Vale Richard Woldendorp AM (January 1927 to April 2023)

Fremantle Press extends its sympathies to wife Lyn and the family and friends of Richard Woldendorp whose funeral was on Saturday 22 April 2023. Richard was 96 years old when he died.

Made an Order of Australia (AM) in 2012, Richard was a much-admired collaborator with Fremantle Press for 26 years, known for his determination and his drive, nurturing his artistic career and publicising his books and exhibitions well into his nineties. 

Born in Utrecht, Richard studied commercial art before joining the Dutch army. He was posted to Indonesia at age 19, which would have coincided with the years of the Indonesian War of Independence. By 1951 Richard was on a ship with plans to emigrate to Australia. Thinking at first to go to Sydney, he disembarked at Fremantle and, a few days after his 23rd birthday, Western Australia became his new home.

Making do as a house painter to earn money, Richard laughed when he told Fremantle Press staff how terrible he was at that job and how he had to find something else to do because he was never going to make a go of painting houses. But it wasn’t until 1955 on a holiday back to the Netherlands that he purchased his first camera, a folding Voigtlander 6×9. Six years later, he made the transition from dedicated amateur to professional freelance photographer after he won first and third prize in the Craven ‘A’ National Portrait Photographic competition. Working with government departments and mining companies, he had the opportunity to travel extensively in the Australian outback by air, becoming known as a specialist in aerial photography.

Richard already had a long and established reputation as a master-photographer when he came to Fremantle Press with a proposal for a new book of photographs of Western Australia. By that time, he had published 14 books, mounted some 16 solo exhibitions both nationally and internationally, and featured in a further 12 group exhibitions.  

Australia’s Westpublished by Fremantle Press when Richard was 70 years old, captured beauty where others might not, and is now in its third edition. The early and continuing success of Australia’s West made it an easy decision to partner with Richard’s own Sandpiper Press in 1999 to publish an extraordinary collection of his aerial photography, Down to Earth – Australian Landscapes. Richard’s work had always featured aerial landscapes, but the new book focused exclusively on this presentation and reflected his passion for flying over Australia in small planes, armed with his cameras, to record the landscape in his own particular way. It included an essay by Tim Winton – ‘Strange Passion – a landscape memoir’ – and the work of two outstanding exponents of their artform produced an outstanding publication that was critically well received, and an instant bestseller.

Clive Newman described how at the breakfast launch of Down to Earth, Tim told a story about flying with Richard one day just to see how Richard did it: ‘Tim said he got the biggest fright of his life when he turned around to see Richard hanging halfway out of the plane with his camera dangling around his neck.’ This was a feat repeated some years later when promoting his 2008 title and exhibition, Abstract Earth. In between two eye operations, Richard found time to take then West Australian books editor William Yeoman up for a spin while his Fremantle Press publicist politely declined the offer of joining them.

Still exhibiting his work in 2019, Richard once said, ‘It is the painterly approach to photography that I pursue.’ It’s an approach that critics appreciated. Ted Snell in the Australian said viewing a Woldendorp was an ‘exhilarating’, ‘empowering’ experience, while Robert MacFarlane in the Sydney Morning Herald said Richard approached ‘the kind of artistic leap the great Japanese woodblock artist Hokusai once sought – the ability to finally draw the subject as it truly was, rather than simply rendering it with the facility he knew he possessed.’ 

Richard’s artworks can be found in many public collections including the H. J. Heinz Collection in Pittsburgh, USA, the National Library of Australia and the National Art Gallery in Canberra, the State Library of Western Australia and Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. 

Fremantle Press had the great honour to partner with Richard on his two final books, Out of the Blue in 2013 and The Tree in 2018. Richard’s books made his masterful works of art accessible and are art pieces in themselves. Richard’s editor Naama Grey-Smith said Richard was in his nineties when they worked on The Tree, but he brought joie de vivre to every meeting, supported by wife Lyn. She said, ‘He was passionate about communicating the beauty of Australia’s trees and the need to conserve them. Around the same time, we sought Richard’s permission to reproduce his iconic image of artist Kathleen O’Connor in the biography Kathleen O’Connor of Paris by Amanda Curtin. A young Richard had taken the portrait in 1967, when O’Connor was in her nineties. These links happened often with Richard: his work had touched so many in Western Australia’s arts community over decades.’

It is with much sadness and respect that we acknowledge the passing of this legendary interpreter of the Australian landscape.

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