Tassie photographer Peter Dombrovskis subject of new exhibition
If you’re a photographer, having one of your images credited for helping change the course of history highlights how powerful the medium can be. Such is the case of a photograph shot by the late Tasmanian photographer Peter Dombrovskis, whose evocative landscape images revealed to the world the unique wild beauty of Australia’s island state.
Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River, shot around 1980 by Dombrovskis, has been largely credited for playing a significant role in helping secure victory for Bob Hawke in the 1983 federal election and providing momentum for the ultimately successful No Dams campaign.
At the time, Dombrovskis also co-authored the book Wild Rivers with former Greens leader and tireless environmental activist Bob Brown. The publication documented the photographer’s skill as he went about capturing the essence of Tasmania’s Gordon and Franklin Rivers on 4 x 5 transparency film.
From little things
Born in Wiesbaden Germany in 1945, Dombrovskis emigrated to Australia in 1950, where he quickly developed a love for landscape photography. It would be something he pursued with a passion until his sudden death of a heart attack in 1996, while photographing near Mount Hayes in the Western Arthurs range of South West Tasmania.
In 2003 Dombrovskis was posthumously inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame, the first Australian photographer to receive the honour. His works are currently shown at the National Gallery of Victoria, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the Australian Heritage Commission, and in private collections.
Dombrovskis’ work is also now the subject of a major exhibition at the National Library of Australia - Dombrovskis: Journey into the Wild, which runs until the end of January 2018 and features a select range of the photographer’s images reproduced in stunning prints.
The exhibition is also complemented by the release of a new hard-cover publication, Journeys into the Wild: The Photography of Peter Dombrovskis, featuring an introduction and commentary by Bob Brown.
The NLA showing of Dombrovskis’ work is the first major exhibition of his photographs in Australia and is the culmination of years of work by Library staff who have painstakingly melded old and new technologies to produce prints that are as striking today as when the photographer first captured them.
Talking to the NLA’s curator, Matthew Jones, there’s a sense that the exhibition is perhaps timely in an age where environmental issues don’t seem to be at the forefront of this country’s political agenda.
It’s also quite apparent Jones has a great affection for Dombrovskis’ work and a huge respect for the skills he possessed as a photographer. As a result Jones emphasises how everyone involved with the National Library exhibition has been mindful of ensuring the photographer’s legacy enjoys the national focus it richly deserves.
The new exhibition features a selection of prints that portray the many moods of Tasmanian landscapes, and are the results of digitising the many transparencies purchased by the NLA from Dombrovskis’ widow.
“We acquired (about) 3,000 transparencies from Liz Dombrovskis in 2009, and our digitisation and photography team then spent the next few years working on the collection to make sure it was digitised and digitally preserved,” explains Jones.
“After that part of the project had finished it seemed natural that the next step was we use some of the material for a publication and that we try and print some of it, and have an exhibition as well.”
Choosing the transparencies to reproduce from Dombrovskis’ body of work was no easy task and testament to the skill of the photographer who shot them using a trusty large format Linhof.
”Part of the problem we’ve had is that he didn’t really take many bad images...they were all great, just about, so it made it very difficult. About a year and a half ago I spent a few weeks just going through all the digital scans and folders of transparencies and just seeing if there were any we could take out to help the whittling down process.”
As Jones explains, Dombrovskis had a real skill for getting his image exposures right in camera and didn’t often take multiple shots of the one scene. Bracketing wasn’t something the skilled landscape photographer relied on to ensure he “got the shot”, unlike the ease at which modern day digital photographers can.
Over three or four weeks Jones cut the final image list down from 3,000 to 1,000 and then to 500. In collaboration with Photography Team Leader Sam Cooper and other staff, the number dropped further to 250. Ultimately, in paying homage to a monograph by Liz Dombrovskis, the final 70 images emerged, and will be displayed in an order that takes visitors to the exhibition on a journey through Tasmania’s changing landscapes.
Sam Cooper relates how his photography team went to great lengths to stay true to the essence and look of Dombrovskis’ original work. That process included following stringent quality assurance guidelines during the digitisation process, including making custom colour profiles to match the Fuji Provia and Velvia transparency film Dombrovskis used.
Cooper ultimately had to make three custom profiles to produce the desired colour so that it perfectly matched the original transparencies.
“We found that the yellows of the beech (trees) particularly in Tasmania are a really highly saturated colour and after assigning the Provia profiles we found that converting into Adobe RGB some of the yellows became out of gamut, so a leaf that had beautiful detail became a block of yellow.”
Much patient tweaking of profiles followed until Cooper and his team were eventually satisfied they’d produced accurate digitised replications of the originals.
“It’s a really slow process but we ended up with a digital file that, from scan through to digital, is exactly the same as the original and we have also captured all the data on the transparency, we haven’t clipped anything, we haven’t lost any of that colour detail.”
In another example of the technical extent Cooper and his staff went to in ensuring they stayed true to Dombrovskis’ work, a light station was constructed so the amount of brightness shining through the old transparencies could be exactly matched to that of the digitised versions when viewed on photographic monitors.
Cooper, like Matthew Jones, is in awe of the photographic skill Dombrovskis possessed.
“The one thing about the folio is that he was a master. The exposures on the film were just bang on and there was very little leeway with that colour slide film. He’s always managed to maintain the highlights and detail in the shadows, often on days that were quite sunny when it would have been very difficult … it’s quite unbelievable how good he was. There’s nothing in there that was a poor shot.”
Cooper says Dombrovskis’ images look so fresh and vibrant they could have been taken today instead of decades ago. As a result he is interested to see how modern photographers interpret his work. “He shot slide film, he didn’t have Photoshop to tweak his work or digital cameras with high dynamic range like today”.
“They (his images) might be thirty years old but because their colour is so clean and vibrant he’ll be compared to digital photographers working in colour; Ansel Adams and (other) black and white photographers, are not really compared in the same way to modern day photographers because the technology’s moved on.”
Matthew Jones also credits Dombrovskis as a trail blazer.
“He’s a very unique figure because of the kind of equipment he was using at the time. Using a large format camera and the difficulty in getting a camera like that to the places he was going to…he was basically bush walking (or canoeing) into the south-west of Tasmania, so he’d be going for days at a time.
He’d pack everything he needed for a week and he’d pack this great whopping camera of course and he’d only be able to take 50 exposures of film, so it wasn’t like going out there with a 35mm or a digital camera and taking multiple shots…there was a lot of careful consideration and preparation for each shot. So I like to think when you’re seeing all the photos you’re just thinking about all the work and effort that went into them to get that one moment.”
Jones concludes by saying, “The journey behind each image is an interesting story in itself.”
Perhaps proof that Dombrovskis’ stunning work will capture the imagination of many for generations to come. ❂
Dombrovskis: Journeys into the Wild, is on at the National Library, Canberra until 30 January 2018. Entry is free. More information available at: www.nla.gov.au/exhibitions/dombrovskis