May 29: Naturalist

Date #29May 29: Photographs taken by soldiers of WW1 persuaded some to choose life over killing.

We’re back in lockdown again in Victoria, due to the painfully tardy vaccine rollout by our conservative federal government – even Brazil is ahead at 13 per hundred to our barely 5, so the not-for-profit Magnet Galleries in the Docklands, Melbourne has generously mounted its show Soldier Settler in an online exhibition of the work of Les Chandler (1888-1980), which continues as physical exhibition until 27 June. Magnet’s display of the exhibition is supported by a City of Melbourne COVID 19 Support Grant.

It follows from a 2016 Magnet exhibition Grief and Glory that included the photographer’s work amongst a selection drawn from several thousand photographs, documents and other Great War ephemera collected and restored by the gallery director photographer Michael Silver with funds from the Victorian Anzac Centenary Committee.

More recently Mildura Arts Centre showed his work jointly with that of Chandler’s friend Eileen Ramsay, closing 25 April (Anzac Day). Both were ‘nature lovers’, as environmentalists were once identified; he a published ornithologist, she collecting plants in the late 1940s, assembling more than 1000 with 10 species new to the list of plants formally recorded in Victoria, and now housed in the National Herbarium of Victoria.

Chandler’s love of nature was inspired as he walked nearly 5km each day to school through the towering forests of the Dandenong Ranges on the outskirts of Melbourne and by 1907 he had taken up bird photography, joining the Bird Observers’ Club that year, the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union in 1910 and the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria in 1914. His experience as an apprentice jeweler enabled his invention of a harmless banding system to track birds in 1912.

In my last post I highlighted the official work of war photographers Ernest Brooks and William Rider-Rider and mentioned that many soldiers, Australia’s Andrew Horne included, took a Kodak into service. Part of the enticement for Australians enlisting was the opportunity to travel, and that may have motivated Chandler too. He signed up with the Australian Imperial Force on 8 July 1915, taking his camera with him to the Western Front, despite photography there being banned.

Amongst his earliest shots, while still in training at the Seymour Army Camp was this…

Straw effigies used for bayonet drill, Seymour Army Camp 1915, courtesy Victorian Collections
Les Chandler (1915) Straw-stuffed uniforms used for bayonet drill, Seymour Army Camp.

…a sight which, with the bayonet training practiced on these effigies, persuaded him that “he couldn’t kill anybody, just couldn’t face that,” remembered his daughter Mary. He volunteered instead as a stretcher-bearer in the 15th Field Ambulance, in which he served on the Western Front.

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Les Chandler (1916) Stretcher bearers carrying wounded over duckboards laid over quagmire between flooded bomb craters. Lantern slide hand-coloured by the photographer

Mary, who died last year, was an historian with several books to her credit including a volume of her father’s letters Dear homefolks : letters written by L.G. Chandler during the First World War and chronicles of their home town, Against the odds : the story of the Red Cliffs settlement and Tribal lands to national park, with pictures by her father, on the Hattah/Kulkyne National Park 80 km to the south.

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Les Chandler (1947) Daughter Mary aged about ten

Chandler rarely fetched out the camera that he kept hidden under his uniform to photograph the destruction of war, but more often to record lighter moments, the French people and what was left of the natural landscape. A frequent strategy, possibly since photography was an activity forbidden to Australian soldiers, was to use a bulb release (as he is seen doing in the 1920s family group below) to include himself in the picture.

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Les Chandler (1917) Butterfly catching in France as a soldier in WW1.

Gassed at Villers-Bretonneux, France, in April 1918, he was invalided to ‘Blighty’ where he managed to photograph views of the English countryside. Arriving in Melbourne in January 1919 he was discharged medically unfit on 25 July, too ill to resume his trade as a jeweler. To recover, he went ‘on holiday’ in the Mallee, recording his impressions in his diary, from which he quotes in a 1947 Walkabout article on Red Cliffs, near Mildura;

The writer arrived at Red Cliffs in February, 1921, to take up work with a clearing gang and to gain initial knowledge in the surrounding, older settlements of vineyard work, before applying for a block. It was a scorching day of 115 degrees in the shade, with red dust flying, and on the previous day the heat had reached 119 degrees [48ºC].

His notes on how it must have been before settlement are an indication of his sympathies for the original inhabitants;

In its original state the country around the high cliffs…must have been very attractive. On sunny mornings, and there are many of these, the first kiss of the rising sun brightens the colour in the cliff tops and gradually dispels the gloom in the forest of red-gums and box-gums on the low New South Wales side of the Murray River.

No doubt hundreds of blackfellows lined the cliffs as Sturt’s party drifted past in their boat, but when the first allocation of land was made to soldier settlers from the 1914-18 war in 1921 the dusky hunters were a memory only: Mary Woolong [sic], a princess of the strong Kulkyne tribe, was the only living representative of her race in the district.

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Les Chandler (n.d.) Mary Woorlong, last of the Kulkyne tribe

In those early days before the white man came, the blacks little thought that their hunting-grounds that stretched away from the river into the forests of pine, belar, mallee-gums, sugar-wood and other vegetation, would be taken from them and one day cleared…

John Ernest (Johnny) Richards, 3rd Light Horse Regiment, 115th Battery and 6th Field Artillery Brigade (1917) Portrait of Mary Woorlong

His portrait of “the last if the Kulkyne tribe”, Mary Woorlong (1879-1942) is not the only picture of her; the Australian War Memorial holds another, by John Richards, also a returned soldier, of her in front of her house in 1917. And despite the caption in the Magnet exhibition, in fact she was not the sole survivor of the Kulkyne First Nations people, but a Latji Latji or Muthi Muthi woman and daughter of King Wyrlong, a Muthi Muthi from the Euston area, descendants of Mungo Man, decimated by small-pox, but who still occupy the area and speak the languages. A domestic servant, Mary was the last Aboriginal member of the Mournpall community to reside at Kulkyne Station, though clearly not “the last of her tribe,” as reported in contemporary media.

There may inevitably be an element of myth-making in any exhibition of an historical photographer, particularly one better known only regionally as Chandler is, but there is nothing fictional about his renowned energy and determination.

As a soldier-settler under the Victorian Government’s “Act to make provision for the Settlement of Discharged Soldiers on the Land and for other purposes” of 22nd October, 1917, he was granted an allotment of Crown Land of Mallee scrub which he cleared and fenced to create a vineyard and orchard. A government loan of £500 (worth about $35,000.00 today) on which interest was to be paid, provided the initial capital for returned servicemen, though the land they farmed was what was left over in a largely settled Victoria. On repayment of the initial investment, a further £500 could be granted provided the farming was successful. It was an exacting contract, not a ‘free lunch’, and especially tough in the Mallee where success came only where there was irrigation.

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Les Chandler (c.1921) Les, still wearing parts of his army uniform, and a mate use a winch to pull stumps to clear his block #406
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Les Chandler (c.1921) Stumps and mallee roots cleared from the block are gathered by horse cart and stacked for burning
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Les Chandler (1920s) Les and his father Charley fencing with help from his dog.
Trianing vines1947 1200
Les Chandler (1947) Training Vines (from Walkabout)
Les Chandler (1947) The sulphuring machine used to combat oidium, a fungus disease, from Walkabout.
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Les Chandler (n.d.) Worker on Chandler’s allocation refreshes himself from a canvas water bag beside a dray full of dip tins used for picking, dipping and drying sultana grapes from lush vines in the background.

Somehow, he had found time to found the Nature Photographers’ Club of Australia in 1919 which contributed and shared their work via a portfolio circulated by mail (a precursor Flickr or Instagram), and after setting up his vineyard and a rudimentary canvas-roofed dwelling, he wrote and photographed for Bush Charms, and Jacky the Butcher-Bird, both published 1922 and very early examples of children’s books illustrated with photographs.

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Les Chandler (1919) The Nature Photographers Club of Australia on their first outing 5 October 1919 to Ringwood, then a small settlement on the Lilydale railway line 23 km east of Melbourne

The Club and the books point toward a didactic spirit that sustains numbers of his enterprises, all to do with his naturalist interests; he wasn’t married — to Ivy Henshall — until 1931 and their daughter was not born until 1937.

Chandler, L. G. (Les G.). Jacky : the butcher bird. Whitcombe & Tombs, Melbourne

Periodicals including Emu, Walkabout, Riverlander, Wildlife, Wildlife in Australia, Victorian Naturalist, Australian Photo-Review and Victorian School-paper published his writings and pictures, also newspapers The Age, Australasian, Argus, Leader, and as ‘Oriole’ he was nature correspondent for the Sunraysia Daily.

Les Chandler (c.1922) Red Gums from Walkabout January 1946, first used as an illustration titled Nature’s Cathedral in his children’s book Bush Charms published 1922.

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Vol. 24 No. 12 (1 December 1958)Some Mallee Birds of Prey_adj

His ingenuity in pursuing his avian subjects is remarkable, most usually it is at quite close range and he rarely resorts to telephoto lenses. This vignetted lantern slide from the exhibition illustrates his persistence that got him the wedge-tailed eagle nest picture illustrating the 1944 Walkabout story above.Screen Shot 2021-05-30 at 10.06.52 am

His description of his approaching and photographing the stone-curlew illustrates his patience;

…we were anxious to reach the nest of the curlew and see if the single egg which we had been told it contained was still safe. On arrival at the spot —a partly defined track —we began the search and were soon rewarded. The egg, which was almost the colour of the soil, lay in a shallow depression surrounded by horse manure, limestone and bits of stick. It resembled the objects in the vicinity to a remarkable extent, and only a keen observer would have thought it an egg.

I examined the countryside with my glasses but could not see a sign of a curlew and after some hesitation decided to set up the camera and the hide. Often on sunny days birds of this type will leave their eggs untended for several hours, but there was also the possibility that a fox might have destroyed the bird or that the egg might even be deserted. As some birds will readily desert their eggs if the latter are handled, I rarely touch an egg and did not do so in this case. When my friend left me inside the hide, I did not feel very confident of success. I was not certain that the birds were still in the neighbourhood, and, even if they were, with this type of bird it is usually necessary to fix a dummy camera in position near the nest and move it a little closer each day. However, I decided to wait for at least two hours and then, if no bird appeared, to abandon the job. Having companions with me made the possibility of obtaining a photograph better, for the birds, if there, would see them leave, and then there was only the strange hide to worry them; and I find that a hide made from old bags and hessian does not seem to frighten birds. They evidently accept it as a natural phenomenon.

After an hour and a half of waiting, when I was seriously considering throwing in the towel, I was delighted to see a curlew about fifty yards away. It appeared to rise suddenly out of the ground. Presently, peering through my peep-holes, I saw the female only thirty feet away. She had almost reached the nest unobserved. As she approached, with long pauses, during which she closely inspected the hide, the male made several wide circuits in the locality but did not come closer than thirty feet. Meanwhile, the hen gradually drew nearer and finally for twenty minutes stood almost without a movement within three feet of the egg. As she examined the hide intently, she emitted a moaning noise and occasionally called “wee-loo” in a soft tone. The feathers on her head were slightly erected as though she was mizzled as to what this extraordinary object that had appeared from nowhere could be. Slowly, very slowly, she came closer to the egg, and I made a first exposure. The sudden click of the shutter disturbed her, the growling moan was redoubled as she retired a few feet, and except for a movement of her head, she remained motionless for a quarter of an hour.

In the background the male continued to move about, and as someone in the distance banged the car door he gave several warning notes. Once or twice he came fairly close to her, and I was hopeful that I might get a photograph of the two birds together, but he was too shy. The female finally mustered sufficient courage to settle herself on the nest, and I was able take all the shots that I required.

She left the nest several times during the next hour, usually when the male uttered a warning note, and I had a glimpse of the playful habits of this species. When she left the nest the male ran towards her, and as they raced side by side like a pair of horses the pair called in quick repetition, “Boy, boy, boy” As they ran their necks were outstretched in front of them, and they presented a comical appearance. Their behaviour was so amusing that I was convulsed with laughter, and it was full recompense for the severe cramp that I’d endured in the restricted space of the hide.

Although the country near the nest was open with scattered timber, when I emerged from the hide both birds as they ran rapidly away were soon lost to view. After I had dismantled the hide I packed my camera, I searched the locality minutely through my glasses, but not sign of the birds could I see. With their remarkable striped plumage they become part of the landscape. [“The Stone-Curlew”, by L.G. Chandler, Walkabout Vol. 16 No. 2, 1 February 1950]

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L.G. Chandler “A National Park in the Balance”, Walkabout, October 1959

Noting the disappearance of the bower-bird along the Murray, he was moved, and recalling the impact of his war experience, wrote of;

… the old neglected bowers falling into decay and the crude playthings of these marvellous birds crumbling into dust. Visions of the smashed villages of France and Belgium where the toys of little children lay broken and scattered in the wreckage, rose before me.

Determined to preserve the habitats of native fauna, in 1949 Chandler helped to form the Sunraysia Field Naturalists’ Club, was also a foundation member of the Mildura Historical Society, and with other naturalists, he worked tirelessly to have the Hattah-Kulkyne area declared a National Park, with success coming in 1960.

AP-R award Chandler
Australian Photo-Review, 1950

Magnet shows work he exhibited internationally, and certificates for some of the many prizes he won. The 1950s, when he won the Australian Photo-Review Recognition Medal alongside the famous Jack Cato who was researching his The Story of the Camera in Australia (1955), could justly be considered the doldrums for the medium, especially as an art form. Magnet is a gallery that draws its shows from the ‘broad church’ of photography, so it is an appropriate venue for Chandler whose passionate interest lies in his subject matter, a specialist field. As Jack Cato’s son John, my teacher, would remind us “Photography can be art, but photography may be more things than art.”

5 thoughts on “May 29: Naturalist

  1. thank you so much James – an erudite and wonderfully informative examination of Chandler’s work


  2. Hi James,
    Just a note to let you know that Les Chandler’s soldier settlement property, was not on marginal land, it was on the best land available. The Red Cliffs soldier settlement (the most successful in Australia) was on land which had not been cleared for agriculture because it was too far above the river level for irrigation by the pumps available prior to the 1920’s. – Red Cliffs & District Historical Society.


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