GRAYnomad Nature Photography :: Essays :: Shearing Sheds

Shearing Sheds

Much as I'd like to, I cannot claim to be a born and bred country boy. It's true that my first years were spent on a dairy farm, it's also true that for some of my pre-teen years I lived on "Wanatta", my family's sheep and cattle property in south east New South Wales. And I have worked as a farm hand on occasion. But I didn't grow up on, and work, the land in the way a real "country boy" does.

However I'm sure it's these past associations that draw me back to photograph shearing sheds and other farm buildings.

The smell of lanolin, the greasy yard gates, the shiny floor under each stand (polished by a million sheep bums), the droppings that didn't make it through the slatted floor, and the old hand-cranked phone still connected to the homestead.

All these sensations and more make up an Australian shearing shed and make them a fascinating subject for photography. I love these places and hope to see many more of them. Fortunately I am occasionally asked to visit properties with a view to photographing the buildings and/or the landscape.

Two such invitations led to me meet some interesting people and allowed me to make some photos of what is a fast disappearing part of Australia's heritage.

The first was to a property called "Bannaby" near Goulburn. I was asked there by Steve Hartup. Steve first approached me at a John Sexton seminar in Sydney, he's an interesting bloke, a farm hand by day, a photography teacher by night, and a large format photographer on the weekends.

A fascinating combination that is reflected in his home. From the outside the place is a standard fibro farm house, inside however we find folders of proofsheets, boxes of prints and books such as David Bayles & Ted Orland's "Art & Fear" packing the lounge room; a spare bedroom is filled with archival print washers, a dry mounting press and drying frames; while in the ancient laundry, amid bottles of developer and selenium toner, a Beseler 45 enlarger stands proud, complete with cold light head and voltage stabiliser.

Steve somehow finds time to make and exhibit his exquisite prints in between crutching, drenching, and shearing sheep, not to mention the thousand other tasks required of someone that works the land.

We both spent the day wandering around the property's shed, I made three photos, Bannaby I is the first. I bet you can't guess what I called the other two.

Bannaby 1

"Ledgerton" is another property with over a hundred years of history. Barry Walker first invited me to photograph the shearing shed in 1995 but it was about a year later when I finally managed a visit.


The photo entitled Ledgerton was made in very dim light, to make life more difficult the slatted floor was quite springy so I could not move during the very long exposure (3 minutes) for fear of also moving the tripod. On seeing the photo Barry said "I would never thought of photographing that", there are two reasons for this.

First, he has seen it a thousand times, it's just one of the many holding pens in the shed, whereas I was seeing this place for the first time. Second, he is not a photographer, and I am.

There is a third factor in play here, technical ability. It's one thing to "see" the image, it's often another thing to transfer that image onto a sheet of photographic paper. You don't have to be a genius, the techniques are actually quite simple, but you do need to spend some time learning, either from books and your own experiments, or from someone who has already made the mistakes and is willing to share their knowledge.

One Owner, Needs Work

The photo One Owner, Needs Work has that title because it was built over a hundred years ago by Barry's ancestors so it has had only one owner (or has been owned by one family anyway), and it sure does need some work.


Both these shearing sheds were built in the mid 1800s, to stand in them you can almost hear the bullock drays groaning under the weight of wool bails. You can begin to imagine the thoughts of the dray's driver, with days or even weeks of lonely, and sometimes dangerous, travel in front of him as he takes the wool to Sydney.

The drays are all gone now, and so have the heady days of Australia's wool industry, however it's largely the wealth created during these times that made Australia the free and prosperous place it is today.

It's people like those who built these sheds, people who actually create something, that are needed by a nation. Not people who shuffle money from one offshore account to another as exchange rates fluctuate, or 'bankrupt' billionaires living in huge mansions.


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