Jeff Carter
Photographer to the Poor and Unknown
1928 - 2010
Jeff at Home, October 2010

Jeff had many exhibitions during his career, ranging from artsy ones (what he called 'arte') in commercial and state art galleries to topic-specific ones in CWA rooms, workers clubs and town halls throughout the land. These were usually based on the photographs he had taken in and of the area, be it whalers, other fisherfolk and the fish cannery at Eden on the NSW far south coast or the tobacco growers who then became very successful vignerons in the Ovens Valley in northern Victoria. Gapsted Wines has even produced a range of wines named after Jeff's iconic image Tobacco Road with a representation of the photo on the label.

What turned out to be his last living exhibition was at Mossgreen Gallery in Toorak in Melbourne in February 2010, Final Works from the Darkroom. This marked the end of Jeff's traditional wet-printing of his negatives as he moved to fully-digital capture and/or scanning and then inkjet printing of his photographs.

After an initial period of hesitation, and to be honest the technology was still finding its feet at that stage, he welcomed the freedom from the repetition that exposing paper, then developing, fixing and washing each separate print required. For his iconic images, he adopted the technique (with a little prompting) of producing the best traditional A4 or A3 print he could, then scanning it at high resolution and regarding that as his new digital negative. With a little post-processing in Photoshop it then became (taking into account the vagaries and sometimes downright intransigence of the printer) a relatively simple matter to produce as many prints as required, each as good as it could be.

It turned out that Jeff couldn't make the opening of the Mossgreen exhibition so I stood in for him, as follows:



The Speech Before Mossgreen

I'm Just the Horse Before the Carter

As a sort of chronicler of Jeff Carter, I’ve been to a few of his exhibition openings, sometimes with camera, sometimes not. So I know his thoughts on and feelings about such occasions.


He would first point out that he has never regarded himself as a fine-art photographer. He was – and still is – a teller of stories, in words and pictures, of the people he regards as the real heroes and heroines of this nation, to use those much-misused words.


They were those who cleared the land, made the roads, drove the cattle, felled the trees, caught the fish, worked the soil, planted the seeds, grew the crops, brought in the harvest and made a go of it, against the odds, the weather, the authorities, the gummint, often with little more than their bare hands, a few tools, a bit of fencing wire and a fierce determination to get things done.


But as you can see Jeff also captured the lighter side of life – the activities of people in the streets, in the pubs, on the beaches, at picnics, at the races, at the Easter Show, on weekday nights and weekend afternoons, in cars, on horseback and on foot. Although he did once confide that not all the Saturday Arvo series were exactly that. “Some were on Sunday, I know, but it was the spirit of the thing,” he said.


So these are the people we should be celebrating tonight, he would say, although without Jeff we wouldn’t have these marvellous images to remind us of who we were, where we’ve come from and what we’ve become.


Jeff also had a style of working unlike anyone else, aided by the fact that he was producing both the words and the pictures for his articles, so he didn’t have to split the fee with anyone else. This enabled him to spend time with his subjects, to really get to know them and their customs and routines. What today would be called ‘embedding’ and what he calls ‘making friends’. This is reflected in the series, spanning numerous stories and many years (over fifty and indeed still continuing today) on the then tobacco growers in the Ovens Valley in Northern Victoria, who are now successful wine producers. Often if Jeff thought there was a story in someone, something, some event, he would begin by chatting to the people involved, learning about them and getting them used to him being around. After a while, which may have been a few hours or even a day or two, he would casually mention that he had a camera in the car and would they mind if he took a few photos? Of course they wouldn’t, although they might wonder why what they were doing was so interesting to an outsider, and Jeff was away on another story for what were the great Australiana magazines of the forties, fifties and sixties – Pix, People, the Women’s Weekly, Walkabout and other such publications.


Sometimes today those stories have a way of catching up with Jeff, of re-appearing in his life, of completing a circle. One such was the photo of the kids playing on the big wooden cable reels in a street in Chippendale, in Sydney, in 1960. [Indicates said photo on wall – Ed] A few months ago Jeff decided to install a large water tank on his property at Foxground, south of Sydney. Ever the chronicler, he was taking photos of the tank’s arrival on the back of a truck. The tank man noticed this and asked Jeff if he was a professional photographer. “I guess so,” replied Jeff. “Do you know a bloke named Jeff Carter?” was the next question. “I might do, why?” replied a slightly wary Jeff. “Well, when I was a kid he took some photos of me and my brothers in Chippendale and I’ve always wanted to meet him,” came the reply. “Well, I’m him,” announced a relieved Jeff. So then Jeff got the full story. Apparently the kids’ mother thought they had stolen the reels and warned them that if the cops caught them they’d be sent to a home, quite a common threat in those days. Even though the reels weren’t stolen, the kids were a bit worried, and even more so when a short time later a bloke hopped out of a car and began taking photos of them. “We didn’t know what was going to happen to us,” said the tank man. “I had to go home and change my undies.”


Every one of these images has a story behind or in front of it. Jeff has kept in touch with most of the people he’s photographed, especially those he’s spent some time with. He has an on-going project to re-photograph these people today, forty or fifty years later. And although he no longer shoots on film and has closed his wet-printing darkroom, the images he shoots today, with a digital camera, processed on a computer and inkjet printed, are as interesting and incisive as any he’s shot over half a century of observing us in the dusty outback or dingy inner-city street or any and many points in between.


Jeff is foremost a chronicler of people, although in the early days he did as much writing as photographing. And those people surround us here tonight, in the photographs on the walls and in the spirit that still permeates the country, despite many and varied assaults on that undefinable “what it means to be an Australian”. These are the people who cleared and strove and endured and tilled and sowed and reaped.


Now I can do something Jeff couldn’t have. Please raise your glasses to those on the walls around us and to Jeff who through words and, perhaps more enduringly, pictures, brought them home to us and in doing so we, all, will declare Jeff Carter – Final Works from the Darkroom, open.


To Jeff.




– David Perry, Mossgreen Gallery, Toorak, 11 February 2010.


Not entirely as delivered, but complied from various notes and memories of the night.




And I duly received the following crit:

Dear Bo Swell:

Bewdy! Such eloquence! Such truth! Clearly I shall never need to attend an opening again.
I dips me lid and offer heartfelt, respectful thanks.

Jeff, it truly was an honour and a pleasure, and I thank you.


Jeff at Foxground, October 2010
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