Photographing with a panorama camera long before it became fashionable, Mark Lang believes in achieving a spiritual oneness with the landscape… and he won’t be rushed when it comes to creating images which reflect this link. Interview by Paul Burrows.
We’re sitting on a rocky ridge, bathed in late afternoon sunlight and looking west out over the majestic Megalong Valley in the Blue Mountains. It’s early autumn and there’s still welcome warmth in that sun even as it begins to set. A family of Currawongs calls and cavorts in the trees behind us while, audible from the valley floor, is the remarkable mimicry of the Lyrebird… a chainsaw one moment, a revving trail bike the next and then its own superb, lilting song.
All the senses are quickly enveloped into this little slice of place and time – the warm rock providing a reassuring physical connection with the landscape to compliment the visual and audible ones – and it’s not hard to drift off in contemplation of the unseen and the unknown. And with such an ancient landscape, a spiritual element – irrespective of any religious beliefs – seems to give the physical even deeper meaning.
Mark Lang sits, dangling his long legs over the edge of our geological box seats, and shades his eyes from the setting sun. Over the last 40 years or so, the Australian landscape has been challenging, beguiling and seducing the British-born photographer who, at one stage, left behind all the trappings of Western society to camp for nearly three years in a remote part of the Kakadu National Park.
It was a complete conversion for somebody who freely admits that he was the most English of young Englishmen who recalls turning up to his first day at art school in a three-piece suit.
“I was very English,” he confesses, “but I loved art school, although early on I was very timid and a lot of my photographs were still-lifey and very organised.”
Which must have made the Australian landscape, with its ruggedness and randomness, seem almost like another planet.
“Even more so when I went back to England,” he says. “The place felt so tame. Everywhere I went I felt like I was walking into somebody’s garden. I really needed to go to somewhere like Yorkshire or Scotland to get away into the wild. I’d got used to the wildness of Australia which is what I love about the place. And that’s really what, I think, dragged me away from doing advertising work. “On the weekends – just to keep sane – I’d go away to the bush with friends to escape the stresses and strains of working commercially, and I became increasingly entranced with the magic of these landscapes. I thought, ‘Well, I just want to get to grips with this because this is what I’m really interested in’. After 15 years of advertising work – where you’d sweated blood to get a shot ready for a deadline and pretty much the next day you’d be wrapping your chips with it – I was really questioning the worth of what I was doing. I wasn’t learning anything new, I was just repeating myself so I decided to take a risky leap of faith and move into landscape photography.”
All Or Nothing
Despite no family commitments and having amassed reasonable savings, it was still a very big move at the time, especially as Mark decided it was ‘all or nothing’ and left the city to live in the country.
In 1978 he sold his home in North Sydney and moved to the north coast of NSW from where he began mounting photographic expeditions to various parts of Australia which would last a month to six weeks. Initially he was shooting with Widelux 35mm panning-type cameras which he describes as “…lovely, but notoriously unreliable” so he switched to the medium format Linhof Technorama which he has used ever since.
“At present I use the lens off number one with the body off number two and the back off number three because they’ve become so worn out over the years.”
In the late 1970s though, panorama cameras were still very much the domain of a few dedicated specialists and the popularity of the format, especially for landscape photography, was still very much in the future.
“Yes, at the time really the only other people shooting panoramas with dedicated cameras were Philip Quirk who was doing landscapes and Wes Stacey who was doing B&W work on a Widelux. Of course, panoramic photography in Australia has a fine, fine history and goes all the way back to the likes of Holtermann’s wonderful studies from the 1880s. But when I got involved there wasn’t really anybody particularly promoting the idea of panoramic photography and I can remember taking a doublepage spread in the Wizards of Oz – I think it was one of the first issues – just extolling the virtues of a camera that could get you three times the picture in one shot.”
The Sensation Of Space
Mark’s first outing with a panorama camera was with a borrowed Widelux which he took on a canoe trip up the Wallamba River near Foster in NSW. He was looking for a way to adequately document the tremendous pleasure he got from ‘messing about in boats’ (to quote Water Rat in the Wind In The Willows) and which even an ultra-wide lens on a conventional camera couldn’t capture.
“From that moment on, the bastard got me,” he recalls. “There was no going back. I could get the sensation of space in the Australian landscape which I hadn’t been able to do before. You get a sense of exactly what it feels like to be sitting there. So that’s where it all started for me.”
Switching to the Technorama not only brought improved reliability – banding caused by variations in exposure due to fluctuations in the scanning speed was a constant source of frustration with the Widelux – but also the image quality benefits of a larger format. And Mark wasn’t at all worried that only a handful of panoramic frames could be accommodated on a roll of 120 film.
“In advertising I’d been trained to shoot with large format sheet film so I was used to spending time getting one frame absolutely right. I already had the discipline and, besides, this was the way I really liked to
This is a good thing too, Mark believes, because over the years he’s learned to be able to frame pictures without even having to take the camera out of the bag. And he discovered another, more novel way of framing panoramas.
“My old Landcruiser has a windscreen that’s almost exactly 3-to-1 so I’d be driving along this road and come to a lovely bend and it would all be composed for me! So I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have just one lens and to get used to working with what it will give you.”
Living In The Landscape
Perhaps even more well-used than Mark’s battered Linhof Technorama is his Toyota Landcruiser ‘Troopy’.
“Ah, the trusty truck… the noble beast,” he says fondly. “She comes from around here, by the way. I bought her from a plumber in Medlow Bath on a very foggy morning. That was 26 years ago and she’s still going strong.
“She’d certainly be nudging a million or so kilometres on the clock now, but the speedo’s been broken for a while so I don’t know exactly what she’s done. I lived in her for the seven years I was going around Australia so she’s been my home too. She’s very loyal, the old girl, so she’s never broken down in difficult situations and the thought of ever getting rid of her doesn’t appeal. But my mechanic in Sydney has one that’s older so it’s a matter of pride to keep them both going.
“So, with the Technorama and the truck and some rolls of film – and the camp oven and a cast-iron frying pan – I’m ready for the road.”
And Mark ended up spending seven years on the road, but even then he didn’t feel he was getting to the core of his subject. He decided to commit himself even more fully to the task of interpreting the Australian landscape through his camera.
“At first I was just a casual visitor in terms of hitting the road for a couple of months and going from place to place, but then I decided that that wasn’t really good enough and I had to commit myself to doing something rather more… deep. And that required time spent in the landscape. I really wanted to do a book on the Australian landscape and I decided that was going to require a helluva a lot of time and commitment, and it’s going to have to be total.” By “total” Mark means selling up everything he owned and, in his words, “burn the bridges and go”. Which is what he did.
“It was an even bigger leap than before,” he confesses, “but once again I had no responsibilities beyond myself and so it was kind of easier. I thought I’d be away for a couple of years, but it ended up as seven all together. I went around Australia three or four times in the old truck and each time I’d come back with a pile of film, but I’d look through the stuff and I’d think ‘Well, yes I’ve got some nice pictures here, but I haven’t got the guts of it’. The Australian landscape is not necessarily just beautiful, it’s also awesome… it’s fiercesome… it’s strong, it’s really strong. You’ve got to get into the fire of it, you’ve got to get into the rain, the storms, the guts of the landscape to do it any justice. And I hadn’t got that. I’d got lots of pretty pictures, but I hadn’t really got in there yet. I was still on the outside looking in. “I always had this feeling that between us and what we’re looking at there’s like an invisible pane of
glass. And you’re either on the outside of that glass looking through at what you’re looking at, or you’re on the other side of the glass and you’re involved with it… you’re in it. And I didn’t feel that I was in it… I had to go on the other side of that pane and jump in.”
“Eventually I felt I really wanted to spend time with Aboriginal people because they were so linked with the landscape, and I was fortunate enough to end up in Kakadu. The joy of that was that I was able to spend about three years in the company of a significant elder, ‘Big Bill’ Neidjie. He asked me to work with him – he had stuff he wanted to pass on to me to be recorded – so I couldn’t leave. I was forced, if you like, to spend time in his country and, especially during the wet season, you can’t get out anyway unless you find somebody to lend you a boat. So, suddenly, you’re committed to working within a landscape of probably three square miles for four months… and that’s your subject. But the advantage is that you get to know the place really, really well… so you know where to go when there’s a storm coming up or there’s a flood happening.
So the pictures that came from that period were a lot deeper because I’d had the privilege of getting to know that country better… not that one can ever know it, but at least I was on much more intimate terms with it.
“I had a dry season camp at the East Alligator River for seven or eight months until the wet season came. And because I’d got to know the country so well I was offered the job of surveillance officer – which is a sort of ranger – which I did for nearly three years. This meant I was essentially looking after the area for the Old Man [Neidjie] which was an immense privilege. I went back once after he passed to do a few of the pictures that, based on what he’d told me, still hadn’t been done, and I kind of felt that his spirit was still around… and I really felt that I was committed to filling out his words with images. So, yes, I lived in that landscape for a long time, but funnily enough I also felt there was a definite time to leave. It felt like I’d done my job and it even seemed that the country was saying ‘I’ve told you all I can tell you so now go and tell this story’.” Still something of an itinerant, Mark is now putting all of his meagre resources into completing the task he set himself nearly 18 years ago.
“There is nine hours of taped interviews with the Old Man and I’ve written it all down, but it’s incredibly dense and nobody is going to read it like that so it needs to be worked on a lot more. Much of it is for his people anyway so it’s not really relevant to us, but there’s wisdom in there that we really need, especially with the situation that we’re in with the planet at the moment.
“Those old values that the Old Man stood for are timeless and we really need to listen to that stuff. I’m very reticent to edit any of his words, but if this book is ever to be produced so I just have to get on with it. That’s my challenge now.” Looking Deeper
Not surprisingly for somebody who has put his whole being into photographing the Australian landscape,
Mark Lang is horrified by the shallowness of so many depictions.
“There’s an awful lot of chocolate box rubbish around I’m afraid. I despair of the school of pink pictures. I think it’s such an insult to a landscape which is not pretty. A lot of it is very beautiful, but it’s not just pretty.
“I’d much prefer to look at the work of somebody like Peter Dombrovkis who put his life on the line to go out into the landscape with a Graflex and six sheets of film. He might come back from a two-week walk in the wilderness with four sheets of film exposed… because nothing else was good enough, the light wasn’t quite right. Peter was always committed to perfection and that’s why you always remember his pictures. There’s a whole lot of panoramic landscape photography shot around Australia, but I’m afraid it’s entirely forgettable… it hasn’t got any guts to it.”
By “guts’ he essentially means a spiritual quality; the capturing of elements beyond merely the obvious which is all the casual observer sees.
“To me, this is always the quality that I saw in the Australian landscape – far more than in the English landscape – in that it does have a spirit. There are no two ways about it. There are times when you feel the place is kind of talking… the rocks have got a presence. And, of course, a lot of Aboriginal belief is that everything, even inanimate objects, has got a spirit and I feel quite at home with that. I think this is what you’re looking for in the landscape when you’re looking for a picture sometimes… there’s a homage, a tension that goes between a tree and a rock or a water course. The elements within a landscape just seem to be in some sort of amazing dance… a beautiful dance…”
The pause is because Mark is suddenly overcome with emotion and he stares out at the valley in silence before wiping his eyes, the tears equally quickly turning to laughter.
“Sorry, I got quite carried away talking about that,” he says, regaining his composure, “but I think trying to get deeper and deeper into the spiritual side of landscape photography is a bit like chasing rainbows. You’ll never get there, but it doesn’t stop you trying anyway.”
The First Moves
Born into a well-established English family (traces of the plummy accent remain even now), Mark fell in love with photography when he was sent to boarding school.
“I was very fortunate because we had a darkroom society at school. I was at boarding school from nine to 18, up in the wilds of Lancashire, but I was useless scholastically – I was always looking out of the window daydreaming. The one thing that I was good at was photography. I thought ‘I can do this’, and the good thing was that we were allowed to spend a lot of time in the darkroom doing printing so I got lots of practice. I started doing photography around the school – I carried around a little Paxette which was my first 35mm camera – and so I became the school’s unofficial photojournalist.
Incidentally, for fans of Michael Palin’s comedy series Ripping Yarns, the terrifying boarding school that features in the episode called ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’ was filmed at Mark’s old school.
“When I left boarding school, my parents accepted that all I wanted to do was be a photographer so they sent me off to the Guildford Art College which was the place to go in those days.”
It was there that Mark met another young photography student, Graham McCarter, and the two became life-long friends. Indeed it was Graham who, a few years later, convinced Mark to follow him to Australia.
“I was fortunate to be in a year with some pretty amazing characters – ‘Haggis’ [McCarter] being one of them – and people were trying to do really extraordinary things. Haggis had a desire to do really true portraits and was prepared to take risks creatively, so I learned an awful lot from him for which I’m forever indebted. I was working in London in a studio just off Chancery Lane, photographing carpets and doing D&P work for a printing company. There were no jobs. There was 500 young photographers leaving art schools every year and there were 14 jobs available. So I was lucky to have what I had. Then Graham came back from Australia and told me about life there and I thought it sounded pretty good. He said, ‘Mate, it’s ten quid, and you can always come back after two years’. One day, I was a bit pissed and was walking down The Strand and there was Australia House so I thought ‘this is the moment’. I went in and said ‘I want to go to Australia, where do I sign?’. I think they thought I was an escaped prisoner or something, but six weeks later I was on the plane. I arrived in February 1969 – so it was sweltering hot – in Cavalry Twill trousers, Viyella shirt, a tweed jacket, brogue shoes and a Terylene tie.” Journey’s End
Initially Mark worked as a B&W printer – his extensive darkroom experience coming in handy – before starting freelancing from the studio of Andrew Warne. In 1984 he joined Graham McCarter, Anthony Browell, Grenville Turner and Philip Quirk in ‘The Church’, a commercial and advertising photography studio they set up in Surry Hills and which subsequently became hugely successful. But Mark’s real passions lay elsewhere and, in 1993, he left it all behind to start the journey that he’s still on and that, in the next couple of years, he hopes to finally complete.
“My main objective now is to finish the book which tells the story of this journey – seven years on the road and what happens to you when you walk out of that door. After that is a book of landscape photographs, but that’s not so important as it isn’t driven by the Aboriginal dynamic, but I would like to do it because that’s what I set to do in the first place. After that… well, I’m really not sure, but there’s still more to do here. How can you ever get to know this place? How can you ever get to think, ‘Ah, yes, I’ve done it’. They’ll always be one of those amazing days when something extraordinary happens and you’re fortunate enough to be there at the time.”
Pausing, he again stares out at the Megalong Valley as it’s bathed in the warm light of the setting sun, accentuating its undulating curves and the contrast between the forest and the cleared land.
“I mean,” he observes slowly, “look at this little number right here.”
Like a great many English immigrants, at some point Mark Lang was convinced that home was the country of his birth and so he decided to return.
“I was going home, but when I got home it wasn’t home anymore. I suddenly realised that home had actually become Australia… and I couldn’t wait to get back.”
Photographs by Mark Lang, copyright 2010. Portrait by Paul Burrows, copyright 2010.