Bill Heimerman: photographer and director of The Photographers’ Gallery…
Peter Dombrovskis was one of the world’s foremost wilderness photographers. His powerful, reflective and deeply personal images of the unique Tasmanian wilderness had a lasting impact, changing the way Australians think about their environment. The Australian National Library has over 3,000 Dombrovskis transparencies, and has printed 70 of the best for this exhibition, the most complete survey of his work to date in Australia.
Journeys into the Wild
National Library of Australia
21 September 2017 – 30 January 2018
‘Peter Dombrovskis was a born Tasmanian. That he was actually born of Latvian parents in Wiesbaden, Germany, and arrived in Australia with his mother when he was three years old, means little; it is not so much where you are born as where you are shaped that counts. Tasmania shaped Peter Dombrovskis. He did what so many local-born people failed to do: he loved his home. Passionately. Peter’s perambulations into the remote Tasmanian wilderness shaped his love for, and affinity with the natural world – and as a consequence, it also helped to shape ours. The photos that he brought back spoke of a magic land: a place of mystery, a landscape largely unknown; with delicate natural gardens and unbelievable trees; of wild rivers and ragged mountains. In a continent largely modified by humans, the island of Tasmania was seen, rightly, as primeval. It still is.
As fewer and fewer people engage with the natural world, our perceptions of it are based largely on what we see through pictures. That so many in our community have so little contact with Nature, yet somehow still know of its importance, is a measure of the power of the photograph. Peter’s image of Rock Island Bend used so successfully in the 1980s campaign to stop the Franklin River from being dammed, is a classic example. There is no dispute that images such as these were instrumental in preventing the Franklin River from being dammed. In the early 1980s when conservationists were beginning to organise themselves to prevent the damming, almost no photos existed of the river. It was Peter who began to gather the images he knew would be crucial to saving the river. And fine images they were. Peter made numerous trips down the Franklin, Gordon and Denison Rivers – which would not only help raise the consciousness of a nation towards the endangered rivers but would also coalesce into what is probably his finest work: the book Wild Rivers (1983).
But Peter didn’t just highlight the importance of remote and wild landscapes, crucial as they were, he also drew our attention to the value of places closer to home. Over the last years of his life Peter devoted much of his time photographing Mt Wellington, culminating in his book, On The Mountain (1996), published after his death.
Many people remark on the detail in Peter’s photographs, stemming from his use of large-format camera, as if this itself was important, yet it was the way he expressed Nature that’s the crucial thing in the evaluation of his work. Great cameras don’t make great photographers; it is the way the photographer sees that does. Peter’s contribution to Nature photography is enormous: the way Tasmanian’s now see their island and its wilderness is due, in no small way, to this quietly spoken man’.
– Chris Bell, 2014, adapted from and article written for Australian Geographic in 1998.
The work of Peter Dombrovskis is synonymous with the Tasmanian wilderness. Peter photographed using a 4 x 5 large format view camera to capture images from the expansive to the smallest detail. These images were used to produce some of the finest printed publications of their time including the calendars and diaries, books, posters and cards under Peter’s imprint, West Wind Press.
‘When you go out there, you don’t get away from it all. You get back to it all. You come home to what’s important. You come home to yourself.’
Main photograph: Lake Oberon by Peter Dombrovskis