• Photo: Peter Solness.
    Photo: Peter Solness.

Peter Solness is well known for his unique night photos. He talks to Robert Keeley about his move from photojournalism to art photography and explains the techniques he uses to create his remarkable images.

Photography is a funny business. One night in Sydney, Peter Solness was crawling around in mud and muck late at night on Bradley’s Head, a natural bush park on the northern side of Sydney Harbour, pursuing his latest photographic passion of creating ‘illuminated’ night images. It was cold and miserable, and hard work shooting with only a tiny amount of ambient light and a small artificial light source in his hand. Later, however, he sold the resulting image to a female customer who was so impressed with its unique beauty that after buying the print, she insisted on taking him to dinner!

This result was a long way from the regular responses he’d received to the photojournalistic images he had shot through most of his working career. Often Solness had been working for newspapers, magazine editors, book publishers, or corporations. His images were sometimes well rewarded but such a personal response was unlikely. A move into art photography has reinvigorated Solness, and importantly the move has reestablished a good line of income for this working photographer.

Like many photojournalists, he’d been hit hard by the changing dynamics of the industry. The photography business changed irrevocably once digital imaging took off and, arguably, the group of professionals most impacted by the changes has been photojournalists.

This hardy band of image-makers has often been romanticised amongst photographers, and the wider community. Mostly, when you see a photojournalist in a movie or on TV he or she is a daring shooter at the edge of some type of dramatic conflict. The reality has always been different and more challenging, and those who have devoted themselves to following particular stories have often simply survived from one job to the next.

Surfing days

Peter Solness devoted most of his working life to the craft of photojournalism, and at times made very good money out of it, as well as getting the opportunity to travel throughout Australia and to exotic locations worldwide. But a combination of circumstances, including the fundamental changes brought to the craft by digital technology – which democratised everyone’s ability to take pictures ‘on the spot’ and thus lowered the market value of photojournalistic shots considerably – meant many shooters like Solness eventually found their craft was becoming uneconomic. Other forms of income like stock photography also took a hit as these types of images flooded into libraries at ever-higher standards, and then publishers of books and magazines increasingly struggled with their rapidly changing business.

A few years ago Solness realised he needed to make use of the skills he had picked up over a lifetime, and re-deploy them in areas where he could make a living. So his illuminated night images were born. Solness says he’d always had an interest in shooting images in low light and at night. But his first interest in photography happened in a very different way, around his home turf of Cronulla on the southern coastline of Sydney. The suburb has recently featured on TV in various ways, including the series Puberty Blues which told the story of teenagers growing up in the surf culture of the suburb during the seventies. In fact, this is just what happened to Solness, though he stresses he was always a bit of a loner and more "hard core" with his surfing.

His brother was a good surfer, and a board shaper, and at 15 young Peter, who loved the thrill of being out in the water, decided to buy a Nikonos II underwater camera to shoot images of surfers close up.

"Most surf shooters were still working from the shore, so my shots were a bit different," says Solness. One day the editor of Surfing World visited the board shop where Solness’ brother worked, and saw some of the younger Solness’ black and white photos. He was impressed enough to publish them on a double-page spread.

"I became a bit of a local legend," says Solness, and his images appeared more often in surfing magazines. Then he started to explore other ideas, fitting a small flash to his Nikonos camera inside a housing.

Pursuing a profession

In 1976 he undertook a four-year TAFE photography course at Sydney Tech to learn the basics of film shooting and processing. He loved black and white photography and at college he learned about the great US landscape shooter Ansel Adams. He became more interested in black and white at a time more people were shooting in Kodachrome colour.

Inspired by the idea of "the journey" he decided to take off on a motorbike around Australia, with only his camera kit – Olympus OM1 and OM2s and a few prime lenses packed in an aluminium case – as company. In fact, during his two-year trip he wrote a feature for Australian Photography. He camped so he could stay close to national parks and thus shoot more easily early in the morning or at dusk.

At one point, he landed in the Queensland mining town of Mount Isa and found a job in the research department of the mining company. "It was 1981 and if you were half intelligent you could get a job," he says. As a photographer, he found the outback town fascinating.

"That trip linked to what I’m doing today – being out there on my own, finding my sense of my own identity. I fell in love with the landscape," says Solness. The photographer says an insulated middle-class lifestyle around Cronulla had left him feeling "uninformed". But his two-year odyssey helped him broaden his knowledge.

He got another major feature published in the magazine Geo (a publication covering similar terrain to Australian Geographic), which ran to 12 pages. "I think my observations of Australia were unsentimental, raw and honest," he recalls. His trip also proved crucial to his further development as a photographer.

When he got back, he sent his Geo magazine spread to the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper and asked for a job. Immediately, nothing happened, but nine months later when a slot opened up, the newspaper’s photography department gave him a job. He was on staff with that paper and the now-defunct National Times, for “five or six years”, until around 1988.

It was in 1987 that the world economy hit hard times, and newspapers weren’t immune. He left the SMH and went freelance. "I always saw photography as a journey. I wanted to shoot what interested me personally, and then work out how to turn it into a project. Self-education was a liberation to me."

Freelance expansion

A period of great personal and photographic challenges followed his decision to go freelance. The late eighties and early nineties were a time when not so many freelance shooters were operating, and Solness took advantage of this relative vacuum to take on many challenging assignments. He shot photo essays on the Chinese Army, and the Trans Siberian railway, and worked with documentary filmmakers as a stills photographer.

"There was very good pay for a lot of these jobs," he says. "I often pinched myself." The images he took also brought in good income from stock libraries, as he was one of the few photographers who had been to these locations. In 1989, during the fall of iron curtain countries, he photographed the Trans Siberian railway for a book called The Red Express, an extraordinary time in which to travel through the region. He took black and white portraits for ABC interviewer Caroline Jones’ book The Search for Meaning, toured East Malaysia and also Papua New Guinea for two different photo essays, and in late 1999 produced his own book Tree Stories, which had evocative images of trees from around Australia, along with stories and interviews with locals who lived near them. The images and stories he gathered took four years to collect. He was also shooting pictures used in advertising campaigns, and for annual reports, and he signed up for many other assignments which took him to various parts of Australia.

A digital world

Around 2002 he ‘went digital’ with a Nikon D100 camera. He says he had always wanted to work in northern Australia, and around this time he saw what he called an opportunity for his "last hurrah as a photojournalist".

"There were less assignments happening down south, so in 2003 I went north for three years," he says. He went to Darwin with a Nikon D2H and his D100 and began shooting assignments in the Northern Territory, and for Tourism NT. One assignment involved travelling with an SBS TV crew in mid-2005 with Olympian Cathy Freeman and actor Deborah Mailman to illustrate their book Going Bush. Lonely Planet, Time magazine, and the now-defunct Bulletin news magazine also used his work.

Around this time, though, Solness says he became aware of a "profound shift" in the business of photojournalism. "There were too many photographers around, and it was too easy to miss out on work." So, he came back to Sydney in 2007. He says he wanted to be a father, and he and his partner did have a baby son, but that relationship broke down.

“It was a challenging time. The Bulletin, Time, and Fairfax publications all closed or were in trouble. I got some work for Outback magazine, and I started writing features as well, so I could sell packages.”

But Solness says he realised the work environment for photojournalists had changed. "I thought I had to use my experience to find a new way to work. I had to think about how I could do work that newcomers couldn’t." Eventually, all his years of experience led him to develop an interest that had been with him from the beginning – night photography. But he wanted to create a new and "quite idiosyncratic" body of work with a fine-art sensibility to it. He says his clear starting point for this style of shooting was back in January 2009.

Shining a light

Solness loved shooting landscapes, as he had done often through his career, but he decided to further develop an approach he’d tried for his book on trees, where he used a detached flash unit and long exposures to artificially light some trees. He says, "I'm drawn to something primitive; it's just in my genes. I respond to being out there in isolation."

He had a Nikon D3, and he currently has two lenses, which he has worked with on his illuminated night images – primarily a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, but also occasionally a 17-35mm lens."What I'm trying to do is go against the flow and make things more simple, a bit like (Henri) Cartier-Bresson did with his documentary shots."

One adjustment he has made to his approach, however, is in the use of Photoshop. He says the significant use of the software is something he’s had to come to terms with because most of his career has been in the field of photojournalism, where any use of image manipulation is frowned upon. With his current work, he uses layers in a very controlled way. He shoots long exposures, and then lights a scene artificially with a handheld torch, moving through the scene steadily so his own image is not recorded. However, as the areas he has sought to light became more extensive (thus taking more time) he found it was impossible to cover everything.

By using layers he’s been able to merge multiple images of the same scene, in which he has walked through and lit particular areas, often stretching far back into the distance, or in some cases, multiple objects. He also uses moonlight, or the ambient artificial light of Sydney’s distant skyline to provide a background light for his scenes. So far, Solness has worked within close proximity of Sydney, which he says is partly for commercial reasons (he says clients are more likely to buy images of areas they’re familiar with), but also because of the physical demands of making these images.

He needs to be on the move after dark, and some sites take hours to get to, to set up at, and to actually shoot. By staying near his home, he can minimise the travel element. He often spends daylight hours scouting potential locations, so that in the dark he won’t trip over himself in an unlit area. “It’s seventy per cent pre-planning and thirty per cent making it up as you go,” says Solness.

Having got to a location and prepared, it’s not uncommon for him to miss taking a shot, as the lighting simply won’t be right. “And I've got to avoid repeating myself,” says the photographer. A typical shoot will start with Solness setting up his tripod and camera. He’ll shoot what he calls an "establishing exposure" to work out how bright any ambient light in the sky might be.

Then he’ll shoot 30-second exposures at apertures like f/8 and f/11. His ISO settings will be set anywhere from 200 to 800. Solness says, "I still shoot in-camera, outside of basic Photoshop. I use layers, but nothing else other than minor sharpening. Using layers has been a big shift for me. But there’s little market for photojournalism now – everybody’s doing it. The challenge has been to create new income streams."

One particularly stunning image he shot involved kayaking up the Hawkesbury River, just north of Sydney. This large, wild and isolated waterway demands caution by boating people at the best of times. Solness tied his kayak to a rising mound he found in amongst a heavily tidal area where mangroves (and mosquitoes!) were ubiquitous. Fortunately, the mud that surrounds the mangroves was firm at this location, but the shoot was still extremely arduous. Solness camped at the site in darkness, and woke up to find he was surrounded by water. His mound had been just high enough!

The new work has been well received, and has started making money. Recently the veteran shooter had an exhibition at Manly Art Gallery on the north side of Sydney Harbour, and he has run workshops (which he calls Night Magic) to show enthusiasts the basics of his night shooting style. And as well as doing some corporate work, he has developed specialist-printing skills with a large Epson printer he bought. He’s not worried about giving up secrets in his workshops, but rather is happy to offer something back. He's overcome some big personal and professional challenges.

He says, "I couldn't survive as a photographer doing what everybody else was doing. So, I had to really dig deep and work with my knowledge. I do have tricks, and my intuition. It’s better to inspire people; then they will carry your name as a positive. I’d much rather be remembered that way. The whole ‘layers’ thing was a big challenge for me. I had to change my whole concept of what I was, but still try to stick to my core values. Out of chaos comes new opportunities. That’s the only way you can view it."

More information: www.illuminated-landscape.com

Article first published in Australian Photogaphy + digital (December 2012).

Mangrove forest #2, Hawkesbury River, 2010. I had to kayak into this spot on the Hawkesbury River and camp overnight. I hand-lit the forest. It took about two hours and many exposures of about 30 seconds. Nikon D3 at f/8, ISO 400. Images merged using Photoshop layers and painted through.

Bradleys Head looking west, 2011. People love the composition of this image and the way the Harbour Bridge mirrors the arches of the Angophora trees in the foreground. I was able to keep the water nice and bright by shooting through the twilight period when there was still light in the western sky. Nikon D3, 30 seconds at f/11 and ISO 200. Images were merged using Photoshop layers and painted through to reveal various aspects of each image. Minor sharpening.

Aboriginal engraving series No. XII, Bundeena, 2009. This is part of a successful series I began in 2007 to capture the spirit of these fading rock engravings around Sydney. I used a Mini-Maglite torch with the bare bulb exposed and walked around the engraving over a 90-second period. I then painted other areas of the scene using various torches to fill in the details. Nikon D3X, 30 seconds at f/6.3 and ISO 400.

The Light Painter, Coogee, 2012. I shot this during an Easter full moon. I wanted to show the effect of torchlight on a single object. I deliberately allowed the exposure to burn-out where the torch is pointing. This became the key image for my ‘Light Painter’ exhibition at the Manly Art Gallery. Nikon D3, 30 seconds at f/7 and ISO 200. Images merged using Photoshop layers and painted through. Minor sharpening.

Squiggly Scribbly Gum, 2009. This image was a spontaneous idea. By standing behind the tree and passing a small torch around the trunk I could get the effect I wanted, but it wasn’t until I hand-drew the many scribbles of light (to replicate the pattern of the scribble marks on the tree itself) that this image really came to life Nikon D3, with several 45-secon exposures at f/8, ISO 200. Mini-Maglite with exposed bulb.

Waratah in bushland, Heathcote, 2010. This is a good example of scale. To light this image I used a very small torch, a Maglite Solitaire, which is the size of my little finger. By using a small light source I was able to accentuate very fine details in the flower and thereby emphasise its character and form. It’s important to choose the right power of torch to suit the scale of your subject. Nikon D3, 30 seconds, f/10 at 200 ISO. This was a single image.

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