JON LEWIS: 1950-2020
One of Australia’s finest social documentary photographers and filmmakers, Jon Lewis, died in Byron Bay after battling perhaps the cruellest of dementias, Lewy body, for several years. He was 70.
Jon was born in 1950 in Maryland, US to Australian Tom Lewis (later to become NSW premier) and his American wife Stephanie Spector. The Lewis family returned to Australia, where their two sons were educated at The King’s School, Parramatta.
Jon Lewis would mature to have a distinguished career as a photographer and filmmaker with acute social activist skills and a direct and poetic vision of both Australian society and the landscape it inhabits. I once wrote in this newspaper some years ago that in his ability to provoke change, Jon Lewis “was the burr under the saddle of Australian photography because of his insistence on a pure, rather than conceptual approach to the medium''. Lewis would also leave a lasting legacy from his passionate teaching of photography over many years, privately and at the Sydney College of the Arts.
Lewis’s photographic career began almost by chance, when he met legendary Australian artist Martin Sharp in Sydney in 1969, one of the forces, with artists such as Brett Whiteley and George Gittoes, behind the Potts Point artistic commune soon to be known as The Yellow House. Sensing the 19-year-old’s interest in photography, Sharp threw a Polaroid instant camera towards Lewis and said, "see what you can do with this!". Lewis was clearly delighted with Sharp’s gift, accepted the instant camera and soon began photographing his friends.
Lewis would become one of the younger members of The Yellow House and was, recalled then fellow member, photographer and curator Juno Gemes, “a curious, bright young man who became a luminous member graduate of (what we then playfully called) the Ginger Meggs school of Fine Art. Lewis made gorgeous, startling, close-up portraits of his friends.”
Jon Lewis would mature into not only a great portraitist, but also a social activist, documenting over more than four decades such social issues as Bougainville’s search for identity after its struggle for independence, East Timor after its disastrous conflict, Kiribati’s crisis over the effects of global warming and, memorably, protests against the killing of whales.
Lewis also used video to make a series of films exploring his social concerns such as Yellow House Tapes (1972), Bush Video Productions (1974) and Dolphin Dreamin (1975) an experimental film on dolphins.
Lewis’s credits as a stills photographer on Australian films include The Disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain (1984), The Secret Discovery of Australia (1984), Eora Corroboree (1985) and The Place at the Coast (1987)
His commitment to photography was challenged when Lewis was compelled to pay his own way to East Timor in 1999 to document the Timorese people’s everyday life after gaining independence. “I was intrigued by a country that could show so much courage. A vote for (their) independence had literally meant risking their lives. I was intrigued by a country with its beautiful, frail, traumatised people that could collectively show so much bravery.”
Jon Lewis had originally applied for funding from the Australia Council to photograph East Timor’s rebirth, but was refused on the grounds that “The circumstances in East Timor were ongoing and not a limited window of opportunity.”
Lewis would also help to form the whale and dolphin protest alliance that preceded the emergence of Greenpeace and campaigned with his camera, sometimes perilously on the ocean, to stop whaling off the coast of Western Australia. Said Juno Gemes: “He came away with beautiful portraits of the whales that were very powerful and moving, but Jonny also had a rounded view of what the whalers would experience when they would have to give up (going to sea).”
Jonny Lewis was clearly a humanist and an agent for change, Gemes said. “He used a camera to reveal beauty where it had not been seen before. The common thread was (his) activism and revealing what had not been seen before. His pictures convey a subtle and gentle beauty which reveals connectivity.”
This can be seen in his landscape photography of the Australian bush. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov once exhorted his US students that nothing was trivial and that they should “embrace the detail - the divine detail”.
Lewis’s Australian landscape photography epitomised this: from a sprinkling of precious raindrops on stone to an almost sinister, shimmering sculptural stone dome in the Southern Highlands landscape. Lewis practised what he preached and lived at his bush haunt, Gang Gang, near the Wombeyan Caves in the Southern Highlands for some years before finally moving back to his familiar haunt, Bondi. His final partner before Lewy body dementia forced him into care, was Sarah Barker.
Perhaps Australia's most eminent photo-historian Gael Newton described Jon Lewis as ''something of a larrikin, reflected in the spirit of his embrace of, for example, the denizens of Bondi Beach''. Newton said: Lewis's body of work also revealed a maturing Australian awareness and sensitivity to tumultuous cultural differences between Australia and First Nation people, as well as our Pacific neighbours. Lewis also successfully pursued a 'poetic quality' in his photography of the Australian landscape.''
The final word should go towards Jonny Lewis’s portraiture. In the mid 1980s, close friend and fellow Yellow House alumni William Yang remembered, “Jonny got a 6x7cm medium format Plaubel Makina camera and he stayed with this format for the rest of his life.” With this camera’s peerless definition, Lewis used his lens to exclude everything but the subject’s face, rendered in intimate detail with rich tones of black and white.
Like Tasmania’s sublime indigenous portrait photographer Ricky Maynard, Lewis treated the human face almost as another landscape, rendering and revealing each person’s character in gentle contours. Weathered faces were treated with the same grace as that of a young child. These arresting images eventually became Portrait of a Nation – 200 portraits of famous and little known Australians – and were exhibited to critical acclaim at Sydney’s Mitchell Library.
National Portrait Gallery exhibitions curator Penny Grist remembered vividly Lewis’s contribution. “His work managed to reveal life in people in moments of stillness, while still conveying their energy, life-force and character,” she said.
Jonny Lewis is survived by his younger brother, filmmaker Mark Lewis.
Correction: An earlier version of this obituary said Jeanne Ryckmans was the partner of Jon Lewis. She was his partner from 1989 -1993.