Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Eulogy – Wesley Stacey

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Gerrit Fokkema, Wilcannia News

Wesley Stacey died recently in Bermagui, where he had lived since the mid 1970’s. Between 1968 and 1972, Wes made pictures in Wilcannia of buildings and street scenes that were used in a book, ‘Historic Towns of Australia’.

He photographed the main features of the town in black and white. The Bridge, Post Office, Knox and Downs General Store, The Rich and Company Bond Store, The Courthouse, Police Station and Gaol, Club House Hotel and The Bank of NSW building, which is now The Central Darling Shire Council Chambers.


Those black and white images are now in the collection of The National Library of Australia in Canberra and are a valuable record of what Wilcannia looked like at that time. Many things have changed in Wilcannia since the early 1970’s and indeed since the late 1800’s but those main featured buildings remain and although at times they have fallen into disrepair and sometimes neglect, now many of those buildings have been restored and cared for, or like the former Knox and Downs, undergoing repurposing.

Wesley was an outstanding Photographer, a pioneer in many ways for his interest in specifically Australian subjects.

Where many photographers emulate international styles, trends and subject matter, Wes captured unique views of Australia.

He grew up in Sydney, studied Graphic Design when he left school and initially worked at ABC TV in Sydney as a Graphics assistant and later in the Graphics Department of BBC TV in London. Friends and colleagues encouraged him to concentrate on photography as he spent much of his spare time engaged in that activity. By 1967 he was a full time Photographer, working as a freelancer in fashion and advertising, while continuing to explore his own interests in the Australian landscape and the encroachment of suburbia on nature.

This was an exciting time for Stacey, as the cultural changes of the 1960’s were in full swing, he grew his naturally curly redish locks into an imposing ginger afro. The late 60’s to the late 70’s were extremely busy and the variety of photographic work grew to include a collaboration with a young Architect, Phillip Cox, where they travelled all over Australia, documenting buildings and towns in a series of glossy large Coffee Table books, ‘Rude Timber Buildings, ‘Historic Towns of Australia’ and ‘Colonial Architecture of Australia’.

There was also a book on Kings Cross, Sydney, a collaboration with Melbourne photographer Rennie Ellis.

During that time Wesley was also one of the founders of The Australian Centre for Photography, along with another noted Australian photographer, David Moore.

Wes Stacey travelled throughout Australia for those architectural projects and his next book, ‘Timeless Gardens’ with Eleanor Williams, was a documentation of Australian landscapes and ‘natural gardens’ and included Aboriginal rock art in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

This constant travel generated yet another project, ‘The Road’, which had Wes abandoning the careful composition and formal framing of subjects and use of professional equipment, in favour of shooting from the windows of moving vehicles, capturing images of people, buildings, landscapes, other vehicles, parts of his own vehicle and the road itself…. all using Kodak instamatic cameras and colour film, processed and printed at consumer level chemist shops instead of professional labs.

This frenzy of image making led to an exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography in 1975 of 280 snapshot size prints, arranged in long horizontal sequences, for example, North Queensland – Normantown to Cairns or Sydney – Night Roads.

While at first, this avalanche of images is overwhelming, it provides a very honest and direct record of exactly what Australia looked like at the time, 1973-1975. These images are in the collection of The Australian National Gallery in Canberra and are an important part of our Photographic history, a unique record.

When I first met Wesley in 1979, he had moved to a piece of land near Bermagui on the NSW South Coast.

He had been working in collaboration with the Aboriginal community at Wallaga Lake and Yuin Elder ‘Guboo’ Ted Thomas, to protest against the destruction of forest on Mumbulla Mountain(Biamanga) and protect sacred sites in that area.

I visited Wallaga Lake and photographed ‘Guboo’ Ted Thomas at Mumbulla Mountain for a story on the protests for The Canberra Times, where I worked as a Photographer at the time.

Together Ted, Wesley and others mounted a successful campaign that led to the NSW Government in 1980 declaring the area of around 7,540 ha (18.600 acres) as an ‘Aboriginal Place’ and a ‘Protected Archeological Area’ under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.

Biamanga has been jointly managed by the traditional owners and The National Parks and Wildlife Service since 2006. The title to the land is owned by two Local Aboriginal Land Councils and leased back to the NSW Government for use as a National Park’ in a similar arrangement to that of Mutawintji National Park. Wesley Stacey continued to live in a bush camp at ‘Thubbul’, south of Bermagui, using that as a base to continue photographing landscapes across Australia, until he died in February 2023.

At his burial in Burmagui Cemetary, representatives of the Wallaga Lake community “welcomed him to their soil as a brother” and ‘Guboo” Ted Thomas’s daughter sang a beautiful and sad song in the Dhurga language of The Yuin Nation. 

Wilcannia News April 2023

This article appeared in the Wilcannia News, April 2023.


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