Interview: Murray Fredericks, Photographer and Documentarian

Murray Fredericks is a master photographer who has distinguished himself in both the artistic and commercial realms of his field. The 40-year-old Australian native originally studied politics and economics at Sydney University, only to discover his true calling during a post-college journey through Asia and the Middle East. His professional work has since taken him to the far corners of the globe, in his endless exploration on the possibilities of space and perception.

Fredericks’ career has thus far seen both success and international recognition. His commercial clients have included Absolute Vodka, Bulgari Hotels and Resorts, Vogue Living Magazine, and Australian Architectural Review. His art photography resides in such locations as the National Gallery of Victoria, the Valentino Collection, and the private collection of Sir Elton John.

In 2009, Murray worked with director Michael Angus to create the acclaimed short documentary Salt, which has won 15 international awards and has been presented in over 50 film festivals. It also premiered in the United States on PBS in 2010. The work chronicles one of Murray’s multi-week journeys out into the expansive Lake Eyre salt flats of Australia.  The resulting photographs are otherworldly, with extraordinary spreads of light, color, and void which often seem more like modern art than anything from the physical world.

What originally drew you to photography? Do you have any major artistic or commercial influences that inspired your approach?

After university I spent a few years travelling in the middle East and in the Himalayas. I became fascinated with the sense of space and the effect of that on the mind. After a while travel itself became monotonous yet I wanted to somehow remain with that feeling so I wet back to an old love of mine – photography…

I have had many influences in many contexts. You pick up bits and pieces from everyone and everything you respect. 

How has your interest in, and approach to, your craft developed during your career?

Craft was the first hurdle. After you learn the craft in a particular medium once, you ‘learn how to learn’. That’s important because in this age of cross media practices, you have to be able to pick up new skills all the time. The trick is not to become bogged down in the craft either through striving for an unattainable technical perfection or through mixing up where the action is really happening. Technology can open doors to new possibilities but it’s the creative use of that technology that counts.

The documentary Salt opens with rather surreal footage of you biking into the wastes of the Lake Eyre salt flats with a wagon full of equipment. How far into this terrain did you have to travel before you felt sufficiently immersed? What sort of contingency plans did you have in case of accident/illness while in such isolation?

It took about three years of venturing further and further out on the trips and finally deciding to head right out to the middle and then camp there. The camping phase lasted for five years. I always have two ways of getting out in an emergency. One is the way I came in and then another like a PLB (beacon) or a sat phone (or both). I was always hyper-aware of the potential dangers and risks and took steps to mitigate any issues well before they became serious. The biggest worry was always lightning out there. At the first sniff of lightning I was gone…

What photographic equipment did you bring into the salt flats, and what sort of special considerations did you have to make in regards to the climate and terrain?

I used an 8×10″ view camera for the photography. I used a video camera for the documentary and then DSLRs for the time-lapse with a motion control unit. The salt ruined everything in time and I had to wrap everything in water proof kits to move around out there. After a while the salt was on your hands and there was no fresh water to spare to wash them so it just got through everything and corroded. I used the gear that I needed, however, without compromise as the images were more important than the gear.

On your website, you indicate that the aim of your artistic work is to “represent the experience when thought is temporarily suspended and the mind encounters ‘other’.” As such, do you consider your work in the salt flats “nature photography”, or was your primary aim to illuminate something more psychological? 

I really don’t consider it ‘nature photography’, ‘landscape photography’. I am an artist using photography and the landscape to create a sense of space in the viewers’ mind. The aim is to have people lose themselves (even just a little bit) in the imagery not create a physical description of the location and its geographical character.

The final moments of Salt are extremely personal and self-reflective, as you speak to the camera regarding a series of personal tragedies that struck you in your mid-20s. Had you initially expected to bring such a confessional tone to the documentary? Did you find that your work in the salt flats helped you achieve any sort of catharsis?

That really just came out. The film process did make me wonder why I was doing what I was doing. I just began talking and there it was. I think it was cathartic making the film as much as being out on the salt flats. The familiarity of the salt flats after a while and the empty days do allow things to ‘come up’ but it was never the point of the trip. It was a by-product.

You maintain separate websites for your commercial and artistic work, each subtly emphasizing different elements of your biography. Do find any tension between these aspects of your professional career? Do you have any advice to young artists who seek to find a balance between the two?

I am lucky that the skills and craft I learnt for the exhibition work had/has a commercial application. I am an artist first and a commercial photographer as a spin-off. The ‘artistic’ side is all consuming, I think about it and talk about even while shooting commercially. The commercial work facilitated the early projects and the process of ‘gearing-up’. It also allowed me to stop waiting tables and start spending my days behind a camera, which is a joy no matter what you are shooting! I get a professional buzz out of the commercial work and do enjoy the work, but it’s all to make the artistic projects possible. There was never any design in this arrangement, it really just grew into what it is now. Both feed each other in different ways.

I can’t offer any advice here  as the path you make is your own when operating in either field.

Would you please speak a little about your upcoming work, “The Greenland Ice Project”, and its accompanying documentary, “Nothing on Earth”? How close are these to completion, and what other projects are in the works?

Michael Angus (director of Salt) and I have just been commissioned to complete the “Nothing on Earth” project in Greenland. A very tough place to work, it has been hard going to date to even get the project off the ground, but that struggle paradoxically made for a good story. We will shoot video and stills for around 3-4 months next year (2012) and the project will complete in 2013. It will be a 1hour feature documentary.

Apart from Greenland I have the ‘Hector’ project running and am about to head off and shoot another month up in the North of Australia. 

All of it is connected by this desire to explore removing ‘the view’ from the landscape image, to deny the scene and give what remains (often the more subtle elements) more power, more significance. The clouds, the weather, the light, the peripherals that create the atmosphere become the subjects themselves – but it’s still not about that. The rare images that have that sense of ‘other’ make it into the series.

Murray Frederick’s art website can be found at: http://murrayfredericks.com.au/

The website focusing on his commercial work can be found at: http://www.murrayfredericksphotography.com.au/

“Salt” first aired on PBS’ “POV” series. Its official website for “Salt” is: http://www.pbs.org/pov/salt/