Les Southwell recently died in the mountains of Victoria doing something he loved. He was 88. He was reportedly a very fit and well equiped bushwalker and cross country skier.
I knew Les as a wilderness photographer. His images of South West Tasmania taken during the 1970’s inspired many of my generation of bushwalkers to also become conservationists and join the fight to save the remaining wilderness in SW Tasmania from destruction.
I think it was around late 1974, Les had travelled up from Melbourne to show a selection of his photos of the South West Wilderness to a public meeting in Sydney. I was not at that meeting, but many of my bushwalking friends were. The beautiful photos shown galvanised my friends to become members of the newly formed South West Tasmania Action Committee in Sydney. I joined too – just after my first visit to the South West in February 1975.
The South West Tasmania Action Committee was set up as an offshoot to the old Lake Peddar Committee which later became the South West Tasmania Committee after Lake Peddar was destroyed. The word “action” was later added. All of these committees later became the “Tasmanian Wilderness Society” (and then later “The Wilderness Society”). Back in those days photographs of the wild areas of the South West were some of the best ways of showing people what was at stake. Les’s photos were widely published, in particular in “Habitat” the journal of the Australian Conservation Society. This was one of the few magazines of the time that was published in colour.
His beautiful book “The Mountains of Paradise” (Published by Les Southwell, 1983) is well worth seeking out. Amongst other photos, his series of images of Lake Peddar, before its destruction is most poignant. To quote from that book –
Now that Lake Peddar lies under sixteen metres of dead water and that several of the gorges on the Middle and Lower Gordon are no longer accessible, I now realise how many other photos I missed taking. I greatly regret those lost opportunities. What is far worse, of course, is that others in the future will be denied the privilege I have enjoyed.
I met Les, and his friend Geoff, at The Pool of Memories in the Labyrinth in Cradle Mountain National Park in April 2008. My friend John, snapped the photo shown above of us talking about wilderness photography.
Back in the 1970’s, I can remember talking to another wilderness photographer, Chris Bell, after he and Les had not long returned from a 10 day photographic trip to Precipitous Bluff. Chris mentioned the main lenses that Les used were a 20 mm lens and a 100 mm lens.
Also, after that same trip. Les was showing his slides at Bob Graham’s house in Hobart and it was full of bushwalkers. But there were a lot of slides….. A couple of the bushwalkers got a little restless and went outside and then decided to head off in their car. Perhaps they were picking up something? But, on their way, they saw a lady whose car had broken down (perhaps a flat tyre?). So they stopped to help and spent a while there and got her on the road again. They then headed back to the slides. When they got in, they found that Les was up to the second day of the trip with his slides. There must have been a lot of slides.
Les Southwell is one of the people we can thank for the fact that wilderness remains in South West Tasmania.
Back to his book, The Mountains of Paradise, another quote –
As we neared the Divide beyond the Valley of the Styx those familiar scenes receded. In clear, cold air and brilliant sunshine the hills rose almost to meet us and we entered a new world: a strange and beautiful landscape bold, complex, mysterious and seemingly endless.