Tent on the Frankland Range, Southwest Tasmania (c.1968), Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston. Purchased 1998. WHEN he took this photograph, Olegas Truchanas had just lost his house and most of his possessions in a bushfire, and he was soon to lose a lake as well.
The tent clings precariously to the rocky incline. If you follow the rope you can see that it runs a long way down, like the spoke of a spider’s web that has had to look a long way for an anchor. It’s hard to see how any kind of level sleeping position could be achieved inside this tent, let alone any comfort.
It’s a suitable shelter for a man who has come to be seen — with good reason — as something of a patron saint to conservationists. Saints and martyrs suffer, after all: think of Simeon Stylites, whose austerity was so extreme he lived on top of a pillar in the Syrian desert. But Trucha- nas was not a saint. The Lithuanian-born artist loved being in the great Tasmanian outdoors, and he loved his adopted country with the passion of the refugee who has known real suffering, not the self-imposed hardship of the solitary bushwalker.
Truchanas’s suffering occurred before he came to Australia, during wartime, when he fought for the Lithuanian resistance movement. After that, Tasmania was paradise. On days off from his job as a clerk at the Hydro-Electric Commission, Truchanas would embark on lengthy solo trips into the unexplored southwest of the island, on foot or with a home-made canoe. Taking a camera with him, he climbed Federation Peak, and he was the first to kayak the length of the Serpentine and Gordon rivers.
Returning from these expeditions, he would present illustrated lectures, showing his fellow Tasmanians what he had seen.
It was the proposed flooding of the remote Lake Pedder that radicalised Truchanas and made his slideshows more urgent. Although he was an employee of the enterprise that threatened the lake, Truchanas toured Tasmania with an audiovisual display in an attempt to save the place he loved. But the lake was lost, despite the campaigns of conservationists and despite the recommendations of a belated federal inquiry.
Tent on the Frankland Range is a spectacular image, as artful as a Jeff Wall, its misty vista reminiscent of Chinese landscape painting. It could hold its own in any gallery of contemporary art.
The same could not be said of all of his photographs. Unlike the work of his protege Peter Dombrovskis (Public Works, March 8-9), most of Truchanas’s photos were taken quickly, with an ordinary 35mm camera and a “lousy” lens, which was all he could afford. Some of his images of Lake Pedder are like the family snaps of a talented amateur photographer — which, in a sense, is what they were. Certainly he visited places that very few had been to, showing Tasmanians what they had (and what they stood to lose). But as for the photographs themselves it was the passion behind them that distinguished them, their part in a narrative of loss and hope.
After losing his negatives in the 1967 Hobart bushfire, Truchanas set out to replace the lost images. In 1972 he revisited the Splits on the Gordon River, and he slipped. His body was found three days later. Mythologically speaking it was a heroic if sad end, sealing his identity as martyr to the conservationist cause.
His widow, Melva Truchanas, has donated most of her husband’s 35mm slides to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. Some of Truchanas’s work, including the Lake Pedder slideshows, are included in the exhibition Into the Wild, which is on until May 25.
March 22-23, 2014
Photographic print, 150cm x 95cm