The old family photos that inspired Sue Daley’s lifelong interest in photography were crucial to her decision to commit to it full-time.

Brenda and St Francis. Limited Edition Giclee Print on cotton rag. 37.3cm x 56cm.

You do a lot of different types of photography; including recently an evocative series of montages. How would you describe yourself as a photographer?

I live in a small town [Portland, 160km west of Sydney] and I photograph everything and everybody. I respond to what people want and need – portraits, weddings, events – and balance that with my own desire to be creative and honest. Beyond the montages, I don’t think I have a distinctive style. I like integrity and authenticity, and I try not to be gimmicky.

‘Cybele’, commissioned portrait of a wonderfully creative family.

Going for a walk is my library. I’m a photographer of requirement when I’m out and about. I used to go out with my sons [now aged 19 and 23] and they’d hurtle down mountains on bicycles, and the only way I could cope with the stress was to photograph them.

How did you get started in montaging and how has that developed?

I’ve always done montages, since I got my first camera when I was about 12. They’re combinations of planning and happy accidents. Such as quite recently when I left my hand in a shot when I was holding an iconic object to photograph it. I’m trying to create something a bit magical.

The Icon. Created for The Blue Mountains Botanic gardens ‘Birds and Botanica’ exhibition Limited Edition Giclee Print on cotton rag. 37.3cm x 56cm.

Half my life has been in England and half in Australia, and it’s quite a defining split. I came here on my own in 1991 when I was 25. I met my Australian husband, James, on a train and we’ve been in Portland since 2000.

About three years ago, I started wanting to bring together images of my family from way back and incorporate them into where I live now. It has to do with a sense of belonging and my love of the local landscape. I feel at peace and connected with the landscape. Which sounds a bit hippie, I suppose, but I do.

Sixteen of those montages were the first I exhibited. [At Rex-Livingstone Art + Objects in Katoomba in mid 2017 in an exhibition called ‘Between the Tides’.]

The Siblings. Limited Edition Giclee Print on cotton rag 97.2cm X 35cm From the ‘Between the Tides’ series.

Were all the people in those montages family members from back in England?

Yes. Or me as a child.

I got into photography because, when I was a child, my parents had a box in the wardrobe full of hundreds of old black-and-white family photos, and I thought they were amazing. That just stuck.

The Giant. Limited Edition Giclee Print on cotton rag 67.5cm X 35cm From the ‘Between the Tides’ series.

My grandmother used to tell me outrageous stories about what happened in the war and that sort of thing. It wasn’t clear what was true and what wasn’t, but I feel I’m passing on the stories and narratives in different ways. The montages are playing with time, bringing people from the past into the present, into my current world. The people are still with me because of the stories. They’re part of me, part of my make-up and heritage and personal iconography.

In some ways I’m giving them what they never had. They were in the city and in the Blitz [German bombing of Britain in World War II] or whatever.

One image is of Great-great Uncle Fred, who died a couple of years ago. Everyone said he was gay, but due to the generation he was in, he couldn’t ‘come out’. So I made him a coming out picture, with him on a flying carpet – he was also a great traveller – with rainbow lorikeets as a gesture to the rainbow flag.

Great Great Uncle Fred, Limited Edition Giclee Print on cotton rag. 37.3cm x 56cm. From the ‘Between the Tides’ series.

I’ve recently done a montage with currawongs in the bush and my Auntie Brenda when she was a child [she’s now 80]. The birds gave it an ominous tone, but I changed that by calling it ‘The Choir’. Once you know that, it has sort of an imagined soundtrack.

The Choir, Created for The Blue Mountains Botanic gardens ‘Birds and Botanica’ exhibition Limited Edition Giclee Print on cotton rag. 37.3cm x 56cm.

When you’re montaging, you must have a lot of decisions to make. How do you approach it?
The biggest decision I made when I first started doing them quite seriously was not to be my own critic. That critic in your mind who says, ‘That’s a dumb idea’ all the time. It’s like letting your childlike imagination come out. They develop as I’m doing them, with a lot of trial and error. I have more preconceived ideas now that I’ve done them for a while, but I try to keep my mind open. Sometimes I’ll pick up and put something down for months if something doesn’t sit right or the mood isn’t right. It all has to come together.

Eastern Spinebill. Acrylic or Giclee prints. Created as part of a digital presentation which incorporated, music, birdsong, poetry and photography.

How did your series of 12 exquisite bird shots from the Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens at Mt Tomah come about?

They’re also montages, of course. You’d have to spend a LOT of time getting a set of images that perfect. Well, you just couldn’t do it.

I’ve always loved photographing birds, and that was part of a larger multimedia project including stills, film-making, poetry and my husband playing improvised music on guitar.

I love being collaborative. Working with other creative people is very rewarding because just being around them enriches your life so much. You have to keep reinventing and pushing yourself, whatever field you’re in. That’s why my photography has gone in the directions it has. I get bored quite easily. Sometimes someone asks me to do the same thing again and I think, ‘Really? I’ve done that.’

I also like working with bands on publicity and CD cover shots. That can be creative and they don’t mind having a laugh.

Equus. Commissioned piece for Australian Band Equus. The brief was to create a euphoric mood with a dash of Chagall.

Are you a photographer full-time?

Just before the ‘Between the Tides’ exhibition, I gave up my day job in disability and employment services. Making that commitment has been a good motivator.

In England I trained as an artist and photographer, but I went into different avenues of education and disability services. I used to teach unruly kids art. Now I’m full-time creative, it will be interesting to see what happens with it.

I have one particular commission from England to create a montage. A woman has sent me her father’s tragic life story and I feel very privileged to have been trusted with it. I have old photos, the eulogy she read at his funeral, her memories… It’s lovely to think that some people get what I’m doing to that degree.

On the technical side, I assume you use Photoshop. And what kind of cameras?

Photoshop and my Mac computer are my friends. They do what I used to do in the darkroom.

As for camera gear, I’m not so into it. I’ll have to get them out to tell you what they are… I have a couple of Nikon D700 cameras with 150-600, 24-120 and 70-200mm telephoto lenses. Also a macro for flowers and insects, but I don’t know what [focal length] that is… and I can’t find it. It must be in the camper trailer.

See more of Sue Daley’s photography

Article by Steve Packer

Excerpt from  Photo Review Issue 75  

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