Photographing at Lake Mungo, in far western New South Wales, during 1982. The response to some photos taken here encouraged me to become a photographer.

 

Paintings, as much as photographs, helped drive my desire to become a photographer. The work of artists who, above all, captured light, such as Turner and the Impressionists, and the Australian artists who first managed to capture the continent’s special light, helped develop my interest in photography – and my fascination with light.

Teaching in western New South Wales, between 1978 and 1983, provided the space, both literally and imaginatively, to ‘reinvent’ my career. There, living and working in Broken Hill, a large mining town, still with a powerful frontier spirit, I taught myself – alongside still close friends – the basic skills underlying photography. Broken Hill had a lively painters’ scene. Their works urged me on, as did the outback’s compelling space and light.

If you can capture the essence of grains of sand, through light and shade, tone and contrast, you can photograph almost anything. My photos taken of Lake Mungo’s surreal dunes provided valuable photographic lessons.

The excitement of learning to take photographs with film! Seeing my Lake Mungo images appearing on paper in the darkroom! Despite the many clear benefits of digital, learning photography with film was more demanding; and, as one developed film and printed in a darkroom, more tantalizing and enriching. To any young photographer today I would still say: build yourself a darkroom, however small; learn to shoot, develop and print with film; and then proceed to digital.

I read technical books and photo magazines. Much more I devoured photographic books, especially by landscape photographers, some of them: Olegas Truhanas, Peter Dombrovskis, Ernst Haas, Eliot Porter, Ansel Adams – and others. But by about 1980 I had become increasingly focused on telling stories with images. So still more I delved into the documentary photographers: Dorothea Lange, Eugene Smith, Minor White, Brian Brake – and many others. It was their integration of photos and texts, in the photo essay tradition pre-eminently created by LIFE magazine, that would shape my lasting interest: illuminating history and nature though images and narratives.

My first book, United We Stand, a photographic-oral history, encompassed all I had gleaned at Broken Hill. Something the American photographer Minor White had written, and which I read then, was to resonate down the years: ‘The photograph is a message more than a mirror, and the man a messenger who happens to be a photographer’.