Photographer John Elliott has captured hundreds of country music legends in his career, including close friend Slim Dusty

BEHIND THE LENS: Country music photographer John Elliott has spent the last 55 years capturing portraits of Australian sound. Elliot has photographed hundreds of country music stars over the course of his career.
BEHIND THE LENS: Country music photographer John Elliott has spent the last 55 years capturing portraits of Australian sound. Elliot has photographed hundreds of country music stars over the course of his career.

JOHN Elliott will never take a photograph of someone he doesn’t like.

And, he was Slim Dusty’s shadow for much of his music career.

“I would have allowed Slim to be a self-centred superstar, but he never was,” Elliott said.

“I think the reason he liked me doing his pictures was the fact that I wasn’t starstruck.

“That’s why there will never be another Slim, the man on stage was exactly the person he was off stage.”

Elliott has captured the most famous faces in country music.

But, sitting across from him he’s just a no bullshit bloke.

”I never ever was starstruck, and I think that’s one of the reasons I get on well with my subjects,” Elliott said.

“I think I take really good portraits but it doesn’t have anything to do with the photography – it’s about the relationship.

“The photography is almost incidental.”

Growing up in Blackall, Elliott had claimed the family box camera as his own.

Each year the Slim Dusty Show would trundle through town.

It stopped at the Memorial Hall just long enough for Elliott to fall in love with country music.

Years later in 80’s Brisbane, Elliott decided to take photography seriously.

“I didn’t want to photograph weddings or real estate or babies,” Elliott said.

“I certainly didn’t want to put babies in cabbage leaves.

“I love the bush and I love Australian music – if I was going to photograph Australian music Slim Dusty is the pinnacle.”

So he called him up.

And called him up some more.

Months later Slim Dusty relented, and from that day every time there was a photography job Elliott would be behind the lens.

It was a friendship that started in the 80’s and continued right up until he died in 2003.

Elliott took the album cover photo for Ringer from the Top End.

I’m never going to stop, I’ve photographed a lot and I don’t have a choice anymore, it’s like breathing.

John Elliott.

Slim Dusty hated being shot in the studio, so out they trudged to a working cattle camp – and it was that photo that forever changed the way Slim Dusty wanted to be captured.

“Most of the time I shot him on the road or when he was travelling,” Elliott said.

“It was always interesting though, when he toured he told me upfront that his prime responsibility was to his audience.

“He was happy to do anything as long as it didn’t interfere with his fans getting what they wanted.”

Commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, Elliott said some find his process underwhelming.

“One of the portraits I did for them I knew on the eighth shot that I had the shot – so I literally only took eight pictures,” he said.

“In 91 per cent of my shots there’s definitely eye contact, I hate portraits where they’re looking out of the frame.

“You’re standing in the gallery looking at a picture and you wonder what’s so important that they’re looking off to the left or right.”

Choosing to photograph country music stars was an obvious choice for Elliott.

Connection to place, lyrics and integrity are what fundamentally draws Elliott to the genre.

“Even the far-fetched stories have an element of truth in them,” he said.

“I think it’s the truth in the lyrics.

“I don’t know whether country music singers are more grounded, or the audience demands they be more grounded.

“But most of the people that come to Tamworth Country Music Festival consider people like Lee Kernaghan not as superstars – but as their mates.”

Making the subject feel comfortable is a big factor in the meaning of the portrait.

For him it’s all about the look in their eye.

“I think that’s my job as a photographer, to make them comfortable in front of the camera and to bare a bit of their soul,” he said.

It can take him years to gain the trust of a subject, to capture them as they really are.

His pictures don’t just capture the likeness of a person, they’re a historical archive of his life.

It’s a way of making sense of the world, Elliott said.

“In one way I’m trying to impose myself on the work, but in another way I want me as a photographer to be invisible,” he said.

“I want the interaction to be between the viewer and the subject.

“When people come and look at my pictures on the wall I don’t want them to wonder what the photographer was trying to do.”

And, it’s not just the rich and famous Elliott captures.

An exhibition called 1000 Mile Stare at the National Portrait Gallery saw 86 of his portraits on the wall.

Sticking to his guns, more than half of the faces weren’t famous.

“The half the gallery didn’t consider famous, they were famous in my eyes – they deserved to be hung in the National Portrait Gallery,” he said.

“I think everyone has a story to tell so I tend to photograph everyone.”

Gifted Country: Portraits by John Elliott will open at the New England Regional Art Museum on Friday.

It’s an official event of the Tamworth Country Music Festival, that Elliott has shot for the past 30 years.

The opening will feature a performance by emerging Aboriginal country singer Quaralia Knox. The exhibition will be opened at 6pm by Armidale Regional Council mayor Simon Murray and Tamworth Regional Council mayor Col Murray.

This story Capturing bush ballads, a life alongside Slim Dusty first appeared on The Armidale Express.