Interview with David Tatnall
David Tatnall is best know as a wilderness photographer, but he’s also a champion of new ways of seeing using old technology.
— Amanda Smith. ABC Radio National interview. Artworks 2007.
When, how and why did you first become interested in photography?
My interest in photography came at an early age when I was “handed down” my sister’s Box Brownie camera in the 1960s.
What influences you and your photography?
I’ve always had an interest in the natural world. I took up bushwalking as a teenager and walked and camped in wild and remote places of south-eastern Australia.
I always took my camera on these trips. At that stage, a 35 mm range-finder camera, calculating exposures with a cardboard dial.
In the late 1960s a scheme to build a hydro electricity dam in southwest Tasmania that would destroy the unique Lake Pedder was proposed. Lake Pedder was a national park and its proposed destruction became a catalyst for my involvement in conservation and photography.
I was fortunate to know the Australian photographer Ian Lobb, who received an Australia Council grant to travel to the USA to study photography with Ansel Adams and Paul Caponigro. He went on to run The Photographers’ Gallery and Workshop with Bill Heimerman in Melbourne in the 1970s.
Seeing the physical prints of Ansel Adams, Paul Caponigro, Eliot Porter, Fredrick Sommer and Emmet Gowin by Ian Lobb had a profound influence on me.
I took up using a medium format camera in the early 1970s and a 4 x 5 large format camera in the late 1970s.
As most of the wild and natural places I visited were under some kind of threat, I became involved in their protection using my camera.
I was greatly honoured when thirty years later, I was awarded a Life Time Achievement Award by Parks Victoria and an Honorary Life Membership of the Victorian National Parks Association for ‘an outstanding contribution to nature conservation in Victoria though photography’.
What subjects do you enjoy photographing?
Needless to say, landscape is my favourite subject. But I also enjoy photographing people and the built environment.
What have been your favourite projects and why?
I’ve been working on a number of long-term projects. I’ve just completed a folio of photographs of a remote island in Bass Strait that I’ve been working on for 15 years.
Another long-term project has been the Merri Creek (a 70 kilometre creek in urban Melbourne). I’m working on a new body of work that will become my fourth exhibition of the creek, over a 25-year period.
I enjoy making photographs over long periods and in different seasons and light conditions. The landscape looks different all the time.
You’re the Artist in Residence at a number of schools. Can you explain a little about what this involves?
I’m currently Artist in Residence at the School for Student Leadership (State Government year nine residential campuses at Dinner Plain, Cape Conran and Glenormiston).
I teach the students to use simple 35 mm SLR film cameras and we go out and make photographs of the natural world.
As the cameras are slower to use and require following instructions the students take time and care to make the best photographs they can. By slowing down and spending time in nature they begin to see the world differently through photography.
Do you find there is still an interest in film photography among younger people or do they need the instant gratification of digital?
Most of the young students love the feel of the SLR film cameras. There is a real interest in film photography, but unfortunately not many schools have darkrooms any more, this coupled with poorly trained photography teachers means taking up film photography is very difficult.
You’re interested in pinhole photography. What appeals about photography with pinhole cameras?
I’ve used pinhole photography in teaching for more than 20 years. I became more and more interested in it as an art form due to its unique view of the world and its simplicity.
I’ve made and had made for me a number of simple pinhole cameras varying in size from 4×5 to 8×10.
I received a grant from the City of Melbourne to make a series of photographs of Melbourne using an 8×10 pinhole camera. The resulting photographs Melbourne: Pinhole have been shown in two solo exhibitions.
Since then my pinhole photographs have been shown in exhibitions in Canberra, Warrnambool, Italy and Argentina.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in trying out pinhole photography?
Do a workshop. Although pinhole photography is simple, if you want to get excellent results rather than okay results, find an expert doing workshops.
What darkroom methods do you use? Can you share some tips for those just starting out in the darkroom?
I have an excellent bespoke darkroom and studio at my house in Melbourne. I develop my large format negatives in trays – 4×5, 5×7 and 8×10 in 8½ x 10½ trays. I develop roll film in daylight tanks.
I have a 4 x 5 enlarger and a sink that can fit four 16×20 trays. I made a decision when building this darkroom about the maximum size of prints I want to make, for me it was 16×20. A darkroom that’s too big will just attract dust and be a bigger chore to clean.
For photographers starting out in the darkroom I suggest going to as many darkrooms as possible before you build your own. There is no ‘one size fits all’ darkroom. Bench height needs to be the correct height for you, not a standard height. Width of sink needs to be correct for you, not a standard width.
If you can see over other photographs darkrooms, take a tape measure and take notes, ask questions about what works and why.
Practice, practice and practice some more. If you are scratching negatives while processing, you need to practice until you don’t. Work slowly and carefully; wait until you have the time before starting.
Keep the darkroom clean. Dust is the worst thing, apart from a light leak in a darkroom.
Can you name some Australian photographers you admire?
Ian Lobb (whose work can be seen at the National Gallery of Australia & National Gallery of Victoria).
Chris Bell in my opinion the best living large format photographer working in colour in Australia.
Stephen Tester whose landscape work with 8 x 10 producing platinum & palladium prints is superb.
Craig Tuffin – stunning 20 x 24 wet plate collodion photographs, and you have to admire a photographer who’s converted a caravan into a darkroom to take on location..
Where has your work been shown? Where can we see your work now?
My photographs have been collected by the National Gallery of Victoria, State Library of Victoria, Monash Gallery of Art, Australian Embassy Washington. USA. Australian Consul-General Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam. As well as regional galleries and private collections in Australia.
My work has been exhibited in 26 solo and 42 group exhibitions since 1977. I’m working on my next exhibition ‘Coast’ for 2014.
My work is represented by Gold Street Studios & Gallery
My website has examples of my landscape and pinhole photographs and information about workshops I run.
My first large format 4×5 camera was a wooden folding camera weighing about one kilogram, I used it with one lens, a standard 150mm for 20 years.
When it wore out I replaced it with a metal folding camera, with two extra lenses, a 90mm wide angle and a 210 mm long lens. I still use the original 150mm standard lens.
I use a one degree spot meter for exposure readings – the same one for 30 years.
My decision to use 4×5 over other large formats was based on my ability to carry it on walking and camping trips days away from civilization.
I try wherever possible to tread lightly on the planet, I have rainwater tanks to offset the water used in my darkroom, the waste water is recycled as grey-water, I have solar panels and offset carbon generated in my travels with tree planting.
What do you suggest for photographers starting out in large format photography?
Workshops. There are a number of workshops in large format photography around Australia, I recommend finding one that suits your needs and get quality information that way rather than trail and error or from the net.
I run workshops in large format and pinhole photography.
Ellie Young at Gold Street Studios runs workshops in alternative process photography.
Chris Reid runs photographic printing workshops.
Other workshops in large format photography are at;