The photographer who made Australia his canvas

Dice, country road, Western Australia, 2011 Image copyright Trent Parke/Magnum
Image caption Trent Parke drew inspiration for his new exhibition from his life and a trip around Australia

Trent Parke was 13 years old when he witnessed his mother die from an asthma attack.

Traumatised, he refused to attend her funeral and blocked memories from his past. One of his few comforts was shutting himself in his mother's darkroom in the family laundry. There, amid the magic of creation, he photographed his own wet footprints on the floor with her camera.

"I [remember] turning around and the footprints being gone," recalls Mr Parke. "I was able to hold onto something, capture something, and have it there forever. From that moment, pretty much the camera has never left my side."

Childhood memories

Today, Mr Parke, 43, is Australia's only Magnum photographer. In 2007 he passed a punishing years-long induction process to become a full member of the world's most prestigious photo agency.

On 14 March a raw and exposing body of new work will open at the Art Gallery of South Australia - one for which Mr Parke has dug into his childhood memories for the first time.

Image copyright Trent Parke/Magnum
Image caption 'Slippery dip, Gundegal, New South Wales, 2007'

The Black Rose is the culmination of seven years' work, with images, text, books, and light boxes sourced from Mr Parke's life and an epic journey around Australia with his wife, acclaimed photographer Narelle Autio.

The items in the exhibition, his largest ever, have been cherry-picked from more than 7,000 reels of film, 15,000 words scribbled in diaries, and 14 published books.

The inspiration for much of it is Mr Parke's mother.

"It was instant," he says of her death. "One minute she was there and the next she was gone."

Over the years, photography has become a way for him to investigate the world.

End of a long journey

On his journey around Australia, Mr Parke stopped at a motel in the state of Victoria. While he was unpacking he noticed a plant with dark velvety petals growing around a pole. Someone told him it was a Black Rose - a "traveller's plant" - and suggested he take a cutting.

Back in his Adelaide home, that cutting is now 1.5 metres tall.

"The black rose is the end of a long journey and the search for true perfection, because it doesn't really exist," he says.

"Supposedly, it is given to people at a funeral and it contains black magic. I realised then that was the title for this show."

Image copyright Trent parke/magnum
Image caption 'Cemetery, Adelaide, 2007'

Much of the exhibition is about chance and coincidence, about luck, life, love, and yearning. Yet Mr Parke, a former photographer for The Australian newspaper, is an obsessive willing to spend three months on a single street corner for one perfect shot.

It is this attention to detail - and his ability to capture what Magnum founding member Henri Cartier-Bresson once called "the decisive moment" - that first drew the notice of Magnum.

A gruelling trial

In 1999, Mr Parke received a call from a bookshop in Sydney where his Dream/Life book was stocked. Someone had come in and left a card, asking Mr Parke to call him. It turned out to be the legendary Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt.

"When I went to get the card they said: 'Oh we've lost it'", laughs Mr Parke. It was a couple of years before another Magnum photographer, Larry Towell, asked if he would like to be nominated for membership.

Image copyright Trent parke/magnum
Image caption 'Tree, Drysdale River, Western Australia, 2011'

In a gruelling trial, he had to submit 80 photographs and receive over 50% of Magnum members' votes. Two years later he submitted a further 80 pictures (this time he needed 65% of the votes) and two years after that he had to go through the process again. Now, having passed the three stages, he is a member for life.

"It is very daunting when you have the greatest [living] photographers judging your work," he says.

The Australian quickly made his mark. In 2002, for his first Magnum AGM in London, he rolled in late. "I was wearing board shorts and a singlet top and I had to knock on the door and the whole meeting just stopped. [Magnum photographer] Alex Webb said: 'You must be Trent from Australia'."

Australia has become Mr Parke's canvas and the only place where he takes photographs. "You walk around at times thinking the whole world is a painting. Light is my work. That is my defining factor," he says.

For the exhibition, Mr Parke strived to expose his soul. The stress has troubled his sleep. He sighs: "I'm just sick of thinking; I just want to have no thoughts in my head. And who knows what will happen? I may not take another picture after this ever again."

Yet his journey has resulted in some peace. "Everything that has driven my work over my entire life has stemmed from that one moment," he says, returning to his mother's death once again. "I think now I'm done. I'm finally there."

Trent Parke: The Black Rose opens 14 March at the Art Gallery of South Australia, as part of the 2015 Adelaide Festival.

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