A FEW OF MY FAVOURITE THINGS
This series takes a peak at the other things that are important in a professional photographer’s life besides camera gear. In this issue photojournalist Peter Solness explains the significance of, among other things, a table tennis table. Once again, Bruce Usher was behind the camera and the audio recorder.
What do professional photographers get up to when they’re not behind the camera? We take a look at the personal side of a photographer’s life as expressed through a few of their treasured possessions. In this issue photojournalist Peter Solness explains the significance of, among other things, a table-tennis table.
“My brother’s surfboard is an heirloom in a way; he made the board in 1985. He was a larger-than-life surfer, board designer and shaper in the Cronulla area. It’s important to me – he died tragically in 1986; I was 28 and he was 30. He was murdered. His candle burnt brightly, but it was all over too soon. I mostly kept the board under the house, but recently my 11-year-old son surfed it and that was a wonderful healing thing for me. I’ve also got his saxophone
and guitar that I’ve learned to play a bit. He was on the cover of Nat Young’s history of surfing.
“My library of books is important to me. They represent some permanency… as much as you can expect in a photographic career. Most of my work became fish-and- chip wrappers or blown away by the wind, but it’s gratifying to me, at 60 years of age, to have this tower of books. Tree Stories is my most important book and I authored that by myself. I worked on it for four years – it was designed by John Witzig and published by both Australian Geographic and Chapter
The whole idea of light-painting is a considered application of light. The weaker the torch, the more considered you can become.
& Verse. It’s about my love of Australia, using the trees as a metaphor to draw out very personal stories.
“The absolute epic photojournalism dream job was for the book and film The Red Express From Berlin To Beijing. I spent six months over a 12-month period, travelling with film crews and on my own. From the Berlin Wall up to the Baltic States and through Eastern Europe to Siberia, as the wall was coming down. When we arrived in West Berlin to finish the final episode – the episodes weren’t shot in sequence, the other five had been done the previous year – the production finances collapsed and the film production was cancelled. I was left with $80 to pay the hotel laundry bill and get a plane ticket home. So I pulled $5000 off my credit card, re-employed the sacked interpreters and mounted my own production out of a hotel room in West Berlin and continued on to finish the book. It was published by Simon & Shuster in 1991. Sydney northern beaches cinematographer Pieter De Vries got me involved in this and another project, a book called The Chinese Army.
“In 1983, when I was in my early 20s and at the end of my surf photography era, I rode my motorbike around Australia for two years. On the back of that I got a commission and a substantial contract from publisher Angus & Robertson to complete my body of work on the Australian seasons for the book The Australian Year: The Chronicle Of Our Seasons And Celebrations. Les Murray, the poet, wrote the prose for the book and I was absolutely fascinated by how he saw the country and the seasons. This was one of the first substantial books I worked on, and I was also working for Fairfax at the time.
“I always wanted to have people in the house socially, but it was always hard through my photojournalism career as I was always away and I never had much of a regular social life. So when my son was born in 2007 – and I separated from his mother shortly after – I found myself as a single father living in a small house in inner-city Rosebery. I wanted to have people through the house to be happy, I didn’t want to have drinks and stand around. I found that table tennis draws people together… it’s got memory associated to it and it’s fun to play. It’s a good party starter. I started a Friday night table-tennis championship and I even had a small trophy made. It was really informal, but created a sense of grounding for me by bringing my son’s friends and family into the house.
“The mighty Maglite torch. There are many different versions, and a lot of security guards use them… they’re apparently quite good for clubbing people as well. I like the weight of it, and that I can focus its beam. It’s like a paintbrush. It also has an incandescent bulb which is lovely and warm and, when I’m shooting landscapes at night, I’m always exposing for a bit of skylight as well, which reproduces as a lovely blue.
“The Maglite is not very powerful compared to the modern LED lights and I have torches up to 1000 lumens [a standard 60-watt bulb puts out around 750 to 850 lumens]. But the interesting thing with light-painting is that you don’t want the light to be too powerful, otherwise you can’t be subtle, you can’t paint. The whole idea of light-painting is a considered application of light. The weaker the torch, the more considered you can become, you can bring the torch up close to the subject and you can paint over an area that interests you over a longer time. Ironically, the most powerful torches are the most useless. Sometimes I use two lights to do portraits – the one in the photo and a smaller one – I can create a beautifullylit shot with a torch as big as my finger. Obviously there is a lot of post-production to bring it all together.
“My influence in light-painting came from doing surfing shots at night in the 1970s, using a Nikonos underwater camera and a little Sunpack flash in a water housing. I got a bunch of mates out in the surf at Cronulla Point one night when all the TVs in the units were on, so we could see what we were doing. I was getting shots of guys doing cut-backs off the lip of the waves and the flash was freezing them on the blackness… and I love the drama of light on black. And then, when I did my Tree Stories book, I started to lightpaint trees with multiple flash shots and it always looked really theatrical. It’s the idea of the Chiaroscuro technique, or a Rembrandt or a Caravaggio… the drama of light spilling through the shot in unlikely ways, but always with a sense of quality. So rather than have the light as an external remote element in the photograph, the light source is actually within the frame and it takes on a quality that is both rare and unique.
“I spent all my 20s, 30s and up until my mid-40s as a photojournalist and not really holding down regular relationships. My son
Tuomo was born when I was 49. And that was the great completion of what I wanted out of my life. I’ve always been grateful for that, and have never taken it for granted. Six months after he was born, Greenpeace sent me to this remote province in PNG and there was all this shit going down and I really didn’t want to be there… I wanted to be home with my son. I’ve reprioritised of my life, taken on the light-painting, and I’m living my life through Tuomo a bit now.”