If there were a parallel universe, I would have been a photographer.
I would have had forty-seven filters, a Hasselblad camera and tripod and one of those metallic umbrellas to bounce light on the underside of the world. However, I ended up a devoted and fulltime Greens Senator.
I have a very ordinary camera. I hardly know what an f-stop is, let alone how to filter light. My camera is a relaxer and, except for one or two photographs in which I get into the picture courtesy of time-lapse, is hand-held. Taking photographs is fun and diverts me from the cares of the world to its beauties.
I began taking photos in the 1960s and, though there is an increasing camera shake, I am looking forward to bushwalking with my partner Paul in wild and scenic Tasmania following my retirement from the Senate.The weekend I arrived in Tasmania as a young doctor in 1972, I sent a postcard back to my parents in Coffs Harbour saying simply, ‘I’m home’! I had accumulated a pack of slides in the 1960s on my uncle and aunt’s sheep farm near Glen Innes. I took slides on various family holidays, in my year in England and Scotland (1970), and in the great Hawkesbury River floods of 1963 and 1964 (my father was a police sergeant at Windsor).
One Sunday afternoon in 1973, as I was driving back to Launceston from the Liffey Falls, I asked an old farmer who was herding his cattle down the road, whether there were any houses for sale in the locality. Three months later, I was moving into a quaint old weatherboard farmhouse just up the road. Now I was really home. Liffey was to be my focus of mental stability, strength and inspiration through the campaign to save the Franklin River, in my ten turbulent years in the Tasmanian parliament, and for the foray into the Senate in 1996. On the Bluff, rising one thousand metres from my back yard, in the rippling Liffey River in my front yard, and in the eagle-crossed day and star-spangled night skies above, was an unlimited storehouse of exploration, wonder and deepest satisfaction. I put a ‘Trespassers Welcome’ sign at the gate to allay any inhibitions bushwalkers, picnickers or fishers might have, and kept at least one fresh roll of film on the kitchen shelf.
But it was the rafting trip down the wild Franklin River in 1976, with forester Paul Smith, that brought my camera into real usefulness. We returned to the river in 1977 with a wind-up Bolex 16mm movie camera as well as my SLR. I knew that to save the river we needed to get the Franklin’s beauty—its rapids, waterfalls, canyons, wildlife and forests—into every living room in Australia.A black-and-white shot of my three rafting companions in 1977, at Rock Island Bend, became the first poster of the campaign to stop the series of four dams planned by the Hydro-Electric Commission. The following year I took a larger-format camera and all the film was ruined in a laboratory mishap back in Hobart. I knew my limitations, so I asked Peter Dombrovskis if he would raft the Franklin, and in 1979 he did, solo. He brought back the immortal Rock Island Bend transparency which, printed a million times on brochures, advertisements and posters before the High Court ruling in 1983, became the iconic image in saving the river.
In early 2007 Paul urged me to get those photographs from the ’70s together for a fundraising exhibition in Hobart. I agreed but then regretted it. ‘How can I’, I objected late one autumn night, ‘get ready for the Senate next week, go to Brisbane tomorrow and to Adelaide on Friday, meet my Tasmanian constituents on the weekend, and sort all these out? I can’t! Besides, you won’t get fourteen people turning up let along three buying a picture’, I complained. ‘Those photographs’ consisted of a very large suitcase of unsorted photos and negatives, more than 4000 slides, and a card of digital images. I had succumbed to the lure of a Canon digital SLR in 2006. Paul looked calmly at me over his glasses and kept on sorting.
The six-day show of 100 photos at the Long Gallery in Hobart’s Salamanca Place was a delight. We took out the squalor shots such as logged and burning old growth forests, black polluted waves in Bass Strait, and slaughtered wildlife.
Rather than an exhibition for a campaign this was a show to share many happy moments of my last forty years with friends and strangers alike. The tension was gone. This was relaxation territory and I hoped that each purchase would extend the territory of happiness beyond the gallery walls.
2500 people came to the Long Gallery and we all had a good time. No-one complained though one man did tell me that my photos were better than my politics! And there were good surprises in store. Denise from Liffey brought her husband and grown-up son to see the photo I had taken of her on an idyllic spring day in the 1970s; a woman from Bruny Island bought a picture of a yellow-throated tiger snake to put in her restroom; and a second cousin I had never met took home a photograph of my father standing under the bluff at Liffey in 1988.I don’t have a favourite photo. But I do have a best one: a happy conjunction of impulse, light and geomorphological dynamics. One morning I arrived on Ocean Beach on Tasmania’s west coast at 8 o’clock just as the sun was taking the shadows back from the dunes. A storm tide had swept the beach overnight and a pure amber-coloured stream was flowing down over the sands to the sea. Beside the stream was a sandbank, just a few inches high, where the eroding white sands revealed the black organic stain of long-buried seaweed. The pattern was stunning. I stood in the stream and photographed its flow past the patterned bank in front of me, with the sand dunes up to my left and the ocean down to my right. It is just as I saw it. Nature is like that—a myriad of stunning moments, none ever to be repeated, all part of the panoply of existence.
Sharing such photographs heightens my own joy of life.
Bob Brown recently retired as Leader of the national Greens Party. This article was originally published in the commemorative 250th issue of Art Monthly Australia, June 2012, called ‘Critical Lining’ and with a focus on the ‘art’ of art criticism.© Bob Brown 2012