Peter Adams turns the camera on world's greatest photographers

Katoomba photographer Peter Adams. Photo: Tony Hewitt
Katoomba photographer Peter Adams. Photo: Tony Hewitt

It was an idea borne out of a boozy lunch and ended up consuming almost 40 years of Peter Adams' life.

This week the Katoomba photographer will attend the opening of his exhibition, A Few of the Legends, which documents the 77-year-old's experiences meeting and photographing some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century

The epic undertaking began at a Sydney lunch in 1983 when Adams and a group of his photographer friends were playing a game of "Photographic Trivial Pursuit", testing their knowledge of the world's most famous photographs and the people who took them.

Having recently won prize money from two photographic awards, Adams decided he would write to some of the famed photographers, asking to meet and photograph them. From the 40 names he initially selected, 32 replied ("which was better than I was expecting") and the project was on its way.

"During the next 36 years of field trips to complete A Few of the Legends I attended 500 fascinating, one-to-one lectures. It was a dream education like no other," he said.

Adams estimates he travelled 330,000 miles and took 42,000 negatives on his mission. His first subject was revered Australian photographer Max Dupain who he photographed in Sydney's Castle Crag in 1983. Others included Yousuf Karsh (famous for his portrait of British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill), Joe Rosenthal (who took the iconic photograph of US Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima in World War II), Lord Snowdon, Anne Geddes, and Annie Leibovitz. He travelled to upstate New York in the depths of winter to meet photojournalist Eddie Adams, whose photograph of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War ("He said: 'I'm not talking about that photo'.... Of course, he did.").

Photographers need more than just style. They must examine the bigger issues their attitudes and philosophies. With many photographs one is forced to ask where's the bloody idea.

Max Dupain

"I was in awe of photographers when I started but I very quickly got rid of that," Adams said of the experience of meeting many of his heroes. "We'd have a conversation, I'd find out something about them and suddenly they'd become people, not photographers."

In fact, some the "biggest" names often turned out to be the easiest to get along with. Lord Snowdon - the former husband of Princess Margaret - was adamant he would only spare the Blue Mountains outsider an hour of his time but they ended up spending five hours trading stories.

Photographing people who are used to calling the shots - rather than being the subject - occasionally proved a challenge.

"Some of them tried to direct what was going on," said Adams.

Armenian-Canadian master Karsh "was trying to direct me all the time" when they met in 1992, he said. It was a brief distraction during their photo shoot that saw Adams eventually capture the image featured in the book.

"We were standing in an archway when two very stunning ladies walked past, he turned to talk to them and that's when I got the shot."

It should be the aim of every photographer to make a single exposure that shows everything about the subject. I have been told that my portrait of Churchill is an example of this.

Yousuf Karsh, Ottawa

The book, A Few of the Legends, features 269 portraits from the 500 Adams completed on his odyssey, run alongside his written observations of the experience.

Co-founder of Contact Press Images, Robert Pledge, said the project "constitutes an exceptional gallery, possibly the only one of the kind today".

"In years ahead, it will become, without doubt, an essential tool for the understanding of the medium that shaped and defined the 20th Century."

For his part, Adams is just grateful for the days of long lunches.

"I had no idea how such a seemingly simple idea, born after a boozy lunch with a bunch of inebriated photographers, would result in such a fascinating journey," he said.

Peter Adams: A Few of the Legends is at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Katoomba from December 12 to January 17. Adams will deliver an artist talk at 1pm on Saturday, December 12.