Local Lad Takes Out Australia’s Most Prestigious Portraiture Award
Food and lifestyle photographer Rob Palmer was too busy to talk. It was mid-morning in a pre-COVID world and he was flat out in his studio shooting a job for an important client. He knew he’d been shortlisted for the National Photographic Portrait Prize, but figured he would never win and they probably just needed another form.
“I was like, ‘Oh Tara, I’m sorry. I can’t chat now … I’ll call you back in a minute’,” recounts Rob with a wry chuckle.
That was 9.30 in the morning and he never did make that return call. When Tara phoned back at 4.30 in the afternoon he was still blazing away behind the camera and let the mobile ring out. Fortunately, Rob picked up the second time and apologised for his evasiveness.
“I was like, ‘Oh, look, I’m really sorry, time just flew by’. She said, ‘I just rang to call you because you won’t… I was like ‘Oh no way’, I’d been blowing her off all day just because I thought she needed a piece of paperwork.”
Winning Australia’s most prestigious portraiture award was a huge accolade for the Eastern Suburbs born and raised lensman, who started out as a surf photographer. In his early twenties, Rob would travel to Hawaii’s fabled North Shore each year with his mentor Dean Wilmot. At Pipeline, Rob would swim out over the shallow volcanic reef, clutching his fisheye lens. The goal was to try and position himself as close to the surfers as possible without getting run over or slammed into the reef by the fearsome waves.
Rob’s brine-soaked high point arrived one morning when Kelly Slater paddled out at Backdoor Pipeline.
“Scott Aichner and one other photographer were a few metres in front of me,” he recalls. “Aichner was a big bloke and he was a bit of a gnarly dude. Just as Slater cruised past, dragging his arm in the barrel, Aichner just grabs the other photographer and dunks him, just drowns him under the water and reaches over and sticks his camera in Slater’s face as he comes by. And then I’m sitting back and Slater cruises past and I thought I got the shot but I wasn’t quite sure.”
As it transpired, the other photographers had missed the moment, but Rob’s image of Kelly was pin-sharp and framed him perfectly beneath the curling lip. The shot eventually ran as the cover image of a Japanese surfing magazine.
When Rob’s passion for the surf scene dwindled, he made the transition to food and lifestyle, indicating his career was given a kickstart when he shared a studio with two experienced photographers.
“There are probably two guys, John Paul Urizar and Jon Bader, who were my other kind of mentors outside of surfing. They showed me everything I needed to know to be a fully-fledged photographer and not just a surf photographer.”
As the world went mad for cooking shows and culinary conjurers, Rob soon found himself shooting everything from celebrity chefs and cookbooks to high-end ad campaigns and lavish magazine spreads. Without gloating, he runs through an impressive list of food and lifestyle specialists he’s worked with including Matt Moran, Pete Evans, Manu Feildel and Michelle Bridges.
One of Rob’s more recent assignments was a book collaboration with on-trend chef Josh Niland, who heads up Saint Peter restaurant in Paddington. Niland is credited with reinventing our approach to eating seafood. He champions dishes like fish head terrine and eyeball appetizers, despises waste and has a reverential attitude towards the food he serves.
“You know he kind of honours all of the food he is about to work with,” explains Rob, “and I just happened to get that really cool shot of him about to cut a giant mahi mahi to pieces.”
Rob knew he had captured something that resonated and Niland was also pleased with the way he had been portrayed.
“I just said to him, ‘Let’s throw it in the National Portrait Prize’,” explains Rob, “and he goes, ‘cool’, and I kind of did it and thought nothing of it.”
The striking image of Niland sanctifying the tremendous fish was announced as the winner of the National Photographic Portrait Prize back in mid-March. When Rob arrived at the National Portrait Gallery in Melbourne to receive the award he was treated to another surprise. As the gallery director made her formal address to the press, Rob still had no idea about the prize structure.
“I turned to one of the judges and said, ‘That’s a lot of prize money for everyone’. The judge turned to me and said, ‘That’s not for everyone, that’s for you’. I was like, ‘30K for me? That’s awesome’.”
As a cherry on top, the prize also included an additional $20,000 worth of camera gear.
Things have slowed down for Rob since the onset of the pandemic but he has been using the downtime to work on a series of portraits featuring chefs and other members of the hospitality industry.
“My motivation was to document this unique point in time and the effect it has had both personally and financially on chefs and restaurateurs,” explains Rob. “Hopefully this series can raise awareness about what the hospitality industry is going through and eventually encourage – when the time is right – people to go out and support their local eats.”
Everyone in the east is with you on that one Rob.