Xmas Down South: Part 3

In the lead up to Christmas I will be serialising, my dad, Michael S Parer’s book Xmas Down South. The book replicates the look and much of the content from a one-off family book that Damien produced for his parents for Christmas 1939 when they were living in Wau, New Guinea and he was in Melbourne, Australia. It gives an indication of what the Christmas period was like for the middle class of Melbourne at the time. Michael Parer adds a postscript which is the story of  Damien as he was known by the Parer family at large. The book was published in the summer of 1982 by Alella Books. I have not edited the text at all, it is as it appears in the book.

Damien, with Adrian and Benedict, was sent to St Stanislaus College in Bathurst. It was here that Damien discovered the camera. He later told Chester Wilmot in an ABC interview on 24 January 1941:36

It all started when I was a kid of fourteen at school at Bathurst. One day I found a copy of the Australian Photographic Review. It was full of the usual animal photographs, but what fascinated me most were the pictures of cameras. At that stage I had a little box Brownie, the humblest camera there is. I was intrigued by the magnificent cameras I saw in the book and by all the technical talk that went with them; terms like 4.5, anastigmat and grappled. I knew nothing then about telephoto lenses, filters, coupled range finders, but they seemed to open up a new world to me. The next time I went home I told our family nurse about this new world. A few days later she produced a vest pocket folding Kodak. I wanted to learn more so I saved my pocket money until I had three shillings and sixpence  and with that I bought a book called All About Photography. I prized this book, but was sensitive about reading it in front of the other boys and so after school I would take the book from my locker, hide it under my coat and climb a tall tree so that I could read it unseen. Until this time I had intended to become a priest, but now I felt that I wanted to become a photographer. I asked my friend, Father John Hall, what he thought about this and to my surprise he said, “Damien I think you should be a photographer.” After that I couldn’t leave school quickly enough.

Shortly after and before he left school, his cousin Ray Parer, who achieved fame by flying from England to Australia, gave him a Bell and Howell film projector. Damien then saved to buy a secondhand Agfa sixteen millimetre movie camera.37

Scans-bp-2013490 - Newspaper Award photo_smaller_EDIT
Damien won first prize in the Australian Photographic Review competition. This photo of his was published on the cover of the Australian Women’s Weekly.

His first success as an amateur was the winning of an “Argus” photographic competition. With the prize money he purchased a second hand Graphlex camera.38

In 1926 at the age of fifteen Damien left school. Work was scarce. His cousin had shipped a plane for a test flight at Rabaul which crashed on the golf course prepared by Sir Raphael Client.39 Damien came to Melbourne with Adrian and boarded in Beaconsfield Parade at St Kilda. Jobs were hard to get and Damien returned to school at the Christian Brothers in Westbury Street, East St Kilda. Adrian studied accountancy. Damien spoke to his elder brother Stan and said he wanted to be a photographer. Stan replied, “That’s fine for a hobby, but not for a livelihood.” Damien protested, “No, I want it to be my life.” Stan yielded, “OK, if you can get someone to apprentice you, I’ll pay the cheque.”40 Damien was taken on trial with Spencer Shire, but that fell through. He missed out by a few days a chance to join Jack Cato. He tried The Herald and was advised to start in the mail room.41 Finally hew was indentured in 1930 for four years to Dickinson Monteath for £100. His professional photographic training now began.42

In September 1930 Stan was married. His father was stranded in Monte Carlo without funds, so Stan posted off a return ticket. When John returned in 1931 he went to stay with Stan in Head Street, Elwood and then headed north to New Guinea43 where he raised and borrowed enough money to build the hotel at Wau. Phonse ran the hotel and shortly after John was back to Monte Carlo.44

Damien’s life centred around two general areas. First there was his photography with work, study, reading, note taking, going to the movies and writing criticisms in his note books; and secondly the Campion Society with discussions and notes on Catholic Action, Franco, Facism and Communism, meetings at the Grail, bushwalking and photographs of the bush and beautiful girls.45 From the Middle East he wrote to one of his friends of those days, Basil Butler.46

… at the present time (8/11/41) I am in the Western Desert. I remember once about ten months ago writing a letter from this same Desert. At that time I was sitting in my car with the pad on my knees and a howling dust storm was blowing outside. When one is under cover during an outburst of nature like that there is something adventurous and intimate about the whole thing. You will probably call to mind some of our hikes when it rained hard and we sheltered in some cave. At the moment it is raining. The clouds, though heavy are moving fast and the drone of planes is constantly above.

Damien never became involved in the intense intellectual apostolate nor the political wing of the Campion Society, the Catholic Worker or the Whitland settlement. From the note books, negatives and cuttings that we children discovered in our “orange cupboard” at 26 Head Street, Damien’s prime interest was seen to be photograph and religion as perceived more by St Teresa of Liseaux with the perfection of the ordinary rather than the dramatic Catholic Action and changing society as conceived by the Federation Party and later by Canon Cardijn and the Catholic Actionists. Damien was a foundation member of the Art Discussion Group of the Campion Society in Sydney and associated with the film group of the Grail and made a film of the Grail work in Australia for the Women of Nazareth. In 1939 he filmed the production of “Credo” at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.47

07 VR Spirit of Progress ad.jpg
The “Spirit of Progress” train ran from Melbourne to Albury began running on 17 November 1937. It’s regular routine being to depart from Albury at 7:55 in the morning and arrive at Spencer Street station at 11:35, then return from Spencer Street station at 18:30 each evening, arriving at Albury at 22:20.

During the early thirties while travelling on the “Spirit of Progress” John Arthur was in the same carriage as Charles and Elsa Chauvel who were producing the feature films “Heritage”. He told them of his film enthusiast son and asked if they had a place on the crew. Unfortunately, he was told, it was all hired, but added, Tell him to come to the studios in St Kilda and watch and see what we are doing. Well Damien became so indispensable and proved so intense and useful that he was signed on as a crew member.48 His professional movie career began with an unexpected telegram on 2 September 1935 from Charles Chauvel:49

31 Beaconsfield Parade, St Kilda, Mr Davies of Natural Studios Sydne, Mr Davies of National Studios Sydney has offered start you immediately assistant cameraman starting four pounds weekly if you care come over I recommend this as outstanding opportunity national studios immense concern please wire immediately, Davies National Studios, 369 George Street, Sydney.

He then went on to make three more films. The Australian film industry only provided irregular work for Damien. He was hired as cameraman for a series “This Place Australia” produced with George Hughes, Stanley Tolhost and Harrington.51

He brought one of these to Ken Hall:52

About this time Damien came to Cinesound with a short he had made illustrating one of Lawson’s poems. It was very good and he made an impression on me, but at the time we had no vacancies. I remembered him and when his work began to show up so well from the Western Desert I began a correspondence with him offering advice and sending him clips of his negatives. We became firm friends and the friendship continued until his death. He wrote to me a week before he died.

De104517-inscribed in pencil on paper label on support reverse c. Damien Parer '42 - Max Dupain 91
Inscribed in pencil on paper label on support reverse c. Damien Parer ’42 – Max Dupain.

In between these movies he worked as a still photographer and in 1938 was hired by Max Dupain in Sydney. This was a professionally rewarding and personally enriching period. Damien was a rather prolific writer of note books, dope sheets and family correspondence. He continued an extensive and now revealing correspondence with Max and Olive Dupain throughout the War.53 From the Middle East on 21 February 1940 Damien wrote:54

Max, I often think of you. I often wonder how I will next meet you. You know the twelve months spent working with you were the most valuable since I started working with Dickinson in Melbourne as an eager and unformed apprentice. I owe a great debt to you. But more than that there is a friendship between us.

Portrait of Damien Parer on Bungan Beach, NSW c 1930s [picture].png
Portrait of Damien Parer on Bungan Beach, NSW c 1930s
Beach snapshot Damien Parer right-1938-by Olive Cotton.pngIn 1939 Damien was appointed to the staff of the cinema and photographic branch of the Commerce Department of the Commonwealth Government. And then another telegram changed the direction of his life. He received it on 30 August 1939 at the “Oriana Hotel”, McLeay Street, Potts Point, Sydney:55

Would you be prepared accept position cameraman same basis as previously advertised and enumerated my letter eight July last if so will have pleasure recommending early appointment, Maplestone Cinema branch Victoria Barracks.

So he came to St Kilda Army Barracks and worked on Army Training films.

His father had the hotel at Wau in New Guinea. His sister Doreen was also there, Cyril was gold prospecting on the Golden Ridges, half way up to Eddie Creek, Bernard and Ben were each on separate digits on the Watur River field, Bob, Kevin and Ray were involved in the airway services. Phonse was managing the Plaza Hotel at Wynard Station in Sydney and Stan was Managing Director of Stanford X-Ray Company in Melbourne. Adrian was studying for the priesthood at Saint Pascal’s, Box Hill. Damien was in Melbourne for Christmas 1939 and his folio and letter was his New Year gift to his mother in Wau. For obvious reasons she gave it to Stan and it has remained in our family as a treasured possession. Many have wished for a copy and on the initiative of Dr JT “Bill” Parer, during one of his visits from the University of Southern California, Alella Books has arranged for its publication.

It is remarkable that this folio has survived. Immediately war was declared the Italians on the Water River were interned and Bernard “agreed to look after their place”. John and Teresa left the hotel and went to join Bernard on the Water. Life proceeded somewhat normally until the Japanese entered the war and suddenly on the 12 December 1941 the nineteen Parer children with their mothers, Doreen, Nance and Mollie, were evacuated with each allowed only a single suitcase.56 Teresa and John had left a short time before and Teresa’s had included the folio.

We three young Parer boys who are the subject of the first half of the folio were aged 13, 11 and 10 when Damien was killed and yet we remember him well. He was a great uncle to have, he enjoyed children, was open and had an intense interest in those whose company he shared. For many of us today, thirty-eight years after his death, his legacy remains larger than life. Had he lived he would now be 71. Our mother often remarked that in dying young Damien has remained forever youthful in the family psyche and to some extent in the community beyond our family.57 All too often today when the Press refer to David of the ABC Natural History Unit, he is inevitably tagged “nephew of famous war time photographer Damien Parer”.58 The wonderful memory of Damien lives on in the family and I believe this is the result of his commitment to perfection in photography, his intense interest in his subject and film making and people. I find all of these elements wonderfully woven together by John Hetherington in his portrait of Damien.

Left to right Damien, John Arthur, Teresa Carolin, Tia Marietta, Stanislaus, Bernard, Kevin. Where? Could have been at one of the grander homes in Surry Hills.jpg
Prewar in Melbourne. Photographed by fiend Lionel Morell of Damien, his parents John and Teresa, his Aunt Tia  Rosetta, and brother Stan, and cousins Bernard and Kevin.

John Hetherington was a war correspondent on the “Empress of Japan” with Damien when it left in early 1940. He wrote in his book Australians: Nine Profiles:59

I knocked on Parer’s cabin to introduce myself. “Well, it’s nice of you to call. I’m trying to get this bloody muddle straight. Come in!” I closed the door behind me and picked my way through the maze of fragile stuff underfoot. Parer did not rise:; he went on polishing the lens, passing the tissue over and over its gleaming surface with the loving care of some ancient jeweller preparing a gem for an oriental potentates crown. At last he raised the lens to the light and slowly oscillated it before his reverent eyes, then he handed it to me, “Take a look at that” he said, “Isn’t she a bloody little beaut?”

Damien Parer’s name meant little to me then. It meant little to anyone, except a handful of men in the Australian film industry who believed that Parer was potentially one of the world’s great cameramen.

When I think back to my first meeting with Parer I have to resist the temptation, common to men when they try to recall the impact made upon them by some man who subsequently demonstrates a quality of  genius, to tell myself that I knew him from the first for a man destined to win renown. I certainly knew him for a devoted craftsman. You could sped ten minutes with him and not know that the camera was his life. But I did not discern the spiritual flair which was to make him perhaps the greatest of the war cameramen of his time. To me, he seemed at first merely an engaging eccentric absorbed in the technique of his trade. No estimate could have been less adequate. Parer’s genius and quality which made him a great – instead of merely a brilliantly effective – cameraman was the product of his unwavering devotion to the Roman Catholic faith. Most will deride this finding, but nobody who knew Parer will question it; although I did not share his faith I recognised it for the source of his strength. As Brother Barnabus, the ex-juggler in Anatole France’s story “The Juggler of Notre Dame”, made his devotion to the Virgin by juggling brass balls and knives before the altar, so Parer made his devotion with a camera. His closest friend, Ron Maslyn Williams, an Australian film producer whose professional and personal life was closely linked with Parer’s, has told me, “When Damien did all that scrupulous work on his cameras, preparing them as a priest might the chalice, he wasn’t doing it for himself, but for God. His faith was limitless”.

John Hetherington concluded his portrait:

I hope that Damien Parer found the life after death in which his faith never waitered. If he did, then  it is not to be doubted that he sits among the heavenly company polishing the lens of a camera and every now and then raising it to the light and reverently exclaiming, “Take a look at that. Isn’t she a bloody beaut?”

Had anyone told Damien of these reflections as he concentrated on capturing Xmas Down South in 1939 he would have laughed loudly and uproariously.

Damien wore his religion very easily. He wrote to Max and Olive Dupain from the Middle East in a 10 page letter:60

Ronnie Williams reckons I’m oversexed and only stopped by being a Catholic. Certainly the ancient faith has stood by me in tempting circumstances, but it is the greatest thing in my life.

During the 1939 Christmas no one knew that within a few weeks Damien was to sail aboard the “Empress of Japan”. Stan had a contract with the Federal Government to build a new and special 35 millimetre X-ray machine. The army took delivery of it on Christmas Eve, the day Damien shot these family portraits. On Boxing day Colonel Cooper telephoned Stan to say the truck had an accident outside Seymour and turned the machine upside down. Could he return it to the factory that day for repairs and also arrange for a team to go with it to the camp at Ingleburn out of Sydney and X-ray the 10,000 troops who were due to sail in ten days time? So in a few days Stan with a team from Stanford X-Ray Company were booked into the Campbelltown Hotel. One evening before the end of the week who should call in but Damien all dressed in army uniform as a new member of the Department of Information to say he was sailing for Egypt with the troops the next week. The cinematographer had an accident, broke his leg and Damien was selected as his replacement.61

“Off to bloody war!” – Damien Parer about to embark on the “Empress of Japan” with the 2nd AIF overseas as their official photographer. A note about the Leica around Damien’s neck as he boarded the troop ship. The press photographer was about to snap the shot and then at the last minute said, “that won’t do”. So he handed Damien his own Leica and said, “here, hang that about you to show you are the Official War photographer”.

Max Dupain recalls:62

We all followed his career as closely as possible during the fragmented years of the forties which, ironically, were the real beginning and ending of his career as a motion picture photographer. I remember returning late one night from a holiday on the South Coast and making my first port of call the studios in Bond Street and being greeted by Damien in battle dress. I was shocked by the suddenness of it all and shocked again to realise that we would be losing him from Australia.

“I’m going to the bloody war”, he laughed and accompanied the comment with one of his loud and famous belches! I think we drank several beers to celebrate and her was nobody on earth like Damien after a few beers. He became hilarious and forthright with laughable bombs coupled with amazing outspokenness. He was terrific company.

Ken Hall of Cinesound summed up his opinion:63

Damien was quite a man and a genuine character in his own right, warm, human, fallible. He was a good cameraman but there were lots of good cameramen on both sides in World War Two. Damien’s great gift was knowing what to shoot, to look for the human interest angle, to remember the dictum – people are interested in people. His other great natural gift was an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time. A cameraman cannot write the story after the event, as war correspondents could and invariably did. The cameraman has to be there when it happens!

a9624026h-Item 03–presumably taken in Palestine 1940-41-Damien Parer.jpg

End of Part 3.

You can read Part 2 here or Part 4 here


  1. Mick Barbeta undated letter to John G. Parer, approximately 1970.
  2. Australian Broadcasting Commission, Guest of Honour interview with Chester Wilmot, 24 January 1941.
  3. D. M. jackson, “The Advocate”, Melbourne, 16 May 1981.
  4. Bernard Parer telephone conversation 30 March 1981.
  5. Stanislaus Parer notes from conversation 11 March 1981.
  6. Letter from Herald, Family Folio, Volume 2.
  7. Certificate of Indenture held in Family Folio.
  8. Stanislaus Parer notes from conversation 11 March 1981.
  9. Vincent Parer audiotaped interview recorded Brisbane, 30 October 1979. Page 12 of transcript.Mollie Parer audiotaped interview recorded Brisbane, 25 November 1979. Page 21 and 27 of transcript.
  10. Damien Parer three note books on photography and Catholic Action held in family file.
  11. Damien Parer letter to Basil O’Dowd and held by Max and Olive Dupain who gave collection to Burton Graham when he began a biography of Damien. Burton Graham gave all his material to Michael S Parer in 1964 and it is currently in the family file.Father Desmond O’Connor notes from conversation in 1965 at Messenger House, Richmond.
  12. DM Jackson Family file, Volume 2, Page 7, “The Advocate”, 16 May 1940.Hosie, Bernard, SM, Damien Parer, a unique Australian Catholic Truth Society Publication, 20 January 1967. Number 1496, Page 22.
  13. Stanislaus Parer notes from conversation 11 March 1981.Elsa Chauvel, Australian Broadcasting Commission Television, “The Legend of Damien Parer”, 1964.
  14. Charles Chauvel Telegram 2 September 1935. Family file, Volume 2, Page 27.
  15. Newspaper reviews and cuttings family files.Scrap book on Damien Parer, Volume 2, page 4 Sydney Morning Herald, 21 December 1936, volume 2, Pages 19-20 for reviews of films.
  16. Family file Volume 2, Page 1. “Man” undated, page 5, “Smith’s Weekly”, 8 July 1939.
  17. Ken Hall, a letter to the author, 16 May 1982.
  18. Correspondence in family file.
  19. Damien Parer letter to Max and Olive Dupain dated 21 February 1940.
  20. Maplestone Telegram family file, Volume 2, Page 27.
  21. Bernard Parer audiotaped interview, Brisbane, 10 October 1979. Page 28 of transcript.Bernard Parer telephone conversation 30 March 1981.
  22. Catherine Irene Harriett Parer (nee Gartlan) audiotaped interview at Brighton, 4 July 1980.
  23. Melbourne Herald, 27 July 1973, Melbourne Herald, 14 August 1973, Melbourne Age, 17 January 1982 are examples.
  24. John Hetherington, Australians: Nine Profiles, Melbourne, Cheshire, 1960.
  25. Damien Parer, letter to Max and Olive Dupain, Saturday 21 February 1940, from Official War Photographer AIF Headquarters Abroad, page 8.
  26. Stanislaus Parer notes from conversation 11 March 1982.
  27. Ken Hall, a letter to the author, 26 June 1982.
  28. Ken Hall, a letter to the author, 16 May 1982.

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