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National Portrait Gallery exhibition gets to the bottom of television promo shoots

It’s an image designed to project an impression with only the briefest of glances – a couple on a park bench in the park, canoodling and looking happy.

Never mind that the pair of well-known actors are sitting in a cramped studio with a cluster of pot plants behind them – it’s but a fleeting image designed to imply a future narrative in a show most people are familiar with.

But, as a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery shows, an enormous amount of work goes into every image that forms the underlying hum of promotional material for television shows.

Showing alongside this year’s National Photographic Portrait Prize, Promo goes behind the scenes with eight professional photographers whose job is to construct and project images of Australian celebrity.

Curator Penny Grist said that in the eight years since the gallery staged an exhibition examining celebrity portraiture, the media world had morphed almost beyond recognition. 

“The whole social media world has exploded, and magazines are needing to diversify into different formats and needing to deliver through social media and on multiple platforms, and so we thought it was a really good time to revisit the idea of celebrity portraiture and then to allow us to explore that change more,” she said.


“We see these images for less than a second, they’re instantly satisfying, you see them on a web banner, they come through the feed.”

One of the photographers featured in the show, John Tsiavis, has recently moved to Los Angeles to establish himself there, but has a background in television stills.

He said this phase of his work had involved “some of the most challenging but productive shoots of my career”.

Tsiavis was behind some of the lasting images of Chris Lilley as Jam’ie, the Masterchef judges and the cast of Offspring – photos that many of us have seen but would rarely consider as art.

But Promo is designed to give viewers the opportunity to stop and delve into the machinations behind a promotional shot, and understand how the average viewer is manipulated – albeit gently – into imagining that, for example, the cast of Neighbours are having a ball on Ramsey Street.

Another of Tsiavis’ images shows exactly that – young cast members kicking back in summery surrounds.

In fact, when faced with shooting a summery campaign for British viewers of the long-running soap, he ditched plans to shoot the cast by a freezing pool under a sooty sky, and bought a pile of inflatable pool paraphernalia instead.

Tsiavis, whose work is in the gallery’s permanent collection, said a surprising amount of production and thought went into the images that most people only saw for a few seconds. 

But he didn’t view it as a lesser form of photography.

“We’re often working with different people in weird and exciting places, doing some pretty crazy things,” he said.

“I have never been limited to just one area of photography. I enjoy shooting key artwork for films and television, portraits for editorial, advertising campaigns and my own personal artwork. It’s why I find photography so exciting and rewarding.”

To further remind us of the pervading aesthetic of Australian television, the exhibition has  been staged with a distinctly suburban feel, complete with a hill’s hoist on fake green grass.

“We wanted people to know immediately that they were able to engage with these images on a completely different level to the level they would be engaged with them normally,” Ms Grist said.

She said she hoped that viewers would pass through this exhibition and into the National Photographic Portrait Prize showing in the next room with more of an awareness of how portraits are put together.

PROMO: Portraits from prime time and the National Photographic Portrait Prize 2014 are showing at the National Portrait Gallery from Saturday, March 22 until June 9. Tickets $10/$8. Under 18s free.