8 May 2023

Picture this: Canberra irrigator captures the capital's beauty with just his smartphone

| Sally Hopman
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sunrise over Diddams Close

Canberra irrigator and photographer Stephen Gray says this is one of his favourite photographs – sunrise over Diddams Close, Lake Ginninderra. Photo: Stephen Gray.

Stephen Gray knows Canberra like few others. Not just because he goes to work around dawn most days and sees the city at its best. Nor is it because he’s spent his working life in Canberra around the capital’s best bits – from the classic cultural institutions to imposing buildings of power to the smaller lesser known, yet just as pretty, parks, reserves and lakes.

He’s also seen this beauty grow at the National Arboretum, for example, and installing the irrigation system for the Old Parliament House rose gardens.

Stephen has captured many moments of the city’s history, armed only with his Samsung Galaxy S21 – with not a filter in sight.

A self-taught photographer, Stephen works as a contract irrigator in Canberra. He came here for work in the bicentennial year, 1988, from the family farm at Wagga, although he was born and bred near Cowra.

“I guess that’s where this love for the beauty of the outdoors has come from,” Stephen said. “I grew up on the family farm, which was about 1300 acres.

“I remember I got my first camera for Christmas in around 1976 … it was one of those Kodak ones that looked like a bridge.

“I just took pictures like everyone else did, in those days you’d have to get them developed. But these days, it’s so much more fun with the phone.”

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Not only is it more fun, but it has also led Stephen to what could well become a bright new career as an author. His book of photographs, From the Eyes, Through the Lens, has just been published by Green Hill – and he kept it secret from almost everyone until the first print run of 200 books arrived on his Canberra doorstep.

“I hadn’t really told anyone I was getting a book published,” the irrigator said. “I wanted to make sure it actually happened and I also didn’t want to hear any knockers or anything like that.”

Tree aroboretum

The National Arboretum from on high is another of Stephen Gray’s favourite subjects to shoot. Photo: Stephen Gray.

Not only has Stephen shot all the images for the book, he’s also taken it around Canberra visiting many of the places featured in it, like the National Arboretum, National Library and National Gallery to see if they want to sell it in their shops. And they all do.

“They’re pretty much telling me that there is a demand for a book like this, a book of Canberra pictures but taken in a different way,” he said.

He seems to have hit on a winner – the niche market of the tourism industry where visitors are looking for a Canberra book to take home with them so they can remember their time in the national capital.

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“When I took it to the tourist information centre, that’s what they told me,” Stephen said. “People want to take something home with them that reminds them of the real Canberra.”

So much so, that Stephen now has volume two of his book in his sights.

“They’re asking me if I can do another book featuring well-known sites in Canberra, but taken from a different point of view.”

Stephen said although volume two was now on his agenda, the idea of retiring as a man on the land, at age 52, was not.

He even likes the early morning starts, which of course put him in a prime position for those stunning sunrise shots.

“I reckon I’ve still got about 20 years left in me before I can think about retiring,” he joked.

From the Eyes, Through the Lens by Stephen Gray is available through Green Hill Publishing and is on sale at many of Canberra’s leading tourist attractions. For more information, you can contact Stephen Gray via his email.

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