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Remembering Peter Foeden: 1930 – 2021

Peter Foeden, a legend of Australian photography, passed away on October 11 at 91 years old. He is admired and cherished for being a deep thinker and innovator, who selflessly guided Australian photography to new levels of excellence.

A strapping young Peter Johan Foeden. Source: Herald Sun.

‘Peter was, a tall trim figure mostly immaculately dressed in grey. Quietly spoken but extremely articulate,’ said Paul Curtis, who describes Peter’s contribution to Australian photography as ‘amazing’.

‘He influenced a whole generation of photographers with both his lectures and his ready help and advice to his Nulab professional photography clients. He played a major role in establishing the high standard of  professional photography in Australia.’

Peter was born in 1930 to Dutch parents, and spent his formative years in the Dutch East Indies, modern day Indonesia, until war arrived on his family’s door step. As Japanese forces advanced through South East Asia Peter and his mother, under instruction from his father, fled to Holland. Sending a family over to Europe at the height of WWII must have been one of the hardest decisions to make, but ultimately it was the right one, as Peter’s father was later killed by Japanese forces.

‘What happened then was Holland was occupied by Germany, so he’s lived through some pretty tough times,’ Dale Wright, a close friend and fellow photographer, told Inside Imaging. ‘He witnessed some terrible stuff during that time. I think this gave him his steadfast condition to survive – he knew he had to survive no matter what.’

Prior to arriving in Australia, Peter travelled the world working as a merchant seaman, and it was during this time he became inspired to become a photographer.

‘When passing through port, he said he was taken with a view of a felucca (a traditional wooden sailing boat) through the porthole of his cabin,’ said Richard Bennnett at Peter’s funeral. ‘He took a photograph which he liked so much that his thoughts turned to photography’.

Under a mentorship of the great Val Foreman, Peter opened his first photo studio in Melbourne in 1960 at age 30, and in 1967 joined the Institute of Australian Photographers (IAP) now known as the AIPP.

‘He rapidly built a reputation as an outstanding photographer,’ wrote Paul in History of Professional Photography in Australia. ‘He was a member of IAP State and Federal Council for several years and served as both State and Federal president. His most lasting legacy was the introduction of the Awards.’

‘Preparation meeting opportunity equals success’

Before the Australian professional photography print awards, the IAP held annual conventions that included a small exhibition of professional photos. Lots of critique would be shared, but nothing formal. In 1970 Peter floated the idea of introducing an awards system for the exhibited images, but this was quickly shot down as it edged too closely to the activities of an amateur camera club. ‘We are not a camera club!’

Peter, inspired by the awards system he observed while attending the National Convention of the Professional Photographers of America, didn’t give up. While the majority were against a concept, Peter along with Max Townsend and a handful of others ‘fought vigorously to keep the issue on the agenda’.

After years of rigorous debate the IAP Councils were swayed, and in 1977 the first national print judging was held at the annual convention on the Gold Coast. Peter naturally held the position of the first Awards Chairman, and was committed to the role until 1983.

‘With the American system as our guide, we have developed a system to suit the Australian temperament,’ Peter said in the History of Professional Photography in Australia.

This laid the foundation of what would become Australia’s most prestigious professional photography contest, which continue to run as the Australian Professional Photography Awards. And right up until the very end, long after his retirement and late into his life, Peter enthusiastically attended APPA.

‘Peter was a charming and charismatic man, who had a great command of the English language,’ Richard Bennett said. ‘His leadership qualities enabled Peter to gather around him a committee, which became the awards committee, for our first National Print Awards. Because of Peter’s vision and tenacity we collectively have crafted one of the best awards systems in the world.’

At 52-years-old Peter also won his first Print Awards title, the 1982 Wedding Photographer of the Year. That same year he was appointed IAP president, and according to then-IAP treasurer, Kevin O’Daly, ‘took the proverbial bull by the horns’.

‘He was always a gentleman and a good guide of the ship, a quiet pleasant personality but a man who commanded respect and was always respectful himself,’ Kevin said.

Peter Foeden in 1984. Photo: Heide Smith.

Peter’s contributions went far beyond his involvement with the IAP. After learning so much from Val, he committed to mentoring the next generation of photographers.

‘I worked for Peter for over a decade and can say that he has been a great mentor to me as much I believe as he has been a mentor to a lot of photographers over the years,’ said Robert Chomaniuk, Newlook Print & Frame, in an AIPP blog post for Peter’s 90th birthday last year. ‘One of his favourite sayings is, “Preparation meeting opportunity equals success.” This advice has served me very well till now. His continuing friendship is something I cherish.’

In 1974 he founded a little side venture, Albums Australia, and in 1980 became a founding director of professional print lab, Nulab.

‘I met Peter when I was a young photographer and was joining the IAP. To enter I had to submit my work to him and Ian Hawthorne. We’re going back to the late ’70s,’ Dale said. ‘He’s the one who rang me to ask me to become a director of Nulab in 1980. He saw the potential in me – I found it amazing, because he saw this potential, but I couldn’t see it.’

By this stage Peter was a senior photographer, and Dale formed a tight bond with him, akin to a father and son relationship.

‘He even asked me to photograph his son’s wedding,’ Dale recalls. ‘I remember turning up to this massive wedding, and all these photographers were telling me “gee, you must be nervous!”. I didn’t quite realise I was there to photograph the wedding of one of the country’s top photographer’s son. What a great responsibility. But he trusted me, and was as close to me as family. Just a great friend.’

The two would have deep conversations, and Peter would share his thoughts and philosophies on business, life, family, photography and everything in between. These conversations left an everlasting imprint on Dale, who was inspired by Peter’s durability. Here is a man who came up from nothing and pushed through numerous tragedies, yet remained a shining beacon of guidance.

During five years in the early ’80s, Peter juggled director roles at three businesses: Nulab, his photo studio, and Albums Australia. It comes across as the kind of drive you see in enterprising and ambitious businessmen, but Kevin O’Daly believes money played no role in motivating him.

Peter’s vision for Albums Australia was to heighten the quality of photo albums across the country, which at the time mostly had a tacky ‘British Colonial’ style. Peter travelled to Japan and through Europe exploring sleek new photo album design, and returned with ideas that would revolutionise the photo album in Australia.

‘He was really an innovator, and started Albums Australia because he wasn’t happy with the quality of photo albums here,’ Kevin told Inside Imaging. ‘I don’t think he did that to feather his own nest, but as a genuine belief in improving the quality of weddings, wedding albums, and presentation. Same with Nulab. For him it was always about improving presentation and excellence of photography.’

Peter Foeden, with the print signed by AIPP friends, sponsors and colleagues at APPA Melbourne, 2017. Photo: David Oliver.

Under Peter’s vision, Albums Australia naturally grew from a small enterprise committed to establishing new standard into the premier wedding album distributor. ‘There was a time when if you were a wedding photographer using Albums Australia,’ Kevin recalls, ‘you were seen as using the best photo albums you could get.’

This was the essence of Peter. He wanted Australian photography to be the best it could possibly be, and he dedicated his life to making this happen. He paved the way for generations to come, and professional photography in Australia has owes him a debt of gratitude for his trail blazing endeavours.

He loved jazz music. And at 6pm Peter would ritually pour himself a glass of whisky, sit back in his armchair, and let the complex syncopated rhythms fill the room and his mind.

The Australian photographic community is diminished by his passing.

‘Peter is an adored father to Maryke, Peter (deceased) and son-in-law Mark. Loving grandfather of Oscar and Arlo. Devoted husband to Janine (deceased). Friend to Marcia. Cherished uncle to many family members back in the Netherlands. Amazing photographer, mentor and friend to so many who knew him.’

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