Category Archives: Autobiography

Love affair with a camera

I’ve always thought it a little odd how some photographers have these intense love affairs with a specific camera. They become fixated on the Leica, or Canon or cheap Diana plastic toys. A sort of photo-erotic romance. For them no other camera will ever match their one true love which they elevate on a pedestal, often with the kind of hyperbole that if examined closely, should make them blush. For me, cameras and computers are simply tools of my trade. They do the job and are discarded without sentimentality if and when they fail to measure up.

In reality though, I’m not so different. I must confess that I once had a passionate affair with one particular camera. It was the Nikon SP. Manufactured in the late 1950s, it was a machine that took the best ideas from Contax and Leica and melded them into a camera that I think, was the absolute pinnacle of rangefinder camera development. I bought mine second-hand in 1971. It came with two 50mm lenses, and a 25mm wide-angle. The 50mm lenses were the superb little Nikkor 1.4 and the incredibly fast and bulky Nikkor 1.1.

So large was the front element of the 1.1 that its barrel filled most of the viewfinder area. Without a supplementary viewfinder you were practically guessing at what was in the frame. For this reason I rarely used it, but what triggered this reminiscence was seeing that there was one of these lenses on eBay the other day. It’s price tag: $40,000! I sold mine about 20 years ago for $600 (groan).

With my Nikon SP and the 25mm wide angle, circa 1977 © Rob Walls

With my Nikon SP and the 25mm wide angle, circa 1977 © Rob Walls

The Nikon SP was my walkabout camera. It accompanied me everywhere. Compared with my SLRs it was compact (when without the f1.1 at least) and with its Contax style focussing wheel next to the shutter release, was fast in use. I developed a deep affection for this machine, and still Nikon still hold this fore-runner of the Nikon F in high regard. So much so that about 10 years ago they ran a limited commemorative edition that was immediately snapped up by collectors.

When I lost my SP in a burglary in the 1980s, I went into deep mourning. For years,  I gazed into pawn shop windows, hoping to glimpse my camera again, but eventually, I came to accept that it was gone forever. You can still pick up good examples of the SP on eBay for a couple of thousand dollars and I must admit that looking at them today, I was tempted. But then reality set in. I can’t bring myself to go back to film even for the love of my life. Now if only Nikon would produce the SP as a full-frame mirrorless digital with that superb 35mm F1.8 Nikkor, I could fall in love all over again.

If you want to know more about the history and qualities of this handsome camera, go here:

Here’s a couple of pictures from my Nikon SP.

An off-duty cleaner walks her dog from the back of a station wagon, in Centennial Park, Sydney © Rob Walls 1977

An off-duty cleaner walks her dog from the back of a station wagon, in Centennial Park, Sydney © Rob Walls 1975

Circus boy

A young boy captivated by the trapeze act at a performance by Ashton’s Circus in Sydney © Rob Walls 1973

Both of these pictures are spontaneous grab shots; the picture of the boy in the audience at the circus was shot under extreme low-light conditions. With the 1.4 wide open, I remember that the shutter speed for this was 1/4 second, hand-held, with my shoulder hard braced up against a tent-pole. I got off three frames, this was the only sharp one.

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Filed under Australia, Australian, Autobiography, documentary photography, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls

A piece of technology not yet past use-by date…

In 1964 I worked on construction progress shots on a space tracking station for NASA at Tidbinbilla near Canberra. A year later, as a young staffer on The Australian I photographed its commissioning by the then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies. These are a couple of my pictures from the March 20, 1965 edition of the paper.

Sir Robert Menzies opens the NASA Tidbinbilla space tracking station. March 20, 1965 (tearsheet from The Australian) Photos by Rob Walls

If you are wondering about the significance of the thistle in the left of frame, its symbolism is now lost in the mists of time. However, the explanation is this: aware that Menzies had recently been made a Knight of the Royal Order of the Thistle, I thought the visual reference appropriate. Actually, flies being somewhat of a pest around rural Canberra, NASA had the prescience to put an aerosol can of newly invented product on every VIP seat. Aerogard. My overly literate caption was a tad too much for the subs at the paper. It began, “Knight of the Thistle and Lord of the Flies…”. They stepped on the William Golding reference.

Last month I was visiting a vineyard at Cambridge in Tasmania and saw that it was overlooked by the University of Tasmania’s radio telescope, one of a network of four across Australia. On visiting it to take some closer shots, I discovered that this was the very same dish I had photographed nearly 50 years ago, under construction and at the opening. NASA had donated it to the University in 1985 complete with a US built left hand drive truck with a cherry-picker for servicing it.

In shooting for the Day in the World project on the 15th May, I decided to include the telescope in my pictures, killing two birds with one stone, getting pictures for my Working Life project at the same time by photographing Brett Reid, the observatory manager against part of the machinery he looks after.

Brett Reid, the UTAS Observatory Manager with the ex-NASA radio telescope at Mount Pleasant, near Cambridge in Tasmania. © Rob Walls 2012

Brett, kindly took me up in the old cherry-picker to get a good angle on him, the dish and a glorious Tasmanian afternoon sky. It was great to see that something I had been involved with nearly 50 years ago, was, like me, still working.

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Filed under Australia, Australian, Autobiography, Biography, documentary photography, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, portraits, Rob Walls, Tasmania

C’est la guerre…or such is life…

The six-year internment of David Hicks at Guantanamo Bay still inspires heated argument here in Australia about justice and human rights. The publication of his memoir and the low act of bastardry of the Federal Government in seizing the profits from its publication brings into serious focus the issue of freedom of speech. In the main, those who condemn him, do so almost entirely on the evidence they believe is contained within this single photograph.

David Hicks posing with an RPG launcher in Bosnia

Here Hicks is posing with an unloaded rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his first day in Bosnia, where from misplaced idealism he had volunteered to help the Muslim forces resist the “ethnic cleansing” of the Serbians. That he later came to the attention of US forces after in Afghanistan and spent six years imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay is well documented, in the media and in his memoir.

Opinion on the justification of his actions is highly polarised, but characteristically young men often take risks and make foolish decisions. Sometimes, to test themselves, they will choose paths in the road that take them away from the commonplace. They occasionally make choices they think will allow them to experience life with an intensity above and beyond the ordinary. Some will take up extreme sports, some will place their lives on the leading edge of danger in more unconventional ways. It was ever thus.

Forty three years ago, at Umuahia in southern Nigeria, I handed one of my Nikons to a Biafran rebel soldier and asked him to take a picture of me. In the closing days of January 1968, I had landed in Port Harcourt, Nigeria after a 27 hour flight on a very old, 4-prop, Lockheed Constellation running arms and ammunition out of Lisbon. Simply put, my entry into the secessionist Republic of Biafra was illegal.

I was there as a freelance photojournalist for United Press International and was eager to test my mettle as a war correspondent. Because of the need for secrecy, I had not told my family what I was doing or where I was going. I was 26 years old, had been a photographer for barely six years and I confess there was a certain amount of swashbuckling ego involved. I wanted to discover how I might handle myself covering a war. I planned on sending the picture to my parents in Australia when I got back.

Umuahia, Biafra, January 1968 © Rob Walls

In the picture I’m wearing an African dashiki embroidered with the rising sun emblem of Biafra. This shirt had been a gift of the very efficient Biafran media office which was coordinating press coverage of the new nation. Earlier that day, travelling in the back of a Land Rover, an old Africa hand from one of the London broadsheets, in rather haughty upper-class tones said. “If I were you, I would not risk being be caught wearing that shirt at the front line, dear boy. The Nigerians will assume you are a mercenary or a spy and they’ll probably shoot you.” I ignored his advice. I was young, foolish, full of testosterone and adrenalin and wearing the shirt, I thought, was a simple courtesy to my hosts whose cause I had begun to sympathise with. Like the photo of Hicks with his RPG launcher, the photo would have been “conclusive” evidence of my collusion with the rebels.

Less than 10 seconds after the shutter was released on that picture, two MIG 17s of the Nigerian Air Force were screaming high overhead and that heavy machine gun was banging away busily into the sky, its spent cartridge brass ringing and rattling into the body of the truck. Flown mostly by South African mercenary pilots, the MIGs were too high to be more than a barely discernible con-trail against the sky, but at a moment it wasn’t difficult to join the dots and surmise that these fighters may have released bombs, or be about to make a strafing run.

We were in the grounds of the home of General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the charismatic president of the breakaway republic, an obvious target for an air-raid. It was then I discovered at moments like this you tend to feel quite naked and looking for safe hiding places becomes a nervous pre-occupation. As it turned out the choices were so few, I ended up standing rather foolishly in the open under the ineffectual boughs of the large tree I had been photographed under a few moments before. About the only consolation was that I thought I could not be seen from the eir.

The MIG pilots, sensibly uninterested in coming down to an altitude where they could be shot at, made no attempt at accuracy. The bombs dropped in our general direction exploded harmlessly about 500 meters away..

A week or so later, I was told that I would be taken back to Lisbon on the next plane running the blockade into Port Harcourt. Feeling that I hadn’t got enough pictures, I wanted to stay on. I decided to ask the advice of some of the more experienced journalists I had travelled with. A journalist from Agence France Press I had befriended, told me that if I wanted to do that, there was only one option; before they come to collect us for the flight I could go hide in the jungle until the plane left. I asked him what he would do.  “Get the fuck out, this is too dangerous, you could die here!” I decided to take his advice. An Italian photojournalist, braver than I, Romano Cagnoni, did go and hide in the bush. His famous photograph of shaven-headed Biafran recruits published around the world with double-page spreads in both Life and Paris Match.(see here)

Back in Lisbon, I discovered the harshest reality of war photography: right time, wrong war! It was the beginning of the Tet offensive in Saigon and 19 Viet Cong had blasted their way into the US Embassy. Now that was news! Under those circumstances there was little interest in a civil war in West Africa. C’est la guerre. Or in the final words of Ned Kelly, “Such is life”. With this lesson, I decided that my embryonic career as a combat photographer should come to an end.

It was only this week, in thinking about the implications of the Hicks case, that I dug out that old photograph and thought of what might have happened if I had been captured. The result: probably somewhat similar to the consequences Hicks suffered…or worse. I note the words I scrawled, tongue-in-cheek, on the back of the picture: “I’m the one behind the machine gun”.

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Hot photography…

While in Perth a couple of weeks ago, I had the dubious pleasure of being on the other side of the camera when I was photographed by Nic Ellis, a photojournalist with the West Australian newspaper. He had generously organised a foundry for me to shoot in for my long-term project, This Working Life and had also deemed my project newsworthy enough for the paper.

For a photojournalist, being photographed from time-to-time is probably good for the soul, a pin-prick to the balloon of our vanity and certainly good for understanding of what we often put our subjects through. Now I’ll do anything to help a fellow PJ get the picture they want, but I found this particular instance especially uncomfortable.

This was nothing to do with Nic. He is a sensitive and highly skilled shooter. It was more to do with the particular subject matter we were dealing with. It was hot in that foundry. After all they were melting steel. To get the particular effect he wanted meant placing me very close to several furnaces. The peculiarly pained expression on my face is just that: pain. I was waiting for my shirt to start smouldering and smoke to curl around my head.

Portrait by Nic Ellis © West Australian Newspapers 2011

Don’t get me wrong, Nic. I’m not complaining. It really was a great experience being photographed by you and it added to my fund of anecdotes from this trip to Western Australia. That foundry also provided be with some fine pictures for my project. Thank you, and I hope to return the favour when I come back in September. Maybe you could pose for me up to your neck in freezing water at an oyster farm, or something like that?

For the full story in the West Australian go here.

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Don’t forget: photograph their hands!

The work-worn hands and tattooed arms of ship's engineer, George Currie. © Rob Walls 2010

As a very young photographer working on London’s Fleet Street in the 60s, I was lucky enough to be engaged as a retained freelancer to United Press International. It was at a time when colour supplements were burgeoning and because I had more experience shooting colour than the staffers, I began to pull regular feature assignments targeted to this new market.

Charlie Cowan, UPI’s features editor was a hard task master. No matter what you laid out on the light-box, he always seemed to be able to find some gap in your picture story; something you hadn’t thought to photograph. His eye and his judgment were superb and I made it a personal challenge to produce stories that he could not find fault with. It would be the rare occasion when he was totally satisfied. I was very lucky to have Charlie as my mentor.

After one story briefing, just as I was about to set out on the shoot, he called from his office, “…and don’t forget to photograph their hands!” Sometimes, when I threw a set of pictures up on the light-box, Charlie would say “but, you didn’t photograph their hands!”. He drummed this mantra into me until it became second nature for me to include a picture of someone’s hands.

He was right, of course. You can tell a lot about someone from their hands…and a picture of hands is always a useful image for a layout artist to break the visual rhythm of a story about a person, while still adding information about the subject.

A few weeks ago, it was with Charlie’s mantra still echoing in my ears, that after photographing Scots-born, ship’s engineer, George Currie for my documentation of work (This Working Life), I went back to photograph his work-worn hands against the background of his welding scorched sweater. I told him the story of Charlie Cowan and his advice to me as a young photographer. As I finished my explanation, George pushed up his sleeves, saying in his broad accent, “This’ud be whut ye want, then.”

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Homeward bound…

Thousands of kilometres and a load of pictures later, I’m finally on my way home. As a photo gypsy, five or six weeks is about all I can manage away from family and my own bed. At 7.30pm tonight the Spirit of Tasmania will be heading out in Bass Strait into some fairly heavy weather, but in photographing the first officer this morning for my, This Working Life project, he assured me that with the waves on the starboard quarter, it will be a comfortable ride to Hobart.

In the meantime here are a few quick final sketches with the Canon G11 before I depart Melbourne for home…

Newspaper and magazine vendor, Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, 19th August © Rob Walls 2010

Getting rid of the dust, car wash, 20th August. © Rob Walls 2010

At the lights, Latrobe Street, Melbourne, 20th August © Rob Walls 2010

The Burnley tunnel, Melbourne, 20th August © Rob Walls 2010

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A walk on the wild side…

On the 8th and 9th of August I was immensely privileged to be able to accompany a group of Aboriginal Australians on part of their walk of the historic Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. The trek, backed by the Jobs Australia Foundation, was part of the Indigenous Leadership Youth Program.

The end of the journey for the participants in the Jobs Australia backed expedition at the Kokoda Memorial , 9th August 2010. © Rob Walls 2010

My part in this adventure was what the Papuans call in pidgin, “sumting, nutting” (something, nothing i.e. of little consequence). With blind trekker, Steve Widders, and trek guide, Dion Taylor, I walked from Kokoda to Daniki; a hard climb for two elderly men, let alone a blind one; and then back from Hoy Village after camping overnight, to Kokoda in the pre-dawn darkness. Steve, of course handled this with aplomb, even telling Dion when he sensed we had taken a wrong turn on the track.

In photographing them together, I couldn’t help remembering George Silk’s famous photograph from 1942.

Steve Widders is helped by Kokoda Spirit guide, Dion Taylor on the way to Daniki.

For me one of the highlights, apart from the knowledge that I had completed a demanding physical challenge, was the opportunity to wash off the sweat and mud of the trail in this cool, rushing, mountain stream.

Almost there. Participants in the Indigenous Youth Leadership Program trek across the Kokoda Track relax in a cool mountain stream at Hoy Village just a few short kilometres from the end of their gruelling march across the Owen Stanley Ranges in Papua New Guinea. © Rob Walls 2010

The Kokoda Track is said to be one of the most challenging treks in the world. I salute all of those who completed the entire journey. You have my ungrudging admiration and respect. You must be proud.

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