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The art of Peter Dombrovskis proves that the pictorial is political

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When you go out there, you don’t get away from it all. You get back to it all. You come home to what’s important. You come home to yourself – Peter Dombrovskis

The singular talent of photographer Peter Dombrovskis was to give us a picture of ourselves we did not know had been taken.

It was, in effect, a series of photographs – a life’s work – that made up a link between the human and nature. We saw, and felt, that we were of the one frame that was elemental and spiritual. Dombrovskis’ pictures of the wilderness took the moss and the mist, the pure waters and the unstained air and placed them before our eyes. And we saw nature afresh, a nature untainted by civilisation. This was beauty untouched, and yet it touched us profoundly.

Peter Dombrovskis (1945–1996), Giant Kelp, Hasselborough Bay, Macquaire Island, Tasmania, 1984.

Journeys into the Wild, the Photography of Peter Dombrovskis was published this month. On September 21, a major exhibition of his work is being launched with an introductory lecture by Bob Brown at the National Library in Canberra. The library is the repository of more than 2000 Dombrovskis photographs.

“His art played a key role in awakening the nation’s environmental conscience,” says Bob Brown of Dombrovskis.

Bob Brown is the living link, outside of family, between the art of Dombrovskis’ work, the beauty of the subjects and the use of that art and beauty to not only enter an alien world – politics – but to enact change. The man himself died of a heart attack, aged 51, in 1996, while photographing the wilderness he loved. In 2003, he was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame.

In his introduction to Journeys into the Wild, Brown writes of Dombrovskis as a “genius of Australian nature photography.

“His art played a key role in awakening the nation’s environmental conscience. It was fundamental in presenting Tasmania’s wild scenery to a delighted nation and world and so to establishing the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.”

During the No Dams campaign Dombrovskis’ photograph Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River (above), was reproduced a million times. It was used in the 1983 federal election with the words: “Could you vote for a party that would destroy this?”

Labor won the election, tipping out Malcolm Fraser’s government. The new Prime Minister Bob Hawke took the matter to the High Court, which ruled four to three that the federal government had the power to protect the Tasmanian World Heritage Area, thus over-riding the Tasmanian government’s right to build the Gordon-below-Franklin dam.

Peter Dombrovskis (1945–1996), Cushion plants, Mount Anne, southwest Tasmania, 1984.

This was an era in Tasmania when the Hydro-Electric Commission ruled the resources of the state as its fiefdom. In the early 70s, Lake Pedder was drowned so as the Middle Gordon dam could be built. The Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray said at the time: “The environmental significance of that area has been grossly overstated, for 11 months of the year the Franklin River is nothing but a brown ditch, leech-ridden, unattractive to the majority of people.”

Dombrovskis proved Gray a liar. A camera in his hands became both truth-teller and weapon. Joni Mitchell’s observation that “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” can be turned around here. Without Dombrovskis (and his mentor Olegas Truchanas) Australia would not have even known what it had to then lament its passing. The pictorial poetic became the political. As Brown writes: “It may be argued that photographs without campaigns save nothing. Equally, campaigns without photographs get nowhere.”

To Dombrovskis, “photography is quite simply a means of communicating my concern for the beauty of the Earth”. But he also said, in effect, if the barbarians had won and destroyed the wilderness, he would not have been able to live in Tasmania any more.

In the short term, and with specific events, the photograph can effect change, and turn minds.

To Richard Flanagan, this impulse had roots growing from where Dombrovskis and Truchanas came. Both fled the aftermath of World War II. What could be further away than Tasmania? Flanagan has written: “At the edge of the world, where the contours of progress were more visible than at its centre, two photographers, refugees of the last great conflict of nation and ideology against nation and ideology, perhaps came closer than many of their more celebrated peers in speaking of the conflict to come – of man against the natural world, and the terrible cost, not just to our environment and economy, but to our humanity if we did not try to prevent it, if we did not try to understand ourselves and our world differently.”

Peter Dombrovskis (1945–1996), Morning light on Little Horn, Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, Tasmania, 1995.

Photographs allow us to see things differently and they allow us to see things as they really are. This power goes beyond natural beauty to inhuman acts of man upon man, woman and child. Writer Susan Sontag says that “photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it”. The camera incriminates and it justifies.

The camera also freezes a moment in time; it compresses time to an instant and in that instant lies the photograph’s force, more so than a stream of video images. And more so than a stream of words, an image has a potency, both in its immediacy and in its capacity to remain within the memory, that can influence both an individual, a movement of people and, even though it would be rare to hear of this admission, governments.

Two of the most famous photographs are from the Vietnam War: the picture of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, aged 9, running naked on a road, the victim of napalm, and the execution of Nguyen Van Lem by Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan at point-blank range. Both photographs brought home to Americans the barbarity of the war, and strengthened the anti-war movement. Similarly the picture of the hooded man in Abu Ghraib, a prisoner of American forces, galvanised those who questioned the motives and objectives of the Iraq War by Allied forces.

But there is also a time limit on influence and the longevity of impact.

In the short term, and with specific events, the photograph can effect change, and turn minds. The Syrian toddler washed  ashore on the Greek island of Kos had a tremendous impact globally on awareness of the plight of Middle-East refugees.

But there is also a time limit on influence and the longevity of impact. Don McCullin, one of the greatest of photographers, has delivered to the world the truth of many atrocities, wars, social upheavals, massacres and famines. One of his most striking and heartwrenching pictures was of an albino boy starving in Biafra. Little was known about the situation in Biafra until McCullin presented the reality to the rest of the world.

Peter Dombrovskis (1945–1996), Pencil pine at Pool of Siloam, Walls of Jerusalem National Park, Tasmania, 1982.

However, writing in Shaped by War, McCullin says of his work: “I thought I could turn people’s minds and even change situations. I was naïve. I’ve looked back and seen the repetition of events that have got worse and worse. They never get better. The photographs may have helped shape attitudes, but they certainly have not turned anything around.

“After Eddie Adams took the famous photograph of the police chief in Saigon shooting a man in the head, the war raged on for another seven years. Look at Rwanda. If I ask myself if I have done any good or changed anything, I actually don’t believe I’ve changed anything at all. On many occasions, I’m ashamed of humanity.

“I want people to look at my photographs. I don’t want them to be rejected because people can’t look at them. Often they are atrocity pictures. Of course they are. But I want to create a voice for the people in those pictures. I want the voice to seduce people into actually hanging on a bit longer when they look at them, so they go away not with an intimidating memory but with a conscious obligation.”

McCullin has left the war zones and turned to the natural world and still life in his later years. His brooding photographs of landscape are elemental, working on shadows and light in much the same way as those of Bill Brandt’s.

Dombrovskis and McCullin, at first glance, might not have much in common. But there is this: in their capturing of the fall of light, a mist-laden river or an anguished face, they record life on Earth, and in our looking into it, perhaps we can see deeper into ourselves.

Dombrovskis: Journeys into the Wild is at the National Library of Australia, Canberra from September 21 to January 30. For more information click here 

[box]All images by Peter Dombrovskis via NLA. Main image: Morning mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River, Tasmania, late 1980 or early 1981.[/box]

One response to “The art of Peter Dombrovskis proves that the pictorial is political

  1. I remember those days well. Robin Gray (then premier, but also a future director of disgraced bankrupt woodchips company Gunns) described the Franklin River a ‘nothing but a brown ditch, leech-ridden, unattractive to the majority of people’. Gray was similarly reckless with the Tasmanian economy.

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