My first visit to Cockatoo Island was in my capacity as a professional photographer to record images of various elements of the island for the publication of brochures and inclusion on the web sites of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. Over the course of a number of assignments there I became enchanted by the structures and machines that remain as part of the original shipbuilding yards. The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust has sympathetically left some of the areas completely untouched – as if the workers had just left.
During one assignment I was unable to complete my job due to some construction, so with a whole day on the island l decide to photograph some of the scenes that had caught my eye on previous visits. The more I shot the more I saw and the more I wanted to go back. The images in this book are perhaps only a tenth of the total number and it took many visits.
There were many technical challenges – the low light levels (I only used available light), high contrast situations and bottomless pits of shadows and difficult camera positions. I often had to reshoot certain images to get them right.
It was not just the machines and structures themselves that present such beauty to me. The fine layers of dust, the sheen of oil and beautifully worn surfaces were revealed by the soft, luminous light that penetrated the aged skylights and windows.
An old lathe can be seen merely as such. Look closer and the forms and patina will reveal not only it’s intrinsic beauty but also it’s history.
Often alone, in a huge corrugated iron building with a soaring ‘saw tooth’ roof, I would slink around searching every nook and cranny for hidden gems.
Huge machines, built in England and Scotland, with worm screws the diameter of my waist. Small lathes with intricate adjusting mechanisms all spoke of the great age of shipbuilding. The power station that supplied electricity to the island, with it’s myriad of switches, levers, and gauges always raises the hairs on the back of my neck.
One of the great features of the island is that virtually all the areas where these photographs have been taken can be seen by the public. The balance between preservation and accessibility have been thoughtfully managed.
I have been a photographer for nearly 40 years. Photography is my passion and my vocation. My approach is from an intuitive perspective rather than an intellectual one. Consequently, my photographs tend to invite meditation rather than discourse. My projects, subject matter, materials and techniques vary with little rhyme or reason. Regardless, there is a strange harmony between each series of photos. I work introspectively, somewhat in a vacuum. This insular way of working helps me be true to myself creatively. I like to spend time with my subjects. As a result my creative output is slow, both in development and execution. Final images are often the result of months and sometimes years of experimentation, rephotographing and ‘living’ with work prints. Behind each final image are numerous photographic ‘sketches’ or references. The process is all-important. I will continue to further refine and distil my vision – to work towards interpretations that are sheer, poetic and pure. Ashley