On March 6 1981 an amazing and groundbreaking photographic experiment took place in Australia. Over 100 photojournalists from 19 countries were commissioned to record a single day of the world’s largest island. It was a huge and ambitious project, organised by Rick Smolan and Andy Park. Despite much of the work being done by volunteers, and a massive level of sponsorship, it cost A$1 million. And retailed at A$35, both massive sums at the time.
The hardcover book measures 14 inches by 10 and at 286 glossy colour pages, with an introduction by novelist Thomas Keneally, now famous for ‘Schindler’s ARk/List’ who described it ‘as a moment frozen in time’.
It was called ‘A Day in the life of Australia’.and as you turn the pages you move through the day from camel hunters waking up to school children, travellers, small business people, criminals, judges, even the Prime minister at rest on his farm, families sharing dinner, police testing drunk drivers and ends with stars moving across a midnight sky at Uluru. Decades on, this book has immense importance both as a historical record of the country and as a photographic project which has been copied by many people since.
But there is a problem. There was a photographer missing. Or at least I think he was.
The alps in Victoria are a tough landscape, with locations such as mounts Disappointment and Dispair. The area is scattered with cattlemens’ huts, for protection from the worst weather, especially from winter snow. They are mostly corrugated iron roofed wooden huts, full of draughts and sometimes sheltering poisonous spiders and snakes. Most have slatted wood bunks, tables and benches, with open fireplaces. They are open to all, and are used by weatherbeaten cattlemen, weekend hunters or hikers. Anyone can pause there for lunch, brew up some tea or camp there for as long as you please. Under most circumstances, most people prefer their tents, but in bad weather they are a godsend and a great place for hardy travellers to meet and dry out their rain soaked clothes.
They have log books where people scrawl their thoughts, advice, and sometimes even poetry. Reading them aloud helps pass a long cold night, and catch up on local events.
I had no paper of my own, so did not write down the following incident, and am writing it some years later, so cannot be precise as to the details. But in one of those log books, probably long ago eaten by mice or ruined by rain or even used as a fire starter, there was this rather curious entry.
A line had been drawn none to evenly down the centre of the page, and two accounts of the aforementioned day were recorded in very different hands.
On one side was the lament of an urban photographer commissioned to accompany some high plains cattlemen to record their ordinary working day. He claimed to have had some experience in the saddle, but after sinking a few beers – just to be sociable, of course – was given a totally unmanageable horse and spent the day falling off it, and ridiculed by the people he was supposed to be recording.
The other side of the page, not surprisingly, told a rather different story. A cattleman wrote how the photographer had claimed to be an experienced rider and was given their tamest mount. Unfortunately, he insisted on getting himself almost paralytically drunk before setting out, so failed to complete his commission.
I can’t recall whether the photographer broke his equipment or if the shots he took simply weren’t up to the standard required, but his work was not included in the book, his face missing from the mass photo at the end of the book.
I often wish his shots, no matter how poor, had been included because in some ways this incident said as much – if not more – about Australia than all the rest.
Australians make much about their passion for the outback, yet the country has long been one of the most urbanised on the planet, with almost half the population living in its two main cities of Melbourne and Sydney.
What might have come out of this photo shoot may not have been the life of cattlemen, but a story of the conflict between the two groups, the descendants of the pioneers and the city folk who do not understand them. Town and country people are worlds apart, but they all have the capacity to spin a good story, or yarn. I just wonder whether that photographer ever climbed onto a horse again.