Monthly Archives: August 2009

Where’s Wallsy?

About twenty five years ago, in search of a break from routine and some adventure, I took myself deep into the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. I had had a longstanding invitation to stay in a village called Hedemari. Back in Australia an airmail letter had arrived, the basic message of which was, “When are you coming, we’ve built you a house?” In anticipation of my visit, the villagers had actually built me a house (but that’s another, much longer story).

Making the trek from Port Moresby, first by commercial flight, then by light aircraft and a dusty 100km drive over dirt roads, in the back of a 4 wheel drive from Tari, I eventually reached the village. The villagers welcomed me and proudly showed me the house they had built. It turned out to be a neat two-room structure, with a thatched roof and its own fireplace set in the base of a sawn-off 40 gallon drum. After a truly adventure-filled week, they told me they had decided to have a sing-sing in my honour; whatsmore they wanted me to actually lead the troupe of Huli warriors that would be dancing. I knew that the dancing of the Huli men mainly consists of  jumping up and down in a way similar to the dancing of the Masai of Kenya while drumming out the beat on a long kundu drum. My main problem was whether I would have the stamina to keep up.

My protests (I don’t dance, I’m too old, etc, etc) were brushed aside. It’s very hard to refuse a request to dance from a bunch of people so hospitable they’ve built you a house. I gave in. So after a single rehearsal the night before, I was woken at dawn to get dressed in traditional costume for the performance. Resignedly, compliant, I was dressed, bewigged, painted, plumed with bird-of-paradise feathers and oiled. After that ordeal, I figured the dancing would be a snack. My idea was that half  an hour or so of dancing and drumming before twenty or thirty members of the village and my cross-cultural embarrassment would all be over. Go for it.

In two facing lines, with me leading, we danced out through the fortified village gates. There was a roar of excitement. Peering with horror (hopefully hidden by the paint) from under the large head-dress that had been tightly bound to my scalp, I realised that instead of the couple of dozen spectators I had been expecting, there were hundreds. My knees nearly buckled from underneath me. Word had been sent out to every village within a 20 mile radius and villagers had come in from all over the countryside to see me perform. Major stage fright! There was no way out. There was nothing for it but to grit my teeth and dance.

Rob Walls leading the warriors of Hedemari village. Where's Wallsy?

Rob Walls leading the warriors of Hedemari village. Where's Wallsy?

In sweltering heat,  smothered in paint and oil, to the delight of the crowd, we danced and danced and danced. Time seemed to crawl. By the time we finished it was all I could do to crawl. We had performed for two hours before I (and my aching leg muscles) felt we could respectably call a halt. The ordeal was not quite over. There was still the far from simple matter of getting all that oil and paint off…with kerosene!

It was an experience, I’ll never forget…but  explaining to a doctor in Sydney a week later that the  the case of contact dermatitis on upper body came from being coated in motor oil while leading a group of Huli warriors was an unexpected bonus. After all it’s not every day a Sydney GP gets an honorary Huli in their surgery.

Just in case you couldn’t spot me in the throng, here’s a close-up…

That's me. The guy with the tallest plumes...

Yep! That's me. The guy with the tallest plumes...

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Have cameras-will travel

Paul Dymond, travel photographer
Paul Dymond

Travel photographers are amongst the most envied practitioners of our craft. Who doesn’t want to travel to exotic places and make beautiful pictures?  In this in-depth interview, Paul Dymond gives the ins and outs of the business and tells how he fulfilled his ambition. Have camera-will travel.

Aboriginal dancers © Paul Dymond

Aboriginal dancers © Paul Dymond

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100 Eyes Magazine…Bangladesh by Bangladeshi photographers…

This is some of the most moving and powerful photojournalism I’ve seen in many a long year…any comment other than to direct you to this work is unnecessary…
100 Eyes Magazine

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Great camera, great stove, great house…

Last month, in Broome, I was invited to photograph the recently completed home of Trish Pepper. Trish, a superb cook, is one of the caterers on the television production I was working on. Her house is an excitingly designed and dramatic statement that uses large open spaces and decks to take advantage of Broome’s tropical climate. The bold and bright colour scheme picks up its notes from the red pindan earth of the surrounding desert. There’s even a boab tree growing through the courtyard deck.

Trish Pepper's home in Broome, Western Australia

Trish Pepper's home in Broome, Western Australia

While showing her the results of the shoot on my laptop, Trish commented, “They are wonderful pictures. What a great camera!”. I couldn’t resist it! I just had to re-cycle/re-use that old and probably apocryphal story about the photographer and the titled lady admiring his pictures after dinner.

Having had dinner at Trish’s house and enjoyed her food every day while I was there, I could not hold back:  “…and your food’s wonderful too, you must have a great stove”. Her response, “Oooops!”…I think we are still friends.

The delicious (groan) irony was that Trish really does work with a great stove. The production company had just installed a professional grade, La Germania and I can guarantee it’s good.  On the Sunday I photographed her house, it was her day off and so for fun, I cooked in it for the crew,  roasting five large chickens stuffed with lemon slices and rosemary.

If anyone is interested my “great camera” was a Nikon D300 with the Sigma 10-20mm wide-angle zoom lens. The chickens were served with a Greek avgolemono sauce (recipe here). And it’s a great looking house, Trish…

PS Special thanks to that consummate continuity person, Lesia Hrubyi, who hustled around ensuring that everything was neat and tidy.

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Through the prism of an over-active imagination…

London, 1967. I was hanging around a film location with a bunch of other press photographers. The film was being directed by Roman Polanski and we were waiting to photograph his wife, the actress, Sharon Tate. Suddenly a black kid, no more than 11 years of age, in short pants, with a runny nose, detached himself from a small crowd of spectators and came up to me. In a Cockney-tinged accent he asked, “Hey mister! You a photographer?” The two or three Nikons around my neck would have made this pretty obvious, but as soon as I confirmed it, the kid said, “My name is Dennis Morris. Wait there. I’ll be right back.” and scooted off through the crowd.

He was back a few minutes later with a fistful of black and white prints which he offered, stating it was his ambition to become a pro photographer. The pictures were much what you would have expected from an 11-year-old, but there was something about the boy; something about his spirit that moved me to offer encouragement. At the time, I was sharing a studio in the West End so I gave him my card and told him to drop in to have a look around and to pick up a pile of photo magazines that we no longer needed.

Over the next few years, Dennis became a regular visitor to the studio and each school holiday he would join us for work experience. As the cliche goes, he was as keen as mustard, and he began to show real talent. I took him with me on assignments when I could and also to the occasional parties that were part of the “swinging London” scene of the 60’s. His mother, a single parent, raised him and his brother in a single room in one of the poorer parts of London. I was a little anxious that introducing him to the vibrant social scene of late 60’s London might turn his head.

By 1971, I had been away from Australia for five years and decided it was time to go home. By this time Dennis had become a very cool and stylish sixteen year old. The last conversation we had was in a pub near my studio. Though under-age, he had no trouble passing as someone older. I remember, He was wearing a black Borsalino hat and a long black overcoat. He looked like he was auditioning for a part in Shaft. Over a couple of pints, he told me he was dropping out of high school and going on tour with a musician he had met while taking photos at a club in Oxford Street. The musician was some dreadlocked Jamaican unknown by the name of Bob Marley.

Bob Marley by Dennis Morris

Bob Marley © Dennis Morris

Back in Australia, I  went through a marriage break-up. The future didn’t look too bright. Freelancing in Australia as a photojournalist was unheard of. I quickly reinvented myself as a fashion photographer and this earned me a good living for a while, until eventually the marketplace caught up. As the newspapers began to establish colour supplements they also began to look around for photographers with illustrative experience. The sort of work I did was suddenly in demand. I was able to re-establish myself as an editorial and corporate shooter.

As the years went by, I shared, built and established several studios. From time-to-time I used to wonder what had become of Dennis. Underlying this wondering was an tinge of guilt. I felt somewhat responsible for him becoming a high school dropout. I assuaged this guilt by telling myself that there was a good chance he had done alright. Bob Marley had become a superstar and a many of his record covers carried Dennis’ picture credit. Maybe Dennis was OK.

Anyway, in 1990 I remarried, moved to Tasmania, had a couple of children, and led a bucolic settled existence. One cold winter Sunday afternoon, I idly flicked the TV to the ABC arts program and there was Dennis Morris being interviewed. He was in Australia as a guest of the Perth Arts Festival exhibiting his iconic photographs of the Sex Pistols.
Sid Vicious © Dennis Morris
Sid Vicious © Dennis Morris

I promptly Googled his name and was delighted to find that Dennis had not only got on OK, he had done very well indeed. He had published several books and his photography was being exhibited internationally. In addition to his photography, Dennis had also been lead singer with a punk/reggae fusion band, the Basement 5 that had gathered a powerful cult following, especially in Germany.

Getting onto the internet it didn’t take me long to find his website and an email address. I sent him a message. Almost immediately there was a phone call and a deep London inflected West Indian accent told me, “Rob, there’s no way I’m coming to Australia and not visiting you!” A few days later I was greeting him at Hobart airport, with his beautiful French wife Isabel, and his lovely daughter Pearl, who was about the same age as my daughter, Cassie.

The next ten days were a blur as we filled in the thirty-five year gap in our friendship. Over dinner one night with our families at the home of a composer friend, Dennis told me that back in London the day we first met, he had looked along the line of photographers, to make up his mind who seemed to be the most approachable, and of all the photographers there had settled on me. I was flattered, but then he said, “You know back in the 60’s, you were so damned cool. I wanted to be you!”. At that, I couldn’t help turning to my teenage son to say, “You hear that, Kim? Once upon a time,  your dad was really cool”. To Dennis I said, “You know back in the 60s, all I wanted to be was black and West Indian…now that was cool.”

At one point during his visit, Dennis asked, “You remember that room, I lived in wiv’ my Mum in London? You know she still lives there.” I was amazed. I was even more surprised when he told me with a broad smile, “Yep! I bought her the house!”.

Today, old, grey-haired and overweight. I’d like to think that my children might detect a remnant of lingering cool about me…but I doubt it. Dennis, on the other hand, is still black, still West Indian and still very, very cool. For me, the payoff in reconnecting was that I no longer carried the baggage; the stupidly misplaced idea; that I might have been a bad influence on his life.

For anyone interested in knowing more about Dennis Morris, here is a recent interview with Mr Cool himself. Dennis Morris, is a man I am proud to have known and who long ago, I like to believe, I might have influenced in some small way. All power to you Dennis. I guess I can stop beating myself up, eh?
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Random acts of art?

Photographers like myself, from the pre-digital era, will remember the quirky images that would sometimes occur when you burst off the first two or three random frames in winding on a fresh roll of 35mm film. While pictures made without any calculated intent whatever can hardly be called creative, there was an indefinable quality about them that was often appealing. I kind of wish I had kept those fragments of film.

This picture occurred on the end of CF card from a corporate assignment I shot in Melbourne yesterday. Must have bumped the shutter release when I went to get a cab to the airport. Can’t explain why I like it, but I do…

Accidental art?

Accidental art?

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Wouldn’t it make you weep?

A rhetorical question of course…but Robert Lam, who is actually quite jubilant about selling a picture for a Time Magazine cover for $30 becomes yet another in the long line of idiots queueing up to help destroy my livelihood.  See story here on Photo Business News.

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