The exhibition, Physie: Photographs by Lyndal Irons, gives a fascinating insight into the lycra-clad, spray-tanned world of physical culture. Sydney Outsider spoke to Irons about her work, now showing at the State Library of NSW.

How did physical culture grab your interest as a photographic subject?

It started through conversations with my friend Kristy, who competes in the sport. We’d often spoken about how it would make a great doco subject. One day she phoned to say she’d spoken to the BJP School of Physical Culture and they were open to me coming in. Access is the best gift you can give a photographer. So I bulldozed time over the next three months to be present at as many physie events as possible for the 2012 competition cycle.
My other motivation was personal. I must have trained in physie in a school hall around South Maroota prior to being of school age. I remember trying to concentrate really hard and marching around and around. But I wasn’t sure why. It seemed like a strange pastime for a kid. I wanted to know why I was doing that…
The third thing that interested me was its history as a uniquely Australian sport that’s been in this country since 1892. In a sport-obsessed society like Australia, it’s unusual that one of our oldest sports is still a little mysterious and under-celebrated. No sport has had a history like physie has, having started as a male-only activity over 120 years ago, to become the female-only domain it is today. That’s pretty interesting.
Can you describe it for the uninitiated?

It’s not one thing that’s easy to explain but contains elements of a lot of things people are familiar with: yoga, dance, marching, ballet, synchronised swimming and other creative or strength-based activities. The focus is on posture and precision – hitting and holding a position – then moving correctly into the next with strength, control and flair.

How did your subjects react to an outsider photographing them?

I think they could tell that I wasn’t “one of them” – my posture isn’t up to scratch and I can’t dance at all. Maybe because of that I was unthreatening. It helped that I was there with permission from the wider BJP organisation. With the older women and teachers, I have to say I’ve never been quite so welcomed – I wasn’t used to people being genuinely concerned about whether I’d eaten lunch and how I was going to get home.

Did you have any preconceptions going into the project?

I try not to have any preconceptions when I begin to photograph something. I’m there to learn. Especially with this series, as I was trying to find out what it was I was doing there myself at an earlier age.
As an outsider, you do feel like you’ve entered a different universe when you enter the physie world. It’s really colourful and competition is fierce. There is a lot of ritual around preparation and performance drawn from different times in their history that takes a little while to understand.
Were there any surprises?

The prospect of leotards can be frightening for some women but it’s actually really liberating spending a lot of time around females of all body types and ages training in strength and movement. At the end I felt I had a much healthier perspective on the female body. It was a kind of deprogramming after years of looking at advertising and women in magazines.

What were the challenges in capturing these images?

Compared to other projects like Parramatta Road, Physie has so many easy ingredients to work with; there’s colour, drama, competition, action and emotion. It’s photogenic.
The main challenge was in the editing, the reflection at the end of the day, thinking about what I needed to do differently the next day. I wanted to shoot something with a historical/preservation angle but I wanted to have a bit of the mystery of a 120-year-old activity that isn’t well understood. So the challenges were about how to be descriptive in order to make a useful record, but how to include some mystery in that description as well.

What was the most satisfying thing about the work?

Without a doubt, seeing it in the State Library of NSW. In 2013 I was a runner up in the Qantas SOYA Awards with this series but it hadn’t been exhibited except for one or two shots. The same year around 37 images were for the library’s collection. I was really pleased when they decided to put them on the walls as recent history.
It’s a milestone for me as a photographer, and it’s immensely satisfying to see BJP Physie in their space. It’s not just pictures on a wall – its one of Australia’s oldest sports being preserved in our protected, archived history.
And I love that having trusted me to photograph their sport the way I saw fit, there’s been something in it for BJP as well. We worked together really well right through to now, with the work on the walls at the State Library.

How has the physie community reacted to the exhibition?

BJP Physie girls have been so excited. Whole teams are coming in to see it together in uniform. Some begin stretching and dancing in the gallery to the video section. I love seeing that. They bring the work to life.

What’s it like having your work shown alongside photos by Sam Hood, who documented Sydney life for more than half a century?

Very strange to be exhibiting with someone who’s no longer with us – it’s the first time I’ve done that. I’d love to be able to chat to him about what he’s seen. Sam Hood has a really large body of work. I’m not sure how he has managed to be in so many places photographing so many moments – it’s inspiring. At the library, his images are printed large enough to wallpaper some surfaces of the entry points to the gallery. They really give a sense of where the sport has come from. At that size you can see lots of details you initially miss about what people wore to exercise in the 1930s – some pretty amazing hair styles, satin shirts and enviable shoes.

Physie in the old days.

There are some similarities between your subject here and in Goodbye Oxford Tavern: women performing on stage, a little-understood subculture and… um, spray tan. Was this something you were conscious of as you shot Goodbye Oxford Tavern?

They’re incredibly different subjects but you can draw some parallels. Both cover performance. Women perform in Goodbye Oxford Tavern but it was just as much about the men that formed part of that community. There is not much space for men in Physie. I’ve never thought about spray tan being a theme in my work. Maybe it is!

What themes do attract you?

I’ve only just reached the point where I’ve accumulated enough work to look back and start asking the question: so what is it I am actually interested in as a photographer? The three subjects I’ve covered are really different: a road, a sport, and a topless bar. But I think they do have something in common. Physie, The Oxford and Parramatta Road all have a significant history in Australia. I like to build legacy for singular but underrated places and activities that are have stood the test of time. They’re all accessible everyday subjects that remain mysterious for different reasons. The Oxford because it was blacked out and a little intimidating to go inside; Parramatta Road because it is so pedestrian unfriendly, hated and seemingly dead; Physie is mysterious in part because it is difficult to define, but also because it hasn’t professionalised. You don’t see it at the Olympics or on the TV – though they did perform in the opening ceremony of the Sydney Games. I’m interested in things that are in front of us all the time but for various reasons, are also hidden.

3 friends from the same club are about to compete in the 21‐22 year section at the qualifying heats, hoping to make the Opera House.

Do you feel a duty capturing these moments in Sydney life?

I don’t know if I’d call it a duty. I just see opportunities and sometimes the opportunities are so good it would be crushing to miss them. Occasionally there is a moment in time or a place or a thing that either sparks an interest, curiosity or an urgency to record. I don’t know when it is going to happen or if it will ever happen again but when it does, perhaps I place a sentimental importance on preservation. I don’t think my photographs are sentimental but as a person, I do become attached to the things I photograph, or photograph things I’m attached to. It’s important for me to have a record and then if they get to exhibition stage I get to celebrate them with other people, too.

What do you hope people take away from this exhibition?

I hope they join physie. Or go see some live physie. I’d like a physie revolution.

All images © Lyndal Irons (except that 1930s shot by Sam Hood, obviously). Physie: Photographs by Lyndal Irons is exhibiting until October 4.