Desert dreams

Peter Elfes was born in Sydney and grew up in the inner city suburb of Darling Hurst. Influenced and inspired by his father, a photojournalist who emigrated from Greece in the 1950’s, he developed a strong connection with the art of photography from an early age.

After working in his father’s studio for a few years, Peter began work in 1981 at Freeman Studio in Sydney, the second oldest, still running photographic studio in the world, and became its manager. In 1991, he left Freeman Studio and moved to New York to further his knowledge of the art of photography. Returning to Sydney in 1992, he began working as a freelance photographer and was the official photographer for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Association for ten years.

In a career spanning 35 years Peter has seen his photography art work finds its way into private and public collections in Australia and overseas, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Powerhouse Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2011 Peter Elfes was awarded 1st prize in the New South Wales Plein Air Photography Award for his photograph of the Barrier Range in North West New South Wales.

Peter has a longstanding interest in environmental and social documentary photojournalism. He has a personal dedication to people and nature as the subjects of photographic essays and an enthusiasm for the value of the photographic medium in highlighting the importance of preserving natural heritage around the globe.

Recently he travelled to remote areas in Australia and the South Pacific and returned with dramatic photographic essays of long treks through diverse environments and meetings with indigenous people. Peter’s Lake Eyre Series and other photo projects have been internationally published in books and magazines.

His ‘Green Desert’ exhibition is currently showing at the Burrinja Regional Gallery in the Yarra Valley, Victoria until 11 August and will be shown at other regional galleries in Australia in 2014.

f11: Greetings Peter, great to finally get this feature together after what seems like a long gestation period!

PE: Hi Tim, it’s nice to be in such salubrious company and yes, it has been a while since we first began talking about doing this story in f11. I’m pleased to be able to share my photographic experiences with your readers and thanks for persevering; it has been a pretty crazy period for me with exhibitions and my book.

f11: The work we’re showing here speaks volumes about your love of the landscape, particularly when seen from above, can you explain what drives this and how it developed?

PE: The main reason I embarked on my first trip out to the desert was the arrival of water into the Lake Eyre Basin in South Australia, a natural phenomenon that only occurs every few decades. I thought to myself, now here is an opportunity to photograph an extraordinary ‘once in a life time’ kind of event. The only way to see and appreciate the scale of this happening is from the air. I managed to get myself out to the desert within two weeks of the first reports and fortunately, a helicopter company from Victoria had also reacted and had a small Robinson 44 available. That was in May 2009.

f11: How many trips did you make out to the desert after that?

PE: I returned to the desert at least once a year, the last trip was earlier this year, February 2013. The pictures from the first trip were so dramatic that I realized this was the beginning of something big. But since the Lake only ever stays full for a season, I thought, well at least I got something; no one could have predicted that four years later it would still have water. The Lake alone covers 10,000 square kilometers so there is no shortage of places to photograph and each successive season, something would change. As an example, the water would change color, going from green to pink; the north part of the Lake would fill and spill into the south Lake; and I would learn more each year about the science and develop a relationship with the Arabana People over the years. As it happened the Arabana were in the midst of a native title claim of over 69,000 square kilometers of desert, which included Lake Eyre.

In 2012 their native title claim was recognized by the Commonwealth Government and I was invited to attend the hand over ceremony that took place not far from the Lake, which has since been officially renamed as Kati Thanda. Being able to attend the ceremony, and get to know the indigenous people, was to me as important as documenting the arrival of water.

f11: You’re also delivering a message with this work, tell us more?

PE: I grew up in the old school era of large format photography and much as I still admire the great works of the masters of the classic landscape photography, I am aware that I am living on a continent with more deserts than any other on earth and all the pictures that I was seeing were consistently the same. They almost all approached the landscape photograph with that typical and traditional ‘postcard’ view.

I remember as a young man seeing these pictures in magazines and thinking ‘wait a minute, this looks like the same photograph that Jo Blogs took, but in a different location’. What’s so bloody interesting about that? In other words, it seemed to me that we weren’t taking photos to develop a greater understanding of the art of photography or to challenge people to look at our planet in a unique way.

To be honest, as a result of looking at this kind of landscape photography for as long as I did, I became quite cynical of nature and landscape photography. Thankfully the advent of high end digital cameras has meant that not only professionals, but amateur photographers like Mathew Hood, were getting the bit between their teeth and giving the pros something to think about.

So yes, I am trying to say something with these pictures and as much as I’m not alone when it comes to working predominantly from the air, I am always looking for new ways to tell the story about a place, an event and what it means. If you look at how digital sensors with their extreme light sensitivity have changed photography, it shows that with a bit of creativity you can produce photos that are changing the way we all think and feel about the natural world around us.

f11: Are you an environmentalist who photographs, or a photographer with an interest in the environment, and would you agree there is a difference?

PE: To be honest there are times when it’s difficult to separate one from the other. I spent my entire working life in the inner city of Sydney or New York. I found the only way to recharge the batteries was to make regular trips into nature. Not only was it great for the soul, it was a great source of inspiration. As a young photographer, I was strongly influenced by the classic landscape photographers, like Edward Western, Minor White and Ansell Adams who established the zone system. While I was at college, I was studying photography and working at Freeman Studio, helping my dad with his studio and going out at night to document Sydney’s inner city sub-culture. I got so little sleep I was falling asleep in the darkroom at work but I was learning a lot about the process of photography, and my exposure to the alternate lifestyles of artists who lived in the inner city got me thinking about the art of photography. My college education was entirely technical; there was no room for arty-forty photos as my tutors called them. UTS were a government college full of photo-journalists and commercial photographers, and I was both.

f11: How has this work been received, when exhibited or published?

PE: Breaking into the world of fine art landscape photography is a bit of a gamble, you have to throw your hat into the ring and hope someone picks it up and hands it back. When I had my first show in 2010, ‘The Arrival’ at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, it cost me $10,000 to produce the prints and $22,000 to frame the work. The reaction from the public was instantaneous, and I began selling framed and unframed prints from the opening right through to the last day. It was a huge relief because at that stage I had spent about $50,000 in total. After five years and many more trips I decided to stop calculating how much money I’d spent, instead deciding to focus on producing the best prints possible. Recently, I sold several 1.5m wide prints to private and public collectors which again have been extremely encouraging. So despite the downturn in the economy, there are still people willing to spend several thousand dollars on photographic prints for their homes, which I think is an example of how people’s taste in art has shifted from conventional art to my contemporary work.

f11: Shooting from above is always technically challenging, talk to us about your methodology and techniques?

PE: Technically challenging is a good description Tim. It’s usually winter when I go out to the desert so at 6am at 3,000ft it’s cold when the doors are off the helicopter. Our ground speed in a straight line is at least 140-160km/h so that adds a wind chill factor, so yeah, bloody cold. The cold kills batteries and also makes it hard to hold the camera still, which is a struggle with wind and blade wash and gyroscopic effects all adding to the shaking. I don’t like using zoom lenses so whenever possible I prefer to have several camera bodies with fixed focal length lenses. I don’t have the luxury of image stabilizers which, to be honest, in most cases would struggle to make a difference. Depending on my focal length I use a variety of shutter speeds from as low as 1/250 to about 1/1250. Because I make 2m prints of my photos I need to keep an eye on the aperture so it’s a real juggling act between the big three: ISO, shutter speed and aperture.

I have to wear an aviation approved harness of course, so this is set to limit me from going too far out the door, but it is also restrictive. The other really important consideration is something that I have noticed some other photographers don’t do when shooting in these conditions, stow lens caps away! If you were getting into an aircraft with me, especially a helicopter, I can assure you I would confiscate all your lens caps before we took off. From a safety point of view, they wouldn’t even be allowed in the cabin area, because if one flew off the seat or even out of your bag and got picked up by the howling wind rushing around the cabin and hit the rear tail rotor, it would be a very uncomfortable death for everyone on board because the chopper would spin around and around on the main rotor and crash in a flaming heap. From a photography point of view it would be like holding a paper cup out of your car window at 140+km/h and expecting to hang onto it.

f11: In terms of equipment, what’s a typical outfit required to capture the images on display here?

PE: My preference is 35mm style DSLR gear. The main thing to consider is if you don’t feel comfortable with multiple cameras and lenses then you better buy a really good zoom because everything is at infinity so detail is hard to achieve. Hence the reason I shoot with fixed lenses and use multiple camera bodies. This also gives me the security of not relying on one, or even two, camera bodies. If you fork out 4 or 5 thousand for a two hour flight and you’re half way though the flight and your camera packs up, you have just paid for a really expensive joyride flight. So redundancy is critical. I use at least three cameras with a pair of lenses for each: e.g. camera 1 with a 35mm and 50mm; camera 2 with 70mm and 150mm; camera 3 with 200mm and 300mm. this probably sounds over the top to your readers but don’t forget this affords me a contingency.

I have also used Canon’s pro zooms like the 24­70mm f2.8 USM , 100-400 f4.5 USM and the very nice 70-200 f2.8 IS USM with reasonable results. The most obvious difference is chromatic aberration that seems much worse on all zooms, this is a problem when you’re making big enlargements. Software does go some way to remedy this, but nothing can be better than a good sharp lens.

Weight is never an issue since I almost always fly as the sole passenger. I prefer this because this keeps the chatter on the comes down to bare minimum so I can concentrate on framing my shots and communicating with the pilot, with whom I have very clear and precise instruction procedures. I flew with some videographics on a few trips back in 2011 and they started making small talk with the pilot, I almost pushed them out the door of the helicopter. When you’re dealing with these kinds of dangerous and time critical conditions it is not a junket as it’s 2 or 3 hours of mind taxing, physically exhausting work. It is not unusual for me to shoot 2,000 or 3,000 frames in a 2 hour flight. During my aerial survey for the Western Catchment Authority I shot 12,000 frames in 4 flights, on three cameras. So as you can see you really flog the beepers out of your gear.

f11: Are you using fixed wing aircraft or helicopters as camera platforms?

PE: I use both. I prefer helicopters; especially turbine powered ones, but if you have a really good pilot who knows a bit about low level flying a fixed wing is OK. You can also use a deflector on the open door of a fixed wing which redirects the wind away from you, so at least you have a better chance of hanging out of the aircraft and not having your camera blown out of your hands. Of course, the limit with fixed wing is ground speed and elevation, which are higher and faster.

f11: Do you do very much in post production, or are most of the images straight out of camera?

PE: This answer could probably take several pages. The short version is I shoot RAW, as you would expect. So yes, I post process and because of the atmospherics that effect everything from contrast to color to detail, the process of recovering detail and color is so difficult that it can takes days if not weeks to get a file ready for printing. Some of my favorite images have taken several years to finally understand what they should look like and I’m still learning. On that topic I work with digital retouched Matt Norris and master printer Warren Macris to get the best from the files. This has been one of the reasons I have been able to print them as wide as 3m from a 35mm file, with really good results.

f11: Looking across the selection we’ve curates from your work, what other areas feature prominently here, and what draws you to them?

PE: In the collection here, there are two principle areas, Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre in South Australia and North West New South Wales which is in the Lake Eyre catchment. They are connected in that way so I suppose it’s part of the same landscape for me. The attraction for me is the treeless and barren appearance of these I abstract looking environments. It is the intersection of desert and water, the colors that are produced by this combination, and as much as anything, the minimalist appearance of these places, especially from the air. To me it screams Australian desert.

f11: Tell us about some of the other projects you’re involved in, or planning, at present?

PE: Well between my new book, ‘The Green Desert’, and all the regional gallery commitments over the past few years, to be honest I’m struggling to keep up, even with a business manager, a retouches, and a printer I still don’t get time to go anywhere except when I’m in the desert. But I’m not complaining, I’m doing what I love in a place that not many people get to see and selling pictures to people for good money. What else does a landscape photographer want?

f11: Are there more books on the horizon?

PE: Yes, I have at least 3 other books in the pipeline. One is a fine art variation of ‘The Green Desert’ and the other two are very different and relate to my subculture years which I never had time to produce back then. Which in a way I’m pleased about, because I know I hell of a lot more about publishers now than I did back then.

f11: Are you a member of any professional photographic organizations?

PE: As a landscape artist who exhibits in public venues I need public liability insurance and NAVA, the National Association of Visual Arts offers this with your professional membership which is a huge saving from the thousands it used to cost me. Over the years I have been a member of all the professional photo associations in Australia but when I quit being a commercial photographer the advantages of these memberships seemed limited.

f11: If you ever hit a dry well creatively, where do you go for sustenance and refreshment?

PE: I live in the UNESCO listed Blue Mountains west of Sydney, so I don’t need to go far. Mind you, I hardly ever take photos around where I live, mainly because I was visiting and photographing the mountains years before I moved here. So over the years I have spent a lot of time in and around this area hence my fascination with the contrasts offered by the desert. It was a place that I had never managed to get to as a young photographer.

f11: What region of the world would you most like to photograph, and why?

PE: Hmm… I recently returned from a trip to India and Nepal for a friend’s wedding and took my camera, as you do. It was interesting but also depressing from an environmental point of view. I also spent several months in Canada and Alaska in 1996. My wife has seen my photos from that trip and has been at me to return so I would most probably go back to both, spending most of the time in Alaska’s north.

f11: Thanks for joining us and I hope you’ll keep in touch.

PE: Tim thanks for producing a fantastic magazine. It has been my pleasure to chat with you and share some of my experiences with f11 readers.


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