Interview: Robert James Elliott by Christopher Deere
“I suppose what really got me back into shooting Large Format was the collection of old cameras I had hanging around and the desire to start to get them working again. Some of these go up to 6 ½ x 8 ½ inches, the big size excites me, not only with the challenges to master, but the quality as well”.
Getting old stuff to work is not so easy, so I purchased a Shen Hao 4 x 5 and a couple of lens, out of the States with some double darks, this really got me motivated, especially having to hand process the results of a day’s shoot, in small trays in the darkroom.
There is nothing nicer than to hold up a processed sheet of black and white film to the light and see a clean, crisp image”.
“I try to keep things simple, even with the ISO film speeds. These days I only use Fomapan 100, my hand meters, of which I use two, do not change, week in week out. There are exceptions when I shoot glass plates, but that’s another story.
I process my 4 x 5 sheet film in D76 with a 1+1 dilution at approx. 68 to 70 degrees for about 7 minutes, use a stop bath and fix for about 4 minutes, followed by a good washing in running water.
Sometimes I let the film drip dry, other times I use a hand dryer.
The negatives are stored in a CD holding box, something I got off Crazy Sales on the internet, the negatives fit nicely into the numbered sleeves and they are protected with the aluminium case”. Robert James Elliott.
Robert James Elliott has come home again, in more ways than one. The country kid from northern Victoria who fetched up in the middle of armed conflicts and natural disasters in South and South-East Asia is now living in his old home town, making a peace and purpose for himself away from the wider world. The seasoned news photographer and photo-journalist is in his early sixties, and all that he wants is to make his own traditional-technique photographs. After all, that was how he got into photography in the first place.
Sitting in the gallery space of the Age building in Melbourne, on a flying visit to the city for the sake of this interview, Elliott has a matter-of-fact way of describing how he started out as a photographer: “Basically, I picked up my father’s range-finder camera,” he says. Those early efforts fired his interest and formed his ability. When the time came to put together a darkroom, “I started off in the laundry at home,” smiles Elliott, “much to Mum’s displeasure.”
“I made a move from the town that I was in, which was Yarrawonga, shifted to Albury [and] worked for the newspaper there.”
Newspaper work with The Border Mail and other publications carried on for many years, and Elliott went on to win several awards for his photography. In time, the big world called and he left Australia to work as an agency photographer.
Elliott based himself in Cambodia for Agence France Presse in 1997, his favourite foreign posting, before being transferred to the agency’s bureau in Hong Kong. After a stint as chief of the photo desk, he was eventually sent to India.
Elliott speaks with a rising tone about his time in Cambodia. “That was a place where I felt very comfortable,” he says. “I loved the people. Also, it was a goldmine for pictures. Pictures were just everywhere. I used to get up early morning, early light, right out there in the street. I finished my work before lunch, because I had already worked my hours,” by which time he had produced a large variety of photographs.
This glorious visual bounty did not come without a few costs, however. Elliott might almost be talking about someone else as he runs through the list of misfortunes that he suffered throughout his career as a photo-journalist: “I’ve been robbed six times. I’ve been shot at, I’ve been bashed, I’ve been drugged,” he says, with only a slight tilting of his head to highlight the seriousness of such awful experiences.
None of those episodes seem to bother him very much now. “So, you know, I’m a survivor.”
As he makes clear, “In actual fact I found newspaper photo-journalism, working for the wire, extremely gratifying, because your end result was you had pictures in The New York Times, The Washington Post – your stuff was being published all over the world. Which is gratifying; it’s an end result, and that’s all that you can ask for.”
The occupational demands of the industry were eventually enough to make him work in a modern medium. As he acknowledges, “Digital I was shooting for twelve years,” he says, starting in 2000. The facility and convenience of digital cameras was attractive, and necessary, for those times when he needed to photograph and transmit something quickly.
Over time, unfortunately, it became obvious that any amount of ability and luck was not enough to keep him going forever. “What happened when I went freelance in late 2004,” says Elliott, “[was] the market went down.” He found it harder and harder to sustain himself once he had gone out on his own. Of the photography, he said, “It’s got nowhere to go, so there’s no end result, no satisfaction in the end apart from taking a nice picture. If you’re the only one that sees this nice picture, what’s the point?”
Elliott eventually regarded the winding-down of his work as a photo-journalist with some relief, as he explains: “In some ways it was good, because I got rid of all of that crap that I was carrying around on my shoulders, giving me aches and pains, and looking like a pack horse. From that point of view it was terrific.”
He cannot help but to sound a little wistful, however, as he adds, “But to be quite honest I really missed it, for a very, very long time.”
That was then; this is now. As he says firmly, “I’ve got to the stage now where I don’t miss it at all – in fact, I don’t particularly like [the] media much at all. They don’t have any scruples any more. To me, a lot of stuff that’s currently coming out of the mainstream media is some sort of violence. I don’t need that in my life. I don’t want to see it.
“I couldn’t work in the media any more,” he insists. Some of this conviction comes from what he regards as the scaling-down of the quality and emphasis on good photography in the printed media. “You’ve got journalists who are taking pictures too, with their phones.
“That is why I concentrate upon what I’m doing now, because I’m enjoying it and it’s a challenge. I get to do what I want to do, when I want to do it, for as long as I want.”
What he is doing now is going back to the old ways of making photographs, the Old Testament of esoteric alchemy from the earliest days of the craft. Earlier this year Elliott attended a salt-printing workshop conducted by Ellie Young at Gold Street Studios in Trentham East , learning from the ground up about one of the original techniques in photography.
The instruction that he received at East Trentham was a matter of necessity, as Elliott readily admits. “I did salt-printing on my own, without doing a workshop, and had bloody awful results,” he says. “But I got those glimmers of hope, and those glimmers of hope gave me enough courage to say, ‘I’ve got to do a workshop’, and when I did a workshop it was like doors were opened.”
Indeed they did. “The darkroom to me was always magic,” proclaims Elliott, “but alternate photography has got another element to that again.”
‘Alternative photographic processes’, is a term for the rarefied form of the craft to which he is now devoting himself. It’s clear that for Elliott this practice is how he intends to highlight his work and identity as a photographer, somewhat apart from his long history in news and documentary imagery.
Elliott’s determination to do something unique as an image-maker is plain in all that he describes about the kind of photography that he is practicing now. “Doing pinhole – and then doing salt-printing on top of that – it puts you in a very small category of people, all around the world,” he says. “And that just excites me.”
Elliott’s salt-print pictures look as though they might have just been salvaged from a derelict shearers’ dormitory, cast into careless storage by the indifferent relative of a long-ago passed-away pastoralist hobby photographer. Grain silos, graveyards, windmill water derricks, broken dwellings, machinery sheds and rusting trucks marooned in a sea of back-paddock scrub. The images speak so clearly of the country-boy’s view of the world that carried him away and so far from home. With these pictures, it seems, Elliott is striving to re-ground himself in his native territory, using an original camera technique to claim his country.
“A lot of my stuff has been experimentation,” says Elliott, of his subjects and his results. “I’m trying to find how wide my pinhole camera goes, how deep it goes.
Ian Latter from McKellar in the ACT built me a couple of superb pinhole cameras, which perform beautifully.”
The call of his old professional stomping-ground can be clearly heard in his next comment, however: “I would like to probably do something [with pinhole photography] at Angkor Wat, in Cambodia.”
With all of his experience and insight Elliott feels more than able to comment upon the purposes and motives of photography in a media-saturated world.
“When it’s all said and done: why are you doing it?” he asks. “Most people are looking for some sort of return: as in, they’re not going to get money from a magazine. So, what they’re looking for is accolades, so that it promotes them, so that they can then probably make some money by doing some work for somebody. I’m not interested in doing work for anyone.
“That’s why I’m making such strong, strong changes to what I do to separate myself from the masses.”
The closing circle of Elliott’s work as a photographer is outlined when he makes a comment about his current passion for older, slower camera work: “I did large-format when I was working in advertising,” he says, “so I shot with a large-format camera then.” Any notion of expertise with the format, however, is soon done away with. “But I didn’t know what I was doing. The only reason I know what I’m doing now is I have more control over the end result, of what I’m looking for.”
It’s been a long time, and a long way, from the early days of the photography in his childhood rural neighbourhood. Elliott has made countless pictures in the meantime, in so many more exotic locations than he can possibly name. Even so, he can say with all certainty: “The stuff that I’m working on now is far more exciting than anything that I have ever done in my life.”
His last word, one can sense, is all that he truly wants to say, to himself as well as to anyone else: “I want to go and do my own thing.”
Photographs by Robert James Elliott.