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How photography saved the wilderness

How photography saved the wilderness

A Tasmanian journey…

SOME THINGS don’t seem to change, and that can be a good thing. Wilderness photography may be one of them.

That thought came to me at the November 2013 public gathering and photography exhibition, themed on the future of Tasmania’a Tarkine wild lands, that was held at Paddington Town Hall in Sydney. It was a thought reinforced around a month later at the Into The Wild wilderness photography exhibition in Launceston’s Queen Victoria Art Gallery (QVMAG).

The idea that wilderness photography hasn’t changed much since its inception in Australia first came to me as I looked at the photos on display at Paddington Town Hall. Here was a style of photography that remains much as it was when I first encountered it while living in Tasmania, when it was more or less formalised by noted Tasmanian wilderness photographer, the late Peter Dombrovskis. As demonstrated in Peter’s work, subject matter consists of broad, sweeping landscapes, middle distance natural features such as portraits of interesting trees, rocks and ponds and close-ups of natural features such as leaves and rocks.

The genre brings an immediacy with the natural environment mediated by the photographer’s vision and without the cold, the mosquitoes, the sweat and the need to walk kilometres to see the place in its actuality. So what we get is a visual feast less the sounds, smells and ambience — the actual feel — of being there, though that feel can be inferred by the composition, tone and contents of an image.

Images at the QVMAG exhibition

In photographic terms, wilderness photography, as practiced by its prominent exponents, have wide depth of field. Everything from foreground to background is given sharp focus. It is showing the detailed landscape in its grandeur and ruggedness that is often the point of the image, especially where preservation of that landscape is the agenda of the photograph. It is as if the photographers want us to stop and spend time looking into the details they present to us.

Another commonality among wilderness photographers is the use of slow shutter speeds to create the impression of movement in running water. The blurring effect creates a sense of movement or dynamism in images that otherwise consist of the unmoving parts of the landscape — the rocks, trees and forests. Combined with composition and other elements, the technique can produce an ethereal, wispy sense of difference in images because we do not naturally see water in this way yet, in the image, we recognise it’s movement. This produces images that are at once familiar but that have that sense of the surreal.

There in Paddington Town Hall that evening, looking at the work of present and past wilderness photographers, the thought came to me that its stylistic conventions have produced a sameness in the genre. Does this, I wondered, signify a statis, an end point?

For the most part these are landscapes without people and their works — not always, but frequently enough to state that as a generality.

I attribute this to the philosophy of wilderness that was prevalent when the genre was building its foundations during the 1970s. Conceptually, that philosophy came from the US where it was influenced by that country’s wilderness travellers and writers such as John Muir and by photographers like Ansel Adams. Adams saw his work as contributing to the preservation of wild landscapes, giving him the distinction of being one of the first wilderness photographer/political advocates.

The notion of wilderness that developed in Australia, particularly in Tasmania at that time, was that it should be a place devoid of human presence apart from the existence of the walking tracks that take people into it. This directly influenced the then-developing genre of wilderness photography although wilderness advocates and photographers acknowledged that there has been a long human presence in these wild places, whether that be Aborigines or the later miners and timber cutters, and that their works have altered the landscape. Knowledge of the extent to which this had been done came a little later. The role of Aboriginal burning and its capacity to change landscapes, for example. The results of this practice were inadvertently recorded in the work of wilderness photographers and, earlier, by painters, many of whom saw those landscapes as untrammelled nature.

Morning, Mt Anne summit plateau, South West Tasmania. Photo by author, late 1970s.

As a retrospective on the genre (unlike the Tarkine exhibition whose purpose was advocacy and the sale of photographs to raise funds for the campaign to stop the destruction of the Tarkine) the QVMAG exhibition offered more than pictures on a wall. It provided both a potted history and an interpretation of wilderness photography by reaching back into its origin as a type of documentary image making and as an offshoot of landscape photography, the two genres that combined to give it birth.

The exhibition revealed the history of wilderness photography as a practice based on the technology of image making. Before mid-Twentieth Century the bulky, heavy glass plate camera had given way to the compact and far more backpackable 120 and similar roll film cameras, and a little later to the 35mm film camera which came into use in the 1930s when Leica manufactured the first models. Those were adopted by the early exponents of street photography and photojournalism such as Robert Carpa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The cameras offered low weight and reduced size and it was after the Second World War that they started to accompany the larger roll film formats onto the streets and into the bushland.

Now, 35mm has given way to digital to make wilderness photography a genre accessible to anyone with even a cheap camera. Informed by the work of established and emerging wilderness photographers, any self-reliant person with motivation and who is happy to sling pack onto back and set off on foot into the wild lands can capture and display online how they see the wilderness. Cheaper digital cameras and image processing software on a computer or tablet has democratised wilderness photography in the same way journalism was transformed, making it available to all interested in producing it rather than remaining the preserve of an expert elite. The economy of digital photography has made it accessible to those willing to make the effort to go out and get the images and improve their work.

At the exhibition, wilderness photography’s origins were represented by prints of glass plate photographs made with the dry collodion process dating back into the late Nineteenth Century and on into the early decades of the following.

Here on the wall was Frank Browne’s 1899 black and white photo of Lake Balmoral with a mountain peak rising behind and a man with a rifle. Seated near a tree in the foreground to give a sense of scale, the photo shows how people were often elements in those early pictures of wild places, unlike the wilderness photography that emerged during the 1970s.

There’s Stephen Spurling’s 1913 image from the Du Cane Range in Tasmania’s central highlands, an atmospheric photo whose grey tones make use of ariel perspective to create a perception of depth in the mountainscape. Frederick Smithies image of a man sitting on a rock outcrop in the central highlands, high above a mountain valley, evokes feelings of daring and vertigo.

And there, in the museum, was an actual glass plate camera of the type used to make these early images. Looking at it mounted on its solid wooden tripod, the thought came to mind that this was a bulky, heavy contraption to lug into the mountains. An old Nikon with zoom lens demonstrated photographic technology in the 1960s. Having the tools on display added much to the exhibition.

Sandy ripples. Photo by author.

Whereas the early photographs of Tasmania’s wild country sit comfortably in the landscape and documentary genres — they create a record of the changes happening at that time — it was the campaigns to save Tasmania’s vanishing wilderness that turned photography into an advocacy tool.

The exhibition put this succinctly by stating that wilderness photography is both romantic and political. It is romantic in the sense of showing the grandeur of the landscape or the detail in a close-up image. Romanticism was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that contrasted images of rural and wild lands against the changes landscapes were undergoing through the Industrial Revolution.

Wilderness photography is political in the sense of being deliberately used as an advocacy tool to show what is threatened by industrial development in wilderness areas. It spurs action by showing what may soon cease to be.

Its use as a political tool started in the late 1960s/early 1970s with the unsuccessful campaign to save Lake Pedder from flooding by a hydroelectric scheme. There was a short slide show at the exhibition showing photographs made before the lake was flooded and it was evocative in displaying in colour what was lost to the then-state government policy of hydro-industrialisation.

The Lake Pedder campaign was the first big political campaigns to preserve wild places in Australia and it was photography that brought images of that place, reachable only by foot or by light aircraft landing on the lake’s wide beach, to the attention of the public. Unlike later wilderness photography, those Lake Pedder photographs sometimes included people. I think this had a positive impact on viewers because it showed that people could enjoy wild places without wrecking them and it influenced the attitude that such places should be retained in their natural condition. Yet, in only a few years people and their works had virtually disappeared from the wilderness images of those who would give birth to the wilderness photographic genre.

Bushwalking was one of the nature-based activities that experienced a dramatic increase in participation in the 1970s. In Australia, this was partially due to US influence as ‘backpacking’ was then undergoing a spurt of popularity in that country. Specialist, light weight bushwalking equipment was starting to be produced and specialist bushwalking shops appeared through the seventies. This made wild places more accessible and brought more people into landscapes some of which would soon be threatened by development.

Those people brought their cameras with them, film cameras like their Pentax Spotmatics, Canon FTBs (which is what I used) and Minolta SLRs, and some of the images they took brought those wild places to the public through annual events like the Hobart Walking Club’s annual slide show held in the city’s town hall. This influenced public willingness to preserve wild places, for even if people would not walk into them they could still see them on film, and for a great many just knowing that they existed was enough to support their preservation. For them, out of sight was not out of mind.

The successful campaign to save the wild Franklin River from a fate similar to Lake Pedder’s drew heavily on the practice of wilderness photography. Where would that campaign have been without Peter Dombrovskis’ image ‘Morning mist, Rock Island Bend’ (see at: that was turned into a large poster and was used extensively during the campaign?

Peter combined a mastery of his large formal camera technology with an appreciation of the landscape to produce images-as-art (here, defining art as the combination of vision plus mastery of photographic technology and technique). His work and style can be considered to have set the standard for Australian wilderness photography as a genre. He produced a number of large format, hardcover books featuring his images at full-page, A4 size, as well as his annual wilderness calendar, and so popularised not only his work but informed people just what was out there beyond those ridges on the horizon. Doing that so as to preserve it from development, of course, was his real photographic mission.

Like Olegas Truchanas, he packed his camera and gear into the wilderness. That was necessary to reach the wild places and it is still a requirement — you have to be a competent bushwalker, content to be by yourself and very self-reliant to get into the more rugged places in the wilderness. Peter was said to set up his camera and wait hours until the light was right before making the image. These he turned into his large format photo books and calendars and, in doing so, subtly delivered a message about the value of these wild places.

Wild country and photography was Peter’s passion and I recall with sadness the day when news came that he would not be returning from a photographic trek into Tasmania’s Western Arthur Range.

Whereas Peter’s work could be described as photographic art, that of his predescessor, Olegas Truchanus, was a style more in the tradition of reportage combined with documentary photography. His images were a record of the wild places he passed through on his travels.

Olegas was an explorer, a voyager in Tasmania’s wild places in the 1950s and 60s. That was long before wilderness travel became popular which, itself in part, was an artefact of the fight to save the wild country. There was an image of Olegas’ in the QVMAG exhibition, a photo of a yellow tent pitched precariously amid the rocks high on South West Tasmania’s Frankland Range. That speaks of the type of rugged country that wilderness photography was carried out in and of the great effort and personal discomfort that travel in that country involved. Much of Olegas’ work was destroyed during Tasmania’a 1967 bushfires. He was lost while on a solo canoe journey along the wild Gordon River.

Now, a new generation of Tasmanian wilderness photographers has emerged. They build on the stylistic and political foundations of Peter and Olegas and apply them to new challenges. The work of Chris Bell, Grant Dixon and others was on display that evening in Paddington Town Hall. Like their predecessors their work delivers the message that here is something special, here is something worthy of your support in saving for our future.

Rainy morning, Overland Track, Lake St Clair. Photo by author.

I said earlier that, standing before the images in Paddington Town Hall that evening in the Spring of 2013, I wondered whether wilderness photography had reached some kind of stylistic statis… an end point in its evolution.

Now I know now that this isn’t happening and that the genre hasn’t become fixed. What it has done, in terms of the landscape format that is its prime expression, is that it has adopted that set of stylistic characteristics I described earlier. These have become its definition, a consolidation of the style. It has matured rather than reached some statis.

But it is wrong to look at the genre as just a photographic style, for wilderness photography is also a political tool and is being applied to new campaigns to preserve the remaining wilderness, such as is becoming apparent with the Tarkine. Any assessment of the genre must take that advocacy dimension into account too, for wilderness photography is inseparable from its advocacy roots.

Now there’s a further evolution of the genre as video joins still photography as an advocacy tool. This, wilderness videography, draws strongly from the documentary tradition of filmmaking in bringing the wild lands into people’s living rooms and onto their mobile digital devices. It’s new technology deployed in the old contest with industrial development for the future of our wild places.

Seeing those old, early photographs of wilderness and industrial development set in sequence and juxtaposition with later and contemporary expressions of wilderness photography there at the art gallery, made clear to me that here is a photographic artefact that might not have emerged as strongly as it has without the advocacy element. Art gave the genre style. Technology gave it its tools. Advocacy gave it life.

The exhibition, accompanied by its display of cameras and Peter Dombrovskis’ tent that he used on his expeditions into the mountains, brought the historical perspective that cements wilderness photography in its proper place in our culture.

Stories on photography:

How Photography Saved the Wilderness:

Enforcing accountability with cameras:

The Citizen Photojournalist — here’s the manual

Vote Preserves Freedom for Photographers:

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