Issue 1, 2006 | Richard Woldendorp


What is landscape? Obviously something to do with land and the environment we live in. Our view of one’s environment – a forest, a plain, or a man made landscape – a village, a city, also referred to as a cityscape.

The landscape has always meant a lot to me and more so as a professional landscape photographer. In Holland where I grew up it was predominantly a man-made landscape - the Dutch word is ‘landschap’, well used by the early Dutch and Flemish painters. I have been attracted to the Australian landscape because of its size and subtle differences - a sense of wonderment, how it all came about, the evolution of the landscape. Like the rest of the world it has gone through many stages to be what it is today – uniquely Australian.

On my arrival in the early fifties, very little had been recorded on film. Painters had given us their interpretations, often with a European flavour. I had seen photographs of Ayers Rock and the Great Barrier Reef, but there was a great deal in between waiting for general and personal interpretations to be made. The camera has the ability to give us an honest informative rendition of the landscape. However with Digital manipulation these days, it can no longer be taken at face value.

My own personal approach is to go for the optical reality the camera can provide of that moment of observation. There are a million pictures out there. I am the only limitation. I can tune in and absorb the reality of the variations, combined with my way of seeing and my attitude. The older I get the harder it becomes, and the more I am drawn to nature. It is the creation of all life and matter that appeals to me now. . Maybe I can make a small contribution to its wellbeing which is in jeopardy. If beliefs in eternity are formed, nature is a great catalyst. I often feel intimidated by a great outback landscape, but also inspired by it. Walking through the Bungle Bungle landscape for the first time, one’s sense of awe and wonder works overtime.

I have lived in the Darling Ranges since my arrival. I look out over the Ranges and every time there is something new to look at because of the light, or the same thing looks different because of a change in my attitude. The combination of what is out
there, natural or manmade, plus our creative output, provides endless variations. Also we are enjoying a greater insight into our environment through programs such as Attenborough’s ‘Life in the Undergrowth’. A great visual experience made possible by the latest technology and intellectual sympathy to the environment. On the other hand we have Simon Schama’s Landscape & Memory, a very thorough and stimulating history of our relationship with the landscape. Closer to home, George Seddon’s Landprints examines our relationship with the Australian landscape, past and present, revealing perfections and imperfections.

In the beginning of photography I emulated my heroes, photographers such as Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Smith and Ernst Haas. My interest was with black & white, as colour had not been perfected the way it has today. But as I travelled Australia, I became more and more interested in the landscape. In 1968 I published a book with Peter Slater, the bird photographer. We called it The Hidden Face of Australia. We were trying to show the landscape of a dry and worn down continent without great mountains or large rivers, such as those seen in America and Europe, but to show the differences and character of what was here. We also tried to show the unique small details and the unusualness of the landscape that can so easily be missed by the unobservant viewer. We do have enormous variety although often on a small scale. Our wildlife is small compared with that in Africa, but it is unique. As is our flora. We have endless varieties of Eucalypt trees, plants and tropical rainforest. In Tasmania the southwest corner is different again having been well documented by Peter Dombrowsky. There are many aspects of Australia that are worth observing in close detail. We are still finding new landscapes and new species in remote areas.

Later in the early 80s I decided to use the aerial approach, logical for such a flat landscape. It gives a much better overview of the landscape and unlimited access to areas not accessible by road. From the air you also get a better understanding of the evolution of the natural landscape, as well as the size and repetition such as seen in the Great Sandy Desert and the Simpson Desert with its sand dunes stretching over hundreds of kilometres. The impact is not seen from ground level. With Australia being such a flat continent, the aerial perspective adds a better dimension.

There are areas where one can only appreciate the landscape from the air. The tidal flats and coastline of the Kimberley and Northern Territory with its eight meter tide has an enormous impact on these areas. The tidal creeks and consequent flooding of the flats are spectacular from the air. Except for the green canopy of the rainforests, the Australian landscape reveals everything. You can see its skin and what grows out of it. It bears its ribs like a skeleton in the landscape. One is always aware of the earth’s colour, predominantly red with coastal variations in white. To fly along the Nullarbor coastal cliffs with its continual erosion one is reminded how nature is alive and subject to change.

We do not always appreciate the aerial point of view. People regard the landscape as something you fly over. But in reality it is an opportunity to see the landscape from a different perspective.

The aerial approach also works well photographing manmade landscapes – farming, crops and structural design. Canberra’s Parliament House from the air reveals its interesting design not visible from the ground. Even from a jet plane at 10,000 meters a lot can be appreciated. For me, it has often been the first introduction to a certain area and after that initial observation I will follow up by coming back to it in a small aircraft.

Occasionally things don’t always go according to plan. On a trip around Australia in a small ‘plane, we got stuck in Lake Eyre. We were trying to test the surface of the lake in order to land. The nose wheel suddenly dug into the mud and we came to a sudden halt. We were then confronted with how to get out. A flat salt lake of that size offers little prospect . ‘Planes were diverted to look for us but we never saw one and they would not have been able to see the white ‘plane on a white background. It makes one aware of how big the country is and how small we are. All modes of travel have a risk factor but security versus insecurity is beneficial in order to experience the full range of possibilities that life has to offer.

The more I am confronted with experiences in the outback the greater the admiration I have for the nomadic Aboriginal who could survive through knowledge and understanding of the landscape and its surroundings.

Apart from floods and bushfires there are few seasonal variations in the Australian landscape. The northern hemisphere has four distinctive seasons full of contrast – winter snow, autumn colours. Australia has a stark blue sky, great visibility and a varied landscape. Even its coastline where over 80% of the population lives and where for me most of the subject matter originates – the Barrier Reef, Kimberley coast, Shark Bay, all so striking from the air. I look for the highlights and character of a place that is representative or in contrast to the area and emphasise these with a simple, strong composition. The coast offers great aerial variations. When photographing from the air, I scrutinise and anticipate the subject matter coming up, position the ‘plane and open the window. Generally I get only one or two images from the situation. It is great to fly over new areas. Not having been there before makes it a flight of discovery. I soak up all the images and look for the highlights. Below 1000 feet a helicopter provides a better platform for photography. At certain times of the year flying can be rough; hot air rising from the ground makes for a bumpy ride and makes is difficult to photograph. The image stabilizer in the lens helps to overcome some of the problems.

On the ground walking is one of the most effective ways of staying in contact with the landscape, being in complete control of one’s movements. I never cease to marvel at the variations in the landscape and although I value what is there photographically, in the end it is the observation and appreciation of the diversity that is the reward. It is sometimes impossible to render a three dimensional world full of perspective, sounds and smells into a two dimensional image.

Also I find climbing mountains just as rewarding, watching the scene with its angles and light slowly changing. Halfway up the mountain you can get the perfect view. The perspective is correct and you can appreciate what you have achieved and look forward to the challenge ahead.