Ken credits his father with stimulating his love of photography. His father was a keen photographer, but a slow one and, in frustration, Ken borrowed his Praktica camera to try to capture the moments that he felt his dad was missing.
Later, like many wanting to make photography their career, Ken began work in the commercial sector and it was here, in the 1970s, that he came across the Widelux panoramic camera that was to shape his future. Ken took the camera on a surfing holiday to Bali and a photo he took of Mount Agung had such an impact on him that he knew this was the type of photography he wanted to do.
‘Instead of the photo being the boxed in version you see through a standard camera lens, here was a 140° image that covered a similar panorama to what the human eye sees.’
In 1982, Ken left Sydney and travelled extensively around Australia, eventually producing more than 80,000 images in panoramic format.
‘The best piece of advice was given to me by an Indigenous Elder who told me that you really need to “walk a while” with someone to understand them, to understand their country. What that’s given me is an eye for a more intimate relationship with the landscapes that I photograph.’
During a visit to New York Ken discovered the market for fine art photographic prints and on his return to Australia he pioneered that concept here. He had been offered work for Time and National Geographic magazines, and Life magazine even offered him a highly coveted cover opportunity. But it was the fine art print market he wanted to establish in Australia.
A publisher offered Ken a book contract for his photos, and his first book, The Last Frontier: Australia Wide, launched in 1987, selling 85,000 copies.
‘I knew I wanted to bring the beauty of nature to people’s homes,’ he says, so, with his best friend — wife Pam — they risked all their savings in a property in Oak Road, Matcham where they established the first Ken Duncan Gallery in 1990. The gallery quickly became a popular Central Coast attraction, with people coming from far and wide to enjoy Ken’s artworks.
They now have a major gallery-theatre-café at Erina Heights which, in 2019, has new chefs and a new menu in the café, and exciting plans underway to bring in the work of other outstanding artists as well as those of the talented Indigenous students Ken is working with through his Walk a While Foundation.
‘I want the gallery and the café to be a sanctuary where international visitors and locals alike can relax and bathe in the beauty of our natural world. And we encourage people to buy the art so they can turn their walls into windows to the beauty of nature.
’The Walk a While Foundation, Ken’s other passion, arose out of his travels in remote areas of Australia where many issues in communities are exacerbated by a lack of opportunities for young people to develop work skills to become self-sufficient. ‘
‘In Haasts Bluff, we’ve established a teaching facility, 230 km west of Alice Springs and its aim is to help the community tell their stories, whether it’s through paintings, photography, cinematography, music — performance or production — and to build that into meaningful employment opportunities.’
It’s not only indigenous youth that Ken works with. One of his joys is mentoring up and coming photographers as well as conducting photography courses to share his skills and experiences with others.
The question he is asked most often is whether he uses filters to achieve the vibrancy in his photos. ‘No,’ says Ken. ‘At most I use a UV filter, partly to protect the face of the lens. Or a neutral density filter to achieve a lower shutter speed.
’For Ken, the vibrancy comes from being in the right place at the right time, not from Photoshopping.
Today, he works with a Phase One camera to capture the amazing high detail, high dynamic range in his photographs.
‘Being a medium format camera, it is heavy and can be difficult to use, especially when shooting wildlife. I need to sit up the front of the safari vehicle with a special gimbal on my tripod to counteract camera shake on the telephoto lens. But I was hooked after taking a photo of a majestic lion, well sated after a successful hunt. His eyes locked mine and he stared back at me for the longest time.
‘Back at our lodge that evening, I zoomed into the image on my computer and the photo was so sharp, I could see myself and the safari vehicle reflected in his eyes… that’s why I persevere with this camera!
‘As individuals, we’re all works in progress,’ says Ken but, in the words of the Haasts Bluff locals, we’d say he has already come a ‘little bit long way’.
WORDS CATHARINE RETTER
PHOTOS KEN DUNCAN