Sometimes you need to go away from something to really see it. Australian born, UK based, and eternally transient photographer Simon Eeles has been travelling for years. Forming a reputation as a fashion shooter, in 2009 he was named Harper Bazaar's Young Photographer of the Year. In the time since he's lent his skills to some of the world's biggest luxury brands and publications. But the further he travelled, and the more luminous his world became, the more he found himself thinking about the jagged, awkward beauty of Australia.
His very first, newly published book, Australiana, is an examination of sprawling backyards, long days, sun-crisped bodies and faded bathers. It's a tender and wry postcard to home, from a place where memories have faded and reformed. But while he plays with archetypes, stereotypes and our global reputation, the work remains anchored in the present and never slips into nostalgia. The result is a project so vivid and natural that you can't help but wonder if you remembered to put on sunscreen this morning.
You've spent so much time travelling, why did you decide your first book would be about Australia?
After finishing my apprenticeship with Craig McDean and the fashion world, I wanted to retreat back to where I started. Australia is still a place of magic that I feel hasn't really been looked at enough since Rennie Ellis was shooting his incredible social pictures around the 80s in Melbourne and Sydney. I wanted this to be my postcard of how Australia felt to me now.
Did you return home to purposely shoot this, or were you inspired to embark on this project when you got here?
The project stemmed from a previous summer I'd spent in Tasmania. My nephews and nieces wanted to see what I had been doing all these years away and after shooting for a few hours one afternoon, I found myself with a body of work that inspired me to continue the conversation.
The images were made for my family and as a segue between my work in NYC and my home in Tasmania. After looking over the images for weeks I made the decision to start the project and give it as much attention as possible in the window I had before moving to London. I spent the following four months travelling the country looking for the ingredients that would make up the whole book. It was really the first time I had gone into the landscape looking for something new.
You'd been away for a while, had it changed the way you saw Australia?
Not changed, but amplified what I already thought. My images of Australia don't fly in the face of what we think, rather emphasise, maybe, what we as Australians see and feel when we think of home. It was made to boost and colour us as a culture, that is removed from most global markets, and to highlight our uniqueness in being a country of mostly immigrants.
So you were consciously engaging in that mythology around Australia?
I always want to boost the mythology. The Aboriginal culture native to Australia gave us a foundation to build a land of colour and dreams. The colours and concentration of characters I present are made with the dreamtime in mind and the culture that created it.
You do play with several stereotypes about Australians, how do you do that while still presenting an honest picture of the people who live here?
I find stereotypes to be useful. Having travelled a lot when I was younger, I was constantly shocked by how people imagined Australians. I remember when I was 18 travelling through South America and many North Americans imagined us as tall surfers and crocodile wrestling wild men. Although that is a great romantic idea it is far from what we really are. So the book was made to create a picture of the sun loving, rugged civilisation that comes as a result of different backgrounds and lifestyles.
Were you conscious of not presenting people as caricatures of themselves?
Very conscious but mostly because the stereotypes that exist for Australians aren't that interesting to me. The big surfer, the tough cowboy, the sexy blonde beach babe do exist but they don't belong to the modern Australian. We are as vast and different as any place I have ever been and working on the book gave me more of a total idea of the current landscape of Australia.
Do you feel the popular image of Australia has changed in recent years?
The popular image of Australia is constantly changing, more globally than locally. The last breakthrough, whether good or bad, was probably the Lara Bingle "where the bloody hell are you?" It gave us a point of difference, albeit one of total stereotype. Being a Tasmanian I am loyal to the idea of growing that state and David Walsh, with his gallery MONA, is helping our image immensely as he has brought an international audience. The more we can support the arts I think the closer we can get to an individual national image.
Right now, what are you excited about?
Finding something new. The job of any young artist is to explore the unknown and find something that makes you happy. I will be publishing four more books over the coming years and will try to flesh out aspects of photography that both excite me and draw into question my pre existing ideas. Through my Instagram I can explore and test ideas, so also excited about this…. I was late to the party.
Text Wendy Syfret
Photography Simon Eeles