The photographer behind ‘The Green Desert’

IMG_9250Award winning Australian landscape photographer Peter Elfes has brought his world-renowned exhibition The Green Desert to The World Theatre.

The gallery displays the stunning vista of Kati Thanda, commonly known as Lake Eyre, in South Australia and the many natural changes it underwent in the five years he spent photographing it.

Elfes was inspired by the late Paul Lockyer, whose reports on the natural phenomena of the lake lit the flame for what would be arguably his greatest work.

“The photographs for the exhibition began in 2009 from the first trip I took and that was as a result of the reporting of ABC journalist Paul Lockyer,” Elfes says.

It came at a time in his life when he was on a hiatus from photography having spent the best part of 40 years in the profession.

“I’d stopped taking photographs for about ten years, I’d spent my entire life taking photographs, my father was a photographer,” he says.

After seeing the ABC report Lockyer did, however, he had to see it for himself.

“I was in a unique position where I had the time, the effort, the money etcetera and the expertise and the equipment,” he says.

IMG_9261In 2009 the lake had begun flooding, an unusual occurrence given its placement in the middle of the Simpson Desert.

“It usually gets a little bit of water every decade but it only ever gets a lot of water every 30 or 40 years so it’s considered a rare phenomena,” Elfes says.

Throughout the 10 or so trips he’s made to the site it’s been less about the photographs and more about the stories behind them.

“During the process I got the opportunity to meet a lot of the Indigenous people out there and found out that they had been in a battle to have their native title (for the lake) recognised by the high court,” he says.

“Previously we had the lake named after an explorer who never even got to the lake, he just saw it from a distance.”

He now feels a connection to the 10,000 square km of lake and the surrounding area because of his experiences.

“Oh 100 per cent, I can walk around in complete comfort but given that I’ve spent so much time in the air it gives me a much stronger connection to the place because you can see it differently and move across it quite quickly,” he says.

His ability to return year after year to document the changes as the lake continued to flood is what makes the exhibition.

“I think that’s what attracts people to the pictures, is that it’s a snapshot, albeit a five year one, of the lake at a particular transitional time,” he says.

“In those five years the changes that occurred around the lake, in the lake, the micro-organisms and all that change colour and the animals and the birds you know.

“So we’re talking about a cycle, an ecological cycle and it’s the first time the lake has been documented so intensely in the modern era.”

The salts and minerals the water picks up as it flows through the river catchments make for a stunning array of water colours ranging from green and blue to pink and purple.

He’s faced a number of challenges throughout the process all the way from capture to having the exhibition on the walls.

“A piston driven helicopter bounces like a tin can rattling down the road in a hurricane, you can’t use lens shades…there’s so many limitations and considerations for safety,” he says.

IMG_9264“The vibrations and everything involved make taking photographs nearly impossible, it’s a nightmare but you realise that you’ve got to overcome it.

“So the challenge of getting a technically really, really good picture that you can then blow up to 2m is so challenging.”

Processing, paper, frame and glass problems struck along the way before the exhibition could become what it is today.

“That’s the level of commitment I’ve made to make it possible for people the appreciate the beauty of this location,” he says.

Due to its natural complexity, Elfes find himself explaining that the pieces are in fact photographs.

“The number one asked question is ‘are these paintings?’,” he says.

“It tells you that the way we view these places has changed, and it’s changed because of these photographs, because we managed to document that event and show people what it looks like and if it hadn’t been for that people wouldn’t know.”