This one perfect day…

Javanese dancer, Jogjakarta, Indonesia

Javanese dancer, Jogjakarta, Indonesia

Every once in a while an assignment comes along where all the pieces fall into place. I’m not talking about only the technical aspects, but also the amount of choice and control offered by a client so that you can really deliver. Almost all assignments fall short in one area or another. Either the deadline is too tight, or the client interferes, or the weather and light don’t give of their best. Of course the being professional is about delivering the goods despite the problems that arise.  But once in a while there comes along a job where everything is just perfect. This was such an assignment.

About 30 years ago, I did a six week tour for an airline, that took me practicallt the length and breadth of  Indonesia. The purpose of the assignment  was to gather pictures for a brochure and poster campaign. It was a gruelling, mind-numbing schedule, with just two half days off in 45 days. The fee was OK, but not great. The budget had been tight and the competition for an assignment that would show you most of Indonesia was fierce. Still with one or two minor meltdowns I survived the ordeal, and delivered my pictures to the agency. Out of it came a posters campaign that included this portrait of a traditional Javanese dancer at the Dance Academy in Jogjakarta.

The initial poster campaign was so successful that the agency came back and asked me if I would shoot two more posters. From their enthusiasm and the fact that the posters were prominently displayed on the agency wall when I went there to discuss the brief and the fee, I realised I was now in a relatively strong bargaining position. The result was I was able to negotiate a fee for two or three days work in Java that was almost as high as the fee for the original assignment.

Part of the brief was to shoot a fashion shot that would convey elegance in a uniquely Indonesian way. The ad agency gave me complete control; choice of garment, approval of model and choice of location.

On arriving in Jakarta I met with Indonesia’s top batik artist and designer, Iwan Tirta. From his range we selected an extravagantly dramatic, silk, batik evening dress and we decided to complement it with some traditional style gold jewellery. We interviewed models and I chose a very tall, elegant Javanese beauty, who set off the garment to perfection.

When it came to location, I wanted something recognisably Javanese but neutral in tone. Something monumental but something that would not overpower the subject. From my previous assignment, I remembered the 9th century Hindu temple at Prambanan just outside Jogjakarta. It was perfect.  The Indonesian tourism people organising my trip, protested that it might be easier to shoot in Jakarta, rather than flying all the way to Jogja. But by now I had got the star bit between my teeth and I insisted that no other location would do. This of course was not entirely true, there were monuments and temples all over the place… but photographers don’t often get to make power plays and I was determined to play this one to the hilt. With true Javanese courtesy, they acquiesced.

A very early flight to Jogjakarta;  a preliminary shoot at the temple to establish location, orientation and timing of the afternoon light; a leisurely lunch at one of my favourite Jogja restaurants and then back to the location around 4pm. I had calculated that by then the sun would be low, warm and in the direction I needed.

I set up my camera and tripod with the 300mm Nikkor 2.8, on top of a small temple nearby.  Earlier that morning I had visualised that I could set up, get my shots and get away with a minimum of fuss. What I hadn’t counted on was an afternoon influx of tourist coaches and next thing I knew, here I having to perform like a showman, directing a shoot in front of an audience of about 350 tourists and a platoon or two of young Indonesian military recruits, at my back. Most of the tourists were shooting away like made over my shoulder. My discreet little fashion shoot in the middle of Java had wandered into Cecil B. De Mille territory. Despite the distractions, the light did what I wanted, the pieces fell into place and an hour later, I was able to wrap the shoot, content that I had got at least as much as I had bargained for.

Back in Australia, both the ad agency and the airline were very happy with the results; but two little incidents from this assignment stick in my mind. While I was shooting, a bunch of French tourists asked what I was doing. It was such delicious fun to explain to them the copy line I was illustrating (see poster 2). Just as I was about to finish shooting, an English tourist walking hand-in-hand with her four year old daughter wandered into my shot. The little girl did a double take. She gasped aloud when she saw the model. “Look Mummy! A real princess!”  It’s nice to think that I had accidentally fulfilled the fantasies of a child. She probably has children of her own now. I wonder if she ever tells them of the day she saw a Javanese princess.

Fashion shoot, Prambanan, Java

Fashion shoot, Prambanan, Java


Filed under Australian, Fashion photography, Photographer, Photography, Rob Walls, travel

6 responses to “This one perfect day…

  1. Irene Walls

    Love the batik story. In ’73 Jogja did a live in batik course for 2 weeks , 50 cents a night . Lots of bed bugs
    other than that loved it .

  2. Irene, I’ve lived on the cheap in Jogja…and when on assignment enjoyed the luxury, but luckily managed to avoid any bed bugs.

    It’s one of my favourite cities in Java. When I think of it, I think of the world’s best roast chicken at a truck drivers’ cafe, with paper table cloths, out near the Sheraton Hotel, the bird market near the Kraton, shooting pool against the hustlers in the pool halls on Jalan Marlioboro (and beating them), and risking my life amongst the trucks and motorcycles, bicycling to Prambanan and back.

  3. Ari

    These are the most provocative advertaisment I’ve ever seen… Just perfect! I saw the batik poster in Iwan Tirta’s book, and as an Indonesian I absolutely proud of it. Then, I was trying to find this poster by googling for months, and thank God today I finally found it. And lucky me that I also found and knew you and the story behind the poster making.

    Thank you very much, Pak Robert… hopefully you don’t mind if I call you “Pak” (Pak = Mr). These are a great works. And I do hope you’ll often to visit this country. Today, Yogyakarta and all people here sorrow due to the Merapi eruption. But we’ll rise up soon.

    May God bless you, Pak 🙂

    • Hello Ari,

      I am honoured to be called Pak…and that so long after I took that picture that it still resonates with Indonesians like yourself. I’m proud of those pictures too.

      It is now many years since I have visited Indonesia, but coincidentally, I was photographing a young woman from Bali yesterday and in talking of your country I felt an overwhelming urge to visit again. I have two children now: an 18 year-old son, and a 14 year old daughter. My daughter studies dance, I would love to take her to the Yogyakarta Dance Academy.

      My thoughts are with you all in Yogyakarta, in your sorrow over the eruption of Merapi…and I hope with all my heart that Australians are again ready to help in your difficult times.

      May god bless you too…


      • Ari

        Hello Pak Rob,

        Thank you for your response. I actually have a sentimental feeling to the poster. Iwan Tirta passed away three months ago (Have you heard this before?) The batik pattern using in the poster was one of his famous creations. Unfortunately, he passes away when batik becomes a trend here; a time that no one expected before due to the invasion of modernity. Today, people wear batik everywhere. And UNESCO just acknowledged batik as the world’s intangible cultural heritage last year. But, we believe that there is no artisan as great as Pak Iwan—at least for today.

        Since last year I’m trying to campaign for batik protection through the intellectual property regime. I have my own ‘history’ with batik. And it becomes my concern since a couple years ago.

        I’d like to say this poster—with its picture and tag line—has inspired me. Thus, I was googling to find it. And I was so glad to found you also and to know that there was an Australian man behind this great work. Thank you once again, Pak.

        It’s nice to hear that you plan to visit this country again. Your daughter must be a great dancer. I imagine her wearing the Javanese dancing costume 🙂 My greetings to her and your family…

        Thank you for your condolence. I do hope Yogyakarta will recover soon. The last eruption was so bad, but the condition of the city was actually quite fine, although it’s full of dust. Hopefully you’ll be able to realize your plan soon. We always think that Australian people are our close friends. These two countries have a long history, and support each other.

        Have a nice day, Pak…

        Best regards,

      • Ari, I too imagine my daughter wearing traditional Indonesian dance costume. I don’t know that she is a “great dancer”; but she is 14 years old and still at high school but she loves to dance and has a natural grace. I think that exposure to the great dance traditions of Java and Bali would be a wonderful thing for her. I have actually been checking the price of airfares on the internet since your last comment.

        Until your message, I had not heard that Pak Iwan had died. It is hard to be sad at the passing of someone who by their very existence added so much to the world through their art.

        My knowledge of batik is very limited, but I do have an affection for the vivid reds and blues of the Chinese-influenced style known, I believe as “mega-medung”.

        As for your great city, I’m sure that through the natural resilience of the Indonesian people, Yogyakarta will recover soon.

        Warm regards from the south…

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