Devotion: The Photography of Peter Solness

It's the middle of the night and Peter Solness is deep in the bush, setting up his tripod on a little sand bank in the moonlight. In front of him is a waterfall and as he frames the picture, thousands of sandflies swarm up to bite him about the legs. Having changed into a wetsuit after an hour or two of hiking, Solness is just beginning what will be a long night of stumbling over logs, climbing up slippery embankments and wading through icy water. When he finishes hours later, he'll pack up the gear and make his way back along the same moonlit trail.

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Curious rock near Twilight Creek, 2009.

Solness is a full-time dad three days a week, so life and work are now organised around his young son. 'I'll be out there in the bush at midnight with a 25 kilo pack coming back from a shoot under torchlight, through a national park. Then I throw the backpack in the truck, drive home half asleep and six hours later I'm laying on the carpet in this church hall with a whole bunch of mothers and toddlers at the local playgroup. I love that contrast.'

Solness has the rangy athleticism of a man who has maintained a high level of fitness into his middle years. It's easy to imagine him mountainbiking to a remote trailhead and then walking and clambering his way through the bush to one of the wild and remote locations he favours for his current series of photographs. That he was a keen surfer in his younger days comes as no great surprise, he has the look and calm demeanour of someone who is at ease in the natural world, no matter how tempestuous the circumstances.

A lifetime in photography began when Solness was still a schoolboy. His first camera was a Nikonos II and his first subjects were his mates and surfing. His older brother Geoff (now deceased) was one of the best surfers in Cronulla and it was through him that young Peter's pictures first came to the attention of Surfing World editor Bruce Channon. Although he'd only been taking pictures for a short time, Channon was so impressed that he published one of the 16-year-old Solness's shots across a double-page spread.

After leaving school, he enrolled in a photography course at tech. Over the next four years his pictures regularly featured in the two leading surfing titles in Australia (Surfing World and Tracks). Yet despite the early success, Solness never quite felt as though he fitted into the scene.

'I wasn't ever a person who was interested in the competitions or the personality side of things. I only was ever interested in the aesthetics of it,' he explained. 'I focused more on the form of the wave and I started to use black & white film.' He'd discovered Ansel Adams and the Zone System. While other surf photographers were chasing perfect colour, Solness was experimenting with exotic darkroom techniques such as water bath development (an exacting process that allows a negative to convey a wide range of values from deepest shadow to lightest highlight).

In retrospect it's perhaps not too strange that by the time he finished tech, Solness was ready to move in a new direction.
'I bought a Honda CX500 motorcycle. I had a silver case under the back seat ...under a canvas bag ...with a chain over it. You'd open it up and out would pop an Olympus OM1 and an OM2 and four lenses - a 28mm, 50mm, 135mm and 300mm.' As well, he added, 'I had all my camping gear on it [so it was] severely overloaded when I first left.'

Solness got on his heavily laden bike and headed northwest to the Gulf country. It was to be one of those watershed eras that so often seem to coincide with one's early 20s.

'Suddenly [I] saw landscapes and open spaces,' he said. 'I was in a complete, trance-like wonderment at this landscape. I didn't know what it meant, but I ended up staying on this trip for almost two years. I was on a buzz, I was on a high the whole time, I was so fascinated with what I was feeling, what I was seeing. I was like a lone, solitary artist, travelling on. And I'd often measure my days by how many good pictures I'd taken.'

Throughout his travels he read voraciously and kept an extensive diary. The writing, he said, was florid, but full of the exuberance of youth and his search for meaning.

Processing his own film was out of the question so he did all his shooting on the famous (recently deceased) Kodachrome transparency film. As he finished a roll he'd post it off to Melbourne for processing. Every six months or so, he'd make his way home for a week or two where shortly after saying hi to his parents, he'd lock himself away and spend hours pouring over all the slides he'd taken.

'I sold a lot of stories when I got back,' he said. 'And that gave me the next step in my career.' Along with features in the likes of Two Wheels and Australian Photography magazines, he also had a major story published in Australian GEO. 'That was the big breakthrough because that was a very prestigious magazine. It was this 12-page feature on this man and his motorcycle travelling through Australia, asking questions.' The story was, he said, 'very raw and honest' and it clearly caught the eye of someone at the Sydney Morning Herald because not long after the GEO story was published he was offered a job at the Herald.

Over the next five years he worked as a photographer at the Herald and the National Times. Following the collapse of the National Times in the Warwick Fairfax debacle, he worked in rapid succession on four different photographic book projects. By the mid-90s he was no longer working in the press, but was instead earning a living from a mix of corporate and editorial work.
Although Solness was working in mainstream photography, he hadn't felt himself a mainstream photographer since those heady days camping out in national parks with only a motorbike and a case of camera gear to his name. 'I was always this sort of solitary photographer/artist who has seen photography as part of my own journey,' he said. 'I didn't always make the best career decisions in terms of making opportunities for myself, because I was always more interested in the process of evolving ideas. It's always been important to me to [maintain my] integrity.'

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Angophora at Sandstone Ridge, 2009.

After living and working as a freelancer in Darwin, Solness returned to Sydney in 2007 where he fulfilled a long held ambition to become a father. The following year was a profoundly difficult one. He and his partner split up and it was a time when he frankly says he often felt pretty bleak. And yet, he said, 'some of my best work has come from when I've been vulnerable.This latest work, which I've called, Illuminated Landscape, is a perfect example. It came from a point of extreme vulnerability.'

The idea of going out at night and shooting pictures of the bush really crystallised for him around Christmas in 2008. Some years earlier he'd produced a series of images in which he'd used long exposures so that he could trace the outlines of aboriginal stone engravings with a small torch. Subsequently, while working with a designer on a corporate job, he was introduced to sophisticated layering techniques in Photoshop. The idea that one could construct a single image by layering multiple separate exposures may have gone against the his photojournalist instincts, but a seed had nevertheless been sown.
From the initial idea to his first exhibition took a scant three-and-a-half months. The parameters of the project were (and are) quite specific: all images have to be taken not more than 50km from the GPO in Sydney; they are captured in wild places away from the city's light pollution; they are captured as the moon waxes toward full; and above all they cannot impinge on Solness' fatherly responsibilities.

In most cases his final images are constructed from multiple layers. Each of the layers is a separate image, typically captured in under three minutes with his Nikon D3. During the time the shutter is open, Solness uses a torch to carefully "paint" a specific area in the scene that he wishes to be part of the final picture. As you might imagine, it is a time-consuming and demanding process. particularly when the scene he's working on occupies a large space.
'The most ambitious one,' he said, 'would be Crayfish Pools After Rain. That's a whole sort of ampitheatre of layers, of platforms, of rocks and waterfalls. There are about 15 different segments in that photograph.' Given that each of those segments may have taken multiple attempts at lighting to achieve the best effect, one can easily understand why he'd have come home pretty late on that particular night.

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Crayfish Pools after Rain, 2009.

'I saw a good quote from Derrick Hynd, who talked about deconstructing surfing and how he likes to put it back together again. I thought that's what I'm doing here, I'm deconstructing the process so that I can see what it consists of. So each piece of the landscape has been deeply meditated upon. I'm not meditating on an entire scene, I'm meditating on every little piece of grass, every pattern of leaf and by deconstructing it, it gives me a much greater sense of detail because I'm actually really considering every little bit. Every little bit of that picture is a decision by me to shine a torch on that part of the landscape.'
'What I love about it is that this is subjectivity at a whole new level. I'm deciding which part of the landscape I want to reveal rather than the sun telling me. I become the conductor, the choreographer of the light. The torch is like a magic wand and there's something very liberating about that.'

Invoking the image of a priest attending a shrine, he added, 'I'm with the torch sort of devotionally revealing stuff. I went through a lot of darkness before this series, so it was very symbolic to walk out of this dark period of my life.' A devotional and meditative approach to his work is essential. 'When I'm out there, I feel such a connection to the bush. These subjects seem so mysterious and beautiful to me. I want to celebrate this beauty, to convey this beauty to people. It's like a devotion to say "this is a beautiful rock... landscape... country... We are lucky to be Australians. Let's be grateful for this".'

'As a photojournalist I've been dedicated to allowing the image to speak to me. Now I'm saying I'm going to step into this picture and become the choreographer. I've changed roles because I've had to become more proactive. There's a whole new edge to my work now. If I don't dig deep and draw on my own experiences as a photographer, I won't survive.'

When Solness opened his first exhibition in early 2009 he told how he specifically addressed the photographers in the audience. '[I said] in this environment, those who want to survive and do well, need to draw on what they possess as an individual photographer and find a way of defining themselves to separate from everyone else. Stand up and say "this is what I am, this is what I do". And do it well. Produce work that is not dervative, easily copied or mass-produced.'

Peter Solness Photojournalist Pty Ltd
PO Box 418, Maroubra, NSW 2035, Australia
Ph: 61-2-9344 0556, Mob: 0413 304889
www.solness.com.au

See Photo Review magazine Issue 41 for the print edition of this profile which includes additional images.

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