January 2006

The man who shot Steve Irwin

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The man who shot Steve Irwin

The Courier Mail ‘Q Weekend', 14-15 January 2006


We see his pictures in celebrity magazines, but what goes on behind the scenes of a Robin Sellick shoot? Plenty, if the subject is Steve Irwin and three equally hyperactive elephants.
News source: The Courier Mail ‘Q Weekend', 14-15 January 2006
By Trent Dalton

THE location is a staff-only garden behind the wombat enclosure at Australia Zoo and three Asian Elephants lumber, trunk to tail, into Robin Sellick's frame. The saggy bottom of Siam , a 48-year-old female mischief-maker from Thailand , provides a grey backdrop to the chipper face of Steve Irwin: Croc Hunter, zoo owner, complex photographic subject.

“Okay, Steve, lean into Siam ,” directs Sellick from behind a manual Mamiya RB camera fixed to a tripod.

“Sure!” says his subject (everything the infectiously enthusiastic Irwin says can be written in caps and followed with an exclamation mark).

“Chin down,” says Sellick. Irwin complies. “Chin up a touch. Turn your belly. Right foot forward. Stay there. Hold. Perfect.”

Sellick rubs sweat from his eyelids. This Irwin portrait is to be added to a ten-year retrospective exhibition of Sellick's photography showing at the Brisbane Powerhouse this month. Right now, the best backdrop he has to his star subject is half an elephant bum and a leafless palm tree. He looks to the sky. It's black and filled with ruin. Sweat patches have gathered on his shirt. It's 10.15. The elephants can only pose for nine more minutes before they leave for the 10.30 daily elephant show, and this c elebrated snapper of Sir Donald Bradman, Prime Minister John Howard, Kylie Minogue and Cate Blanchett hasn't taken a single frame.

And Sellick has an audience. Behind him, Irwin's business manager, John Stainton, has one eye on proceedings and the other on his watch. Next to Stainton is Nicole Byrne, Irwin's personal assistant. Photographers learn to be wary of personal assistants. Not natural force – not rain, not wind, not light – can destroy a shoot as surely as a pushy PA. Byrne is a courteous, empathetic exception. That's not to say she's a softie. Two months ago she was in north Queensland wrestling crocodiles with her boss.

Sellick's assistants, Macushla Burke and Toby Longhurst, rummage through a metal photography kit, searching for rolls of film, warm lighting gels and reflectors. For assistant work, this is about as good as it gets in Australia : assisting a man who once assisted American photography icon Annie Leibovitz.

Removed from the chaos, five Australia Zoo staffers – down-to-earth women in their mid-twenties – have their eyes fixed on one man: Irwin. He's out of khaki croc-hunting garb and dressed in denim jeans and casual brown shoes. He hasn't bothered tying the shoelaces – he won't be wearing them beyond the photo shoot. His shirt is the colour of a pine-lime Splice ice-cream. The top two buttons are undone, revealing a tanned, hair chest that has the women giggling. “He looks good ,” gushes one. “I like his hair,” says another. “So golden.”

A makeup artist applies foundation to Irwin's face. He smiles to camera, a toothy grin straight out of a Lowes catalogue. Sellick doesn't like that grin. He's after something deeper, something less… Steve Irwin. “The thing with people who are vibrant like Steve is that underneath they're shy,” says Sellick. “I want the stuff that Steve keeps protected.”

Sellick set only one condition for this Irwin shoot: that the croc catcher be captured out of his trademark khaki bush clothes. He arranged for two casual dress shirts – one blue, one green – to be brought to the shoot. The elephants were a bonus, discovered while Sellick was scouting locations at Australia Zoo at seven o'clock this morning. “I was told by Steve's manager he hated having his picture taken,” says Sellick. “So I came into it with the idea to keep it simple. Then I discovered the elephants. Well, I couldn't help myself.”

It's actually a clever mix. The vibrant shirts are taking Irwin out of his comfort zone, in what Sellick calls “a way we've never seen him before”, but the elephants are bringing him back in. In this atmosphere, given enough time, Sellick just might convince Irwin to open up.

What lies beneath the public faces of his subjects is what fascinates Sellick. It's what he seeks to capture through his lens. Were the tables turned, if he became the subject, what might the probing lens capture of Robin Sellick?

An adopted child, he had a complicated youth. His biological mother was young and unmarried when she became pregnant, and she was pressured into giving him up by her own mother – “a domineering, very religious woman”, says Sellick.

He was raised in the hardworking mining town of Broken Hill, NSW. His passion for the arts never quite jelled with the gun barrel-straight locals, nor did the gradual realisation he was gay. He wasn't a confident teenager. It was often easier to view the world through a lens. Then people paid him to do it. He became Broken Hill's resident photographer, doing the rounds of weddings, debutante balls and dog obedience classes.

His first celebrity shoot was for Penthouse magazine in 1994: he captured temperamental rocker Henry Rollins screaming into the camera, the veins in his neck as thick as tree roots. A year later, he rested a piglet on Babe star Magda Szubanski's shoulder for Who Weekly . Then all the magazines started calling: The Bulletin, Vogue, People ( USA ), Sports Illustrated. In 1998, he caught camera-shy rock act radiohead in North Adelaide for Rolling Stone. He shot John Howard for Time magazine in 2003. Sellick's plan was to capture Howard standing beside a Sydney traffic sign which read: “No Stopping”, a reference to the PM's endless drive. However, minutes before the shoot, Howard ordered a location change. “We don't do that sort of thing, Robin,” Howard said calmly, welcoming Sellick into a drab conference room where, Sellick later realised, the photo was always going to be taken.

Geoffrey Rush, Tiny Tim, Lleyton Hewitt, kd lang, Don Dunstan and Kostya Tszyu were among the many big names in between. Now Sellick wants to take everybody's picture. Yesterday, he was snapping Queensland Premier Peter Beattie in a bathrobe, also for the upcoming Poewrhouse exhibition. “I wanted to use the swimming pool in [ Queensland ] Parliament House, because I simply couldn't believe they had one,” says Sellick.

“For the shot to work I needed Peter in something other than a business suit, something that suited the location.” Sellick contemplated a bathing cap and board shorts, but settled on a black bathrobe. Beattie was up for it, but made one request: Just don't make me look like a dickhead.” “He's lucky we didn't go for the Speedos,” says Sellick.

Today, it's the Crocodile Hunter. “I think the fact I'm so interested in people is because I'm not genetically linked to anybody I know,” says Sellick. “I don't have any brothers or sisters or cousins that I'm linked to. There may be some sort of effect there.”

It was only early last year, at the age of 37, that Sellick met his biological mother. “It was an anticlimactic experience for me,” he says. “It wasn't one of those situations where you run across the room and hug and cry and everything suddenly makes sense. We had the same teeth and the same hair, but [otherwise] we didn't really look the same. But we had the same attitudes. My adopted parents are really simple country people. Dad worked in the mines for 35 years and so did his dad. But I'm this crazy-arse guy who wants to do everything. My biological mum has that approach to life, too.”

AN ELEPHANT HANDLER GOADS SIAM BACK INTO place, rewarding her with a handful of apple. Sellick's right eye looks through the lens. “Okay, Steve, keep still,” he says. That's no easy request for a man known throughout the world for bouncing around like a firefly on speed. “I feel like a duck out of water,” says Irwin. “Robin wants something unique, something different to your stereotypical Steve Irwin. I normally just smile and say ‘Crikey!' This is so different. I'm outta me element.”

Irwin's train of thought is diverted by an impossibly cute young mammals bumping against his leg. “Have a look at this little beauty,” he says.

“Hello, my name is Bindi,” says seven-year-old Bindi Irwin, with the same killer smile she sports on the T-shirts in the Australia Zoo gift shop, emblazoned with the words: “When I grow up I want to be just like my dad.”

Bindi's mum, Terri, kneels down with her and flips through a copy of Sellick's photography book, Facing Robin Sellick. “Wait till you get into that, sweetheart,” says Steve. “There's some hot shots.”

“Who's that?” asks Bindi, looking at a 1994 portrait of Cate Blanchett, taken at a burnt-out church two blocks from Blanchett's former home in Paddington, Sydney. “Cate Blanchett,” says Steve. “She's bigger than ten bears.”

Terri turns to a portrait of Rose Porteous, clad in Versace leather at her famous mansion, Prix D'Amour , with two naked men – one black, one white – lying, slavelike, at her feet. “Rose didn't bat an eyelid,” Sellick confides over a lunch. “She was threatening to cut the black guy's foreskin off. She wanted to hire the white guy to be her houseboy.”

Terri turns quickly to a shot of boy band Human Nature, dressed in white and standing before a helicopter, à la the cover of ABBA's 1976 album Arrival . This shot came about after Human Nature, not satisfied with Sellick's very expensive original shoot, requested a reshoot. “I was furious,” says Sellick. “It though ‘Who do they think they are… ABBA? Hey, let's shoot them as ABBA.” And that's what we did. They never cottoned on.”

Terri closes the book and turns her attention to her husband's new look. “Ooooh, I like that,” she says. “It makes him look young.” She doesn't like his hair, however, with the sides creeping over his ears. “I love it when his hair is short. I have a photo of Steve hanging on to this enormous croc, nine foot [3m] long, all by himself. All his veins are full, he's full of adrenalin and he's got this great short haircut. He looks sexy and hot. Like Tarzan.”

With nine minutes of elephant time remaining, Sellick asks Irwin to close his eyes. “Keep them closed, keep them closed,” he says. “Now open.”

Irwin opens his eyes and, click, Sellick fires a shot. Then another, cocking the lever of the camera. Click. Good, Steve. Siam the elephant is still. So is the black sky. Little bit forward, Steve. Click. Seven minutes remaining. Less smile, Steve. Irwin looks deep into the camera. Click. There, that's the look Sellick's after. More serious. Irwin is opening up. Irwin laughs. Sellick laughs, too. They're connecting. Sellick's building trust. Click. The lighting is classic Sellick: warm flash, soft orange tones. One more roll, Cush . Macushla Burke scrambles to Sellick with a new roll of film. Hold that, Steve. Irwin freezes. He's a pro. Sellick loads the film. Open. Load. Shut. Click. Five minutes left. Irwin is trying hard to shake that Lowes smile. Great, Steve. Click. Siam is getting restless. Irwin rubs his hand on her trunk. You're doin' good, girl. Almost there. Little bit back, Steve. Less smile. That's it. Click. Two minutes left. Is that rain? Less smile, Steve. Yes, perfect. That's it. Click. We've never seen that face before. Hold it. Hold it. Irwin looks different. Click. He looks deeper. Click. He almost looks… vulnerable. Crikey!

“And we're done,” says Sellick. “YOU BEAUUUTY!,” says Irwin, giving Siam a hug.

The elephants are led away. Siam 's saggy bottom bounces toward the 10.30 elephant show. The Irwin entourage disbands. Hands are shaken and numbers exchanged. Irwin asks Sellick to autograph his book. Terri walks off chatting to the Australia Zoo staffers. Steve mounts a dirt motorbike resting on the garden fence. He places Bindi between his legs and kicks the egine over. “Thanks everybody,” he calls, riding off toward, one could presume, another adventure. “Bye, Steve,” say the Australia Zoo women in chorus.

“And then the moment's gone, over in 30 minutes (still double the time of Sellick's John Howard shoot). Rain sprinkling his shoulders, Sellick gathers his thoughts and catches his breath. “It's all about finding a rhythm,” he says, calming himself with a cigarette and contemplating the shoot. “An energy. You just keep going and going and going. Because you only want one shot.”

One moment that captures everything – the elephants, the wardrobe, the real Steve Irwin, the 30 minutes. One shot that makes the moment last forever. Sellick taps his boot on his metal photography kit, strewn with rolls of exposed film. Hopefully that shot's in there somewhere.