It was 1951 and Australia’s economy was riding on the sheep’s back — the dawn of the Rolls Royce decade of wool, as it came to be known.
A young international photographer found himself deep in northern New South Wales on Burren Burren station
Francis Reiss was supposed to be learning about the wool trade. Instead, he ended up documenting an enduring archive of agricultural Australia.
The men and women captured in Francis Reiss’ photos are the romantic ideal of rural Australia — faces worn from hard work, with smiles born from hope and a sense of optimism.
Now 90 years old and based in Melbourne, Reiss views his photos simply as a reflection of the strong, generous character of people in the country.
I see terribly nice people, as they still are if you go to the country. They are the nicest people in Australia,” he says.
Having only just arrived from New York, where he photographed for LIFE magazine, Reiss marvels that he was ever allowed out on Burren Burren station.
“They were kind enough — or foolish enough — to take me into their home. I couldn’t ride a horse, so they had to ferry me around in a Jeep.”
Reiss grew up in wartime Europe, moving from his birthplace Germany to England when he was eight years old.
At age 17, he became the youngest photographer at Picture Post magazine, where his collection of photos from Burren Burren Station would ultimately be published.
At the end of the World War II, a 21-year-old Reiss was lured by the rumoured prosperity of New York, where he quickly established himself as a photographer for the prestigious LIFE magazine.
“It opened all sort of doors for you,” says Reiss.
“Girls would queue up to get your signature.”
For all the glamour of working for LIFE, Reiss became dissatisfied with the pay of photography.
His father was doing well in the wool trade working as a merchant in Yorkshire, and he invited him to join the business on the proviso that he learnt more about the industry in Australia.
That took him to the agriculture outpost of Burren Burren station, near Collarenabri, just south of the Queensland border.
In spite of the remote location, Reiss can recall the relative opulence of abundant meat.
“We had lamb chops for breakfast, leg for lunch and the best thing — shoulder for dinner,” he says.
“Where I’d come from in England, the meat ration was still around 180 grams a week.”
Reiss would eventually go on to have a long and rich career in the wool industry.
But his photos from 1951, currently on exhibition at Deakin University, document not only a specific moment in history, but his own deep affection for rural Australia.
“It’s a very small contribution to this country, which is the best place I’ve ever lived in my life,” he says.
“Nothing in the world equals Australia. I love this country.” Posted 4 JulJuly 2017, updated 4 JulJuly 2017
The latest exhibition at the Deakin University ‘Pop Up’ Gallery at Deakin Downtown (Melbourne Docklands) captures a time when the Australian economy was riding ‘on the sheep’s back’.
A Whitehorse Artspace Travelling Exhibition, the show presents a series of photographs taken in 1951 by former Life magazine photojournalist, Francis Reiss, which provide an insight into life on a successful sheep station at the height of the Australian wool boom.
The photographs making up the ‘On the Sheep’s Back’ exhibition have been digitally remastered from the original 60 year-old silver gelatin prints and depict life on the 30,000 acre, 5000 sheep farm and the surrounding town.
They were taken by Mr Reiss when he visited Burren Burren sheep station, at Collarenebri, NSW, owned by Rex White. The negatives were lost many years ago, but one set of prints made in the darkroom at Picture Post (London) at the time, survived and were purchased by National Library of Australia in 2008.
Whitehorse Artspace Curator Jacquie Nichols-Reeves stumbled across the images in 2012 when researching another exhibition.
“What struck me right away with the Burren Burren Station images was the handsome face of Rex White… The image, an iconic portrait of an Australian farmer, was captured by no amateur photographer; it was snapped by a talented young photographer who knew his craft,” Ms Nichols-Reeves said.
Deakin’s Manager of Art Collection and Galleries, Leanne Willis, said the University was delighted to be working with the Whitehorse City Council to host an exhibition of such iconic photographs.
“They capture a nostalgic look at a period in Australian history and it is a wonderful opportunity to have the chance to view them in our new pop up space at Deakin Downtown,” she said.
The exhibition runs to 12 May 2017.