Thoughts on David Perry

August 30, 2018
A colleague reminisces about the hugely influential Australian experimental filmmaker.

A few weeks ago, as Saturday turned into Sunday, filmmaker, photographer, documentarian and industry mentor David Perry breathed his last. He didn’t want anyone to know leukemia had finally got him. He wasn’t eager to admit it himself. It was a storm he was determined to ride out.

David Perry directed photography on documentaries and short films and made a name as a selfless collaborator. He was not motivated by money but by the interest he found in each project. In the mid-sixties he meandered into photography and cinematography. He was assistant to Sydney photographer, Douglass Baglin and later a news stringer for Channels Ten and Nine.

In 1979 he began a long association with the Australia Council, acting as cinematographer on more than 120 archival film interviews with Australia’s greatest painters, sculptors, dancers, writers, actors and filmmakers. These films are lodged with The National Film and Sound Archive. David went on to work with many other archival programs and oral history projects. He was Chief Australian Cinematographer on Steven Spielberg’s Survivor of the Shoah – a visual history project that recorded more than 400 interviews with survivors of the Holocaust. He produced six documentaries on notable Australian photographers.

David mentored dozens of aspiring young filmmakers. Many became Australia’s best known and original film artists. He wrote, directed and produced and won awards for his short films. In his last decade David returned to his love of stills photography. He used everything from state-of-the-art square format film cameras, pin-hole cameras and even toy cameras. He resisted digital photography for many years but eventually succumbed. He charted street-life in Newtown where he’d lived these past several years. David photographed light, not form – he was a modern impressionist, a wandering street photographer. He told long-time friend and collaborator, Peter Campbell: “Whenever you’re walking or standing still, look where other people are looking, then turn away and see the things they’ve missed.” These juxtapositions and visual ironies were David’s subjects.

He won prizes for his filmmaking and cinematography, beginning with his first short in the seventies The Little Sheriff. Any attempt to define David is futile. He was unique, a one off, a mentor and guide to so many before and after his stint with the film office documentary unit. He was a wizard, an enigma whose feet didn’t always touch the ground. David had a great wit, beguiling personality and no ego. His success came quietly and through his natural talent. He had a deep curiosity for life and a generous capacity to collaborate. He was intense in pursuit of value and quality. His dress sense suggested he was not of this planet. His clothing came from the more colourful and distinctly un-interstellar racks at Lowes. He wore vivid pink socks and volley sand shoes, his. Hawaiian shirts were defining for a man who didn’t give a damn what anyone thought.

He shot several short films for me. He was the freelance cameraman sent to one of my first stories with a commercial network. Our connection was instant, a kind of recognition of souls, an unspoken agreement that was challenging, nurturing, open to agitation and annoyance but filled with empathy and caring. He was instantly someone I’d trust and whose company and guidance I’d enjoy. You’re lucky to have two or three people like that in any lifetime.

One memory of David from the Seventies was of him driving a laden station wagon down horrendous bush tracks outside Oberon to Yerranderee, a privately owned silver mining ghost town. Neither of us were sure what the film would be about, even after we cut it. We made it up as we went along. We had a great weekend; the film was less than great and has thankfully disappeared.

We were in the front room of a Surry Hills house when we heard an enormous crash from the docks. David reckoned a crane had dropped a container. We ignored it and kept on solving the world’s problems into the wee hours. The next morning, we learned we were within minutes of the Hilton bombing. (Feb 13, 1978). It wasn’t something I could tell my editor.

After that, we teamed up for night coverage in the days when all news stopped at 6 o’clock. On our first outing we covered a prison break at Long Bay and watched a luxury home slide from an eroding cliff near Gosford.

Our biggest story came a few days later on a Saturday night when we followed a ragtag bunch of people parading noisily down Oxford Street.

They reached the cannon at Hyde Park and the crowd decided to keep marching and occupy The Cross. They were joyous, celebrating a sense of liberation. They were met with a huge police contingent and thrust into the middle of a very uncivil War. David handed me his windup Bell and Howe and he got stuck into the centre of it with his CP 16. The cops were dragging people by the hair to paddy wagons; one detective was slamming a dustbin lid into any face near him. We were the only crew and it went to air with awkward justification of police action from Nifty Wran. No prizes for guessing what vital piece of Sydney history that was. It happened on June 24, 1978.

David reckoned no-one should spend more than six dollars on a bottle of wine, there was no contact sport he’d tolerate, and he’d reliably turn up an hour before any social invitation. He was usually the last person to leave, despite blunt yawns. He was an intensely private person. He had a predilection for Japanese nymphs dancing to frantic pop tunes. He created an alter ego – a young, female Japanese photographer just starting out: Izumi Yamada. Her visual diary, developing philosophies and modus operandi confounded many who thought she actually existed. So real was Izumi to followers of her blog that an American academic tried to track her down, desperate to write a treatise about her work.

David disdained most commercial cinema with distinct tastes in movies and life and was appalled by misuse of the English language. He could never forgive the ABC for reporter blunders and mispronunciation. He was demanding in the editing suite and always needed a good reason for fades or dissolves. It was a crime to take the camera off the tripod.

David cared about people. If you were under his wing, you had his intense interest. If myths of an afterlife mean anything, David is driving his station wagon into the sunset with the marvellous Milo, his constant companion for many years. The hairy little mutt is bolt up right, shitfaced and navigating.

The world will never be as interesting without David Perry in it.

A recent bio of David Perry.

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