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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Hump days

by Jessica Bolton, 19 December 2017

Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson at Hamelin Pool, 2013 by Matt Nettheim
Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson at Hamelin Pool, 2013 by Matt Nettheim

Images of a young Robyn Davidson tending to her camels in the remote West Australian desert have come to represent more than the physical journey they document. Rather, they evoke the sentiment of the era, the memory of a young woman’s adventure and the colours of the ever-changing Australian landscape.

The National Portrait Gallery and the National Film and Sound Archive each hold a photographic portrait depicting ‘the camel lady’ standing waist deep in the crystal-clear waters of Hamelin Bay, WA. The images represent the completion of Robyn Davidson’s solo journey from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, an epic that saw her walk 2700 kilometres through Australia’s most unforgiving desert landscape.

1Robyn Davidson and Bub the camel, 1977 by Rick Smolan. 2Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson, with camel 2013 by Matt Nettheim.

When viewed in isolation, one could be mistaken for thinking these images are essentially the same. However, when considered side by side, subtle differences in composition, lighting and perspective begin to emerge. New York photojournalist Rick Smolan took one of these photographs at the end of Davidson’s journey in 1977. The other was taken by production stills photographer Matt Nettheim on the set of the 2013 film Tracks. Smolan’s images capture the ‘reality’ of Davidson’s journey, while Nettheim’s are considered a fictional representation. But is it reasonable to draw such a clear line in the sand between what constitutes fact and fiction in photography?

In 1977, 26 year-old Robyn Davidson left Alice Springs with her dog Digitty and four camels – Dookie, Zeleika, Bub and Goliath – to begin a nine-month solo journey through the Australian desert to the Indian Ocean. While Davidson had no desire for human company on the trip, she did need substantial financial support. Accordingly, she allowed National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan to accompany her for parts of the journey. The first the world saw of Davidson’s trek was through a selection of Smolan’s photographs, published in 1978 in National Geographic. Subsequently – although Davidson did not set out with the intention of documenting the trip – her personal account of the journey, Tracks, was published (in 1980). A larger selection of Smolan’s photographs (alongside passages from Davidson’s memoir) was then published in the1992 illustrated book From Alice to the Ocean. Finally, in 2013, 36 years after Davidson’s odyssey, John Curran’s film Tracks (starring Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson and Adam Driver as Rick Smolan) sought to bring Davidson’s story to life on the big screen, and re-tell her experiences in a new way, to a new audience.

There is a noteworthy subjectivity in the ‘lens’ of each of these documenters. That is, each representation of Robyn Davidson’s journey, whether it be Rick Smolan’s photographs, her autobiography, or John Curran’s film, is in some way removed from the ‘reality’ of the journey. Therefore, the extent to which images represent ‘fact’ or ‘fiction’ in Nettheim and Smolan’s photographs is not quite the matter at hand. It is more a question of which truths, or indeed whose truths, they represent. Davidson herself made this very clear when, in 2014, she wrote: ‘From the moment I saw them [Rick’s photographs] they made me uneasy. I understood, in an inchoate way, that they represented a loss of subjective agency and that the journey, MY journey, would eventually be subsumed by its reconstructions. And I was right. First it was hijacked by my own book, then by Rick’s photographs, and now a film that is an even further abstraction from ‘what really happened’. I do not mean that the film is not an honourable attempt to recapitulate the essence of the book: it is, and that is the reason I like it so much. Nevertheless, it is an abstraction of an abstraction, and must inevitably be someone else’s vision, just as Rick’s photos are a record of his journey, not of mine.’

This unease at being the subject of Smolan’s photographic gaze is detectable in many of his images of Davidson. She often appears distanced and contemplative, engaged with elements of her environment – her animals, the landscape – other than the camera.

1Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson, 2013 by Matthew Nettheim. 2Robyn Davidson, 1977 by Rick Smolan.

Nonetheless, Rick Smolan’s photographs remain a greatly cherished visual record of Davidson’s expedition, due to their inherent beauty and timeless charm. Smolan illustrated the intense beauty of the Australian landscape, as well as Davidson’s quiet determination in the face of an almost surreal isolation. They are sensitive, intimate portraits that depict Davidson within the landscape, while poignantly and often humorously capturing the unyielding love and respect she had for her animals.         

While these striking photographs taken at the time of the journey are the closest thing to the visual ‘truth’ of Davidson’s experience, they remain a subjective rendering – a projection. A range of variables contribute to the story that Smolan’s photographs tell: he was an American photographer working in an unfamiliar, exotic landscape; he shot with an inherent ‘male gaze’; he was only present for a short few legs of the journey, such that his images only capture fragmented moments of the whole; and, finally, his photographs were commissioned for a publication, so their scope was informed by the expectations of the magazine’s audience.

In her 1980 memoir, Tracks, Davidson alludes to Smolan’s intrinsic perspective, noting, ‘They were gorgeous photos, no complaints there, but who was that Vogue model tripping romantically along roads with a bunch of camels behind her, hair lifted delicately by sylvan breezes and turned into a golden halo by the back-lighting. Who the hell was she? Never let it be said that a camera does not lie. It lies like a pig in mud. It captures the projections of whoever happens to be using it, never the truth.’

What then of the ‘fictional’ representation? Matt Nettheim is a prolific Australian stills photographer who has worked locally and internationally on films including The Babadook (2014), Hot Fuzz (2007) and The Eye of the Storm (2011).

His oeuvre also demonstrates a deep-rooted familiarity and comfort in capturing people within the landscape. This is particularly evident in his work from Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), Oyster Farmer (2004) and The Tracker (2002). His sensitive portraits of Mia Wasikowska in the role of Robyn Davidson in Tracks (2013) play homage to the photographs of Smolan, through their verisimilitude in composition and tone. In an interview with National Portrait Gallery Assistant Curator Penny Grist, Nettheim spoke about his experience on the set of Tracks commenting that he enjoyed working on a film where photography played such a pivotal role in the story. ‘Tracks justified me getting my film camera out again because it’s about a photographer … Every now and then the lead actor Adam Driver would consult me on how to hold the camera or something about photography.’

Interesting parallels can be drawn between the role of an on-set stills photographer and that of a photojournalist. On-set photographers like Nettheim work to stealthily pursue all opportunities for a shot, regardless of the time and space available for them to do so. Nettheim notes of his experience in this field, ‘You are standing around for hours, then you have a few seconds to get your shots and you are almost irrelevant; you are in the way and more of an irritation’. In a similar vein, photojournalist Smolan faced the challenge of capturing both the good and bad experiences of Davidson’s Journey. Davidson recalls an emotional moment in which she farewelled her friend Jenny: ‘I felt like pummelled dough and Rick took photos of us. We despised him for it – saw it as a form of parasitism, voyeurism.’ It was through this almost invasive documentation that Smolan was able to capture intensely intimate portraits of Davidson, whether comforting her camels, or relaxing at camp, visible only by the fireside glow illuminating her face.

When creating Tracks in 2013, John Curran (Director), Mandy Walker (Director of Photography), Melinda Doring (Production Designer) and Mariot Kerr (Costume Designer) were grateful for Smolan’s images. His photographs were important reference points for re-creating the character likeness of Robyn Davidson through makeup, costuming and production design. The likeness in costuming is clear when comparing the images of Robyn and Mia at Hamelin Bay, as well as the tousled hair, check shirt and red-brown wrap skirt, which feature both throughout the film and in many of Smolan’s photographs. Images of the landscape and key locations were also vital in creating a cinematic portrait of the Australian outback. John Curran recalls that he wanted to make a film ‘where the landscape itself was a character’. The capacity to refer to the landscape in Smolan’s images was central to achieving this.  

While there was a desire on the part of the filmmakers to match the look and feel of the original photographs by Smolan, both Curran and Davidson were acutely aware that the contemporary landscape told a very different story to that of 1977. In 2012, Davidson remarked on the Australian desert and the native animals she had admired during her journey: ‘Many of those animals are rare and gone. Their tracks are replaced by camel pads … and fox prints and rabbit holes’. Davidson has written further on this concern more recently, suggesting, ‘The desert belongs to another “now” and it is foolish to compare them. Just as it is foolish to compare the “truthfulness” of the book Tracks, Rick’s pictures of the journey, and the film. Each had its own artistic integrity; each is in dialogue with the others in the realm of imagination.’ Davidson was supportive of Curran’s approach to the film and was consulted at various stages of production. And the intent behind the film was clear: to tell a new story about Robyn Davidson’s experience, in a new era, through a new medium, and to a new audience.

The photographs taken by Matt Nettheim on the set of Tracks also tell another story. They not only re-imagine Robyn’s story, with actor Mia Wasikowska as the subject; they also document the nature of storytelling and the filmmaking process. The origins of stills photography in cinema stem from the production of publicity images for the marketing of a film. Nettheim’s work pays tribute to Smolan’s images by appropriating familiar visual clues and composition. Despite their apparent similarities, these new photographs are not simply an exercise in mimicry; rather, Nettheim creates new, captivating images for the promotion of the film. This similitude works to engage audiences who are already familiar with Davidson’s story and Smolan’s images, while simultaneously presenting fresh, intriguing pictures which, in isolation, are able to effectively engage the viewer and captivate a new audience for the film.

The photographs of Robyn Davidson and Mia Wasikowska, taken by Rick Smolan and Matt Nettheim respectively, represent their own reality – whether in an attempt to document Davidson’s adventure or her relationship with her animals and the Australian landscape – or whether it was to capture the reality of filmmaking and Curran’s fictional representation of a familiar story. In the same way that these images capture a form of reality, they are also constructed images, produced to serve a purpose and appeal to a particular audience, be it magazine subscribers or filmgoers. Either way, they are intriguing photographs that are of their time and place, and celebrate the experiences of a young woman and her very personal journey.

This article has been written as part of a major collaboration between the National Portrait Gallery and the National Film and Sound Archive, supported by the National Collecting Institutions Touring and Outreach Program.

2 portraits

Robyn Davidson (near Uluru), 1979 (printed 2014) Rick Smolan .

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.