“ This is the best sand dune study I have ever seen.”

People who know my work will know that I like deserts. I am attracted to them because of their aesthetics. I like the contour, the texture, the shape, and the form. I like the loneliness. The silence. The desert world is full of colour as it is life. I have been privileged to travel to many desert/arid zones and hope to travel to more later in the year.

I also like working with life models. I see the female figure as a landscape. It too has an aesthetic based on line, shape, curve, pattern, texture and edge and, like the dunes, responds in quite similar ways to the low raking light source. For deserts the best light is the dawn and then twilight with its afterglow. For the life model it is locating them in a light space where the artificial lights of the studio or the ambient light of an outdoor setting is used to reveal or hide, to share and to show, to convey the essential beauty of form in a context where light is the medium of expression and communication.

My first life model was my wife. She was ideal because she understood what I was seeking to do, was patient, possessed a figure that was an extraordinary landscape of shape and form that could be transformed by a simple gesture, by the application of light to convey a wide range of ideas linked to the sensual, the erotic, the sublime, the magic of her beauty.

My early figure work with her was always monochrome as this suited my sense of heightening abstraction and the removal any element that might complicate the idea.

To reduce, to simplify to make abstract were the goals. These remain the essence of effective landscape and, in my case, figure work too.

It was important to me to have the support of my wife this way. She has a fine sense of what is apt, what is effective and knows of my long held connection to the landscape and to the figure. In effect, for me, they are the same genre. Again, I was, at this early stage in my photography, involved with a camera club and needed to prepare work that could stand the test of the competition ethos that prevailed and which at that time I thought was important.  My problem was that to enter what was called somewhat problematically ‘nudes’ was usually greeted with poorly disguised disgust by fellow members. One was made to feel as if one was weird, a deviate or worse as some depraved being with a camera. In short, nudity was frowned upon. You could have nude rocks, nude trees, nude cars, nude flowers, nude frogs or even nude pelicans but you could not have nude human beings. Yet, paradoxically these same folk travelled to many parts of the world and brought back images of ‘natives’ or ‘savages or ‘Indians’ or ‘primitives’ as they called them and these subjects were invariably unclad or partially clad. I saw this latter type of work, at the time, as exploitative, hypocritical, easy and often salacious. Yet, somehow it was accepted whereas a classic, art based nude study of a female was problematic. I think this attitude has a lot to do with poor toilet training!!!!

After many months of experimenting, testing, working my way through technical, aesthetic and compositional issues I decided to enter the next monthly competition with a figure study. It was the figure study reproduced below. The club’s print secretary at the time was a woman. A formidable creature that knew the rules, that delighted in commenting, in a very loud voice, on the work as it was placed on the desk in front of her.  She was empowered to do so by her lofty club status. She was comfortable about scolding or offering self-inspired pronouncements about the chances this image might have over the next as she readied them for display on the easels. Getting past the print secretary was itself an achievement. She was a self appointed assessor. She also offered words of wisdom to the new members, to the nervous, the timid and the ‘know it alls.” Her forthright and formidable manner hid a heart of gold. She would do anything to help a fellow member.

sand dune study-web

The club often invited an interstate or international judge to visit on competition nights to appraise work. The competition night came and I entered the obligatory four monochrome prints, the four colour prints and the three slides.  One of these entries was the figure study.  Mrs Formidable –the print secretary – looked at it and just offered a faint smile of condemnation…or…commendation. It was difficult to tell. She could construct and destruct in the one sentence or, with the arching movement of an eyebrow!!

The judge was from Queensland visiting Sydney as a judge for the Sydney International Exhibition of Photography. He was a well-known nature worker and had won many prestigious awards at national and international level.  As I discovered he also liked to go everywhere in bare feet. I did wonder at the time whether there was a connection between his bare toes and his ability to win awards. When he showed up that competition night I felt more comfortable. A judge with nude feet ought to be comfortable with an image that was nude everything.

He came to our club with a formidable reputation and left simply as a man with bare feet. He was not a giant of imagery, he was not a martinet nor an arbiter of what was right or wrong. He was no super human with magical or mystical powers. He was just a Queenslander with a broad accent and a broad smile and bare feet – a mere mortal who could see beyond seeing.

He wandered along the panel of monochromes offering his insights. He came to my figure study and paused for what seemed an eternity. You could sense the club crowd tense with expectation, with the silence of speculation, wondering whether that bare – foot Queenslander, nature photographer extraordinaire was quite ready for a figure study known more commonly as a nude. He examined the soft, grainy low-lit print of my wife’s posterior.  The room was silent for a full thirty seconds. He then said, “ This is the best sand dune study I have ever seen.” It won an award! The audience went into howls of laughter and clearly were bemused at what they thought was my discomfort.

The print secretary was speechless for one of the few times in her club life. I was delighted to win an award as the club, at that time, had some of the strongest and most successful monochrome workers in camera club country.

I was delighted right up until I realised I then had the task of explaining to my wife upon returning home exactly what had happened. This was not a great experience. As always my wife was keen to know how I “went”. On this occasion she too had a stake in the outcome. “ How did my bum go?” she asked, busily making the evening post club snack.

I began, “Dear, he thought you were a sand hill,” I said.  My photographic life went down hill from there. Clearly, supper was not going to happen.

I cannot print her comments.  Suffice to say it was creative, expressive and audience based. Thankfully, she continued to model for me and we made lots of sand dunes. It was as rewarding as it was encouraging. So much so, I have taken many models to the dunes here and overseas to develop and extend the sympathetic aesthetic of female contours within and against the natural contours of the dunes adjacent. Or, I have worked on these ideas within the studio. All of this work started with this image,  “the best sand dune study I have ever seen,” as claimed by the Hobbit from Queensland.

The judge’s comments were rich in meaning for me, as he had alerted me to the four pillars of creativity in photography. His comment, innocent and positive as they were might have been dismissed, as simply, “Oh, he did not get it.” But, I think he was right. He found in the image something quite inherent and which I had taken for granted because it was my intuition to see the figure as a landscape. This judge saw my intuition in this work. The image was a success because it possessed the four pillars of creative expression. The judge had nailed it. I thank him for his insight.

For me, the four pillars are:

  1. The idea or concept that prompted the intention in making the image. That is, the subject which usually comes from my imagination.
  2. Its interpretation – how might that idea – this subject – be conveyed from the many options available. You have choices in photography. You do not have to imitate!
  3. Its representation – what content and technique will be enjoined so as to empower the vision imagined and ensure that the content reveals what was intended.
  4. Its voice – does the image communicate with audience? What visual language is used to convey thought and practice.

I resolved then to focus always on these four relationships thanks to the bare foot judge.

Over the many years since, and despite a letter from a club member telling me to “abandon the nudes, stick to landscapes as that is what you do best” ringing in my ears I have continued to work with figure and much more. My wife remains as supportive as always and helps the models in so many ways so as to make their contribution to my art congenial. For this I am most grateful.  Without her support I would be….lost.