Wendy McDougall: A lifetime behind the lens

Wendy McDougall still remembers the first photo she sold. It was 1979, and she was just 17 when the Angels bought a dramatic live shot she had taken of lead singer Doc Neeson in full flight.

"Yes, I suppose I was underage at a lot of shows when I started out," admits McDougall, who is now 57. "Fortunately [Sydney radio station] Double J put on a lot of free all-ages shows. I saw the Angels with Split Enz when they played on the roof of the swimming pool building in the middle of Victoria Park."

Mick Jagger.Credit:Wendy McDougall

Four decades on, McDougall has selected 140 photos from her vast archive for an upcoming exhibition, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll But I Like It.

The process has got her thinking about the journey from being a teenage girl obsessed with music to becoming one of Australia's best-known rock photographers who last year won the Australian Women in Music Award for photography.

Paul Kelly.Credit:Wendy McDougall

It all stemmed from the encouragement of one teacher at South Granville High School.

"He was an art teacher named Mr Bouvet. He ended up being my art teacher the whole way through school and he was a big inspiration and a constant source of support for me when I took up photography.

"I haven't seen him since school days, but we've been back in contact recently and he's coming to my exhibition."

If the Australian rock scene of the late 1970s and '80s was a largely male-dominated world, then the photo pit at any show was even more so. For a long time McDougall was the only woman at a gig with a camera around her neck, jostling for the perfect shot.

Richard Clapton.Credit:Wendy McDougall

"But the other photographers were lovely to me and [respected music photographer] Tony Mott and I remain good friends to this day," McDougall says. "And by the time we put out a book called Still Lives (in 1991) it was Tony, Bob King, Adrienne Overall, Chrystene Carroll and me, so three women and two men. That's a pretty good ratio."

McDougall branched out from live shots to publicity stills, album covers and gig posters. Her photos grace the covers of the Church's Heyday and Richard Clapton's The Best Years of Our Lives and she has helped shape the images of many other Australian and New Zealand artists, including Crowded House, Noiseworks, GANGgajang and Diesel.

Doc Neeson of the Angels.Credit:Wendy McDougall

In the 1980s and '90s she became a regular photographer for pop magazine Smash Hits.

"That's when it started to get more difficult, because you were going to press conferences and photo calls and it wasn't just music photographers who were there, but also mainstream press," she remembers.

"I remember I went to photograph Johnny Depp when 21 Jump Street was really popular and we were scheduled for right at the end, when he'd been answering questions and getting photographed all day.

"I got literally a minute to do the shots and he just stood there looking bored and pulling gum out of his mouth. At the time I thought it was unprofessional, but later on I thought, 'what a horrible day for him to endure'."

When asked which one photo she would save from her archive if the whole thing was burning to a crisp, she gasps. "Does it have to happen? Can I take a hard drive? No? Okay. It would have to be the photo of Mick Jagger that's in the exhibition. The Rolling Stones are my favourite band, which is why the exhibition is called It's Only Rock 'n' Roll But I Like It."

McDougall came up through the golden age of the Sydney live music scene in the late 1970s and '80s. In February this year she decided to take part in the protests against the state government's new regulations and restrictions for music festivals, which in conjunction with the lockout laws are helping to kill live music in the city. Of course, she took her camera.

"It's really sad we have to protest to keep music going in Sydney, but I just felt the need to be there. Music is one of the most important things in our lives.

"If you look at history, whenever culture is suppressed, music never dies out, it just goes underground for a while. It will always spring back in some way.

"What they're trying to do – killing off live music under the guise of safety and protection – it won't last. I took my camera because I wanted to take photos of the day to show that this protest existed. It needed to be on the record."

It's Only Rock 'n' Roll But I Like It is at SUNSTUDIOS, 42 Maddox Street, Alexandria, April 4-19.

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