The Photograph Explained: Boorara State Forest by John Austin

Boorara by John Austin

This photograph made in Boorara State Forest, Western Australia shows a forest clear-fell coupe partly felled. It was early morning and there was some low level cloud giving localised patches of light in the mid ground.

The photograph is from my Threnody Portfolio, a folio of forest devastation covering 19 years so far, and now sadly continuing. The title Threnody is also part of the title of a video I have made of forest images, beautiful, bellicose and tragic with music by David Pye and Saxon Mountford.

I worked intensively in the Southern Forests of Western Australia from 1994 to 2003. After leaving Fremantle I settled in the Southern Forests intending to work in a quiet and contemplative manner. However, I very quickly learned there was, and is, nothing quiet or contemplative about Western Australia’s forest regions. I don’t want to turn this article about a photograph into an enviro-political one, but if one is to engage with the landscape as a subject such a stance is unavoidable.

To make pretty pictures without subject engagement is theft, whether landscape or people. I therefore have a general dislike of street photography, except of course grabbing photographs of politicians, or in my case loggers. This means I find it crucial to know my subject not only in terms of light and aesthetics but its history and as much as possible about it, so each bit of jarrah or karri forest I walk through I read in terms of logging history; loss of floral diversity, disease, bad burning practices making fallen trees case hardened and unavailable to invertebrates or fungi, I could go on about Western Australia’s bad forest management, but . . .

In Boorara Forest, at the junction of Gardner River Road and Preston Road a log truck driver stopped his truck and said to me “photograph these, you will never see their like again” 

I stopped working in the forest in 2003 as I found the situation utterly depressing. The forest documentary work is recommencing now, caused by the WA Government being hell bent on setting up the annihilation of all remaining natural karri and jarrah forest within the next ten to twenty years.

Almost all my landscape work is photographed on 4 x 5, with difficult to access or in wet dirty situations I use a 120 twin lens reflex with 55 mm lens. One of the first things I learnt about photography in the early 1970’s was to use the largest format practical in any situation. I use an 8 x 10 Norma with 36 cm Heliar lens for work with people in situations where I can move it, and its tripod, from the Ute easily.

I briefly used a 8 x 10 wooden camera for landscape work, but decided that 8 x 10 was a format-too-far after getting the thing half way up a cliff near Albany in three trips, tripod, camera and stuff, finally film holders and stuff. Then the tripod started to slip down the cliff and the light had changed to useless by the time the thing was set up and stable. I have since sold that camera to a young photographer who is enjoying dragging it around the SW forests. There is some sadness about abandoning 8 x 10 as a landscape format, so I would like to find an affordable Toyo Field 8 x 10. When a large format negative is put in the enlarger memories of lugging a big camera outfit through bush or along a beach are forgotten and the image quality dances off the baseboard.

I hold that a resource-devouring medium like black and white photography must be used with great respect and used for political work. To make too many pictures that are merely pretty or of pretty things is self-indulgent and a waste of earth resources. This political use of landscape photography can be amplified by the myth of the veracity of a black and white photograph, where it is considered to have a truth not present in a manipulated colour digital picture, the manipulation removing all documentary validity. However, and this has been a contradiction within me for as long as I have been working with photography, I also adore the beauty of a well seen picture in a well made silver gelatin print. I now accept this self-contradiction and I will probably vacillate between the two horns of the dilemma for as long as I continue working.

The Boorara image was made with a 150 mm Apo Lanthar, although most of my landscape work is made with a 135 mm lens, equivalent to 35 mm on 35 mm (based on 43 mm being standard for 35 mm film, square root of 24 squared plus 36 squared = 43ish). The 135 mm lens gives a comfortable angle of view and will sit inside the camera when folded so it can be slung on one shoulder, with a canvas bag of film holders and stuff on the other and a medium weight tripod as a balancing stick. I am currently trying out an old 90 mm tiny bubble of a lens that also fits inside the closed metal camera body.

John Austin's darkroom
The print size for the forest folios is generally 20 x 24, sometimes 16 x 20. Sizes small enough to approach without the viewer being dominated and large enough to give enough to read at normal viewing distances. The new work with people is planned to be printed to be as big as I can get, and is from 8 x 10 negatives. I want it to be confronting.

This picture was made on FP4+, now superseded by Delta 100. Both are responsive, dependable and work well in ancient D76. This developer was made up on 3rd May 1985 and has been replenished ever since. However, the replenishment process is carefully monitored, with zone VIII and XI sheets being checked on a densitometer and the replenishment altered accordingly.

Prints are made on 8 x 10 and 4 x 5 DeVere enlargers, the big one being used for prints on roll paper up to as big as we can manage without creasing the wet paper. I use only the very best German enlarging lenses for my work, but for the negative making stage I enjoy the visual presence of older lenses, particularly Voigtlander.

John Austin
Quinninup, Western Australia

Forest Threnody (on Vimeo) by John Austin

John Austin with 4x5