Review, and a personal reflection by Lloyd Shield
Journeys into the Wild
The photography of Peter Dombrovskis
Author: Introduction and commentary by Bob Brown
Publisher: National Library of Australia
Edition: 1st Edition
Publication Date: 01 September 2017
Bind Format: Hardback
Purchase price: $39.99
143 photographs by Peter Dombrovskis
If you wish to own a book with over 140 images printed from Peter Drombrovkis’ large format colour transparencies, you have a choice: Buy the single copy of the landmark publication [Dombrovskis: a photographic collection. West Wind Press, 1998] advertised for sale on eBay with a ‘Buy it Now’ price of AU $2150. Or buy a copy of the publication listed above, for AU $40, released to coincide with a major exhibition of Dombrovskis images at the National Library of Australia (September 21, 2017 to January 30, 2018). This exhibition will be shown at Monash Gallery of Art, Victoria in 2019.
In Bob Brown’s seven-page introduction, he combines his shared experiences with Peter Dombrovskis, and his unsurpassed knowledge of Tasmanian wilderness and national politics, to describe, eloquently and poignantly, the background and motivations of the man, and the milieu in which he created his unsurpassed body of work. Many images are accompanied by brief observations by Brown.
The basic production qualities of the book are good. The square ended hard cover and the section-sewn binding are robust.
A very useful index list of illustrations consists of a thumbnail of each image with the page number, title, original medium (mostly 10cm x 12.5cm colour transparency) and NLA catalogue identifier. Images can be viewed on line, along with NLA catalogue data, using this identifier. The image content of this book is not identical to that of the 1998 publication, although not surprisingly there are some images in both.
A map on p178 identifies the location of the National Park where the image was made, but not the location within the park.
I am not enthusiastic about some aspects of the book design. Twenty-two of the images extend over the gutter for up to half of the opposite page. Four others are printed on the full page without borders. Crossing onto the opposite page, in my view, is not only distracting but degrades visual integrity and impairs the emotional response to the image. While Dombrovskis images benefit from the heft of a generous size, to me, any benefits from the extra size gleaned by using these devices are outweighed by adverse consequences.
The book contains many more images than will be in the exhibition, so it is not just a catalogue, and must sit alongside the other major publications of Dombrovskis’ work. The benchmark has to be Dombrovskis: a photographic collection, West Wind Press, 1998. Not surprisingly and perhaps unfairly, the print quality of some images in the current publication lacks the subtlety, strength of colour and vitality of many of the 1998 prints. Painted Cliffs, Maria Island (p122), Melaleuca, Franklin Range (p103), and Near Lake Sirona (p155) are some examples. But in at least one image, to my mind, the verdict goes the other way. When comparing ‘Dunes and Granite’, the first image in the 1998 publication, with the version on p120 of this book, I mistook which I was looking at and concluded that what ultimately turned out to be the current version, was more pleasing with tonal variation and vibrancy.
Some might say that the photographic world has moved on from the super-saturated Velvia era of the 1980s and 1990s. But it was Dombrovskis’ ability to work with this richness of colour, and also to produce subdued and subtle images that gave him his distinctive visual language.
For those not previously exposed to the depth and breadth of Dombrovskis imagery, any shortcoming in print quality may not be that evident, and should it should not be implied that the book cannot be thoroughly enjoyed. To be realistic, despite major advances in print technology over the last 20 years, to expect the print quality, for $40, to be the same as that of the standout Dombrovskis publication of 1998, would be naive.
Now a disclosure: this is not a book review by an unbiased observer.
In his perceptive introduction and comments, Bob Brown deftly places Peter Dombrovskis in the international pantheon of quiet environmental activists, via the medium of his unsurpassed body of wilderness photography.
But he does not touch on the influence of Peter Dombrovskis on the lives of people like me. Certainly, I am only one of many.
I was introduced to the genre of wilderness photography through the lens of Eliot Porter, while living in the USA in the mid 1970s. While increasingly enjoying day bush walks in the mid to late 1980s, my eye was taken by the stunning wilderness photography coming out of Tasmania, mainly, but not exclusively by Dombrovskis. A connection between the works of Porter and Dombrovskis was evident to the untrained eye, even though the colour palettes were sometimes miles apart.
It was hard to look at those images such as Lake Oberon (p136-137) and Mt Hayes (p12-13) and not want to be there. And so day walks turned into overnights and ultimately into most of the iconic long walks of Tasmania.
Having had a long standing but evanescent interest in photography to that point, it was not surprising that I compared the 6″ x 4″ colour prints from my 35mm camera, with Dombrovskis images in the Wilderness Society calendars, diaries and other publications. Massive difference, but why?
The old saying goes that it is the equipment between your ears that counts, not the equipment in your hands. But that is only partly true, and research led me to medium and then large format photography.
So, through the medium of his exquisite and sensitive depiction of the Tasmanian wilderness, this man, who I never met, became the major silent mentor for the two substantial interwoven pillars of my non-professional life, bushwalking and large format photography.
I have no doubt that many who view this book and those who see the exhibition at the NLA will have similar stories to tell. To think of the Dombrovskis story in terms of only the environmental legacy, or to view the book and exhibition only as a collection of stunning images, would be to seriously underestimate his influence on Australian society.
It is approximately twenty years since the premature death of Peter Dombrovskis, and the publication of Dombrovskis: a photographic collection. The NLA is to be congratulated on mounting the exhibition in Canberra but perhaps more importantly for producing a book that yet again showcases some of the most unforgettable images of the Australian wilderness ever produced.
Peter Dombrovskis at Kosciuszko National Park 1986. Photograph by David Tatnall.
The photograph Peter is making here can be seen on page 44 of the book.
Main photograph: Western Arthurs. Photograph by Peter Dombrovoskis