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Dombrovskis, Peter Herbert (1945–1996)

by Roslynn Haynes

This article was published online in 2022

Morning mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River, Tasmania, by Peter Dombrovskis, 1979

Morning mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River, Tasmania, by Peter Dombrovskis, 1979

National Library of Australia, 6631500

Peter Herbert Dombrovskis (1945–1996), photographer, was born Pieter Herberts Dombrovski on 2 March 1945 in a displaced persons camp at Wiesbaden, Germany, only child of Adele, née Dombrovski, former bank clerk, and her husband Herberts-Karlis Dombrovskis, both Latvian born. His father had also worked as a bank clerk before serving in the Latvian Legion of the German Waffen-SS. By 1949 it was presumed that he had died in action during the final year of World War II.

When Pieter was five he and his mother were resettled in Australia. After a period at the Bonegilla migrant reception and training centre, Victoria, and at Wollongong, New South Wales, they moved to Hobart. They would eventually settle in the suburb of Fern Tree, on the slopes of Mount Wellington (kunanyi). Adele worked in various capacities including in a factory and a hospital, and as a domestic. Peter, as he was then known, attended South Hobart Primary and Hobart High schools. He shared his mother’s love of bushwalking on the mountain, recording what he saw with the 35 mm Zeiss camera she had given him at age six. Together they completed the challenging Overland Track when he was thirteen. Proceeding to the University of Tasmania, he studied botany and zoology to understand better the natural wonders he observed in the wild. He left without completing a degree and he never formally studied photography. In November 1963 he and his mother were naturalised.

At age seventeen, Dombrovskis had attended an adventure camp led by Olegas Truchanas, a Lithuanian-Australian photographer and conservationist. Truchanas took a special interest in this fatherless boy from a neighbouring Baltic country, teaching him survival skills in the wild and encouraging him to think beyond taking photos merely as a hobby. The older man’s fight to save Lake Pedder from flooding for hydroelectric power generation inspired Dombrovskis. When, in 1972, Truchanas drowned while canoeing the Gordon River, it was Dombrovskis who found his body. From this point he made a commitment to continue his mentor’s conservationist role by providing powerful images of Tasmania’s landscape and flora. His first publication, a calendar of photographs for 1973, sold out on release.

On 5 January 1974 Dombrovskis married Gabrielle Joan Teakle, a nurse; they would have five children before the marriage was dissolved. Encouraged by his wife, he left his job as a draftsman to publish his images. His first wilderness diary (1976) was followed by a calendar and a book The Quiet Land (1977) with poems by Ellen Miller. In the introduction, he explained: ‘I took photographs … because the discipline of photography increased my awareness of Tasmania’s beauty and made me appreciate more clearly the value of the wilderness’ (1977, 5). That year he also founded West Wind Press.

In 1976 Dombrovskis had begun using a large format Linhof Master Technika flatbed camera with three lenses. Requiring a sturdy tripod, it was cumbersome and heavy, especially in mountainous terrain, but its large depth of field allowed him to achieve crystal-clear images in full resolution from foreground to far distance. Favouring low light and misty air to intensify colours, he developed a uniquely personal photographic style, reminiscent of the Romantic sublime, that captured the spiritual and emotional essence of place. His long exposures converted flowing water to milky streams and captured waterfalls apparently frozen in time, while his frequent focus on the detail of a single plant (moss, a fern frond, toadstool), evoked the concept of wilderness as a pristine landscape—an idea disputed by Tasmania’s First Peoples who point out their thousands of years of occupation and use of local resources. Books of his photographs, enhanced by the skill of the Melbourne-based designer and printer Rodney Poole, sold well.

Characteristically shy and self-effacing, Dombrovskis was comfortable spending weeks at a time, several times a year, alone in remote parts of Tasmania. In 1979, 1980, and 1981, he rafted down the Franklin and other rivers in the gorge country to record images at the request of Bob Brown, director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society. Appearing in Wild Rivers: Franklin/Denison/Gordon (1983), his photographs were a compelling statement on the unique beauty of these endangered rivers, threatened by the program to build dams for hydroelectric power. Brown, seeking a signature image for the campaign to save the Franklin River, selected Dombrovskis’s photograph Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River, Southwest Tasmania, showing the heavily wooded banks of the Newland Cascades. Although a location that few people would ever visit, it became ‘undisputed as a symbol of a place, an era and an ethical dream’ (Newton 2006, 16). In March 1983 it appeared as a full-page colour advertisement in newspapers with the slogan ‘Could you vote for a party that will destroy this?’ The message proved extraordinarily effective and was a central part of the successful campaign to halt construction of the dam.

Dombrovskis would also make photographic trips to other parts of Australia including the Snowy Mountains, New South Wales; the Daintree rainforest and Hinchinbrook Island, Queensland; and internationally to Fiji and Borneo. On 16 December 1989 at Fern Tree he married Elizabeth Grace Cairns Coombe (née Officer), whom he had known since childhood. Liz was an active partner in West Wind Press. Despite a heart operation in the early 1990s, Peter continued to take photographs in secluded locations, sometimes accompanied by Liz or a fellow photographer. He was alone, on 28 March 1996, when he died of a heart attack near Mount Hayes in the Western Arthur Range. His body was cremated. He was survived by the two daughters and three sons of his first marriage, his wife, and his stepdaughter and stepson. At a memorial service held on the slopes of Mount Wellington, Brown had recalled his words: ‘When you get out there, you don't get away from it all, you get back to it all. You come home to what’s important. You come home to yourself’ (Wildness 2003).

Liz Dombrovskis’s photographic portrait of Peter (1996) is held by the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. In 2003 he was posthumously inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame, the first Australian to receive the honour. In the same year Scott Millwood made a documentary film, Wildness, tracing the legacy of Dombrovskis and Truchanas. The National Library of Australia acquired his archive of over three thousand colour transparencies and in 2017 mounted an exhibition of seventy prints, Dombrovskis: Journeys into the Wild.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Bonyhady, Tim. ‘Still Wild, Still Threatened.’ In In the Balance: Art for a Changing World, edited by Rachel Kent, 8–9. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2010. Exhibition catalogue
  • Brown, Bob, and Peter Dombrovskis. Journeys into the Wild: The Photography of Peter Dombrovskis. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2017
  • Dombrovskis, Liz. Personal communication, 5 December 2020
  • Dombrovskis, Peter, and Ellen Miller. The Quiet Land. Sandy Bay, Tas.: Peter Dombrovskis, 1977
  • Engelow, Sarah. ‘Written in Water.’ Portrait 17 (September-November 2005). Accessed 23 February 2021. https://www.portrait.gov.au/magazines/17/written-in-water. Copy held on ADB file
  • Linn, Kathleen. ‘Peter Dombrovskis.’ Design and Art Australia Online, 2009. Accessed 23 February 2021. https://daao.library.unsw.edu.au/bio/peter-dombrovskis/biography/. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. A12029, 728–729
  • National Library of Australia. NLA06/1618, Peter Dombrovskis archive of photographs
  • Newton, Gael. ‘Time, Place and Exposure: Understanding Peter Dombrovskis.’ In Simply: Peter Dombrovskis. Compiled by Liz Dombrovskis. Sandy Bay, Tas.: West Wind Press, 2006
  • Parkin, Tim. ‘Peter Dombrovskis: Master Photographer.’ On Landscape, no. 14 (3 May 2011). https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2011/05/master-photographer-peter-dombrovskis/. Copy on ADB file
  • Wildness. Documentary film. Written and directed by Scott Millwood. Film Australia, 2003

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Roslynn Haynes, 'Dombrovskis, Peter Herbert (1945–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dombrovskis-peter-herbert-31414/text38867, published online 2022, accessed online 4 July 2022.

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