Knox Bertie’s photography is focused on people, their relationship with urban spaces, the changes to Sydney, and the impact on locals as the city grows. Moving beyond traditional street photography, his work sits somewhere between truth and fiction, showing fragments of time and space, offering an emotional portrayal of life in Sydney.
How do you come to be in Sydney?
I’ve been in Sydney for about 12 years now, after coming across from living in Malaysia. I have also lived in the Middle East, England and Canada, which I left when I was in my early 20s. After moving from country to country, I finally ended up in Australia. And that’s, where I’ve stayed. To answer your question, I had this image of Australia, of Bondi Beach, the bright sand and the blue skies. Then I moved into the Inner West of Sydney, which just had this completely different look. A look that I didn’t expect.
What does your photographic approach look like?
When I go out and shoot, the first thing I’m looking at is the light and the whole scene; then I’m placing subjects into the scene. The second thing I’m looking for is a very specific type of expression on people. I spend a lot of time just sitting in a single place, setting up the scene, and then waiting for something to happen. I don’t shoot a lot. It would be normal for me to go for a day and only take five or six shots total. When I’m looking for people to shoot, I’m looking specifically for the moment they go inside their own heads. If you watch somebody on a phone, or reading a paper; whatever they might be doing, there’s always a moment where they just stop and go into their own internal reflection. And that’s the moment that I’m shooting. I find those moments the most interesting, because to me they reveal the character of a person.
I read a lot, and I’m a huge George Orwell fan; so there’s probably a kind of dystopian look to some of my photos. And I’m sort of basing that a lot on what I’m reading specifically at the time. It’s the hard light, people’s reaction to the hard light, and then the architecture of Sydney combined with what I’m thinking about, with what I’m reading at the time, that I think creates the specific look of my photographs.
What was your photography background before picking up the Q2 Monochrom?
I work full-time as a Chemistry teacher, and my background before using the Q2 Monochrom was almost entirely black and white film. When I first got the camera in my hands, I was a bit like a kid in a candy shop. I was walking around taking thousands of shots; but I just wasn’t getting what I wanted from shooting in that style. So, I had to pause, reflect and go back to my original method. I own and photograph with a Leica iii, so it’s amazing to use two Leica cameras created nearly 100 years apart.
What is it like using the Q2 Monochrom?
My first impression of the Q2 Monochrom is that it feels really balanced in your hands. When you’re shooting on the street, you’re moving around a lot, you’ve got this camera that ultimately feels very comfortable. The other thing that I noticed straight away was the quality of its construction. It’s small, but has a nice weight to it. It’s a camera that people don’t notice. It’s also extremely quiet, as the shutter makes no sound. People do approach me, however, because they are people of goodwill who love Leica. They know exactly what it is they want to talk about, and that’s the camera.
The thing I absolutely love about the Q2 Monochrom is that I can have it ready to go. I set the exposure up exactly how I want it, and it’s so quick that in any situation I can just grab that camera and get the shot; whereas with any other camera I’d lose the shot, because I’d be looking for settings or trying to metre the scene.
What it has allowed me to do is shoot in places where I would have never shot before. The ability of this camera to shoot at high ISO is very unique. And there are situations, specifically at night in the dark, where I would never get a shot. If I was shooting film, there just wouldn’t be enough light; but the sensitivity of this cameras is very impressive. I think my style of photography has changed; it has changed because of the abilities of the camera. And ultimately, I think that will continue to progress. I’m still feeling out what my style looks like with the Q2 Monochrom; but that’s probably what I’ve enjoyed the most.
What is the Q2 Monochrom like in post-production?
My first impression was that the detail, the expanding shots and getting close, was just exceptional. The other thing that I noticed straight away was the grayscale – a grayscale I just hadn’t seen on a digital camera before, and it’s pretty unique. With other digital cameras I’ve used, when I got home and reviewed the pictures on a big screen, I wasn’t happy with them: the highlights were too blown out or the blacks just weren’t quite there. I’ve never changed or adapted to another digital camera for this reason. The biggest ‘aha’ moment was the first time I put a picture up on a large screen. It really resembled what scanned film looks like, though it didn’t quite look like scanned film, it was different; but it had the same sort of tonality and quality as scanned film. There is a kind of comfort when I’m working with the files; it’s very familiar.
How do you achieve your double-exposure-like photographs?
When I started shooting with this camera, was the first time I edited digital files. Being used to working with film, I specifically didn’t want to use any technique that I couldn’t achieve in a darkroom. I experiment with double exposures in post-production in the same way I would do with a squashed negative. The majority of these shots are not double exposures at all, however. Most of them are just reflections off either billboards or glass, or of a person’s face in the glass, with the reflection of the background. At certain times of the day, the lights inside a train, for example, reflect on the glass in a way that you can perfectly expose the inside and outside of the train in one single shot.
How has your view of Sydney developed over time?
I was commuting to and from work, and I’d see people on phones and tuning out. This just happened to be the era where iPhones came out. For me, photography has always been a way of just reminding myself to stay present. I think that something happens when you walk around and you’re viewing the world as a picture rather than just viewing it as every day. And you can see the beauty in little things when you do that.
I’ve been shooting in Sydney for so long, and my perspective has probably changed. I came to Sydney originally not knowing that this would be the place I would end up living in for the rest of my life. I consider myself local now. And that does change the perspective of how you shoot a place. I don’t feel as much of an outsider any more. The thing that’s changed the most for me is the faces that I see passing by. I live in a part of Sydney where people are commuting from the city out to the western and southern suburbs; and the times that people are commuting, and the amount of people doing so has changed dramatically. I think that’s a reflection of how the city has changed. Sydney is one of the most expensive cities in the world; and I think there are a lot of people commuting from faraway places. A lot of my photography is centred on people living that kind of lifestyle, day to day.
Knox Bertie is a photographer living and working in Sydney. His photography is focused on people, their relationship with urban spaces, the changes to Sydney, and the impact on people as the city grows. Moving beyond traditional street photography, Knox’s work sits somewhere between truth and fiction, showing fragments of time and space, offering an emotional portrayal of life in Sydney. He explores new techniques, working with both traditional film photography and digital black and white, using the Leica Q2 Monochrom. Find out more about his photography on his Instagram page.