4 June 2021

Meet the 91-year-old Narooma photographer who's still snapping

| Hannah Sparks
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Peter Robinson standing in front of artworks

Artist Peter Robinson is holding a retrospective exhibition at SoART Gallery in Narooma ahead of his 92nd birthday. Photo: Carol Hellmers.

Peter Robinson, 91, has seen most of his life through a camera lens.

His father gifted him a $2 box camera in his teens, however the film was reserved for special occasions such as family holidays.

Home was South London and film was a rare commodity during World War II.

Peter’s passion truly developed when he joined the Royal Air Force as a photographer in 1947, much to his father’s despair.

“I was enamoured by the Battle of Britain heroes as a lad so as soon as I turned 17, I left the job dad gave me – a rotten desk job drawing maps for the government – and joined the air force,” he says.

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Peter had to sign up for eight years as a photographer and earned just 40 cents per day. However, he got to see the world.

Egypt was his first stop, followed by Singapore, where he took one of his most treasured photos.

“I had one job that made all photographic commissions look easy after that,” says Peter. “I organised a flying boat squadron sitting or standing on seven tiers – 172 officers and men. The only member of the squadron who wasn’t there was me as I was the one taking the photograph.”

While in Singapore, Peter’s childhood sweetheart, Yvonne, sailed from Australia to marry him. The pair had met in England and written letters to each other after Yvonne emigrated with her family.

By 1955, Peter was free to leave the Royal Air Force and happily moved to be with Yvonne in Brisbane. However, he knew he had to give up photography and take any work available while they established a life in Australia.

His work was selling soap for Lever Brothers, which is now Unilever.

Peter had done some casual art training in the air force and after a year, Lever Brothers put him to use in their advertising department.

“I painted signs, did advertisements for soap packets and shop displays,” he says.

Two years later, Peter was relocated to Sydney to work for Unilever’s advertising agency. His career in commercial art was then in flight and it wasn’t long before Peter made his own way as a freelancer.

“It was dangerous, but I took some clients with me and in the first month, in 1965, I earned almost twice what I was being paid in my last job,” he says.

Peter’s clients were varied, from a pharmaceutical company to a bakery, but some of his work is still around today, including the sword on aspirin medication Disprin.

“You had to be versatile or you didn’t make a living,” he says. “I used to say, ‘Yes, I can do that,’ without even knowing I could.”

Peter ran a successful freelance business until 1995. Four years later, he and Yvonne retired in Narooma.

The couple had visited the NSW South Coast town many times in the years prior because there was a bed and breakfast on the old highway that let them bring their dogs.

Moving to Narooma reignited Peter’s love for photography. Not only did he have time to spare, but he was also able to convert the shed on their five-acre property into a darkroom.

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“I took my camera everywhere,” he says. “I photographed birds and animals on our property, took portraits around town and on the golf course.”

Peter had a golf handicap of four at the height of his playing career.

In 2001, Peter joined the Australian Photographic Society. A year later he entered a dozen photographs and was awarded a licentiate (LAPS). The 12 photographs included a couple of birds from Peter’s backyard, a portrait of a local Indigenous girl, steam engines from a train museum, and skateboarders mid-air at Narooma Skate Park.

Peter also co-founded Narooma’s Camera Club, which has 30 members today. However, he is the only one who still shoots with film.

In 2016, Peter was forced to retire from golf due to back problems so he turned to watercolour painting, a hobby that came with ease after years of commercial art.

Just a few days before his 92nd birthday, Peter is holding a retrospective exhibition, ‘A Long Exposure’, at SoART Gallery in Narooma from 12-14 June, where he plans to show the photograph of the 172-large squadron, the advertisements he created in Sydney, the dozen photographs that earned him a licentiate, and his watercolour paintings.

‘A Long Exposure’, an exhibition of selected photography, artwork and sculpture spanning 70 years by Peter Robinson LAPS, will be held at SoART Gallery, Narooma, from 12-14 June, from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm.

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