Inside this issue
Endframe: Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend by Peter Dombrovskis
Stuart Westmore chooses one of his favourite images
I am not obsessed by photography, and if anyone tells you that they must be part of my immediate family, and you need to realise they have baggage. I live in Melbourne Australia, enjoy altered and natural landscape photography. I also have a day job, and that proves I don't spend all my time taking, editing and printing images.
The year is 1982. I’m a spotty teenager in suburban Melbourne, interested in music, sport... photography? A bit. (Not really – not yet.) Largely as a consequence of following the pied piper call of various musicians like Redgum and Midnight Oil, I’m at least somewhat environmentally aware. Dominating the wall of my bungalow bedroom is a Wilderness Society poster print of Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend by Peter Dombrovskis.
A few months earlier, in what can now be regarded as an inspirational editorial selection, Dr Bob Brown chose Rock Island Bend as call-to-arms image for a spread in the Australian metropolitan broadsheet newspapers. It was a simple, full page graphic with the caption “Would you vote for a party that would destroy this?” Evidently not. The incumbent Liberal coalition government was subsequently deposed on 5 March 1983. One of the first acts of the new Hawke government was intervention to prevent hydroelectric damming of Tasmania’s Gordon and Franklin Rivers.
Without underestimating the rest of the campaign, the game changed when Rock Island Bend became the No Dams icon.
Is it idealistic to believe a photograph can change the world? Perhaps. But if it can happen, then it would a photo like this: an arresting image of an epic monolith in a primal setting. I suspect it somehow connects with the ancient parts of our brains.
So that’s what made Rock Island Bend a famous photograph (And it was genuinely famous: On a daily commute through Melbourne’s CBD in early 1983 you would pass at least a dozen Rock Island Bend images on No Dams posters – everyone knew the picture and what it stood for). But what makes it a great photograph is more than just circumstance.
It’s also more than the unique nature if the location – although, its worth noting that this is a genuinely remote and challenging area to visit, even today. Its more than craft – but like the circumstance and the location, the craft is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Like almost all of Dombroviskis’ work, I guess. Edge-to-edge sharp, a substantial dynamic range from the shadows in the overhang to the tree limbs in the brightening mist. A photo of intricate detail made with a large format camera. Imagine carting it in there – imagine coming back with this photograph.
All those attributes matter, of course. But for my money, what sets apart Rock Island Bend as a truly great photograph is the sense of First Contact with a place of quiet majesty. I think its the perspective. For me, it creates an impression of rounding the river canyon bend and encountering the rock monolith, across the whirlpools, rising into the mist. I love that the photograph gives me the sense of the moment of discovering Rock Island.
I’m guessing Bob Brown saw something like this as well. Kudos to him if he had the insight to recognize others would also feel this connection that it would give them the sense of ownership, or commitment, or responsibility, or whatever feeling it is that engaged Australians to stand up, in numbers not matched before or since then, for the protection of a place hardly anyone will ever visit.
I think my Wilderness Society poster lasted another six or seven years. A good innings, but eventually time took its toll. After being pinned to walls of various share houses in inner Melbourne it finally disintegrated. In hindsight, the print was actually pretty ordinary – I guess that’s even more of a testimony to the strength of the picture that it could still be so compelling.
A few years ago photographer Simon Oldham began restoring and reprinting a selection of Peter Dombrovskis’ images. These are distributed through Wild Island Tasmania in Hobart. Compared to my old $3 poster, the new reprint of Rock Island Bend is remarkable, and it’s my favourite of all the photos we have hanging in our home. And it still stops me in my tracks.