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The impressive photo archives of Melbourne based photographer Peter Hendrie are born from a lifetime of wanderlust, documenting a rich cross-section of people and places during the salad days of travel photography. Commercial success in stock photography is a pipe dream for most in today's market, but during the eighties Peter's photography practise prospered due to a lucrative offer to manage the Australian branch of prestigious New York photo agency, The Image Bank (now a part of Getty Images). During this time, Peter spent over a decade shooting stock and editorial images across the Asia-Pacific, funding scores of shoots by negotiating free flights and accommodation through contra-based agreements with airlines and tourism agencies.
These sorts of enviable arrangements with travel companies allowed Peter to amass a diverse portfolio of images and to shoot material for his lush first photobook, Pacific Journeys and his collection of aerial photography, The Windowseat. In recent years however, Peter's itchy feet drew him to a completely different sort of adventure - to the bemusement of friends and with no prior sailing experience, Peter purchased a Lagoon Catamaran in 2006 and embarked on multiple trips around the Tasmanian and Bass Strait regions to photograph his Voyage Around Tasmania project.
Catch a sneak preview below of images from Peter's upcoming, decades-in-the-making Japan project, and read on as Peter answers our questions about his long and successful career and practise.
What first drew you to a career in photography?
I knew I had an affinity and interest in visual art and design but was unsure what I would study. Then, at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) campus, I stumbled upon an exhibition of photographs by students. That captured my attention, and within a short time, I enrolled in the RMIT photography course. I also had to support myself, which led me to work as an assistant at one of Melbourne’s busiest photographic studios, Newton & Talbot (founded by world-renown photographer Helmut Newton and Henry Talbot – both refugees from Germany). Henry Talbot was the principal photographer, and Helmut Newton had left for Paris. After a few weeks, I realized that the education I was getting at Newton & Talbot was far more valuable and relevant than anything I was learning in the classroom. So, I dropped out of the RMIT photography course. A year later, I went to work at the studio of Dieter Muller.
Your extraordinary portfolio photobook Pacific Journeys is the result of 30 expeditions spanning over 10 years documenting the lush beauty and unique character of the Pacific Island regions. What was the driving force behind this momentous project, and what made it possible?
I acquired the license to operate the Australian offices of The Image Bank, the global stock photography agency. The business was licensing the work of hundreds of professional photographers through offices located in over sixty countries. I also became one of their contributors. To quickly build a collection of stock photography to submit to The Image Bank, I sent proposals to airlines to offer photography in exchange for assistance with airfare. An agreement with an airline magazine for promoting Pacific Islands led to numerous trips to various Pacific Island nations. I realized after five years that while I had a substantial body of photography on the Pacific Islands, it did not feel complete. I wanted to include photography of islands I had yet to visit. Over the next five years, I self-funded multiple trips to more of the Pacific Island nations and returned to those which I felt there was more to explore photographically.
What was your main takeaway from this project? Given the grand scope of the endeavour, did the experience grant you any unique insights into this region and culture?
I knew very little about the cultures of Pacific Island nations before I travelled there. However, I met people that one might not usually meet as a tourist. I met ex-pats from other countries who called these islands home. I met artists and academics who shared their insights with me. When I travelled to remote areas, hiring a local person was necessary and they often to took me into their homes where I was welcomed by their elders and extended family.
What do you believe is your biggest obligation as a documentary photographer?
To approach the people and the places with respect and curiosity and let the subjects lead the way in what they want to share with you. To observe but not impose or make assumptions.
Your stunning photo archive Voyage Around Tasmania was captured during your epic 8-week circumnavigation of Tasmania and solo voyages traversing the rugged waters of the Bass Strait and Southern Ocean regions in a 12-foot Lagoon catamaran. How did this experience differ from shooting Pacific Journeys?
There have been many stunning bodies of photographic work showing the landscape of Tasmania by other photographers. I wanted to see it from a different angle, and sailing provided that as well as an adventure. The mundane activities of travel such as checking into hotels, packing bags, waiting at airport lounges – were no longer required. Travelling to the Pacific involved flights between midnight and dawn, changes in time zones and staying in some accommodations that lacked basic amenities. The yacht was the base for everything I needed: travel, resting, dining and photography.
What were your main challenges and victories during this grand undertaking?
Each journey is unique because of the unpredictable weather conditions. Sudden changes in the winds and wave heights could mean postponing a departure. Swells of waves can change the trajectory in seconds. We had to turn the yacht around during one stormy crossing of Bass Strait. Turning back did not remove us from danger as we still had to sail back to port. An expert sailor on my crew fell overboard not once but twice. Most of all, being mindful of the term “ship-shape” and that a series of small mistakes can compound to create more significant problems. A rope left behind, and another that snapped in two left us vulnerable during one voyage as we were then two ropes short. However, the victories or rewards were many: dolphins swimming alongside the yacht, viewing the land from the sea under different light and weather conditions, watching flocks of birds above us, gazing at a dark sky flecked with stars. Experiencing the forces of nature from the sea was frightening and thrilling. Some of the best photographs I took were under the stormiest conditions.
Your Pacific and Tasmanian work gets popular recognition, but your photography career has spanned decades of shooting stock and editorial photography around the globe and within a variety of fields. Of all the work you produced during this time, what has been your personal favourite?
My personal favourite is the six-week project called “The Great Hotels of the World: France, Italy and Spain”. On behalf of the Thomas Cook travel agency, I along with a writer, travelled between 26 luxurious hotels and dined in the finest restaurants. I photographed the hoteliers, chefs, and artisans with whom the writer conducted interviews. It was a rare and unforgettable glimpse into the world of exclusive and expensive hospitality establishments.
Was there a particular person or experience that profoundly impacted your growth as a photographer?
Henry Talbot (of Newton & Talbot) and Dieter Muller were the first two people I worked for, and both were incredibly generous. They gave assistants like me access to their studio and facilities on the weekend, including developing film and paper for printing photographs. In addition, they freely allowed me to borrow their photographic equipment worth thousands of dollars. Another person was a friend named Michael Calderon, who was an agent representing high-profile photographers. We became friends when I lived in Dusseldorf as a young photographer. He gave his friendship as well as being an important mentor who provided encouragement and invaluable critiques of my early work.
What do you believe are the main challenges photographers are facing today compared to when you first started out in the sixties? In what ways have you seen the industry evolve?
The industry has changed radically. For stock photography, the royalty payments received by photographers dropped dramatically when stock agencies changed the business model. For example, a fee for single use of a photograph generated a royalty payment to the photographer of hundreds of dollars. When the stock agencies introduced an annual subscription fee, this gave customers access to hundreds of pictures, but resulted in paltry payments to photographers.
In my opinion, the prevalence of great photography on social media offers the opportunity for companies to offer “exposure” in exchange for permission to use a photographer’s work to promote their business or to use it in another context without credit or payment to the photographer. I don’t know any professional photographers who work on assignment, but I would imagine that a similar type of fee devaluation is affecting them.
How has your photography process evolved over the years? Do you still shoot film, or have you migrated over to digital capture?
As the digitization of images became the format that the stock agency accepted, I gradually migrated to digital capture. I no longer shoot film, but a large part of my collection of photographs is in the 35mm slide format. An ongoing project has been to edit these images and get them scanned into digital files. While I have selected images that need minor adjustments or retouching, I have also discovered images that I had overlooked in the past.
What’s next on the horizon for your photographic practice? Any new projects or exhibitions in the works?
My last shoot was in February 2020, just before the start of lockdowns in Melbourne. I had travelled to Tokyo, Japan, to photograph more images for my collection, which is decades in the making. I am currently working to make selection for a future book or exhibition.
To contact Peter or to keep up to date with his latest work, follow him on Instagram at @peterhendriephoto or head to his website at www.peterhendrie.com. You can find Peter's latest book The Window Seat available to purchase here.
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