RODNEY HYETT PHOTOGRAPHER

BEHIND EVERY PHOTOGRAPH THERE IS A STORY

 

Years ago, when I first lived in Port Campbell, it was possible to access the beach at the Twelve Apostles through a man-made tunnel at the western end of Gibson Steps beach. It passes under the ‘saddle’, a narrow headland that takes visitors above to the small circular area for viewing the Apostles. It had a heavy steel gate to keep the penguin colony on the other side safe from foxes. Although I went through the tunnel a couple of times it was never with a camera in hand. At this stage I was still working as an architectural photographer for magazines, travelling to Melbourne each week for two days shooting. I had barely taken a photo of the coastline around this time in the late 1980s. Before long the gate was securely locked and, for a while, only corporations like Qantas, with tourism clout and plenty of dollars to donate, were allowed access for photography. Shot from sea level the rock stacks appeared far more imposing than when viewed from above. These dramatic images were flaunted in expensive advertising campaigns, but denied to all others, regardless of how local, well connected or deserving they might be.

 

By the mid 1990s I had shifted into self-publishing books on the Great Ocean Road and when a competitor’s book sales soared, with its triumphant cover shot of the Apostles from the beach, then suddenly desperate action was necessary. I was learning fast about market share. No amount of pleading, though, with my good friend Macca, the Ranger-in-Charge of the Port Campbell National Park - and key holder - helped. Every manner of access, abseiling down cliffs, getting dropped off by a crayfisherman’s boat, whatever and however, was considered. Then finally it dawned on me to simply paddle in on a surfboard. This proved to be a lot trickier than it sounds. Firstly, the conditions required are not that common. The Port Campbell coastline is exposed to and pounded by unending swells. Surfers are usually waiting for the swell to pick up, but unusually around here, they wait for it to drop for the best waves at beaches such as Gibsons Steps. In order to paddle around the headland I needed almost no swell. Coupled with the need for an interesting and moody sky, opportunities did not often present. Secondly, there was the challenge of keeping an expensive and heavy Hasselblad camera and lenses dry whilst being towed behind and tied tenuously to the end of a legrope. Thank you ‘Pelican’ for your brilliant yellow waterproof case.

 

After waiting for months the moment arrived. It was an amazing, surreal experience being on the vast and isolated beach, completely alone it seemed, but for a heightened awareness that at the same time you are the centre of attention to a large crowd of distant observers high above. Feeling insignificant, yet conspicuous in this truly impressive arena - nature’s battleground of the elements. I hope they thought my tiny presence added some sense of scale to the mighty scene, rather than an annoying flaw to their prized picture of nature in all its glory, untouched by man.

 

Naturally, I stayed in the water below the low tide mark so as not to break any laws of trespass. Peeling off the top part of my wetsuit (to keep hands and camera dry) felt a bit like being in the James Bond movie where he surfs to the beach and peels off his wetsuit, only to be fully clothed and prepared for action. For me also, this was a daring and dangerous mission. In the course of several expeditions the swell was always a bit bigger than hoped for, the surfboard too small for the task, darkness descended too soon and always at the back of my mind was the fear of finding national park rangers waiting for me at the Gibson Steps carpark upon my return. ‘Guns drawn’. One of the resulting images is on page 91, taken before the collapse of the foremost apostle in 2005, sadly removing the key compositional element to a time-honoured scene.

 

“More than anything else, surfing immerses you in the fundamental elements and rhythms of life from which we evolved. And it is intoxicating.” Aphorisms abound when it comes to surfing and this one is my attempt at describing its essence. Everyone that surfs grapples with defining what it is about the sport that blows their mind, if only to excuse their behaviour for the rest of their life. The main thing is that people understand that it is a great deal more than just moving across the face of a wave in perfect harmonic flight. (Well, if you’re Wayne Lynch, that is.)

 

Surfing took possession of my life at the age of twelve. This was in the late sixties when most surfers were considered drop-outs and druggies, so abandoning myself to it in my youth was not an option. Fortunately, by dint of family expectations, it was kept sensibly in balance, enough so for me to be studious, take up photography and live in cities like London and Paris for long spells without even the sniff of salt air. After which, returning to the ocean was as wonderful as it was at twelve.

 

Abandonment came at the age of thirty-two when I moved to Port Campbell and started photographing the coastline. A marriage made in heaven. A fresh start and a sort of reward, earnt and grasped, and with none of this ‘delayed happiness syndrome’. The biggest change was that work now fitted around the waves. Self-publishing, in the manner that I do it, is seriously time consuming and the workload only increased. Interestingly, annoyingly, when others see you always popping up for the good waves, they assume you never work. And when city-bound, surfing friends hear you’ve ducked off to the coast to live, that’s it, you’re seen as a self-indulgent dropout and accorded no sympathy ever again, for anything!

 

The transition from magazine work in Melbourne to self-publishing, commenced with a traveller’s guide to the Great Ocean Road, printed in 1994. The black and white calendars started in 1998 and the 2012 copy will probably be my last. All things have a natural life span and this book marks the end of the series, and extracts the more enduring images from the fifteen editions. Sixty of the best, from a total of 180 images, that are now assembled as a fifteen-year journey in photographs along the Great Ocean Road.

 

I’ve drowned two cameras over the years - fortunately just the bodies. The first, my hardworking Hasselblad, was at Saint George River, just past Lorne, whilst standing on wave swept rocks with white water exploding all around. It was a big sea, but as a life-long surfer I figured I understood well the rhythm of the swell and when to retreat from the set waves.

 

The drenching was as surprising as it was complete, I’m amazed the lens survived. Although I had a spare camera body I gave up on the shot and went for a surf at Cathedral Rock instead. Very cheering, unlike the processed films I got back. The shots were ordinary, so there wasn’t even something to show for the sacrifice. There have been a few other drenchings over the years, now that I think about it, mostly around Port Campbell in the early years of exploration, and fortunately without camera. It’s both bewildering and exhilarating to be suddenly and totally swamped by whitewater from a rogue wave striking the cliffs. One minute you’re bone dry, the next you may as well have fallen into the ocean. But so much fun when you’re with your girlfriend, as both of you then have to get out of your wet clothes.

 

The second drowned body was my first digital camera, a very expensive Canon EOS-1Ds, in the least likely of circumstances. Sitting on the rocks at Snapper at Coolangatta, I was photographing my sons scratching around for scarce waves in tiny conditions. Rogue waves were not on the radar. Yet, whilst briefly looking down to change a memory card, a freak wave impacted precisely with me, and only me, in its sights. Frantic efforts to dry the camera with the car heater only delayed the inevitable effect of the salt jamming its electronics three days later. Good insurance policies are worth it.

 

A salt laden environment is a seascape photographer’s lot in life and I try to minimize exposure, but usually it’s difficult. (Not being a gadget person I don’t have one of those waterproof shooting bags - I should.) Most often, the best shots come with the most dramatic conditions. Especially around Port Campbell where the waves can be huge, bigger than anywhere else on the Victorian coast and about as big as it gets in Australia. They are generated deep down in the Southern Ocean and can be driven thousands of kilometres by strong westerly winds.

 

The best spot to feel this power of the ocean and photograph big waves at the closest of quarters is Broken Head at the western end of the Loch Ard Gorge precinct where Sherbrook River enters the sea. I go there on most really big swells which happen two or three times a year. The exhilaration of just experiencing it is worth the visit, let alone the opportunity for magnificent photos. A back-light is essential for added drama, and given that the swells usually occur in the winter, this means the sky is often aglow with the warm colours of a setting sun. The wind is invariably blowing a gale and blasting the camera, not just with salt-air, but a penetrating spray of salt water. Ironically, as the severity of the conditions is not recorded, most of the photos seem almost serene, impressive in scale, but devoid of the danger that is palpable at the time. The final images, stripped of this intrinsic, violent dimension, end up looking quite surreal. The colour shots, even more deceptively, look positively warm and inviting with a lovely ‘mist’ glorifying the scene. So much for photographic truth.

 

Surf is often at its best early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Winds are generally calmer, conditions glassier. My three sons surf, so for years I would happily join them after school out at the point at Port Campbell, behind the jetty. In earlier years finding and giving them waves to learn on and in later years hoping they would return the favour.

 

All too often, especially in winter, clouds would gather and the sky would light up with the setting sun. I’d be out there, at one with nature (but bemoaning the local multiplication of children now crowding the break), when an explosion of unparallelled beauty would appear across the water, usually of radiant seacliffs, and always made more magical with the ocean added to the mix - interacting, reflecting and energizing. Words cannot adequately describe it, but a good picture can. The desire to capture it is overwhelming. It’s my job after all. But it’s already too late. I know that by the time I’ve paddled in and changed it would all be over before the camera is out of the bag. These things don’t stand still.

 

Thirty minutes later, still out in the water, the whole scene is even more unbelievably magnificent, and my regret turns exponential. To simply infuse these events into the surf session, turning it into a special moment to remember is the proper response, of course, for surfing is not just a sporting snack, it is the complete meal with mother nature.

 

Occasionally it all works out in other ways, and when content to ‘go with the flow’ and not get the shot assembling before my disbelieving eyes, divine intervention seems to insist upon it being recorded. The Clifton Beach sky on page 83 graciously managed to appear most glorious only after I got out of the water, having tried to ignore the buildup during two hours of perfect surf.

 

Every summer Port Campbell Bay comes alive after the extended hibernation of autumn, winter and spring. Chiselled deep into the coastline, the remarkably protected inlet provides a safe and sandy beach in the midst of this wildly exposed area. The jetty is the launching place for the local fleet of crayfishing boats and is frequented by an ever-changing mix of fisherman, tourists, surfers and swimmers doing laps from the beach. It’s a delightful hub of activity, a focal point that symbolizes the character of the township perfectly.

 

Every now and then the local lads will get bored with jumping off the jetty into the water and instead, do it from the top of the crane. Impressive stuff, and this is when I get my camera out, thinking that acts of such fearlessness should be recorded, and the good old crane isn’t going to last for ever (not surprisingly). The photo on page 115 was taken on Tuesday, the thirteenth of January 2009 and has become my sentimental favourite from twenty-five years photographing Port Campbell’s coastline. A perfect mid-summer’s evening. It wasn’t so much a single lucky shot, as a lucky and blessed evening that I documented for nearly an hour. Everyone was out to play and the 170 shots taken run like a time-lapse movie when viewed in quick succession. Choosing a single shot was difficult. The sequence started with me missing the crane jump and finished with the local charter boat being winched up at sunset. I’ve done many prints of this shot for the locals, which says it all.

 

THE BIG PICTURE

 

There are two takes on the universe. The one we humans can observe and the version that exists despite us - a multi-dimensional fabric of energy, of indeterminate and ever changing form. In ‘our’ universe everything around us is but a construct of the human senses. Yet, not only do we form and perceive a part of the fabric, but we can also step outside it and contemplate it. And we understand it as truth and beauty.

 

Port Campbell is my spiritual home, I now realise, by way of recent lengthy absences. The separation makes you think about your connection with a place, in the main part, created through a sense of loyalty, in turn through a long involvement. Connectivity, I suppose, is what it’s all about. To be balanced, viable creatures we need strong bonds, not only with other humans and communities, but with our physical environment as well.

 

Photographing and surfing this coastline has deepened my attachment to it - almost ruinously. I’m now so tied to it that it won’t let me go, and after all, how much truth and beauty can a koala bear? So it continues as an addictive, but fulfilling journey with no end in sight. Producing this book has provided a nice break, though, to reappraise the work done so far and give the best pictures a home. I hope they strike a chord and encourage you to pause and ponder - not just the beauty so conspicuous along the Great Ocean Road, but also the beauty you may find in your own precious corner of the planet.