Narelle Autio is known for the works she has produced along the Australian coastline. One of these, The Coastal Dwellers, earned her the 2002 Leica Oskar Barnack Award. During the two years that followed, she travelled all over the country’s interior, without any particular focus in mind. During the covid lockdowns, she revisited the pictures, and was surprised at how masculine the outback felt to her – in contrast to her work dealing with the ocean, which is often talked about in a feminine sense.
What part of the outback did your series take place in?
My partner, Trent Parke and I took a two-year (2003-2004) road trip around Australia, making photographs and camping in a small tent. I made these images in multiple locations, but the red earth is only found in the desert regions, mostly around the middle and northern areas of Australia.
Your series are not exclusively about the relationship of Australians to water, but in Outback it hardly even appears (except in the picture where a young man jumps into the tank of a windmill-driven water pump). What is the idea behind this series?
The absence of water throughout this work is as important as the presence of water in the other. I started this series during the two year trip around Australia. At that time, my main focus was collecting images around the sea and the coastal environment.
When we were in the outback I was taking a lot of photographs, but at the time I didn’t focus on anything in particular. It was pure documentation of what I saw, experienced and, ultimately, was subconsciously drawn to. No agenda. During the covid lockdowns we began scanning my archive and, upon revisiting the work, I was really struck by how masculine the work was. There were a lot of men. It had a very tough feel to it compared to the work I had done in the ocean, a place which is historically and culturally often talked about in a feminine sense. In any case it made me think, if the sea is feminine maybe the land, the outback could be considered masculine? I find the landscape of the outback stunningly beautiful but I see a harshness that I don’t feel or experience on the coast. Twenty years ago this was a masculine landscape where men seemed to dominate the space. I see symbols of destruction and introduced (non-native) animals that now destroy the fragile ecosystem. Mother nature seems absent from these images. It feels tough and reminds me how much of Australia’s modern history had a brutal beginning.
There’s a lot of light and a lot of shadow in your pictures. Where does the intense colour come from? Is it simply the light of the outback? Is it the film you’re using, the time of day, or the digital processing of the scans?
Almost all of this series was shot on Kodak Ektachrome E100 VS (Vivid Saturation). Unfortunately, the film is now discontinued. The reds and blues… the colours of the outback are very intense at the best of times; but during the very low light of early morning or evening, this particular film rendered the colours even more vividly. I love the hyperbole of the colours; it’s real but also has a surrealistic feel to it.
Your series gives the impression that the outback tends to be populated by poor white and even poorer indigenous Australians. Was that intentional?
No, not intentional, and I don’t actually see this… I don’t know whether the people in my images are poor or otherwise. In the bush, Australian kids get dirty the minute they step outside. For everyone else it is a hot, dusty, dirty, sweaty place to work or play in, and thriftiness is important to country people. They use, fix, use and fix something till it is completely broken or worn out.
What is the relationship between the two populations today?
Many of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, quite rightly have an enduring anger at how their country and people were invaded and colonised. Past and current governments have done little to make up for the wrongs of the past. I can only speak from my perspective: I think the majority of white Australia, and in particular the younger generation, want change, and recognise that it is unacceptable for one section of society to benefit from the subjugation of another. I think this is universal around the world, and coincides with a push for more progressive and inclusive societies across all demographics. But, of course, we still have a long way to go.
I read somewhere that the first dromedary set foot on Australian soil in your birthplace of Adelaide in 1840. Do these animals have any special meaning to you?
Not personally. But in this series they are symbolic of all the introduced species that are now considered pests, because of their destruction of the environment.
I know that the series was taken with an M6. What lenses did you use?
Most of the photographs were shot with a Summicron 35mm – if not all of them. Trent and I shared our lenses but I preferred the 35mm and he the 28mm, so we generally stuck to the one lens… occasionally we would borrow each other’s. I like the 35mm. It’s wide without being too wide, and has minimal distortion.
What are your plans for the near future?
I’m working on getting the Watercolours book published (which includes some of the work that won the LOBA), alongside this work on the outback. I now see them as companion books, and I’m really enjoying the conversation that the work has begun between the two.
Born in Adelaide in 1969, Narelle Autio studied Visual Arts at the University of South Australia. After graduating she worked as a photojournalist for the Adelaide Advertiser. She worked free-lance in the United States, and was principal photographer for the London office of News Limited. After returning to Australia she joined the Sydney Morning Herald. In 2002 she won the Leica Oskar Barnack Award for her series The Coastal Dwellers. In her personal projects, she has often dealt with the relationship of people in Australia to the ocean (Watercolours) and with water in general (Water Hole). Learn more about Autio’s photography on the website of her representative Agence VU’, and on the Instagram channel that she maintains with her partner, Trent Parke.