I have been musing the past week over the horrendous floods that have swept through parts of New South Wales. Having lived and worked in the area around Newcastle and Maitland in another universe, I had more than a nodding acquaintance with what ‘High Water Mark’ means.
What struck me even more were the visuals, both video and still photography, of the rescue operations, and the shattered lives that were saved from the merciless waters.
It took me back, to a photograph that had quite an impact on me as a young lad. (I’ve searched across the web, and haven’t been able to locate a copy sadly).
The photograph was taken around 1961 or 1963 as best I can recall. I’m fairly certain it was taken in Newcastle, or perhaps Maitland, but I do know it was in that area. I think also, and I’m trying to recall a young lad’s impression of the image, that it was a newspaper front pager. And because of the circumstances I remember the image, it was most likely a Walkley Award winner.
The photograph showed a small child, and the mother being rescued into a boat from the surrounding waters, with a rescuer in the water with the pair. What struck me, as a young lad, was, that the child could have been me. And of course the mother, my own Mum, and rescuer any number of people I’d known to help out folk in crisis.
The impact of the image is important, because it is probably the first photograph I can recall that was more than a record of some event. It carried a personal story—an emotion of the agony of the family, the drama of the rescue and the concern of the man helping in the water.
Up to then, my interest in learning photography was limited to photos of a cat called “Blackie” in the safety and security of our backyard. Here in this one image was a world that outside of my childhood interest and I saw how powerful photography could be at storytelling. So much so that it is probably at that moment the first spark of making photography my life passion was kindled.
Now of course, as a blog scribe I have to be careful not to read a lifetime of experience back into a childhood lightbulb moment, but the point is that image is one that I can recall, and the magazine I saw it published in travelled with me for quite a few years of my youth. Sadly one too many moves, and changes of interest, and now, I am bereft of the photo, but hold still the vivid memory.
As I contemplate it now, it is to my loss, that I didn’t follow through with that initial enthusiasm, and I chose to work in fields other than documentary photography. Yet I feel that every time I press the shutter, something of that lightbulb moment is present.
I also came across a quote from writer T. S. Eliot this week, he of The Waste Land, in an essay from 1919. He was deploring the tendency of many critics to only be interested in novelty and difference from other’s work.
He wrote, “… not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.’
So I muse, how much of that photographer of the moment of pathos influenced the work I’ve made over the years, and of course how much of my current, and future work. Rhetorical, I understand.
Here is an image I found while I was searching that was taken several years earlier in the same area, and while not the visual impact of ‘my’ photo, it shows what dreadful impact the floods have on people’s lives.
This is not the photo I have spoken about, but gives the idea of the work of press photographers at the time
Now back to the present.
The weather has kept us home the past few days, and #kneetoo has been to a number of medical rounds as the foundation for her new addition.
I took the time to clean the camera, lens and kit, and was outside just checking the focus and things, when Tai Chi pigeon dropped by to see how my practice was going. Seeing me otherwise engaged it moved to an outside fence, and for just a moment turned toward me against the rich dark shadows of the neighbour’s tree.
Might not win a Walkley, however I enjoyed the company for just a few moments. As I pressed the shutter, I realised I’d left the exposure set for a much darker scene a few clicks earlier. Overexposed! Oh dear. A quick twirl of the dial and I was back in the groove.
Which just goes to show, that like all good craft skills, photography needs a dedication to keep sharp for what may happen next.