In 1983 John Gollings photographed the Great Ocean Road in the wake of Ash Wednesday. Nearly 26 years later he was again flying over fire-ravaged land, this time with his camera looking down on the Hume Highway as Victoria reeled from the deadliest fires in recorded history: on and around February 7, 2009 – Black Saturday. The photos taken during that two-hour flight recorded the scale of the devastation.

a landscape of burned trees
John Gollings, 875.00M E 145° 12’ 31.12’ S 037° 25’ 15.95’ 2009 2012, ink jet print

The timing of his flight was carefully chosen to provide distance from the danger but proximity to the impact and trauma, at the precise moment when public attention appeared to shift “from reaction and reportage to comprehension and contemplation” [1]. Following the frenzied media coverage Gollings set out to respectfully document the fire’s impact for the historical record. His pilot had been involved in the water-bombing efforts and charted a course from Healesville to Clonbinane following the track of the fire.

As he photographed the land below Gollings found a new, emerging landscape. “The fire had just gone out and the land was about as raw as it could get,” Gollings said in an Age interview. “I remember I looked closely at an image I’d taken and saw two tiny green dots… Within just 24 hours [Xanthorrhoea plants] had sprung into life again.” He made other discoveries while going through the 1,178 photographs he took that day. Species now isolated from their previous verdant cover and exposed to view; a pine tree with orange ash; colourless leaves. It was like having X-ray vision of how the landscape changes due to bushfire.

“I want to comment on the power of nature, the sheer graphic beauty of burnt landscape and the regeneration of life that comes out of destruction. It’s one of the great ironies of the Australian landscape, that after the destruction of a bushfire the forest is reborn.”

John Gollings in Aftermath Exhibition Catalogue

In some images the use of a wide angle lens distorts our perspective. Gollings described how the photos came together from the movement of the helicopter, his camera, the subject, the reportage, and his ethics: “the precise point where making pictures of the trauma of Black Saturday became possible”. By balancing striking abstract compositions with broader context and meaning, he found a way of reporting on the fires that was both literal and inclusive.

People are absent in Gollings’ photos. There are no burnt-out dwellings or shops or cars; he focused instead on the scarred land. In contrast, sculptor Peter Wegner sought to express the “interior of the human experience” in his Black Saturday series [2]. These small human figures, with their raw finish and titles (Disbelief, The wake I), are evocative reminders of the anguished aftermath. The losses of February 2009 were immense: 13 major blazes claimed 352,686 hectares, 2000 houses and 173 lives.

Peter Wegner, Man in shock, Disbelief, The wake: two, The wake: three, The blanket,
Black Saturday series, 2009–2010, bronze sculptures

Fire is an integral part of Australia’s narrative. Indigenous communities have strong connections with smoke and fire, and evidence suggests the land was tended by traditional fire management practices over tens of thousands of years [3]. Controlled burns filled agricultural requirements and encouraged the favourable spread of flora and fauna, but with the arrival of Europeans the landscape reverted to thick forest or scrubland. Fire became something to fear. In 1851 the first major fire devastation was recorded after 12 lives and million sheep were lost to Black Thursday. Our archives contain an account from the Macedon region in the diary of George Gordon McCrae: “all the Sky appears of one dull leaden hue excepting near the horizon where it is red like port-wine…”.

There have been many further blazes since Black Thursday. As a continent we are uniquely fire-prone due to our climate and ecosystem. We are getting better at understanding and controlling them through advances in science and technology, Royal Commissions and Inquiries, and better preventative measures. But the resounding lesson of our environment is that nature always has and always will possess the power to overwhelm culture. In the words of one fire manager:

“You have to step out of the way and acknowledge that nature has got the steering wheel at the moment.” [4]

There are many tragic and heroic stories to emerge from the events of Black Saturday. Some stories can be found in our collection; others may never be known. Gollings’ photographs and Wegner’s sculptures were acquired by the Library in 2012 and are important additions to our State’s memory. They will go on display in our Changing Face of Victoria exhibition in February 2019 to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of Black Saturday. They join other notable works depicting fire in Australia including William Strutts’s Black Thursday, Molly Tjami’s Waru [fire] and Juan Davila’s Churchill National Park (all in Cowen Gallery).

Fire has touched many lives and influenced all Australians in some way.  Typed on an envelope in our John and Sunday Reed Collection is a draft of a poem, written by Sidney Nolan while involved in firefighting at Wimmera, found and transcribed by the La Trobe Journal. It concludes:

“born of the grass
and trees, covering
the sky with
force, with fire …
demanding obedience;
making both eyes equally mad, and
enduring for ever.”


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