The Photography of Peter Dombrovskis

by Les Walkling on December 16, 2017

Preparing/printing Peter Dombrovskis’ images for the National Library of Australia

The following extracts are from an interview by Stuart Westmore (SW) first published on 2 December 2017 in OnLandscape Photography Magazine.

SW: Did it feel like detective work the way you had to piece together the truth of the image?

LW: Perhaps veracity is a better word than truth, because veracity implies an ‘insistence’, rather than a ‘given’. This question comes up all the time in my Advancing Photoshop workshops. In many landscape pictures you can’t objectively colour balance with a neutralising eye-dropper tool. Not only are the surfaces non-neutral, they also point in every direction where their values are constantly changing (because the sun is constantly moving).  So in the first instance, you simply create a level playing field by equitably separating all the colours in the scene – so the reds are as red as the greens are greens, and the blues are blue. Then you apply a bias to that rendering, according to what ever principles are relevant. Unfortunately other resources were scant at best. Memories, and a few beautiful big Cibachrome prints on walls, and Liz Dombrovskis’ books of course, and other publications, along with the common-sense of atmosphere and time of day and year, plus any remaining clues I could discern from the image itself. But I also wasn’t trying to do anything more than recreate that ‘presence’, as Liz kept reminding me.

The corollary, of course, is the moral and historical question, of “how do you represent someone who’s no longer here to represent themselves?”

SW: It’s interesting that you cast it as a moral dilemma. Is there a sense it will be judged?

LW: Well, everyone’s the jury – in the best possible sense. Many people have vested and often contradictory interests, which makes it such an interesting question. The NLA exhibition certainly highlighted my concerns where we were making exhibition prints that rarely existed. The book was less complicated, because we had Liz’s books to guide us. But exhibition prints were not something that Peter did with his images on a regular or primary basis. I was encouraged by Liz, and others – close friends of Peter – that Peter would have loved to see his images presented in this way. So I felt it was an opportunity, and something that Peter himself may have prized and felt good about.

But it wasn’t until the official NLA exhibition opening – where led by Bob Brown and Peter’s family … and numerous other comments that “Peter would have been proud” – that I started to carry this responsibility more easily.

Technically, the central idea of ensuring ‘everything in the scan was on the page’ was  the most honest methodology I could come up with. But it still needed to be tempered.  After all, the same image was so differently reproduced in multiple copies of the different books I had borrowed, and the few prints I had seen. Over the years, I have had to make similar judgments on other projects, and the more admired the photographer the greater the expectations. So it’s a fascinating question, and one I didn’t shy away from, but also one that is never completely resolved.

SW: You started this adventure with a better than average knowledge of Peter’s photography. Did this process change your perspective on any elements of his work?

LW: I never met Peter in person, but I’m filled with admiration for everything he did.  My family is also a family of migrants, including Latvians, so I was equally drawn to Peter’s personal story.  This ‘adventure’ consolidated for me what an extraordinary person Peter was, and the extraordinary and undying commitment he had to his work. I know it’s easy to mythologize, especially in hindsight, but, having spent the better part of a year with Peter’s images, I also can’t say enough about the extraordinary photographer he was.

This project also reinforced in me the need to examine why environmental justice and environmental activism, and especially environmental photographers like Peter are so under represented in our national collections of contemporary art from the 1970s and 1980s. That is, relative to other political movements of the time where photography was no less central or a necessity, why does ‘environmental photography’ and especially the photography of wild places, appear to be under represented.

Today the spectacular but meaningless photography of exceptional places, in its a-political and a-historical emptiness, seems to dominate how as a culture we ‘characterise’ photographs of land, country, and place, and thereby ‘avoid’ (what I believe to be) the most pressing and important debates of our time – from reconciliation to refugees to environmental justice.

Peter, at least from everything I’ve been told, seen, and read didn’t have that kind of an ego.  He was creating his pictures for reasons beyond spectacular self interest. He believed in the preservation of this world, and our relationship with it. That Peter’s work was humble, intensely personal, informed, committed, and devoted is a timely reminder, both inspiring and challenging for anyone who is naturally drawn to landscape photography, and our relationship to land, country, place and belonging.

The Peter Dombrovskis exhibition Journeys into the Wild is showing at the National Library of Australia in Canberra until 30 January 2018. The book, The Photography of Peter Dombrovskis: Journeys into the Wild is available from the NLA website.

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