Something from nothing

January 09, 2015  •  13 Comments

Wavering like a belly dancer behind a rising veil of heat mirage and smoke, the wet skeleton of the dead cypress pine cuts a shifting black network against the flank of the South Brother, one of two sentinel bluffs marking the place where the river emerges from the wilderness into farmland. Normally, the murmur of tumbling rapids reaches the elevated camp site near the rim of the escarpment two hundred metres above the Horseshoe Bend, but the river is now silent. Intermittently visible through the blossoming crowns of rough-barked apple trees, a staircase of bleached stones snakes upstream and disappears into folds of the landscape. Drought has sucked the lifeblood and voice from the river.  

Pops and crackles from an ironbark fire mix with hisses on coals and the steady patter of rain on the tent and its awning. A solitary photographer sits in a camp chair contemplating how to fill in the wet day with a camera while his three sons and two of their friends stalk feral goats and pigs in the rugged gorge below with rifles and a compound bow. The rain is a blessing for the hunters―a cooling foil for physical exertion in summer heat and a masking agent for footfalls; making pliable the mat of leaves and twigs that had lain tinder dry on the ground two days before.

For the photographer, the rain is an imagination enforcer. Preconceived ideas of photographic opportunities for the trip need to be abandoned. See with fresh eyes. Make the most of what's on offer.

Don't go looking for what you expect to find, it may limit what you see — Rob Smith

Looking isn't seeing

Our party of six―brothers Mitch and Shaun Whale, my sons Dylan, Matt and Ben, and me―had arrived at the gorge on the Saturday morning after Christmas 2014. The BoM had forecast patchy rain for the ensuing days and a blanket of sombre cloud was already drawn from horizon to horizon as we unpacked the vehicles. It was good to make camp before the rain started and I wondered if, come Monday, I'd be breaking camp in the rain for my third trip in succession.

With home for the next two nights established on a plateau with a panoramic westward view for sundowners, the boys wasted no time in taking up arms and driving the kilometre or so to an access point that would allow them to hike deep into the gorge for an afternoon foray.

Alone, I surveyed the territory close to camp to assess it for photographic opportunities. The predicted rain had commenced so I left the cameras under cover and wandered with an umbrella. Reconnaissance. Fifty metres from camp, I noted five mature kurrajongs and the remnants of a settler's hut―some corner posts, a toppled, galvanised water tank, and the decorative head and foot of a dilapidated iron bedstead. I mused that a monochromatic rendition would suit the subject matter.

Next I skirted the rim of the escarpment looking for vantage points affording a view of the river's disconnected pools against a backdrop of interleaved ridges converging in the gorge, and the cliff face of the South Brother with its dash of white excrement betraying an eyrie ledge used by peregrine falcons. I wondered if I would see one of the birds that I had adopted as my logo.

The rough-barked apple trees (Angophora floribunda) flanking the river were in full flower and living up to their latin species name, floribunda (abundant flowers). The profusion of their creamy inflorescences was magnificent, contrasting with the varied greens of spear grass, she-oaks, black cypress pines, Blakelys red gums and mugga ironbarks. The rough-barked apples are not fruit trees, as their common name implies. They're relatives of the eucalypts, but without the latter's timber quality. As fuel their light, fibrous wood is rubbish, and violent summer storms will often tear large limbs from them. Nevertheless, at the height of summer, they add their welcome garnish of blossoms to the hardened landscape. Ray, the owner of the property on which we were camped, likens their appearance to giant cauliflowers. It's an apt comparison.

I found a knoll that commanded an almost unobstructed view of a line of cauliflowers tapering into the gorge below the peregrine's cliff. There were just a few twigs protruding from dead trees into the field of view. A few minutes work throwing rocks and helicoptering sticks through the opening cleared away the potential of out-of-focus blemishes in the composition. With the landscape gardening completed, I returned to camp, thinking about the various ways I could photograph the scene when I returned the next day with my camera and tripod. The best laid plans...

The boys returned with prime cuts of wild goat for the camp oven and we got a robust ironbark campfire going with the help of a dry beer carton. The firewood was only surface wet from the rain...which kept coming...all night...and almost continuously for the remainder of the trip.

On Sunday morning the boys returned to the gorge and I sat in a camp chair under shelter waiting for breaks that would allow me to do some photography. There were few, and I didn't get back to the knoll to get my cauliflower shots. My landscape gardening had been wasted effort. Oh, time. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Let me see, there must be something I can photograph close to camp...

By the way, happy birthday Mr Beaujangles!

Visual grammarA few photographs from the 'Little Valley' trip, December 2014.


The recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition, an organic coordination of visual elements — Henri Cartier Bresson
Why limit yourself to what your eyes see when you have an opportunity to extend your vision — Edward Weston


Anne Secomb(non-registered)
I loved the simplicity of the final images. Being able to see & then extract the most important elements from a busy scene
Thanks to those who've dropped in to comment. It's great to know that what I do is making some connections with other people and their experiences.

Kathy, Terri, and Denise, I decided to play more with the supporting narrative in this edition because I spent a lot of time reading under the shelter of the awning while the rain did its stuff to revive the landscape. It was Dylan's book, the memoirs of a big game hunter in Africa. The author brought the stories to life with his descriptions of the environment. It inspired me.

Geoff, glad you saw the fire dancer too! Any day, any weather can throw up good photos. We just have to be seeing well enough to notice them. An ironbark fire is hard to beat.

Gayle, whenever someone looks at photographic work and and also 'feels' and 'hears' something, experiences something more than the literal representation of the visuals, it's a tick for the visual communicator who created it.

Diane, "figuring out what subject matter to shoot, it's all so overwhelming." Yes, it can be. Some of the best advice I ever received was to photograph things that I'm passionate about; things that I have experienced deeply. For you, that may be drought and the challenges of life on the land. Try to capture something of it in your images. You don't need the big picture. Look for the little things that encapsulate aspects of it. What is excluded from the frame is just as important as what's included. You are an indiviidual. You will see and experience things that others don't (really) see...until you show them in an artful photograph. Relish the quest to do so.

Tony, Dorothea Lange said "A camera is a tool for learning to see without a camera." A macro lens can help us to see things that we can't see as well with the naked eye. If I can offer some advice from personal experience,'s easy for the purchase of some new gear to be the catalyst that makes us get out there and try something new...for a while? In the end, though, it's not new gear that makes us better photographers. The fire has to burn within.

Terry, "I can almost smell the dampness and hear the bush sounds. I reminds me of the wonderful times I had as a youth camping in the bush with my father". How about creating a small portfolio of images that distill those things you have experienced deeply? Kim, is that something that could engage you as well?

Mark, "Inclement weather certainly enables a more inventive process". I don't agree exactly, mate! I'd replace 'enables' with 'forces'! The conditions impacted on plans I had made. So I was forced to come up with Plan B. But I have to ask myself, "If the weather had been as I had hoped, would I have come back with better images...or predictable images?" I tend to think the latter is more likely. I think it's good to cultivate the skill, or determination, to see things other than in one's usual fashion, whatever the conditions. I'm always trying to do that and sometimes I get something.

Janie, thank you. I'll catch up with you in Port.

(private comment quoted anonymously) "Nature is a wonderful thing Rob, and you manage to catch the absolute best out of it. It's wonderful to see someone so in touch with it. Well done".

Thank you, M. You can take the boy out of the bush but you can't take the bush out of the boy! :-)
Kim Brown(non-registered)
Makes me want to get outdoors again.
Janie News(non-registered)
Beautiful and evocative, Rob. I enjoyed the video immensely.

I hope you will come along and contribute to my interactive presentation "An Introduction to Judging" at Port Macquarie Panthers on February 14 at 2 pm. I think you will find that our thinking is similar. Your input would be very valuable.
Mark Hopgood(non-registered)
Excellent narrative. The video clips tied the images together nicely and made for an engaging and informative presentation.

Inclement weather certainly enables a more inventive process.
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