Portraits celebrate the outback, bush and coast

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“A Real Show Stopper”. Berry, New South Wales. Photo: James Pozarik.

AN exhibition of 56 photographs and stories from the outback, bush and coast, has opened at the National Museum of Australia (NMA) as part of a partnership between “Australian Geographic” and the Museum.

I caught up with the editor-in-chief of “Australian Geographic”, Chrissie Goldrick, who explained the nature of the collaboration which has led to this exhibition being staged not just in Canberra, but all around the country.

Back in 2016, with a strong focus on human beings in rural and regional areas, the raison d’etre of “Australian Geographic”, Goldrick and her team had published a book, “A Portrait of Australia” to celebrate 30 years of “Australian Geographic” magazine.

It covered ordinary people, the movers and shakers of Australia as seen by the magazine’s expert snappers’ and writers’ 30 years of reporting.

NMA staff had already seen the book and noticed a strong synergy between the work of “Australian Geographic” and the National Museum. 

The museum approached her with the idea of doing a single exhibition in Canberra, but it soon turned into something different, a touring show which can be ordered through the museum by anyone in Australia or beyond. Venues around the country were able to select from a collection of about 60 photographs to tell their own regional stories.

Goldrick has seen the show in Toowoomba, on Bribie Island and now in Canberra and praises the National Museum’s interpretive storytelling skills.

“They have made the whole thing into something that is for all,” she says.

“Kelpie, King of the Mob”, near Nyngan, NSW. Photo: Paul Raffaele.

The show paints a varied picture of life in the bush and outback and on the coast, like the ageless picture of cattle in western NSW by Paul Raffaele, Bill Hatcher’s picture of Silverton, 25km north-west of Broken Hill, and an image by Mike Langford of a cattle yard in the East Kimberley region of WA on a station owned and managed by the local Gooniyandi people.

Summernats 2013. Photo: Thomas Wielecki.

Even Canberra gets a look in, with a picture by Thomas Wielecki of Summernats 2013, where an official Guinness world record was created when 69 cars performed simultaneous burnouts.

“The real strength,” Goldrick says she has realised, “is the visual story we were telling of the people in the lives of the people… We are a geographical magazine, and we look at the land through the filter of people who live there or who use the land. The story was diverse by itself, the story of the Australian people as we had captured them over 30 years”.

But the exhibition, she says, is “a” portrait of Australia, not “the” portrait. “We’re not saying our version is definitive.”

“Pearls and Wisdom”, Brisbane, Queensland. Photo: Frances Mocnik.

After the museum and the magazine agreed to create an exhibition around this idea, Goldrick went through the back files of the magazine to make a shortlist of 230 articles, but found that the box-ticking process she first adopted didn’t work, as the story was the story of people, not categories.

Massive editing was required, and she became fascinated by watching how the staff of the NMA got the stories down to around 60 – “I loved watching them do it”.

“It was important to get out of the cities – city life gets plenty of coverage, so it’s the more remote and regional areas that are pictured in the book and in the exhibition. It’s been so well received in the regions where people can see themselves and their own lives on the walls, shot in positive, bright primary colours by wonderful photographers.”

“Up the Birdsville Track”, near Birdsville, Queensland. Photo: Colin Beard.

And does Goldrick have a favourite?

Well, that’s like asking who your favourite child is, she notes, but she does love the one of the swagman shot on the Birdsville Track in 1988, which gives the feeling of going back to the 1980s.

“It just really captures a way of life about to run out as the Birdsville Track was being bituminised, so we made it a key image for exhibition – the idea of a journey outback.”

The swagman pictured in the photograph by Colin Beard, she says, was exactly as the photo shows. The SA police had asked him and his group to go out and rescue him but when they found the swaggie, they found he had everything he needed and wondered what all the fuss was about… he was simply walking from the Kimberley to the Hunter Valley.

“I love it, it’s a romantic picture about a dying way of life – the romance of the swagman, freedom,” she says.

“A Portrait of Australia: Stories Through the Lens of ‘Australian Geographic’”, at the NMA, studio gallery on the ground floor, until March 8, free.

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