Australia is an age-old worn-down land. It is the flattest and driest inhabited continent in the world. It is not easy to comprehend from ground level. But from the air, the Australian land reveals its powerful identity, full of contrast: harsh and varied.
A point of view can be an opinion or a way of thinking about things. It can also, quite literally, describe the point from which one observes the world at any given moment. The two meanings are closely related, because the position one occupies – metaphorically or actually – will shape the way one interprets and comes to understand the things one sees.
So it is with the work of veteran Australian photographer, Richard Woldendorp, whose most famous images are all taken from the air. For him, to understand the magnitude and the magnificence of the Australian terrain he must rise above it. His images of landscape abstracted to pattern capture a point of view beyond anything one might observe standing on the ground. A topography spread below like a vast and elaborate tapestry. It is a way of seeing that, spanning six decades, has made him the preeminent aerial photographer in Australia.
Over his long career, Richard Woldendorp has had thirty-eight solo exhibitions and won many prestigious prizes. In 2004, he was awarded the title of ‘West Australian Living Treasure’ for his “outstanding contribution to the visual arts, his skill, talent and intensity as a photographer and his original and awe-inspiring vision of the Australian landscape”. In 2005 he was named ‘Inspirational West Australian’ of the year and in 2012 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM), a high civil honour granted by the Queen through the Governor General. Richard Woldendorp received the AM “for service to the arts as an Australian landscape photographer”.
What led you to become a photographer?
Initially, I wanted to be a landscape painter and that was what I studied in my earlier years. Then, in 1955, I bought my first camera, a folding Voigtländer 6×9, to record a trip back to visit the Netherlands. When I developed my first black-and-white films I was amazed at the capabilities of the camera as a creative tool. I found the creativity in photography similar to painting. When I returned to Australia, I joined a camera club where the members shared knowledge, equipment and inspiration through set monthly assignments. Several of the members were very supportive in their appreciation of my work. By 1961, this had given me the confidence to enter a national portrait competition. I won first and third prizes, and this encouraged me to pursue photography further.
I was living in Western Australia at the time. I thought there might be more opportunities to work as a freelance photographer in the eastern states. So, I drove the 4,000 kilometres overland to Melbourne and Sydney to visit government departments and magazine publishers. They liked my work and the fact that I was willing to go anywhere, anytime. They wanted pictures of Western Australia, which was just beginning to open up due to the expansion of the mining industry.
© Richard Woldendorp
[Left] ‘Plumbers and Funeral Directors, Esperance, Western Australia’ 1968
[Right] ‘Bush Clinic at Brooking Springs Station, Kimberley, Western Australia’ 1966
Australia has changed a lot in the past half century. What was it like back then?
Australia is such an enormous country and my assignments from magazines and the government, especially the Australian Tourist Commission, allowed me the freedom to photograph whatever I thought was interesting and interpret the subjects in any way I chose. At the time, little was known about Western Australia by people in the east of Australia [where the majority of Australians live] or overseas, so everything was of interest. I liked the humour and quirkiness of the people in the bush. They had had to adjust to circumstances; they had to be inventive and adapt to whatever came their way.
You are now best known for your landscape photographs. How would you describe your ‘way of seeing’ the natural world?
It is a very personal quality. It is within me; a result of my natural inquisitiveness. I like to be surprised by the creativeness of Nature. I am drawn towards its abstract forms and patterns. When I changed from photographing in black-and-white to colour, I still wanted the image to rely on form and not to overuse colour. I think that comes from my training as a painter. Nonetheless, I always want to show the reality of nature.
What do you think are the characteristics and challenges of capturing that reality?
In the early years, outback Australia was seen as a threatening and dangerous place. People tended to keep to the cities and beaches. When I started travelling, I was amazed at the natural landscape of the interior and wanted to show people what our country has to offer.
© Richard Woldendorp
[Left] ‘Eucalyptus Forest, New England National Park, New South Wales’ 1983
[Right] ‘Uluru, Northern Territory’ 1990
That must have been very different from the European landscape of your childhood.
The European landscape is picturesque. But the Australian landscape has always appealed to me more. There’s something about it – its spaciousness, its character, the light… it is unique. Australia is an age-old worn-down land. It is the flattest and driest inhabited continent in the world. Compared with other countries, it does not manifest itself in grandeur as we knew it in Europe – wide rivers, tall mountains and dramatic seasonal changes. It is not easy to comprehend from ground level. But from the air, the Australian land reveals its powerful identity, full of contrast: harsh and varied.
When did you first take to the air and how did this change your way of photographing the Australian landscape?
In 1964, I was contracted by Rio Tinto to photograph the development of the mining industry in the north-west of the country. The company also wanted aerial photographs, and this enabled me, for the first time, to see the dramatic Australian landscape from above. As I began to travel more extensively, I would sometimes be invited by farmers to fly over their vast properties, as many of them owned a plane. They would show me interesting aspects of their land. They were good pilots and willing to take risks, which allowed me to capture some amazing imagery.
The Australian interior is a landscape not easily accessible by car. There are so few roads. It is also very flat with little sense of foreground and background. It was from the air that I came to appreciate the diversity of this landscape. From the air, many characteristics revealed themselves much better, forming a strong image not visible at ground level. The aerial point of view has confirmed and amplified my appreciation of the landscape’s diversity. Australia is vast, much of it virtually unaffected by humans, so it is possible to look down and see the effects of millions of years of evolution.
The salt lakes, coastlines, tidal variations, rivers and deserts are all fascinating. The harsh light of midday, the lateral illumination of dawn or evening, the changes throughout the year… they are always inspiring. Flying gives me the freedom to experience the enormity of this landscape.
© Richard Woldendorp
[Left] ‘Top of Curtis Island estuary and sand banks, Cape Capricorn, Queensland’ 1997
[Centre] ‘Mudflats, Derby, Western Australia’ 1980
[Right] ‘Salt Lakes in Wheat Fields, near Esperance, Western Australia’ 1994
What are some of the challenges of making aerial photographs and what solutions have you learned in order to resolve these challenges?
I am endlessly surprised by the subject matter and go with an open mind, with no expectations. I never know what I am going to find and always I have a sense of wonderment. Suddenly the landscape begins to reveal itself in a way that sums up the whole. I have learned to anticipate that revealing moment and can instruct the pilot so that I am in the optimum position at exactly the right moment when light and form come together.
I worked for many years using film: Leica and Canon 35mm cameras which had thirty-six frames per roll, and a Pentax 6×7, 120mm film camera which had ten frames. This taught me to be very selective, because it is distressing to get to the end of a roll of film just as the landscape begins to truly reveal itself. My approach has always been: would I take the picture if this were the last frame on the film?
How do you know when you captured the definitive shot?
I seem to always know, even when I had to wait until the film had been developed at a lab. And, although I now use a digital camera, I still like to ‘see’ the image in my mind before I take it. The challenge is how to interpret the complexity of information; to anticipate. To do this, I must be selective in the way I observe the scene.
© Richard Woldendorp
[Left] ‘Plough Patterns near Toodyay, Western Australia’ 2005
[Right] ‘Waste Ore Dump, Lake Lefroy, south of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia’ 2006
Not all of the forms you photograph were made by Nature. For example, ‘Plough patterns near Toodyay’.
These patterns were made by a farmer, but the creativity was unconscious. It was forced upon him by nature, as he ploughed around the rocky terrain. The farmer was completely unaware of the patterns he had made, which could only be appreciated from the air.
You have worked a lot for the mining industry, and this too has created some remarkable patterns in the landscape, for example in ‘Waste Ore Dump, Lake Lefroy’.
Yes, that image shows once again a man-made creation only appreciable from the air. All those dots are piles of waste created as a by-product of gold and nickel mining.
© Richard Woldendorp
[Left] ‘Coastal Salt Lake, east of Israelite Bay, Western Australia’ 2006
[Right] ‘Lake Moore, central Western Australia’ 2007
Some of these images look so much like paintings that it is hard to believe that they are formed by Nature and exist on a vastly larger scale than any traditional work of art.
The forms that I see from the air are created by Nature. What I want to do is to show their unique identity. I want to capture an image that will sum up the overall scene; not just what it looks like, but how it feels when you look at it. I don’t want to manipulate or interfere with the scene, or to twist it to my own wishes. It is a real place with a real identity. It has been there for millions of years.
I want to make people think and observe, so I do confuse them a little by excluding the horizon. That way, the viewer does not have a point of reference and this amplifies the abstraction of the landscape. It is the essence that I want to capture. In doing so, I rely on my natural instinct in using the light and form to convey that essence.
When I was looking at your early images, I was struck by your photograph of the painter Robert Juniper. His paintings seem to pre-echo some of the imagery and forms you were to discover when viewing the Australian landscape from the air.
In the 1950s I went to live in Darlington in the hills inland from the Western Australian city of Perth. Many artists lived there because of its natural beauty and peaceful environment. I met Robert Juniper in the early 1960s. I was just starting out as a photographer and he was very encouraging. We had wonderful conversations and exchanges of ideas. It was an inspirational relationship on both sides. When I started photographing from the air, I persuaded him to come with me on several trips so that he could see the aerial landscape for himself.
Australia is a land with many stories and home to the oldest continuous culture in the world. All of the places you photograph have their own stories to tell: of the way in which indigenous Australians understand the land as a weaving of narratives, and the history of colonial settlement which has been overlaid upon it.
Seeing the Australian landscape from the air, I became aware of the way the Aboriginal people must have conceived of the land. Many indigenous paintings appear like landscapes viewed from the air and, whenever I fly, I am reminded of them. The photograph of ‘Ant Clearings in the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia’ reminds me of Aboriginal dot paintings.
© Richard Woldendorp
[Left] ‘Ant Clearings, Great Sandy Desert, Pilbara Western Australia’ 2003
[Right] ‘Sheep with Sheep Tracks, Western Australia’ 1986
In the photograph of sheep tracks leading to a water trough, I am reminded of the human impact on the land. The European settlers brought with them sheep and, in many cases, the land was over-grazed and laid bare, leading to damaging erosion.
Your work has been reproduced in many books and magazines and displayed in many exhibitions, but it has also been used in more unusual and innovative ways.
I have published a lot of books on my work – twenty-seven in all. So, my images have been seen by a lot of people. This has inspired a number of architects, designers and advertising agencies to use my images in unusual ways.
In 2007, Skadada, a multi-artform circus company, used my images to create the dramatic settings for a performance called ‘Aureo’. In it a young girl falls out of bed and tumbles through dreams into a world of visual fantasy. An architect used my photographs inside lifts and the fashion designer Sara Phillips created a fabric for her 2012 winter collection using my work. Then, just last year , Andrew Hogg used one of my aerial photographs in his design for the one-dollar stamp in the Australian Post Office’s ‘Art and Nature’ series. It is very exciting and rewarding to see one’s work inspire others in this way.
You have been photographing for more than six decades. Over the years, what have you learned about yourself: in the world and in the process of making photographs?
As I have got older, I have come to appreciate even more the many experiences I have had in a life of photography. I never wanted a studio and the restrictions that would go with that, and this enabled me to remain free. I find it very satisfying to be surrounded by Nature in this way. It is always a humbling experience and there are always lessons to be learnt. The diversity of our environment inspires me. I just have to tune in to its perfection.
Born in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in 1927, Richard Woldendorp joined the Dutch army at the age of nineteen. He was posted to Indonesia for three years, after which he, like many young European servicemen, was encouraged by the Australian government to make his home in the great southern land. In 1951 he emigrated to Australia, intending to head for Sydney. But first, he visited the historic port of Fremantle beside the city of Perth in the state of Western Australia, and it was here he decided to settle.
Richard Woldendorp passed away in April 2023.
Photo: © Peter Goodall
This article was first published in Chinese, in the October 2019 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. First published in English at Talking Pictures in January 2020.