Brokeback Mountain, 2005 (c) Kimberley French, Photographer

Ten years after his tragic passing, Heath Ledger: A Life in Pictures provides a rare and privileged insight into the late actor with a special selection of photos spanning his career and life. The exhibition is on display at the Art Gallery of Western Australia until January 29, 2018. It is the only venue to host the exhibition, allowing Western Australians special access to a local hero that became an international star. DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to Dr Allison Holland, curator of the Heath Ledger: A Life in Pictures exhibition about what the photos reveal about the actor’s passion for his craft and his legendary creative process.

Is it true that Ledger had a camera of one sort or another in his hand most of the time?

Heath had a camera in his hands often and encouraged his friends to share in his passion for image-making. There are a dozen cameras in the Heath Ledger Archive, including a well-loved, square format Rolleiflex, a Leica M7 and a 110A Polaroid with a Four Designs pack film conversion. The medium format Holga has cult status among photographers for its low-fidelity aesthetic, such as light leaks and blurring effects. He also had various movie cameras, such as Super 8, which he used for one of his music videos.

Heath Ledger
What’s the best insight into a role provided by Ledger’s research journals?

During the two months of pre-production for The Dark Knight (2008), Heath compiled a journal to prepare for his role as The Joker. Pasted alongside the handwritten lines of his dialogue are graphics of DC Comic’s notorious antihero. Heath also pasted in sections of text from the contemporary comic The Clown at Midnight, an interlude in Grant Morrison’s Batman and Son (2007). There are also noted images of historical clowns, as well as the infamous psychopath Alex DeLarge, from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971).

Heath was obsessed with monitoring his performance (and perfecting body language, posture, etc.), did you manage to take this through a step by step process – journal, workshop footage, filmed rehearsal, final on-screen performance? 

It is difficult to capture all aspects of Heath’s approach to acting. The diversity of his films offers some new angle on his physical and psychological development of his characters. Shooting in locations from the Moroccan desert and the Canadian mountains to Bondi Beach, offered different environments for his characters to respond to and be affected by. The exhibition brings together audition tapes, his own footage of behind the scenes as well as excerpts from the movies to demonstrate the organic process of his acting.

Heath Ledger
Is it true that Ledger fought director Ang Lee on set to see the playbacks for Brokeback Mountain, so he could do this very thing?

Ang Lee prefers his actors not to look at the film rushes, or dailies. Often it makes actors too self-conscious and interferes with the spontaneous demonstrations of emotion. Heath looked at the rushes anyway. He had cultivated a critical distance that allowed him to see where improvements in his acting could be made. So Lee realised very quickly it was an important part of Heath’s process.

Do you have a personal favourite object, or work from the collection? Why?

There are so many wonderful things in the exhibition and each tells a different story. I think it depends on how I feel on any given day. I love the suspenders that held up The Joker’s trousers and the square format photographs Heath took in a laundromat during the production of Monster’s Ball. Maybe the ‘Jack shrine’ of Jack and Ennis’s shirts from Brokeback Mountain touches me the most.

Heath Ledger
How do you examine Ledger’s directorial work, both in terms of the music videos he directed and his planned work The Queen’s Gambit

From a young age Heath had wanted to be a director. Every role he took up was also an opportunity for him to learn more about being behind the camera. At the time of his death, Heath completed six music videos and was developing the storyboard with Daniele Auber for the animation for Modest Mouse’s King Rat.  The Queen’s Gambit was intended to be Heath’s debut as a feature film director, with another about Nick Drake’s music to follow.

Is there any aspect of Ledger’s life on display that you think the public will be surprised by? 

There are many beautiful quotes from Heath’s family, friends and film industry colleagues included in the exhibition. They express Heath’s passion for life and generosity of spirit, but more so how he touched so many lives. Their appreciation of Heath has created a beautiful experience for visitors.

Heath Ledger: A Life in Pictures is on display at the Art Gallery of Western Australia until January 29, 2018.

Heath Ledger