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There’s a very important photograph on Page 136 of Balls and Bulldust – Swedish photographer Håkan Ludwigson’s eye-opening visual biopic of the wondrous but harsh life on cattle stations in Australia’s Northern Territories – of a bull catcher called John Garland.
It’s actually more important to Håkan than anyone else because this man saved his life.
In the book (published by Steidl) he tells Swedish photographer and curator Hasse Persson: “I was once rolled by a big bull and smashed a Hasselblad 500ELX with a 40mm lens – and it was thanks to the fast-thinking young bull catcher that I survived. I was riding in the back of an open bull catcher car that was chasing a stray bull. When the bull was totally exhausted it was knocked over and the car literally parked its front wheels on top of it. I wanted a picture showing the car, the two young bull catchers still in the car and the bull beneath the wheels. But something went very wrong and the bull slipped away from the weight of the car and stood up in front of me staring.”
He adds: “I turned and ran as fast as I could with all my heavy equipment. John jumped out of the car, grabbed the bull’s tail and held on to it.
I sensed the bull was very close and as I slipped it just went for me. Luckily though, it was irritated by John hanging on to its tail and lost some concentration. I felt its heavy body rolling over me but the bull missed nailing me to the ground with its horns. I got up and fled back to the car. Then I saw John still hanging on to the tail using the old Australian technique: ‘how to throw a bull’. I owe John my life.”
Håkan, who started his career as a press photographer in Sweden back in 1965, is acclaimed today as one of Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s most versatile photographic artists – with a worldwide following. A multi-award-winning editorial, fashion and advertising photographer, he has wandered the planet for the past 25 years shooting in almost a hundred different countries.
Balls and Bulldust, his seminal and completely uncompromising study of life in the outback, was shot in The Eighties but the images were only really noted for their unique historical value in 2012.
Håkan committed 100% to the project…camping out on the plains and sleeping on swag beds. He ate like all the cattlemen, holding his plate it in one hand or on his knees while frantically trying (and largely failing) to keep the hordes of flies away.
He says: “I was fascinated by the tough life this community endured, both men and women”. ‘It seemed to me they were all searching for something inside themselves, perhaps adventure, perhaps romanticism.”
But the images he captured were so raw that even Hasselblad, who had dispatched him to showcase and test their latest cameras, hadn’t imagined he would be returning with pictures of castrated bulls’ testicles lying in the dirt, severed horns dripping with blood or slain bulls being dragged behind vehicles.
Håkan says: “I think Hasselblad were surprised by the roughness the pictures portrayed…I think they had imagined they would get a version of American cowboy romanticism!”
He had taken with him every camera body, lens and accessory that Hasselblad produced at the time – and a backup of every item.
He recalls: “Bull dust was the biggest problem – it just gets everywhere. It meant we had to spend hours every night cleaning the equipment – but Hasselblad technicians had talked us through some simple maintenance and repair techniques, which helped.”
Images published in Balls and Bulldust (completely captured on film) have retained their timeless integrity despite the passing of decades.
Adds Håkan: “Although I only shoot digitally these days, I think my fundamental style – that includes composition harmony; distinct contrast between picture elements and ultimate respect for people, prevails despite the evolution of technology.”
Research historian Dr Glen McLaren notes: “Håkan has brilliantly captured the essence of Northern Territory cattle station life alongside a youthful sense of adventure unencumbered by any parental constraint. These young people drawn to this way of life were simply free to try anything that seized their fancy, no matter how dangerous.”
At the back of the book Håkan make a plea to those he photographed in Australia back in the eighties to get in touch via ballsandbulldust.com.
He says: “I have such vivid memories of all of you whom I met and photographed in the outback and I can’t stop wondering what happened to you. What turns did your life take? How do you look back on those dusty years? If you find yourself in this book, please let me know where I can find you today.”
More info at www.ballsandbulldust.com