The Photograph Explained: The edge #2, Govetts Leap by Ian Brown

Edge Govetts Leap

This image goes back a long way. I have a 35mm transparency from the same point about 30 years ago, when a strong wind was blowing the waterfall upwards in bursts of vapour, momentarily creating an intense rainbow in the spray. Although its only 20 minutes from my house, and I had passed within metres many times on the nearby walking track, I had never returned. I was just a keen snapshooter then, but in the intervening years my approach and dedication grew, as my equipment advanced through medium format to large format and digital. As a bushwalker, somehow other places always seemed more exotic and appealing.

Then in 2012 I was struggling to secure a powerful enough image for the cover of my next Wild Blue Mountains Calendar, and thought again of that precarious brink that melded so much together. I visualised the first light of sunrise setting the flowing water aglow, with the rich greens and overlapping clifflines of the Grose Valley beyond. It had to be a clear morning, after rain had put a decent amount of water in the creek.

When the time came round I packed my 4 x 5 and digital systems. In the pre-dawn gloom I left the track and trod gently down the slippery rock bed of the creek, another reason I hadn’t been back. But I was prepared, with a rock climbing harness, slings, karabiners and a short rope. A few metres from the edge, a solid tree still grew. I tied myself and the tripod to it, with enough rope to just reach the only useful tripod position, on flat rock right on the edge. Govetts Leap is supposed to be the longest single-drop waterfall in the Blue Mountains (186 metres apparently), and dropped gear could not be contemplated…not least because of the walking track below.

I soon realised I had miscalculated – the rising sun would be behind the cliff, lighting the valley but not the water. Still, I began making pictures before sunrise and kept working until after the sun rose ‘over the yardarm’. The light was changing fast, and in the end I had to hurry to catch the scene before the sun came into the frame, and then wait until it moved out of the picture again. I was juggling cameras on the tripod, moving it back from the edge every time. I lassoed a spray of shrubbery that blocked the forest below, pulling it temporarily out of the way. In the first golden glow I made several 4 x 5 and digital images, using an ND grad filter to darken the blinding sky and bright valley against the shadowed water. I tried both landscape and portrait versions. Eventually the light was gone.

When I assessed the images later, I was delighted. It was the digital version in portrait orientation, made just after sunrise, that made the cover of the calendar…not just because that was the calendar format, but because the scene worked better that way. The strength of the diagonal waterfall countered the background triangles. By comparison, the landscape images seemed somehow a little unbalanced. Also, with some work, the digital image handled the high contrast better than the 4 x 5s. The 4 x 5s were OK, but showed up the notorious shortcomings of reversal film in darker shadows that could not be retrieved.

But then I started to look again at one of the 4 x 5 portrait versions from later in the morning, with a higher sun coming onto the water. I had only just started trying ISO 160 negative film, especially for difficult shots, for its greater latitude and dynamic range. This negative film is also unsaturated and the colours can be a little odd from nature, but working from a scan, those things can usually be managed. I scanned it on my flatbed to make sure it was a ‘goer’, sent it off for a high resolution scan and made some adjustments.

That’s the picture you see here. It was made with a 90mm lens on the 4 x 5, because that was the only composition that worked from the only available stance. Luckily, it worked well. I prefer to work with a 4 x 5 view camera when I can; I love the way you can see and control so many parameters of the image with your own hands, and the satisfaction that comes from that. And I love the clarity and detail that can be achieved from a 4 x 5 original. But digital is often more practical in the bush, and sometimes it’s the digital image or nothing.

This cooler, 4 x 5 negative version is growing on me, and I’m coming to prefer it to the digital version on the calendar. Perhaps I’ve just stared at the latter for too long. But I’m also getting heartily sick of all the in-your-face, over-saturated guff out there that is supposed to be ‘nature’ photography, and seeking a little refuge in subtlety and realism. We should be respecting nature, not abusing it through exaggeration.

For most of my prints I use matte cotton rag, but I also print on polyester when I want to preserve some radiance from the image – as you see in a transparency or on the screen. I feel these images are in that category, and I’ve been printing the digital version on polyester gloss (while trying to keep the colours real!), to a size of 16 x 20. At this stage I would go to 20 x 24 with a sharp, ‘full-frame’ digital, but not beyond without some soul-searching. I will be printing “The edge #2” on a slightly softer polyester pearl, also to 16 x 20 for practical reasons, but would be happy to push this one to 24 x 30 or more.

And I won’t leave it another 30 years before I go back.

Portrait of Ian Brown

Ian Brown