Self-taught Australian photographer Rhonda Senbergs photographed Melbourne and Sydney’s art and political scenes for three decades, always conscious her work was forming a valuable social history for future generations.
She took thousands of photographs, including candid shots of prime ministers, leading artists and filmmakers, ANZACs, Aboriginal activists as well as her friends and neighbours in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
Senbergs died in 1998, aged 57, but her daughters Jes and Selena preserved her 15,500-piece colour slide collection and donated the vast majority of the images to the State Library of Victoria this year.
Thousands of Senbergs’ coloured slides are now being digitised by the library, with a selection going on display this week as part of the library’s Changing Face of Victoria exhibition.
Former prime minister John Gorton poses for the camera in his wine cellar. (Rhonda Senbergs )
Exhibition curator Carolyn Fraser said Senbergs had a very clear understanding of her work forming a documentary of her social milieu and times.
“Her art world images really showed the private side of people in unguarded moments,” she said.
“Her work is similar in some ways to the works of US photographer Nan Goldin who also documented her peer and social groups.”
Senbergs was married to painter Jan Senbergs in the 1960s and mingled with artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians including Fred Williams, Leonard French, Tim Burstall, Peter Mathers, Judy Jacques and Brett Whitely, as well as their families and friends.
Selena said her mother returned from a trip to the US in 1973 with a 35mm camera and found her creative force behind the lens.
Senbergs always had her camera with her and would chronicle everything, keeping meticulous catalogues of her images.
“She was very open to learning and [was] very curious. She didn’t see herself as an intellectual but she was always craving to learn and was very much self-taught,” Selena said.
She had an upbeat, cheeky nature that gave her a natural rapport with her subjects, her daughters said.
Rhonda Senbergs has photographed artists, writers actors and politicians for three decades from the 1970s. (Rhonda Senbergs )
Her archives include many images of well-known artists and politicians at picnics, parties, opening nights and political functions held by politicians of all parties.
But there are also many images of lesser known people.
“She was one of those sorts of people who would make friends with a homeless person as well as with a prime minister,” Selena said.
Senbergs was gutsy, her daughters said, and would win people over with her creativity and warmth, and persuade them to let her take photographs.
A Rhonda Sensbergs photo of a nun holding hands with her little sister walking down the street taken in Melbourne in 1974. (Rhonda Senbergs )
She also used her images to create memorable slide shows which she choreographed to a range of music.
They were displayed in private and public settings, including commercial galleries and once at the National Gallery of Victoria.
A Rhonda Senbergs photograph of artist George Baldessin and cartoonist Michael Leunig in 1977. (Rhonda Senbergs )
They were also regularly screened as events in the family’s backyard theatre, complete with original 1940s velvet theatre seats, loud music and the images blown up on the big screen, her daughters say.
“She was an early multi-media artist, creating these slide shows and performing them — and this was in the analogue-era,” Ms Fraser said.
Bob Hawke chats to a Storeman and Packers Union supporter at a backyard BBQ in 1980. (Rhonda Senbergs)
Senbergs was a great admirer of Bob Hawke and made several slide-shows of him, including images of Mr Hawke at a backyard barbecue after a cricket match.
“She fell in love with him like a fan would with a celebrity,” Selena said.
The State Library of Victoria will recreate some of Senbergs’ slide shows for a public screening on September 8.
Her daughter Jes said she was proud of all her mother’s achievements.
“I love it how she is still bringing people together and bringing joy and love through her photos long after she’s gone.”