For almost 30 years, one of Australia’s best-known bush photographers has traversed remote landscapes across the continent, capturing the spirit of nation’s extensive cattle industry on film and in more recent times, digital image.
Townsville-based Fiona Lake has become widely known across the bush for her evocative, atmospheric and sometimes moody images of cattle station life stretching from the west Kimberley to the Channel Country and the northern reaches of Cape York.
Her work hangs and sits in corporate pastoral company boardrooms, station homesteads and lounge-rooms across the country, and surprisingly, also has a following overseas.
As recently as 2009, Fiona held a successful exhibition in Sydney’s Bondi’s Pavilion, attracting a curious, fascinated audience of city-dwellers keen for a glimpse of a life few, if any of them had ever experienced.
Growing up on a wheat/sheep farm in the Riverina, Fiona received her first camera from grandparents for her tenth birthday, and was immediately transfixed. At the time the possibilities offered through the lens of a Kodak Instamatic seemed endless, and fitted nicely with her artistic streak exhibited at school. She would ride her pony through the bush along the Murray, taking snaps and learning the craft of photography along the way.
Later, while studying at Orange Agricultural College, Fiona kept herself in ‘pocket money’ by selling some of her prints to fellow students and teachers. B&S balls used to be big earners, selling images from the College’s dining room wall of the big night the weekend before.
After completing studies at Orange, Fiona got a job in 1984 as book-keeper on Wrotham Park Station, a massive breeding property in the lower Cape York Peninsula area operated by the Australian Agricultural Co.
“I had no idea how different the country would be from the Riverina, and the landscape left me amazed. Not surprisingly, I started taking lots of photos of the surroundings and station life,” she said.
Even though Wrotham’s legendary manager, the late Gordon Arnold was against the ‘book-keeper’ venturing too far and wide, Fiona used to grab the opportunity to occasionally jump into a vehicle heading for distant points like the Drumduff outstation, an eight-hour round-trip drive away from the Wrotham homestead, shooting film on her trusty old Pentax K1000.
It wasn’t until she re-visited Wrotham some years later that the opportunity to shoot some images from the air, via station helicopters stated to arise.
Gradually, Fiona picked up a reputation across the bush as someone who had a unique ability to capture the essence of station life, and the majestic landscapes in which it often unfolded.
“It was pretty heavy going at first,” she said.
“I started producing postcards for sale, because I got knocked back after approaching publishers about producing a photo book on the subject. They couldn’t see the appeal in it.”
Gradually, she started venturing further and longer in her image gathering visits to well-known and lesser-known properties across northern Australia.
Often, she might stay a week or more, in order to capture exactly what she wanted.
“I’ve done a lot of different sorts of trips – and had three kids in the meantime – but if I was doing a magazine story or photo assignment I’d like to be on the place for a week, or at least five days.”
“The first day might be just arriving, settling-in and getting to know the locals. The next might be getting horses in and shoeing, or whatever. The next two days might be non-stop mustering, and the day after that spent in the yards. Often there would then be another muster, so a week goes nowhere.”
“But I’m really conscious of never putting anybody out during my visits. They’re busy enough, without somebody like me interfering with the work at hand. But I’ll often time my visit when the stock camp is heading out, and travel out with them at the same time.”
Over the years, Fiona has spent time on many of the nation’s iconic cattle properties, but also loves visiting smaller, less well known operations. One of her strong preferences is to work on places that use horses, rather than bikes for cattle work, which put paid to large areas around Alice Springs and beyond the Kimberley into the Pilbara region. She finds working on corporate-owned and family-scale enterprises equally rewarding, and enjoys the contrasting styles of both.
However her customer audience tended to be ‘curious’ about the bigger, better known places, which generally tended to be corporate owned these days.
“Every place has its own unique qualities,” she said.
“Wernadinga in the Gulf is the outback by the sea. Lilyvale, up near Princess Charlotte Bay in Cape York is truly amazing, and then there are beautiful places in the Channel Country like Durham Downs, Nockatunga, Glengyle and Tanbar. The lakes on Glengyle, for example, are just spectacular.”
She tries to pick visits to coincide with better seasons, having no great desire to capture images when country is not at its best, or at least in reasonable nick.
“That doesn’t mean mud-fat cattle in green grass – I don’t want a Pollyanna view of the world – but I take little satisfaction photographing when country is not in reasonable order, season wise,” she said.
“People sometimes ask me why I’m not out there taking photos when there’s a drought on. But honestly, for me, that would be like taking images at a funeral.”
Often in the past, seasonal conditions have gotten in the way of Fiona’s plans.
“I’d wanted to get to Durham Downs in the Channel Country for years, but there was a whole stretch of bad years when going there wasn’t a good idea, so I’d have to make other plans. One year the only part of the country that was in a state worth visiting was in the Gulf, so for two years in a row I went up there. Another year I might focus on Wave Hill or the Kimberleys, because they had had a good year.”
She has a lot of favourites, in terms of locations – not always about the geography, but sometimes about the people and characters working there; the use of traditional stock camps; interesting timbered country or other reasons.
“In my experience, just because somebody has all-steel yards and everything that opens and shuts, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are running a better show. Some methods might be considered old style by some people, but if that’s what does the best job, there is no need to change.”
“I try to steer clear of joints that chase after fashions. Just because something is new doesn’t mean it is necessarily better in the cattle industry.”
Because of her growing reputation in her artform, Fiona these days has little trouble gaining access to properties she thinks would be interesting to capture on digital image.
“It was pretty heavy going at first, but a lot easier these days. But issues like workplace health and safety are making the task a little more difficult as time goes by.”
Surprisingly, Fiona sells more of her photo collection books into NSW and Victoria than anywhere else in Australia.
“So many people in the south have a relation or a friend who has done some time on one of the historic northern places, and they retain some connection,” she said.
• Fiona Lake is marketing her recent coffee-table style photo-essay books “Life of an Australian horseman” and “A million-acre Masterpiece” as a Christmas gift idea through Beef Central. Orders can still be taken well into December, in time for pre-Christmas postal delivery. Click here to visit here website.