Vale Mark Strizic

by Werner Hammerstingl © 2013

Learning of Mark Strizics passing last December evoked in me emotions of sadness and gladness. 
I was glad that death finally ended a terminal illness in which the patient is maintained in a state described by medical staff as “comfortable”. But at the same time I felt sad because I had lost a friend.
Towards the end I could never be sure if Mark was playing yet another of his complex Duchampian charades which allowed him to jump to the other side off an emotional complexity so that he could then participate in the event as observer and participant at the same time.
In my experience, photographers are often like that. The medium itself seems to attract the stealthy observer, the intellectual and intelligent hunter and the obsessively private personality type.
While Mark can certainly be described to have demonstrated all these traits, they are not enough to define him. He was essentially an explorer, driven by immense curiosity.
This curiosity was the leitmotif for his many creative forays into frequently less appreciated creative landscapes compared to that fertile aspect of his creative world that won him great respect and acclaim. I speak of course of his early work. Portraits, environmental portraits, cityscapes, architecture, foreign shores, industrial sites; all these became transformed into dramatic, sensitive and acutely pithy visual descriptions.
The fact that Mark Strizic was the first photographer to exhibit his photographs at the National Gallery of Victoria some 10 years after he began using a camera shows the significance of his work and the esteem he commanded at the time. Re-perusing a copy of the Andrew Grimwade book “Involvement” that was published alongside this remarkable exhibition of portraits where Mark and Clifton Pugh used their medium of choice to depict a selection of individuals, I can see why. What’s most exciting in the body of images that featured in this seminal exhibition? I would argue it’s the choice to shoot portraits with what was often the use of very fast lenses, at wide-open aperture. His virtuoso compositions that often have the lens practically touching an object in the foreground, make wonderful use of an extremely shallow depth of field.  This approach was practically the opposite of conventional practice and highly original.
The ability to go against the conventional grain informed much of Marks work. That is of course also true of his paintings. As time passed his canvasses became more decorative and whimsical and increasingly more difficult to comprehend as works of significant merit. I sometimes voiced my concerns about this to him but he dismissed such critiques as an inability to grasp his wit.
Early in my time of knowing Mark I was his student at what was then known as the Melbourne College of Advanced Education. Mark was an outstanding lecturer and it was a thrilling experience to learn from his vast technical expertise, which he always presented with a clarity and logic that made his presentations truly inspiring.

He introduced us, his students, into the socio-philosophical views of the world that underpinned and informed his virtuoso dye coupled image compositions.  This workflow of highly procedural and technically difficult image making manipulations anticipated, albeit in a very labour intensive way, what a decade later became something an experienced Photoshop user could achieve in minutes rather than hours or days.
Perhaps the most important lesion I gleaned from his teaching was his practice and ability to find the positive in every students work. Even the most unremarkable and conceptually naive student would her- or himself complimented by the master. Mark had the uncanny ability to fix the one positive element in a students work in his sights and to remark on this in such a way that the recipient of this myopic praise would feel duty-bound to try and not disappoint the source of this unexpected praise.
When Mark discovered the scope of digital Media in the second half of the 1990’s he was already in his mid-sixties. At this time our roles reversed and I became his teacher. The vast array of technical and procedural that one needed to learn to make a successful transition from analogue to digital imaging practice was daunting to many at the time, but no so to Mark. He embraced the new with passion and vigour and within a few short years had completely transformed his workflow. So much so that eventually the darkroom, which was enviable in scale and overflowing with quality equipment, was dismantled to become the working space for the now 70-year-old digital convert.
16 to 18 hour working days were common for Mark and his wonderful wife Sue, who’d share 60 years of marriage with this man, only disturbed his astonishing pace with the odd cup of coffee or a reminder that lunch was waiting.
This cracking pace which Mark maintained well into his seventies ensured a vast output of work. The question of legacy has to be asked. What is it that we should now value most about the work of this artist?
Most of what is published about Marks work is from the first two decades of his practice.
That was the time when his lens craft made him a master of the camera as well the enlarger. That mattered then.
He had impeccable technical knowledge and a wonderful eye for composition and, when it mattered, the decisive moment.
Perhaps it was during the protracted periods in the red glow of the darkroom’s strange womb like environment in which Mark worked for hours to fine tune some specific technical or conceptual outcome, that his mediations about his practice and values took shape.  

The 1970’s were a time when most photographers were aligning their practice against the polarities of either art or craft. While many photographers were sheltering behind the opaque magic of their craft, Mark decided with unhesitating conviction that his purpose was the making of art. When we, his students challenged him for a definition, he retorted: “Art is a dialogue with god”. Such an answer from the self-confessed agnostic speaks volumes about his life-long philosophical tight rope-walk.
This was a man who strived to make his own luck and construct his own reality, halfway across the globe from his birthplace and the shadow of his famous architect father Zdenko Striži?.
To become a famous and a recognized artist became Marks final big goal. He certainly had the ability, talent and drive. But he chose to achieve this goal in Australia; a country where most of the population turns it’s back on the arts to get a good look at sport. Working like a stand-up comedian in front of a hostile crowd, it was a tough gig. Did he succeed?
I think yes. Mark will have his place in the pantheon of Australian art.

Werner Hammerstingl,
March 17, 2013