“Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” written by Kurt Vonnegut, directed by Cate Clelland, Canberra REP at Theatre, until August 4. Reviewed BY LEN POWER
AFTER the better part of a lifetime making Canberra and Canberrans look good, photographer Heide Smith is slowing down – a bit.
“CityNews” recently caught up with the virtuoso photographer and her husband (“slave,” he says) of 55 years, Brian, at their just-sold, peninsular hideaway out of Narooma.
Following their latest wedding anniversary and various joint replacements, both have decided to opt for a less taxing lifestyle than managing a property and holiday cottage, so plan to move, possibly to nearby arty Bermagui when they leave Hobbs Point in June.
Heide Smith is famous for “shooting” Canberrans. In 1990 the author Bryce Courtenay compiled a list of high-profile women and she photographed “Because Beauty is Timeless”, where public figures such as Ros Kelly, Blanche D’Alpuget and Geraldine Doogue were draped with cloth and photographed “to show that intellect and beauty could go together”.
In 1991, no doubt with gender equality in mind, Brian built a fake changing-room in Fyshwick, complete with dry ice to create steam, for her equally notable Canberra Raiders poster project where Heide made League luminaries such as Laurie Daley, Mal Meninga and Ricky Stuart almost as pretty as the women.
Now in 2018, the Smiths can look back on a long joint career of perfect synergy – she as high-energy photographer and he as calming, steadying business manager.
It’s 60 years since the pair met in post-war Germany, where he was posted to the British Army, and since then Heide has enjoyed “a wonderful and exciting life as a photographer”.
When she met Brian she had already passed through an exacting German photographic apprenticeship and become a photojournalist in Hameln (of Pied Piper fame). There, she says, photography was called “a trade – not art”. She still thinks that way and was appalled to hear a Canberra art photographer suggested that that focus is overrated. To her, it is “absolutely essential”.
After marrying, moving to the UK and starting a family, they found themselves in Ingleburn when Brian took a post with the Australian Army. Heide got a job with Vienna Studios in Liverpool, “working for peanuts until 2am” covering weddings of ordinary families. Here she fine-tuned the skills that would make her the go-to photographer in Canberra and mentor to a generation of younger portrait photographers.
“You must make your subject look as good as possible,” she tells “CityNews”. But adds: “Sometimes there’s only so much you can do.” And she will use Photoshop, but only in the way she might have done in the old days, to darken the edges.
A short stint with the Max Townsend studios in Melbourne followed, during which she learnt techniques of colour-gradation, and then they all came to Canberra, where Brian’s Army connections paid off in the form of a commission for a portrait of a general.
The rest is history. Heide set up business in Fyshwick, initially shooting anything – architecture, board meetings, executive and family portraits and weddings. With Brian now out of the Army and running the business, they had nine full time staff, were publishing books on Canberra and were courted by powerful and influential people.
In 1993 she was commissioned by the National Library to photograph the churches and churchmen of Canberra, and throughout the ’80s and ’90s she shot all the speakers at the National Press Club, all the governors-general, and even Bill Gates and Paul Keating talking.
But Heide’s heart was not with the rich and famous. Inspired by Irving Penn’s portrait of African tribesman, she shot a series about tradesmen in Fyshwick.
“I like to photograph people who work hard,” she says, quoting famed Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose portraits of working people she reveres.
Then in 1987 came “the project dearest to my heart,” when she documented the lives of the Tiwi people, creating the “soft, flat light” needed to get detail in their faces and combatting the heat of the tropics by rising early. Her first Tiwi book was published by A&R in 1990 and later reprinted, then in 2008 she and Brian published a second book covering 20 years of Tiwi life.
But Heide and Brian had already, in 1998, decided they didn’t want to be “shopkeepers” anymore, so closed the Canberra business and headed for the coast.
At Hobbs Point they have enjoyed the company of artistic luminaries who lived in the region, such as the late glass-artist Klaus Moje, the Clarks (Dymphna and Manning) and the recently deceased scientific artist Bob Baker – “so many artists and writers,” says Heide.
And they didn’t stop still. Her workshop is still full of priceless equipment and indeed the south coast offered Heide a chance to photograph ravishing landscapes, to which she is drawn as much as to the human face. It also gave her a chance “to get photography out there among the real people”.
She is especially proud of a photograph she took of the old Tathra wharf for a 2003 show about oyster farming exhibited up and down the coast in fishing sheds. In light of recent fires, and as she looks to preserve her vast photographic collection, some of these rare landscapes may be even more precious than before.
Access to Heide Smith’s photographs, including the Canberra projects, at heidesmith.com