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His Day in the Life series was a phenomenal success and he still reigns as the king of coffee-table photography books. But it’s a 1970s assignment in the Australian desert that holds a special place in Rick Smolan’s heart.

By Susan Chenery.

Rick Smolan: Out of the desert

It was a love affair that would fundamentally change him, and shape the man he would become. As epic in its scale as it was unrequited.

She was an apparition. Shimmering in the dust and heat of the desert. Walking away, disappearing into the haze. Aloof and out of reach. He would watch her in the rear-view mirror of his car, moving slowly with her caravan of camels, knowing he might never see her again.

He admired her “more than anyone I had ever met” and was intimidated by her. He was 27 years old, “emotionally about 16”, unformed, undefined, an urban New Yorker from the crowded cacophonous streets. “I hadn’t even been a Boy Scout.” She craved the silence and infinite horizon of the desert.

To her he was an irritant. She was trying to do something pure, something that required solitude, something that would strip away everything she knew and become transcendent. She was willing to risk her life to be truly free.

As a photographer for National Geographic magazine, Rick Smolan was stealing this from her, distilling it, an invasion from the temporal world bringing the reality she had wanted to escape. Monetising the mystic.

But for Robyn Davidson’s 1700-mile camel trek across the outback she needed the money National Geographic was willing to pay for his photographs. It would become the most popular story in the history of the magazine.

To Smolan, her independence was irresistible.

“I am someone who is slightly claustrophobic about relationships. The moment somebody gets clingy
I head for the hills. I had come from New York and sorority girls. The fact that she didn’t need me or want me was the opposite. Being in love I just wanted to be with her. She brought me out in a way that no one ever had before.”

She taught him to see, to really see, the beauty in the desiccated desert.

“I thought the desert was incredibly ugly when I first went there: dry, scrub. If you look at my pictures, they got more and more beautiful as I went along. I was seeing it through her eyes. The early morning light, the patterns that were made, the stillness, the stars at night. There is no pollution, so the clarity of what you could see … There was a subtlety to it that I simply didn’t see in the beginning.”

Now, 34 years later, following the release of the film Tracks, he is seeing a version of his young self magnified on a huge screen. He is watching on celluloid the love he has never forgotten.

During a four-hour conversation, the subject returns again and again to Robyn.

From the top of a tall hotel in a Sydney cloaked by rain, he doesn’t notice the busy harbour. He is back in the desert with a beautiful unwashed woman on the miraculous adventure of his life.

When he first saw the film he had an anxiety attack. It all came back in a visceral way and seized his body. He couldn’t breathe. The fear of her dying in the desert, or getting lost and never being found brought him out in a sweat. “It was like being sideswiped by a car. It was such a shock.”

Davidson has said of Smolan, “He is one of those enviable people upon whom good luck falls like snow. The coincidences that constantly follow him defeat statistics.”

In 1978, he was working for Life magazine while it was still in its glory days, and for Time on assignments most photographers could only dream of. Magazines that had gravitas, authority.

He had talked his way past the formidable Life receptionist two years earlier by joining a party of schoolchildren visiting the building. “I looked about 12 years old. I was blindly lucky to get to see the photo editor. Time would send me on these assignments to disarm people because I looked like I was 14 but I was in my early 20s. People took pity on me, people adopted me.”

Becoming invisible

Now in his 50s, with his trademark moustache and floppy hair, he has an avuncular quality, a gentleness, the easy openness that inveigled his way into people’s lives to capture them unguarded on film. “My way of shooting is to disappear, become invisible, just hang in the shadows. The reason I get such good pictures is that people forget I am there. The best photographers become part of the wallpaper.”

He has filled out and matured from his self-described “delayed adolescence”. Davidson wrote in her best-selling book, Tracks, about his “naivety”, his “practised lovableness”. She saw “a fragility, a kind of introverted sweetness and perceptiveness” that meant she could not be as nasty to him as she would have liked.

As a child, Smolan had been so shy he didn’t have any friends. “I was a ham radio operator. I used to spend my weekends in the basement listening to Morse code so I didn’t have to talk to people. I didn’t know how to relate to people. So a camera was a way to watch people close-up. I use the camera as a way of distancing myself.” He is better at covering it now, the discomfort in his own skin, the awkwardness.

Working for the world’s most respected magazines was a nomadic existence, living in hotels, crashing on his sister’s sofa on the rare occasions he was in New York, no home of his own.“Everything was a kind of fly-by.”

But he was always able to find Davidson when he came back to the desert from other assignments, from hanging out of helicopters in Borneo. Even when she was thought to have perished. “I would ask the Aboriginals, ‘Have you seen the camel lady?’ It never took me more than 24 hours to find her. It was amazing.”

Towards the end of the trip she taught him that he could illuminate dark places with his camera, go deeper than the surface of things. That he could engage and bring conscience to his work, make a difference to the suffering.

“She looked at me one day on her way to National Geographic in New York. She said, ‘My question for you is: Are you going back to being a prostitute? Are you going to wait until someone tells you what to care about, or are you going to use your skills as a photographer to change things, change the world?’”

Three months later, he met a little girl in South Korea, on assignment photographing children fathered and left behind by GIs.

“It was a three-day assignment for Time, but reacting to Robyn’s challenge I took leave of absence and I spent six months with six different children in different countries.”

Hyun Sook Lee was so Western looking that she had been shielded by her grandmother to avoid abuse. These children were shameful to Koreans. When her grandmother died she was left to Smolan in her will. “She became my whole life,” he says.

Now known as Natasha Pruss, she was adopted by American friends of Smolan’s, but he remains a devoted presence in her life. Had she stayed in Korea she would have been so outcast her only option would likely have been prostitution.

“Robyn and Natasha’s story are the two that have an emotional resonance for me,” Smolan says. “She and Robyn had the biggest effect on my life. Something more than just a pay cheque or a nice picture.”

A Day in the Life…

By the age of 30, Rick Smolan was jaded. He was at the top of his profession, going on epic and sometimes dangerous adventures, but the thrill was gone. He was frustrated by magazines wanting pretty pictures for stories that were already written, at losing control of the final selection of photographs, editors gutting stories that he had risked everything to get. He was forced to break promises to people who had trusted him to make a difference to their circumstances.

“I had sort of been there, done that. I would look at my friends in their 50s and think, ‘I don’t want to be doing this when I am 50. Schlepping with cameras round my shoulders, fighting to get my pictures in a magazine.’ A friend of mine who was a year older and very accomplished would get severely depressed if he didn’t have a cover story every week somewhere in the world. I didn’t want to define myself that way. To end up bitter and cynical. I decided I just couldn’t shoot anymore.”

Enter Malcolm Fraser. Of all people. Fraser was an avid amateur photographer Smolan had met on a job in Japan, and visited at his home Nareen. It was Fraser who, after Smolan had been rejected by 35 publishers, suggested corporate sponsorship for the book A Day in the Life of Australia. In the book, published in 1981, 100 photographers went out on one day in March and took pictures of Australian life all over the country. It was a way of bypassing interfering editors, and making a book produced solely by photographers. Dealing with that many photographers at once was like herding “feral cats”, but “the photographs had this great sense of spontaneity and discovery”. The governor of Hawaii asked him to do the same thing for his country. “Then the prime minister of Spain called, then Gorbachev called. So I never went back to shooting and we sold half a billion dollars worth of books.”

Smolan would produce 11 A Day in the Life books, which sold five million copies. “Then I sold the company to Rupert Murdoch,” he says, “who immediately destroyed it.”

Aerial perspective

Rick Smolan seems to have an aerial perspective, a long-distance view of the earth.

“Since I was a kid I had this theory that I was alien, from another planet,” he admits sheepishly. “And I was sent here to observe but not interact.”

Smolan’s father worked for a drug company and was the source of his next major project, a book called The Power to Heal. More of the good luck Davidson saw, falling like snow. “He said, ‘Why don’t you show how the human race is learning to heal itself? There are things going on that are so hopeful.’ We raised $5 million in three weeks. People were throwing money at us.”

During this time he hired a coffee girl and fell in love. More successfully on this occasion. Jennifer is the daughter of the much-married Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt. “She was this young thing, never finished college. Within two months she was running the whole operation. So I married her.”

Together they formed the company Against All Odds, which Fortune magazine described as “one of the coolest companies in America”.

The books they produce are large-scale, innovative, daring, global in scope. Their 2008 project, America At Home, was one of the biggest collaborative photo projects in history. Working with companies like Google and Apple, books such as Blue Planet Run, One Digital Day, 24 Hours in Cyberspace and The Obama Time Capsule have sat on The New York Times bestseller lists and been featured on the covers of Time, Newsweek, Fortune magazines. Smolan again is finding a way to make books vital. “In morning meetings everyone throws out ideas. I tell them I want something that is so cool I have to tell my best friend. We have a team of about 20 freelance researchers.”

He tenderly touches the enormous interactive book The Human Face of Big Data that he has brought with him. “It is a thought piece and the hardest thing I have ever done. I fired over a hundred people on this book because I just wasn’t getting it.” If you run a smartphone over a page with a picture of a key, there will be film of an expert talking about the object. Embedded into the picture there are apps for every subject.

The idea for the book came from Harry Potter’s talking newspaper. It was about asking bigger questions: How do you photograph data? “The challenge was taking abstract concepts and putting them into a picture. I had to self-publish it, no one would fund it. It won a tonne of awards. There is an app that will predict you are going to get depressed two days before you get depressed.” The excitement of the boy takes over again: “There is a magic carpet that predicts when you are going to fall, for seniors. You will receive a message saying your mother is going to fall, because of her balance. This is an app that shows how close lightning is to your home.”

Technology is built into Smolan’s new book about Robyn and her camel trek, due out in September. On your phone you can see the scene in the film that is built around his photographs. “It has never been done before.”

The two are still friends and still polar opposites. But, Smolan says, “when I am freaked out I call her and when she is freaked out she calls me. I have been very lucky to have women in my life like Robyn and Natasha and my wife who are all very strong women.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 5, 2014 as "Out of the desert". Subscribe here.

Susan Chenery
is a journalist who has lived and worked in Sydney, London, New York and Italy.