It’s 8.15am in the inner Sydney suburb of Paddington and the ever-enthusiastic Graham Munro – with grey sleeves rolled up past the elbows – is wrangling the Canon and Albums Australia stands as he walks into a small theatre in the Chauvel Cinema complex to rehearse the introduction to his Australian road show. The man from Canon Australia is already part-way through rehearsing his introduction of Graham, and this includes telling of how one of Sydney’s leading wedding photographers once spent two weeks up-close-and-personal with a gang of Hells Angels while shooting for an editorial story.
I only learned about Graham’s many past exploits in sports and editorial photography after I heard him speak at an ACMP meeting almost 15 years ago. Otherwise, I’d only known him as the man behind the camera at many of Sydney’s higher profile weddings.
Now it’s 9.00am and Graham is on stage launching into his high energy – part comedian, part showman, part passionate educator. To the casual observer, it looks like he’s just drunk six strong coffees in quick succession (he’s actually only drinking water).
He should be a stand-up comedian, but the trouble is, he’s a much better photographer.
The influences started early. The family didn’t have a television set, but was entertained with slide nights. Graham’s father was an architect who read a lot and had a Voigtländer folding camera which was used to document family occasions. Graham says his first major visual influences came from his older sister’s record collection and album covers, including one of the most famous of them all, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Another important influence, he recalls, was The Sun newspaper which his dad brought home every evening. It featured lots of big pictures, and the family also had a copy of The Epic Of Man, an oversized coffee-table book based on a series of articles which appeared in LIFE magazine from 1955 to 1957. At high school Graham joined the camera club and started entering the monthly competitions. By now he had been given his father’s Voigtländer and he set up a darkroom in his bedroom.
Motorbikes arrived in his life in the early 1970s – mostly courtesy of his older sister’s boyfriends – and he started going to the bike races at Oran Park with his camera… his first attempts at sports photography. “I lived in St Ives and I had to walk two kilometres to the nearest station, catch the train to Liverpool then hitch a ride to the Oran Park track. It’s what you did then.”
Eventually he acquired some second-hand Pentax gear for $125 from somebody in the school camera club, paying for it with the money earned from his weekend jobs.
Then he sold some prints to the Bayliss brothers – who were famous in Australian motorcycle racing at the time – and made eight dollars. His mum said, “That’s great, but what was your profit?”
“The fact that somebody had bought my photos was the buzz and then eventually getting my work published was also a huge buzz. I hadn’t really thought about making money. I would have paid somebody to publish my work! I’d always be hanging out at the newsagents looking at the motorcycle magazines to see if I had any pictures in them.”
The Lost Seventies
“Unfortunately I think now, I spent most of the seventies photographing bikes rather than branching into other areas to expand my photography skills.”
Yet, still at high school, he was regularly shooting races on the weekends and wagging a few lessons on Monday so he could process the film, make some prints and then express post them to the magazine in the afternoon. He also wrote the race reports.
“It would be in the magazine Thursday and I would have a copy on Friday and there would be double-page spreads with the credit line, ‘Words and photos Graham Monro’. At 16, I was the Sydney correspondent for Australian Motorcycle News and then I got into karate and began photographing that… portraits of the Kung Fu masters and fighting movement photos for a publication called Australasian Fighting Arts.”
After leaving high school, Graham began travelling around North Queensland, producing stories about bike touring and reporting on regional motorcycling events for Australian Motorcycle News. Returning from North Queensland, he started asking around to see if he could get a job as a photographer’s assistant. Eventually, he ended at Roche Colour, a professional lab in Willoughby.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but they told me that Mike Berceanu – who worked upstairs – wanted an assistant. At the time, Mike was doing still life work for Avon. I got the job and, on Friday, Mike gave me $80 and said, ‘Come back on Monday’. It wasn’t so much about the money, because I’d actually been getting ten times as much working in a sugar mill in Queensland, but I just wanted to learn and this was a golden opportunity.”
Mike Berceanu recalls, “He had something. I don’t know what, but I took an instant shine to him. He was quite the charmer, even then. I had only started up my own studio a year earlier and had very little money, but it looked like there would be enough work to hire an assistant. He’d been working in the Queensland cane fields so he was strong enough to carry the equipment and obviously not afraid of hard work.
“I’d go out in the morning to see the clients and get the briefs, then ring Graham and tell him what to set up so that, when I returned, we could get straight into it. I can remember him being very keen on fresh air… he’d open the studio windows whenever I closed them. Graham was very fit physically – he already had a black belt in karate – and some mornings I’d have to wait for him to arrive so that he could undo the bolts on the Century stands that he had fastened too tight for me to deal with. My work at the time was mostly product photography shot on 5x4 and 10x8 view cameras. We’d create a tabletop set, shoot a sheet of transparency film and Graham would take it down to the lab in the basement where they had an E6 line going. While the first sheet was being processed we’d be setting up the next set, and so it went on for days at a time. It was all rather technical and probably a bit boring for a young adventurer like Graham.”