago now was indoors, for instance. It had no atmosphere at all.
Not long after, I was the official photographer of the Miss Hawaiian Quest, and I can tell you, the photos of that event and the old outdoor Sun Girl competitions are nothing alike. I mean, the bathing beauties are still there, but I haven’t captured their character at all.
What are some special moments on the Gold Coast you like to look back on?
I was photographing at Coolangatta one day, and there were these young women wearing bikinis that had printed on the bottom, ‘I taste like heaven but I come from paradise’. There was an American photographer there and I’ll never forget the look of excitement on his face! He couldn’t believe what was happening!
The beer belly competitions were incredible; I went to two of those. [Queensland politician] Russ Hinze was in the first one and caught the press unawares. What a show that had been! I photographed the second competition and I’d never seen so many helicopters in my life. They were filled with press photographers from all over Australia, hoping to snap Russ Hinze in the competition, but he didn’t show up.
And take the tug-a-wars at Currumbin for instance – I’ve never seen men pull so hard as they do with a young woman in a bikini yelling at them to pull! Some of them pulled so hard they nearly died! They couldn’t even stand up.
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Flesh runs at Gold Coast City Gallery until 6 December.