Profile: Pamela Pauline
From behind a rare Vincentia Banksia plant, of which only six are known to exist in the wild, a threatened Carnaby’s Cockatoo peers towards its mates. Up above, Regent Honeyeaters and Gouldian Finches flitter while a Forest Red Tail Black Cockatoo eyes the viewer intently. Think you’re in paradise? Welcome to the ethereal, imaginary work of Sydney photographer and artist Pamela Pauline.
Today, it’s her highly composited work in two series, On the Brink, and Fragile Beauty, Rich and Rare, that are receiving plaudits around the world. In total, these two series of just 16 photographic artworks have taken nearly two years of full-time work involving research, travel, more than 25,000 photographs, and innumerable hours behind a computer to finally complete.
The phone call
A professional photographer since a career change in 2003, Pamela’s project as you see it today began in 2019. At the time, she’d read a remarkable story about a rare plant that was thought extinct but that had been discovered on a building site in Sydney.
That call led her to the Plantbank at The Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan, the home of the largest native plant conservation seed bank in Australia.
“In spring 2019, I went behind the scenes at the Plantbank,” she explains.
“Guided by the horticultural development supervisor, I timed these visits to capture the often short-lived, elusive, and glorious moments of many plants not known to the general public. While most of the plants in the Plantbank are native to Eastern Australia, there were several species endemic to other parts of the country. This was my beginning.”
The journey takes seed
After each photography session, Pamela began researching. She would categorise the photographs by the plants’ status, whether they were rare, vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, as well as by their geographic location.
Soon enough she was on a flight to Perth to visit the prestigious conservation garden at King’s Park. Then, a few months later, South Australia. A trip to the Australian National Botanic Garden in Canberra and the Botanic Garden in Mount Tomah provided her with more threatened species to photograph.
The result was “More research, more folders, more files”, she laughs, while stressing her gratitude for the help of the centres’ horticulturalists.
Then Pamela decided to add threatened birds into the mix.
“I visited rehabilitation facilities and breeding centres, zoos and refuges to capture threatened birds,” she says. “It meant more research, more files, and more folders.”
Early on, Pamela read a book called Recovering Australian Threatened Species, A Book of Hope. It was a turning point.
“The book is a collection of essays about threatened species being recovered with perseverance, dedication and thoughtful planning,” she says. “It was the tonic I needed and that kept me going - hope combined with action is powerful.”
“I also read A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough and ended up recreating one of my artworks entirely just so that I could include this book in it,” Pamela tells AP.
To tap the core
The drive to create these complex composite works came from Pamela’s passion to awaken and empower in people a deeper consciousness around biodiversity. As she explains, images of suffering wildlife or the crisp-burnt remains of a once lush landscape give her a feeling of despair.
On the other hand, fleeting moments of beauty in life and in nature, kindness, and birdsong, energise and inspire her.
At the same time, her works rebel against the notion of taking photographs of everything and anything without any purpose.
“Nothing in this body of work was left to chance,” she says. “Every single photograph taken for this project is important for its value in the ecosystem and for the threat that it faces.”
With all the photography for the series taken outdoors, Pamela had to work around the conditions mother nature offered on the day. Bright light and wind were the greatest challenges, which meant some plants had to be photographed on several occasions. In time, this would prove a bonus by providing a larger number for her final selection.
“Because so many of the threatened flora species were absolutely tiny, I had to use my macro lens and focus stack as the images needed to be sharp from petal to leaf, from feather to feather,” she explains.
Because all the photographs that make up the images are of living subjects and not cut, none of their original colour has been drained from them.
“I find that using a grey card helps to ensure colour accuracy and minimises post processing,” she says. “And again, for definition, I adjust in Lightroom prior to bringing them into Photoshop where I create my compositions.”
By the time Covid-19 erupted, Pamela found she had time to begin composing the artworks. Working through her photographs of the threatened species, she selected images for the series that she entitled On the Brink.
“I started the laborious process of masking out the background of each photograph, leaving only the subject visible,” she says. “I repeated this process for every bit of flora and fauna in my artworks.”
But she wasn’t done. “The subject matter of threatened species is serious, and I felt it warranted more depth. As an artist, I had the opportunity to tell a much deeper story, with a thoughtful underlying message.”
The role of the artist in historical times became her guide.
“I knew I wanted to pay homage to 17th century still life artworks,” she explains. “A textbook definition would suggest that involved producing ‘a record of current day surroundings, creating work that expressed emotion and revealed truths that were universal or hidden and finally, work that helped people to view the world with a different or novel perspective’.”
However, unlike traditional still life artwork, all the flora featured in her images are still alive and in soil, and the birds are all living creatures. As Pamela reminds us “Neither flora nor fauna was injured in the making of these works”.
Layers and layers
Pamela’s next project was Fragile Beauty, Rich and Rare, a body of work that includes one work representative of each State and Territory, along with two general Australian still life works.
After painting 10 different backdrops to use in each, Pamela scoured second-hand shops for books relevant to the environment of each State and Territory, borrowed her mother-in-law’s globe, and polished up her beautiful hourglass. With all these items at hand, the scene was set.
“The compilation process was similar to the On the Brink series, but I had to hone my floristry skills for this one, making sure that the composition worked visually, and that each element had the right shadow,” she explains.
“Unlike most traditional floral still life images, these works incorporate an abundance of flora. Biophilia Bouquet, for example, has 65 threatened flora species and eight threatened bird species. At 307 layers and 24 Gigabytes, I told myself that done is better than perfect, and finished the piece!”
Adding that having a good monitor and a powerful computer is crucial to creating artworks that are highly composited. Pamela says she uses an Apple iMac Pro and an Eizo Monitor.
“When you are working with over 300 layers in one large piece, the processing is slow and laborious,” she explains. “I also use a Wacom tablet for the very fine detail work.”
In completing this project over several years, Pamela says she has learned much and seen the extraordinary work being done by passionate individuals across the conservation sector.
“I created a body of work that I believe will be lasting and important, documenting many of Australia’s threatened species that are alive in 2021. But to me, the most powerful work is that which comes from the heart. I believe that the positive energy generated in the creation is infused in it and cannot be replicated. Finding that passion, and unique voice, can be the most challenging part of the creative process.”
For now, her work continues to shine bright, attracting a new audience who she hopes will be inspired to take action. “We will all need to be engaged and motivated citizens if we are going to ensure a future for our unique flora and fauna,” she says. ❂
Pamela Pauline’s Fragile Beauty, Rich and Rare (10 artworks) will be exhibited as part of the Head On curated exhibitions for 2021. The exhibition runs from Monday 1 November through Tuesday 30 November at the Maunsell Wickes Gallery, 19 Glenmore Road, Paddington NSW, 2021.