Legendary US photographer Sam Abell strides the line between beauty and danger in this Australian Traveller image portfolio Portfolio Sam Abell — Pressing Forward [view as slideshow]

Legendary US photographer Sam Abell has shot for National Geographic since 1967, with a documentary style that has made his images famous throughout the world. On the eve of a very special exhibition on far-flung Australian landscapes, he talks to AT about beauty, danger and walking the line between the two.

I’ve done some intimate and intensive photography in places where nobody’s been – like the inside of the Japanese Imperial Palace – so I’m often expected to cite one of those exotic places as my favourite. But my visit in 1997 to the northeast and northwest of Australia for two years was the greatest spell in my 35-year career. I went 20 years as a photographer for National Geographic without making a single cover, then did two stories in Australia and both made the cover. So of course the place is very special to me.

Australians live a dynamic life up there in the north. A boy’s horse died in his arms while I was right there, gored by a wild bore. Things happen there, all the time. There’s a physical drama to life in Australia. And since the world is full of very straightforward images, I try to take enigmatic photographs that are involving and that will stop the reader. So my life has had more of a dangerous edge because of my insistence to press forward. To push situations, not to create an outcome, but for photographic reasons. Usually for light, actually. You go too far, you push too hard, you stay too late. And in the north of Australia, the sunrise and sunset are very fast, so there’s an intensity to get that shot during a very small window.

That’s the place I like to be as a photographer: on the line between beauty and danger. And that line is so walkable in northwest and northeast Australia. I love that. Twice I almost died when I was there; both times involving small planes with the doors off, cyclones and inexperienced pilots. In my opinion both of those times were unsurvivable. But they were also unforgettably beautiful. Terrorising, but beautiful.

In one instance, our pilot wanted to go one way, towards a darker patch in the cyclonic sky, but I wanted to go the other, towards the light. We also had a mini-cyclone inside the plane, stuff was flying everywhere. The pilot was more terrified than we were. At one point the storm knocked us completely backwards, which is a very profound feeling. I looked out the window and thought, “I shouldn’t really be here.” But then I thought, “When am I going to be here again?” and started taking photographs. That certainly took my mind off the immediate danger.

Finally, there are two people I would like very much to mention if possible: Mike Osborne from the Kimberley and Kerry Trapnell from Cairns; both are beloved and respected photographers. And without them I think I would still be lost there in Australia, in that empty place full of compelling possibilities, trying to find my way around.

* “Australia through the National Geographic Lens” is organised and produced by the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall in Washington DC, and is appearing at the Australian Museum in Sydney from May to June 2007. More info on www.australianmuseum.net.au

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