Peter Dombrovskis (1945-1996) is not a household name, but his images are known to most Australians. His photograph, Morning mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River (c.1980) was reproduced hundreds of thousands of times and became the iconic image in the successful campaign to save the Gordon and Franklin Rivers. His wilderness photographic books and calendars were published over a number of decades and enjoy a widespread popularity.
The National Library of Australia, which holds the Dombrovskis archive of more than 3000 transparencies, has selected and printed 70 images for this exhibition, the most comprehensive survey of his work to date. The exhibition is accompanied by a lavish book co-authored by Bob Brown, the founder of the Greens political party in Australia and a long-term friend of the photographer, and by Matthew Jones, the curator of this exhibition. From the outset, Brown declares, "Peter Dombrovskis was a genius of Australian nature photography."
The Latvian-born Dombrovskis arrived in Australia as a five-year-old in 1950 with his widowed mother fleeing war-torn Europe. They settled in Tasmania where Dombrovskis came under the mentorship of Olegas Truchanas, a Lithuanian-born wilderness photographer who was already working with Bob Brown on environmental campaigns. Truchanas died in 1972 while on a canoeing expedition down the Gordon River to photograph the Gordon Splits, and Dombrovskis took on the mantle and the battle.
Whereas most nature photographers in the 1970s and 1980s used the handy and easy to manoeuvre 35mm cameras, Dombrovskis from 1976 started to employ the bulky German Linhof camera that required a sturdy tripod to take a photograph. Whatever it lost in versatility it gained in precision with huge five by four inch exceptionally crisp colour transparencies. The exactitude of detail and very sharp focus of spectacular scenes is the characteristic of Dombrovskis' photographs in the exhibition as you move from one glowing gem-like image to the next.
There are numerous close-up details of rocks, bark, tree roots, vegetation, native animals and lichen as well as breathtaking scenes of trees, landscapes and watery masses caught in all seasons and in differing light effects. Dombrovskis frequently applies photographic techniques associated with still life image and studio photography to what appears to us like the pristine wilderness. He does not appear interested in a humanised landscape that shows the traces of human interaction with nature, but only in a "pure", untamed and undisturbed wilderness that could date back for thousands of years. It is an intentionally empty and uninhabited landscape.
Dombrovskis subscribed to the philosophy that the experience of the wilderness was something that returned you to your native original state. He wrote, "When you go out there, you don't get away from it all. You get back to it all. You come home to what's important. You come home to yourself." It is a twist on the very traditional idea of the philosophers of Romanticism, who saw in nature a glimpse of God and the sublime. These photographs could be interpreted as being consciously designed as a tonic for the soul.
Although I am seduced by these glimpses of the sublime and feelings of escapism that they engender, at the same time I experience a strange mixture of fear and guilt in this encounter. What am I looking at? Is it a testimony to a threatened, fragile environment witnessed by a person in a remote and inaccessible wilderness? Or is it an invitation to go and see this for myself as part of the mass of environmental tourists who inadvertently damage the environment that they come to admire. Can a wilderness remain a wilderness if it becomes a tourist attraction? Has Antarctica, for example, suffered through the growth in eco tourist traffic?
There is a genre of "wilderness photography" of which Dombrovskis is an undisputed master, but nevertheless it is a somewhat predictable genre, where everything is almost too perfect. His work breathes of a distilled perfection, where there is little room for accident and chance plays a limited role. The more time I spent with his photographs, the more I admired them and joined in their celebration of the beauty of the natural world.
What I did miss in Dombrovskis' images is the transcendental dimension where through the experience of the image you feel yourself transferred to a different level of existence. His photographs beautifully witness being there and the physical world, rather than conveying to the beholder the spiritual experience.
I am reminded of a line in Shakespeare where in Troilus and Cressida Ulysses says, "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin". A touch of wilderness should unite all of us to fight to preserve the natural environment of this and every other country.
Dombrovskis: Journeys into the wild is at the National Library of Australia. Daily 10am-5pm. Closes January 30, 2018.