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Parer, Damien Peter (1912–1944)

by Neil McDonald

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Damien Peter Parer (1912-1944), by Max Dupain

Damien Peter Parer (1912-1944), by Max Dupain

National Library of Australia

Damien Peter Parer (1912-1944), war photographer and cameraman, was born on 1 August 1912 at Malvern, Melbourne, youngest of eight children of John Arthur Parer, an hotelkeeper from Spain, and his Victorian-born wife Teresa, née Carolin. Damien attended Loreto convent school, Portland, St Stanislaus' College, Bathurst, New South Wales (1923-29), and St Kevin's College, Toorak, Melbourne (1929-30). He was apprenticed as a photographer, briefly to Spencer Shier and then to Arthur Dickinson with whom he completed his articles in 1933. Following a spell of freelance work and a period when he was unemployed, he was hired by Charles Chauvel as a camera-assistant in the making of the film, Heritage (1935). At Chauvel's instigation, National Studios Ltd, Sydney, engaged Parer for the shooting of Uncivilised (1936), The Flying Doctor (1936) and Rangle River (1936). Chauvel also hired him for the filming of Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940).

Between feature films, Parer made 'home movies' and documentaries, and worked as a studio photographer. His employers included Max Dupain, who was then married to another photographer Olive Cotton; the couple became his friends and collaborators. In late 1938 Parer directed the photography of the short film, This Place Australia, which depicted (in two parts) poems by Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. Although the film's camera-work revealed the influence of the cinematographers Tasman and Arthur Higgins, and Errol Hind, Parer was at his most original and impressive when adapting the styles of Australian still-photographers to motion pictures: Dupain's cityscapes were models for his sequences showing Sydney, and the pictorialists' use of the Australian light in landscape compositions influenced the way he filmed the Blue Mountains.

In January 1940 Parer, by then a photographer with the Commonwealth Department of Information, sailed for the Middle East with elements of the Australian Imperial Force. From the gunboat, H.M.S. Ladybird, he filmed the bombardment of Bardia, Libya, on 2 January 1941. With Frank Hurley, he covered the Australian assault on Tobruk on 21-22 January. Three days later he accompanied 'C' Company, 2nd/11th Battalion, in its attack on the aerodrome at Derna, and shot his first film of infantry advancing under fire. Parer took some stills but mainly motion pictures of the Greek (April) and Syrian (June-July) campaigns, and the siege of Tobruk (April-December). While flying with the Australian crew of a Royal Air Force Blenheim bomber he filmed an air-raid. Although dissatisfied with his efforts, he established himself as the outstanding cameraman in the Middle East. His work was seen in newsreels and his name became well known.

When Japan entered World War II Parer returned to Australia. After covering operations by Kanga Force around Wau and Salamaua, New Guinea, in 1942-43, he filmed the Australian withdrawal along the Kokoda Track in Papua. On 18 September Cinesound Productions Ltd released the newsreel, Kokoda Front Line, which used his footage. Introduced by Parer, the film and commentary brought home to Australians the realities of the war in the Pacific. The United States of America's Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences commended the work in 1943 'for distinctive achievement in documentary production' and later awarded an Oscar to its producer Ken Hall.

In 1943 Parer's footage was used in the Cinesound newsreels, Men of Timor, The Bismarck Convoy Smashed and—arguably his finest work—Assault on Salamaua. Disgruntled with his salary and allowances, and convinced that the Department of Information had victimized his colleagues George Silk and Alan Anderson, he resigned in August and joined Paramount News. Thereafter he covered American operations. At St Mary's Catholic Church, North Sydney, on 23 March 1944 he married Elizabeth Marie Cotter, a 22-year-old clerk. On 17 September that year, the second day of the invasion of Peleliu Island in the Palau group, Parer was killed by a Japanese machine-gunner; he was reported to have been walking backwards behind a tank to capture the expression in soldiers' eyes as they went into action. He was buried in Ambon war cemetery and mentioned in dispatches. His wife survived him; their son was born in the following year.

Parer was more than a combat cameraman and propagandist. His films were narratives about the human situation. They reflected his wide reading in the theory of cinema, especially the ideas of John Grierson. Parer's record of the everyday lives of servicemen anticipated the cinéma-vérité style of documentary. His images of a caped soldier crossing a stream, and of a Salvation Army officer lighting a cigarette for a wounded digger (framed like a Renaissance altar painting), became part of the Anzac legend. Parer was a self-effacing man and a devout Catholic. Osmar White described him as 'long, stooped, black-headed, sallow-faced, smiling', and remembered his infectious, 'bubbling bass hoot' of a laugh. An exhibition of Parer's photography, Still Action, sponsored by the Orange Regional Art Gallery and the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, toured Australia in 1997-99.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Legg, The Eyes of Damien Parer (Adel, 1963)
  • N. McDonald, War Cameraman (Melb, 1994)
  • N. McDonald and P. Brune, 200 Shots (Syd, 1998)
  • Still Action, catalogue of exhibition curated by N. McDonald, Orange Regional Art Gallery, 1995.

Citation details

Neil McDonald, 'Parer, Damien Peter (1912–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/parer-damien-peter-11339/text20251, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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