October 25: Eden

25October 25: Jeff Carter, who died on this day in 2010, is undoubtedly the champion photographer of the now mythical outback Australian, the self-sufficient, no-nonsense, tough, reliable…the ‘battlers’. His subjects were unknowns living a quite different life to those of their city cousins.

The Drover’s Wife, Ursino Bore, 1958, one of Jeff’s most celebrated photographs.


Cane Cutter, Childers, Queensland, 1955

This prolific Australian writer, photographer and photojournalist whose business card for most of his career stated “photographer to the poor and unknown”, started to take photographs at the age of seventeen. A ceaseless adventurer, he left school and home to set out, with typewriter and folding Kodak, across the continent documenting the everyday lives of working people and created an archive of over 50,000 images, a selection  of which can be found online at the National Library of Australia. He covered the loggers, charcoal burners, fruit pickers, farmers and pastoralists as he hitchhiked and traveled around Australia. He wrote and illustrated twenty books and produced the popular TV series “Wild Country”.

My father bought many of Jeff’s photographs for Walkabout, while he was editor in the 60s, and one day we visited Foxground in the Blue Mountains West of Sydney where he’d settled in 1962 . There we found a man just like the people he photographed. Bull-knecked and strong as an ox, he lived in an isolated valley on the remains of a 45-hectare farm carved out of dense bush, which he and his wife Mare were reverting to the original forest and were in the process of creating a Wildlife sanctuary, inviting city children there on tours. Mare and Jeff were committed conservationists at a time when few had heard of the word and ‘the environment’ did not exist. I guess this was their ‘retirement plan’, but he never stopped taking photos nor did Mare stop writing.

I was just a boy, so my memory of our visit was my encounter with Goth and Vandal, their sons. True to their names, they were scarily wild, and soon were showing me around the property, up the steep mountain stream where above a waterfall was their source of water; a galvanised pipe resting in a deep waterhole brimming over into the waterfall, which was also their swimming pool, for which, they made clear, there was no need for bathers or towel. The water was freezing. They demonstrated their prowess with a .22 rifle, scaring the daylights out of me. Then took me to meet a little joey that Mare had rescued from its dead mother, hanging in a flour sack on the kitchen doorknob. If this was Eden, they were Cain and Abel, but they stopped at murdering each other, or their guests!


When I look back through Jeff’s photographs of the 1950s and 60s, they take me back to the writing in old issues of Walkabout by the likes of the great Ernestine Hill, who wrote there in 1940:

 All things of the idyllic seeming in this life are the most difficult – a windjammer, a genius, a beautiful woman, gold. Prose and poetry have glorified the drover’s existence into a ‘vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended’. Romance glows in the camp-fire light, and rings in the rhythm of the riding. 
It is doubtful whether there is a more arduous calling on earth, Truly it has poetry, but the men are too weary to find it. In the long hard days, they pay the price of  the poet’s inspiration. To them the everlasting stars are merely sleepless nights. From the time the head drover takes delivery to the time he trucks at the railhead–six months if he has luck–he knows not a moment’s peace
While the stars are still shining, the camp stirs, the horse-tailer out for the horses, a rattle of pans from the cook. The dog-watch rides in. Already the cattle are rising, and browsing here and there. Men bare to the waist drag themselves from all too brief slumber–those pyjamas were only a sop to sentiment after all, for nobody wears them on the trail. If there is a tier or waterhole handy, the  men plunge in. If not, they tip the water-cans into the dish. On a dry stage, a pannikin serves as a bath.
Standing round in the firelight when the dawn is grey, they eat a silent ‘thumb-piece’ of bread and beef, and wrap up another for the saddle-pouch, then quaff a quart pot of milk-less tea, and swing into the stirrups. Early morning sunlight, slanting between the paperbarks, sees the cavalcade away. It will not pause till sundown.
Jeff’s photographs take in this harsh reality – he regarded himself as a documentarian – but he returns the poetry to the lives of the people in it. His ambition was to be ‘the Cartier-Bresson of Australian photography’; but to watch as my mother, Walkabout‘s de facto designer, laid his pictures out amongst the galley-proofs on our dining room table was to be glad that he invested his pictures with more passionate fellow-feeling than the shy, elusive Frenchman. He lived with his subjects.
Bedmates, Little Topar, New South Wales, 1956
Wile the Billy Boils, 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.