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Lawrence George Wilson (1920–1980)

by Jennie Boddington

This article was published:

Lawrence George Wilson (1920-1980), photographer, was born on 17 August 1920 at Geelong West, Victoria, second and only surviving child of Australian-born parents George Alfred Wilson, labourer, and his wife Lilian May, née Oldaker. Leaving Newtown State School at age 14, Laurie first worked as a farm hand. He was to live all his life at and around Geelong West and probably never journeyed beyond Victoria. In World War II he was exempted from military service. Interested in photography, he spent ten months in 1941 assisting at Lockwood's Studios, Geelong, but the pay was poor and he took a job at the Corio Picture Theatre as a projectionist. On 11 December 1943 at St Giles' Presbyterian Church, Geelong, he married Lorna Gwendoline Thomas (d.1979), a machinist and an usher at the cinema. Gwen was an accomplished ballroom dancer and, with customary dispatch, Laurie took lessons so that he could partner her.

In 1945 the Wilsons opened a photographic studio in Moorabool Street. Much of their living came from photographing wedding parties and formal groups of débutantes, posed in accordance with the custom of the day. Gwen, who had no children, became a skilled hand-colourist in the business. Crisply bearded, tallish and wiry, Laurie suffered from delicate health throughout his life. In 1962 he underwent an operation for cancer. He and Gwen sold their studio and lived on a pension. They sent their files of negatives to the municipal tip. Laurie kept only one camera. Later he wrote:

I cannot draw, paint, or sculpt and technology has given me a means of expression otherwise denied. I am no 'words' man. I have been photographing people, to please them, for thirty years. After illness forced me to retire, I began to work with landscape as a kind of occupational therapy. The relief was immense.

Becoming a successful member of the local camera club, Wilson used his skills to express the urgency of his response to nature. In 1971 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. But his work at this time seemed constrained, and was often burdened with 'meaningful' titles. Then suddenly he freed himself creatively. A suite of prints, 'Dog Rocks', made near Fyansford in 1974, was the watershed. One of these images was the only Australian photograph selected in 1975 for the international exhibition, The Land, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. That year Wilson received a major grant from the Australia Council.

That an ordinary photographer should in his last years unleash such an outpouring of the imagination was remarkable. Photographs of subtle delicacy and passion gave way to imagery ever more enigmatic as death approached. Lyric harmony of mist and pale moon yielded to harsh tonalities of ocean tumult and stark wasteland. There emerged finally a sense of confrontation and doom. Wilson died of cancer on 8 September 1980 at Geelong and was cremated. He bequeathed money to the National Gallery of Victoria for the production (1982) of a book on his work, to be presented to educational and cultural institutions. His photographs are held in collections in Australia and overseas.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Boddington, Laurie Wilson (Melb, 1982)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Jennie Boddington, 'Wilson, Lawrence George (1920–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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