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