Profile: Ralph Kerle
It’s 5.30am in Sydney, and while most of the city is starting to wake up to another day, photographer Ralph Kerle and I are already preparing for a day’s shoot.
He loads his car with the familiarity of someone who has done it hundreds of times before. First, into the boot of the old Ford station wagon goes a pair of sun-faded life jackets and paddles, and then one of his three kayaks is carefully levered up onto the roof.
The two-berth boat he’s chosen this morning is more practical than purposeful, peppered with scuffs and marks and a world away from the sleek, glossy crafts we’ll soon see zipping around the inner harbour. A quick check that our cameras are packed, and we edge out of his driveway and down to Northbridge boat ramp.
I’m joining Ralph to find out about how he works, but also to try and answer a burning question - how does he produce images that have won him widespread acclaim, while at the same time seemingly breaking all the rules of photography? In a world of pin-sharp photos and exhaustive editing, his work is something truly unique.
But first, there’s a boat to unload. Angling it and then my own unsteady legs into the water and finally onboard, we both dip our paddles in. It’s unsteady at first, before we start to find a rhythm together and begin pushing away from the shore. As we head out, I get the first inkling of time and stress beginning to wash away.
Fishing for photos
This morning routine is one Ralph has done, without fail, two or three times a week for the last six years. Getting out onto the water has become more than just a bit of morning fitness for the Sydney-born, Victorian College of the Arts-trained creative.
It’s become a catharsis, an antidote to the darkness of poor mental health, and in recent years, the roots of his remarkable photography career.
It all started a few years ago, when he had what he calls, ‘an epiphany.’ Struggling to manage depression and direction after a long career in the creative industries, and burnt out from the demands of study, one morning he found himself needing an escape.
So on a whim, he took out one of the family kayaks that his sons had left gathering dust in the backyard. It was a fateful decision.
“I got out onto the water, and straight away I just found it so calming,” he recalls. “Looking back now I can see it gave me exactly what I needed at the time. An outlet to help my physical and mental health, but it also put me in this compelling environment I couldn’t escape from – the outdoors.”
His morning paddle soon became a routine, and importantly for Ralph, his creativity started to re-emerge as well. With a background in producing large-scale multimedia experiences like at Brisbane’s World Expo 88, he had always had an eye for captivating visuals.
And out here, typically on his own and left with his thoughts, it wasn’t long before he began noticing subtle changes on the water.
But before we can go any further, he interrupts.
“Look – see there?” he says, pointing his paddle excitedly towards a brightly painted yacht.
There’s a reflection, the yellow and gold of the yacht’s hull glistening in the morning light. It’s the kind of thing you might not easily notice at first - the light and movement where the hull meets the water turning the surface to an oil slick one second and striking panels of colour the next.
We angle the kayak closer while Ralph pulls his camera from his chest pocket and frames up a shot. Later, he tells me he once contacted the owner of the yacht to share with him some the images he’d captured of his vessel. “I don’t think he really got it,” he laughs.
In a way, it’s kind of understandable – Ralph’s work does challenge what we understand photography to be. There’s very rarely anything in focus, and he’ll be the first to admit he’s not a technical photographer with a grounding in exposure triangles or the minutiae of controlling light.
In the early days, he shot with his iPhone, only stopping when he wanted to have more control over depth of field and began to reach the limits of how big he could print his work. Even today, he shoots with a compact Sony RX100, relying on the camera’s rear LCD.
Instead his focus has always been on what he sees, which is unique in its own right due to the effects of a degenerative eye disease called Keratoconus, which brings with it an unusual perspective on the world. The disorder means Ralph is unable to see straight lines, with edges appearing with slight halos around them. It also means he has little comprehension of clarity or sharpness.
The result is his work has more in common with expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko and their interest in shape, form and colour, than that of ‘traditional’ photography.
This fact isn’t lost on Ralph or many of the visitors to his gallery either, who are often surprised to hear his work is actually photographic in origin – instead convinced they’re admiring the work of an artist in the more traditional paint-and-brushes sense of the word.
For photographer Anthony McKee, who Ralph describes as a key mentor, it was these exact reasons why he knew his work had the potential to be so successful.
“Ralph is not the first person to photograph reflections on water, but he is one of the few to have pursued the idea with such tenacity, always looking for new and ever more intriguing moments in the water,” he says.
“My advice to him was not to worry about appealing to other photographers and just keep on seeking his unique direction.”
Coming back from his morning paddles increasingly inspired, and with new images bursting from his phone, Ralph began sharing his work on Facebook.
Reassured by the positive comments from his friends he began capturing more, and before he knew it was being asked to sell prints. It wasn’t long before exhibition opportunities came knocking.
The importance of print
Realising he would need to print his work as large as 3x1m if he ever wanted to see it in a gallery, and fully aware of how critical the relationship with a printer would be if he was to have any success, he set his sights on working with legendary Sydney printer Graham Maslen of Spitting Image, who not only has a reputation as one of Australia’s best, but also as someone in particularly high demand.
But initially at least, the master had no time for the young upstart.
“I’d try to reach out to him to look at my work, but he was ignoring my calls and messages,” Ralph recalls.
“But he was a kiwi, and I had heard he was a rugby nut, so I rang up and said to the receptionist in my best kiwi accent ‘My names Richie McCaw, and I’d like to print a photo book.” Well immediately, Graham was on the line. But I couldn’t keep the accent up, and he quickly realised who it was. ‘Well you better come in then’ he said.”
Unfortunately, he only had bad news – the images from Ralph’s phone could never be printed large.
“His advice to me was pretty blunt - ‘go out and shoot everything again’. It was a bit of a shock.”
But Ralph was undeterred. As he says, he knew what to look for when out on the water, and was confident he at least wouldn’t be learning everything from scratch. “So I bought a camera, went out and started again.”
18 months later, he had 16 works ready to go, along with an offer to exhibit them through the Black Dog Institute, one of Australia’s leading mental health service organisations specialising in depression and bi-polar conditions.
“Unfortunately for a number of reasons, the exhibition never went ahead, and I found myself stuck with all these prints I’d invested all this money in, thinking here we go again, another tough break in the art world!” he laughs.
However, luck was in his favour. A local gallery in Willoughby had an exhibitor pull out and there was a gap in their schedule. Seizing the opportunity, Ralph sold 11 out of his 16 prints.
From there, a remarkable opportunity emerged through a friend to exhibit at a major cultural centre in Lisbon, Portugal. And before he knew it, he was lunching with the curator of one of Europe’s newest cultural initiatives and was being asked to produce more work. His morning kayak trips had taken him very far indeed.
Into the art world
By 2016, Ralph was comfortable in his practice and ready to open his own gallery. Of course at the start, there was plenty of trial and error.
“Early on, I sold two prints to a Russian bank, and before I prepared the files for the printer I made a tweak to the saturation of the yellows, just one single point in Lightroom. The prints were made, and a few days later I got a call from the interior designer telling me the yellows didn’t match what they had purchased. That mistake cost me $7,000.”
Today, from both his gallery in Sydney and online, he sells his work to collectors, photographers and art lovers around the world.
An ongoing evolution
Like no two days on the water are either the same, so too are Ralph’s images. Over time, it’s natural that there’s been a progression in what he looks for out on the water.
“As I’ve gone along in the journey I started to discover that the reflections in the water could, in some cases, also reflect the culture of a place,” he explains.
Recently, he’s travelled back to Portugal, working on a series of images that show reflections of Moliceiros, traditional seaweed harvesting boats, in the water. Likewise, he is currently preparing an exhibition from images reflecting Arabic culture he has created as a result of several journeys to the United Arab Emirates. Both are part of a wider series he hopes to shoot around the world, emphasising the visual elements that make every country unique.
But even with a packed schedule and increasing global opportunities, there’s still something that keeps him coming back to his home waters, week in, week out.
“I think for me, this journey has just been one of discovery,” he says. “I know my practice and what I need to do to create the images I love, and it’s just a matter of finding those opportunities.” ❂
You can see more of Ralph Kerle's work at ralphkerlesart.com.