Profile: Hillary Younger
It's fitting that the day I speak to photographer Hillary Younger she's just a few hours from jumping on a plane to head overseas, once again. There's a distinct restlessness and wandering spirit inside the Tasmanian native that has defined her life and continues to define her photography.
We're speaking over a crackly line from Younger's new house in Hobart, her 30th move in as many years. The pending trip will be co-leading a photo workshop in the US, something that's become more and more common as her reputation as one of Australia's most talented landscape photographers has grown. It's also something all the more remarkable when you consider she only began taking her image-making seriously in 2007.
“I grew up in North East Tasmania in the bush, basically on the back of a horse,” she laughs.
“I rode before I could walk, but I quickly realised I wanted to be on my own, out in the bush.”
It's this love for the wilderness that has always been integral to Younger's image-making. Her landscape images are defined by drama and motion, whether in water or sky, and illustrate her fierce passion for protecting our fragile environment.
Younger's journey as a photographer started long before she first picked up a camera. Following study, in 1982 she decided to travel. She visited Nepal, in a move that she says 'changed her life'. She became a Tibetan Buddhist, and would spend more than a year absorbed in the culture of a country very different to the tourist-mecca of today. But home was calling, and she would eventually find herself in rural Victoria, working as a community nurse.
“It wasn't until I was 47 that I finally picked up a camera,” she explains. “It was right about the time I went through a big personal crisis.”
Her relationship with her partner had broken down, and she felt drawn to her home state and the wilderness while she found peace with the decision. Along with a friend, she spent two weeks camping in North West Tasmania and, for the first time, she packed a camera along with her.
“From the word go I never did just record stuff,” she says. “I'd take photos of the patterns in the sand, or seaweed on the beach. I didn't take photos of people, just the wild.” She came back inspired.
“Two of the doctors I'd been working with went into spasms of delight when they saw my images,” she laughs.
And with every cloud, there's a rainbow. Her partner had left his Nikon FM, 105mm and 50mm lenses behind. Spurred on by the positive feedback, Younger decided to learn to use the gear. Immersing herself in the work of pioneering mountaineering photographer Galen Rowell and John Shaw, she began to study the finer points of film photography.
“I got the bit between my teeth, and I thought, I'm going to try and make it as a photographer.” It was 2006. By 2007, Younger felt ready to go on her first trip solely to take photos – to Mount Field in Fagus season.
“When I came back from the trip I put some of my images on my partner's computer and a friend of his, professional photographer Craig Hoehne, came around. He said 'who took that?' and I told him 'I did'.
He looked at me and said 'I've been trying to take a photo like that for 20 years.'
Hoehne agreed to start teaching her editing, which she says was, up until then, a huge hurdle.
“His background was in black and white photography, but he'd learned to process in the darkroom and had translated the skills to digital. So I gained a knowledge of processing from a very traditional basis.”
With the grounding set, an opportunity to exhibit with pioneering landscape photographer Wolfgang Glowacki at home in Hobart quickly followed.
Before she knew it, influential landscape photography blog Photo Cascadia had named her on a list of female landscape photographers who inspire. She was the sole Australian representative.
Just like Younger's image-editing is grounded in the traditions of the darkroom, so too are her preferences for her own landscape photography.
“In a lot of so-called landscape photographer's work these days you see people or buildings. You dont see that in my work. What inspires me is wild places and I see no reason to put a man-made object in there,” she explains.
“I understand how a human element can give a sense of scale, but I think it's a very overused cliché that shifts the focus from the place to the person.”
The key, as with all great landscape photography, is the balance between light and shade.
Motion is also an integral part of her images. “I love playing with water, and how it brings different textural elements to an image,” she says. But in identifying a shot, it's always the light that is the key element.
“I look for light, and then something to match it with – something to bring the viewer into the frame. If I can tell someone a story with the light, then I've achieved what I set out to do,” she says.
One technique is to give the viewer plenty to study.
“If one of my photos makes someone want to keep looking at it, then it's a success.”
An obvious assumption to make is that as both a newcomer to the art and a female photographer navigating a traditionally male-dominated environment, Younger has had to prove herself more than other photographers. She's quick to suggest otherwise.
“I don't feel I've been held back because I'm a woman. I'll occasionally get a sense of the imbalance of male versus female photographers, especially so in the corporate world, or among those who are working as ambassadors for camera companies for example, but it's nothing that's held me back personally. There's no reason women can't go out and do what I do,” she says.
I ask her what it's like to be seen as a beacon for other aspiring female photographers.
“I never aspired to be a female landscape photographer, I aspired to be a landscape photographer,” she replies.
A social world
Along with the interest in her work has come a significant boost to her profile, helped by a 50,000 strong following on her instagram page @hillary_younger. It's something, much like her rapid success in photography, she never quite saw coming. But at times it's been a mixed blessing.
“In the early days social media was this friendly, supportive environment, but it quickly became competitive,” she explains.
“Instagram helped photography become this rapidly growing hobby, and with it came this rise in people wanting to monetise the platform. It's all become incredibly distracting from what originally drew me to it.”
Of course the other risk is to the very places Younger is so passionate about protecting, starting with her home state.
“You'll be familiar with the effect of increasing numbers of tourists visiting places they were never prepared for. When [I saw this happening with] places becoming iconic and starting to get damaged by landscape photographers I had a huge crisis – I didn't want to be part of something so destructive.”
Her answer was to shift her focus, exploring photojournalism and working to educate photographers about how to protect the landscape. Together with others in Australia and globally, she's worked to draw up a code of ethics for landscape photography in Tasmania, which as well as providing advice on acting responsibly in the wild, includes a commitment to not share locations in detail.
It's something she feels landscape photographers sometimes need to remind themselves of.
“I find it sad when I see landscape photography becoming more about the landscape photographer than the place.”
After all, it's the land that is at the heart of landscape photography.
“There's an ancient balance between us and the landscape that nurtures us, and we have a duty to protect it and give back,” she says.