Dorothy Hallam – Pioneer ABC news cinematographer

When ABC’s television service opened in 1956, the news cinematographers were men. But within a few years, plucky women started to break through the barriers. Among the trail blazers was Dorothy Hallam – now a feisty 97-year-old – who began working for the national broadcaster as a permanent stringer in early 1961 and continued in the role for 22 years. Her work may well have fallen through the cracks of history had it not been for an uncanny series of events. Now both Dorothy and her films are being feted in a remarkable renaissance. 

Dorothy Hallam – Pioneer ABC news cinematographer

Dorothy Hallam with her faithful Bolex / Photo: David Brill

By Helen Grasswill / 2 February 2022

Dorothy Hallam was seven years old when the ABC began in 1932. Of course, there was no television back then, but her family were keen listeners of the new ABC radio service.

There weren’t many wirelesses around then, but my parents had one. 7ZL Hobart1, that was the ABC station. I remember the News, not so much children’s programs. And my grandmother always listened to the cricket when it came on the radio; she’d say it was ‘Amazing!’ to hear the ball hitting the bat – eventually we found out it was sound effects! 

By a stroke of luck, Dorothy scored a visit to the new ABC radio studio the year after it opened.

It was the 13th of May 1933, I wrote the date in a letter that I still have. I was eight years old and I was spending the day with a friend, Jean McKenzie. Her dad Don McKenzie was an engineer at 7ZL and he showed us over the station. I can still remember it as clear as anything. I saw a woman speaking into a microphone. We were only allowed to speak when music was being played, but that’s all, we had to be quiet the rest of the time. 

Young Dorothy could not have imagined that several decades later, after television arrived in Australia, she would land a job with the national broadcaster and become a trail-blazing news cinematographer – one of the first two females employed in the role by the ABC2, in early 1961.

At 97 (b.2 February 1925), Dorothy is also now very likely the oldest of all active living ABC alumni, and certainly the most feisty – as might be expected of a woman who excelled in a career that was, and still is, predominantly a man’s domain. 

Claire Lupton

Not that it was entirely an equal-opportunity gig. She and her earliest female contemporaries were taken on as ‘stringers’ paid on a job-by-job basis, rather than staff. Notable among them was Claire Lupton3, who had proven herself in late 1960 shadowing a staff cameraman and becoming the first woman to have shots included in an ABC News report. Claire worked in her own right from early 1961 covering Papua New Guinea and later regional New South Wales. It was some years before Pat Walter4, who began as a stringer with ABC Adelaide in 1964, went on to become the first woman to be appointed to a staff news cinematographer position. 

Pat Walter ACS   

Dorothy says that it never occurred to her that she was a pioneer or a role model. 

Back then I didn’t know there were other women filming, I didn’t think about it; a woman can do just as good a job as a man. And I didn’t give a thought to being a stringer, I wasn’t doing it for the money, I just loved the work.

A UNIQUE RECORD

Dorothy’s patch was the Tasman Peninsula, to the south-east of Hobart, where she’s lived her entire life. Speaking by phone from her home at Nubeena, a small township 10 kilometres north of the historic Port Arthur convict site, she tells me of many of the stories she filmed.

There were hard news reports like the aftermath of the deadly 1967 ‘Black Tuesday’ bushfires. She would have been filming earlier had the fire not come perilously close to her own home. 

Particularly memorable was a story about the search for a missing boy in February 1975.

The ABC rang and asked me to cover the search for a little boy lost at Eaglehawk Neck. His name was Ricky Smith. He was about 9. I got talking to this well-dressed man who worked at the local hotel and was going to join the search. ‘Terrible thing about this little boy,’ I remember him saying that. He seemed very nice, so I decided to follow him and film as he searched. Months later, this man I’d been filming admitted to torturing and killing the little boy. His name was James O’Neill and he’s still in jail. He’s actually a suspected serial killer.

‘Remarkable Cave Road’ – showing the dusty road and the cave before tourism burgeoned, ABC News film by Dorothy Hallam, 18 June 1970

But the bulk of Dorothy’s work covered local affairs. There are films about the once-thriving industries of the region – orcharding, dairying, chicken and turkeys, honey bees – as well as early tourism at Port Arthur (including one on protests about a visually polluting caravan park located near the convict penitentiary), and of development like the opening of an electrically-operated swing bridge over the Denison Canal at Dunalley. Then there are community stories like a farmer who grew out-sized potatoes, wildflower picking, yacht races, the opening of the mutton bird season. And others that showcase people enjoying the spectacular natural environment of the Peninsula – any item of interest attracted Dorothy’s attention.  

James Parker, a local historian and former film industry professional who a few years ago spearheaded renewed interest in Dorothy’s work, says her collection of news stories is of incalculable value:

Her films capture the Peninsula as it once was. And I do think her work is a unique record of a district in change. And remember, in the particular you can see the universal. It wasn’t only this tiny bit of Tasmania that was changing, Australia was changing hugely through the ’60s and ’70s. In the case of this area, orcharding disappeared when Britain joined the Common Market, but there were changes in agriculture all through Australia, I mean that was the period when we really came off the sheep’s back. Tourism rose. And, of course, mining. 

The thing that grabs me about Dorothy’s films is they’re so beautifully made. She’s a superb cinematographer. She has a great eye for a frame, a feel for how long to hold a shot and for how shots will cut together. I doubt there were other gifted cinematographers who covered a small country area at that time in the way that she did.

‘Old Chains’ – the early museum at Port Arthur, ABC News film by Dorothy Hallam, 17 November 1961

APPLES, PEARS & PICTURES

Recording the local stories was a dream job for a woman whose family is steeped in Tasman Peninsula history.

Dorothy’s parents, Eric and Agnes Benjafield, were orchardists in the days when there were more than 30 commercial apple orchards on the Peninsula (today only one remains) and Tasmania was famous the world over as ‘the Apple Isle’. Her grandfather Dr Harry Benjafield had been a prominent pioneer and entrepreneur of the industry, establishing several of the earliest orchards, both apple and pear, as well as developing innovative storage and distribution facilities. 

Dorothy’s grandfather Dr Harry Benjafield

Dorothy was brought up on the family property near Nubeena (now ‘Tasma Vale’, formerly ‘Wedge Garden’). It was an active rural life that ‘Doff’, as her parents called her (she has no idea where the nickname came from), relished.

Her interest in taking pictures began with still photography, and quite by chance. Her Dad had won a Kodak Autographic Brownie No. 2 camera in a raffle on the troop ship that brought him home from the First World War, and a few years later young Dorothy commandeered it.

Dorothy’s grandfather Dr Harry Benjafield, an important pioneer of the apple and pear industries

When I went to school in Hobart, I took it with me. I was about eight at the time and I photographed friends and the school and my grandmother’s house at Moonah where I was boarding. And during holidays I filmed everything around the orchard. 

Around this time, her friend Jean’s father, ABC engineer Don McKenzie, showed her how to develop her own films.

Mr McKenzie had a darkroom, and Jean and I were allowed in to watch him develop films in the solutions and see the image appearing, and that fascinated me. He gave me a frame of about 3 x 4 inches with a clip, which is what you used for printing from the negative. 

The house in which she lived with her grandmother, Amelia Benjafield, was a two-storey sandstone, convict-built home with a cellar.

I set up my own darkroom in the cellar and began developing my own films. My Uncle Cleon, who lived there too, helped me get everything I needed.

It was an extraordinary activity for a child so young, but Dorothy was a pragmatic country girl – and never one to be deterred by gender stereotypes that would have seen her playing with dolls, not chemical solutions.

On leaving school, making a living as a photographer was not an option open to her, so Dorothy qualified as a mothercraft nurse – a job she loved. Medicine was another family tradition: as well as being a leader in the orchard industry, her grandfather Dr Harry Benjafield was also a medical doctor who’d been instrumental in establishing the Hobart Homœopathic Hospital in 1899. His son Vivian Benjafield5 was also a celebrated doctor, and three daughters were nurses. 

MARRIAGE, CHILDREN & 8mm HOME MOVIES

Dorothy’s nursing career came to an end a few months after she married Maurice Hallam, on 17 December 1947. They were both 22.

Maurice and Dorothy: wedding day, December 1947

The couple settled in Hobart, where Maurice was a public servant in the Premier’s Department. Their sons Gavin and Philip were born in the early ’50s. By the time daughter Karina was born in late 1955, they’d moved permanently to the Benjafield property on the Tasman Peninsula where Dorothy had been brought up. 

We lived with my parents for 30 years. Dad had also bought another property nearby called ‘The Marsh’ which ran beef cattle and sheep so Maurice worked that farm as well as helping with the orchards. 

But everyone knew that ‘Doff’ was a creative spirit at heart. As well as her consuming photography hobby (she’d graduated to a 35mm stills camera by now), she dabbled in art, so her father asked her to design new labels for the cases used to export the family’s ‘Tasma Vale’ apples and pears abroad – notably to Britain, Germany and the Netherlands – and to the mainland. 

Commercial colour printed labels were replacing the old tin stencilled ones used on the fruit cases. Dad wanted me to incorporate the original red apple design from the stencil drawing that had been used since the 1920s, so I copied that in oils. Then I went down and picked a Doyenne Du Comice pear from an orchard my grandfather had established and used that for the pear label. It made me proud to see the truckloads of apples and pears from the family orchards leaving with my colourful labels on the cases.

It wasn’t until 1959, when Dorothy was 34 years old, that she turned to cinematography, and not with any professional intentions.  

Gavin was nine, Philip was seven and our daughter Karina was four. Maurice and I decided to buy an 8mm movie camera to record their activities. And I started using it to also film what was going on around the orchard and at some of the scenic spots in the area.

Maurice and Dorothy with their children – Gavin, Phil and Karina

TV, ABC & NEWS CINEMATOGRAPHY

In May the following year, 1960, television came to Hobart – four years after the ABC had launched its network in Sydney and Melbourne.

It became a nightly ritual for the Hallams to watch the ABC News.

Maurice was interested in journalism and decided to submit several story ideas to the ABC. Warren Denning was the News Editor at the time and he rang and asked Maurice if he’d be the correspondent down here for the ABC. Maurice would write the story summary, a journalist in Hobart would do the final script and a News announcer voice them. Of course, Maurice said ‘yes’, he would.

Denning and his wife Esther visited the Hallams at their Peninsula home the following weekend, and after lunch Dorothy showed them an 8mm film she’d shot of the orchard over the previous months. Denning seemed impressed, but he was looking for someone in the area with a 16mm camera to film Maurice’s stories.

ABC News Editor Warren Denning and his wife Esther at the Hallam’s orchard in January 1961

A few days later, much to Dorothy’s surprise, Denning called to say that ABC staff cameraman Warwick Curtis was selling his camera and were the Hallams interested? Dorothy and Maurice drove to Hobart the next Sunday, the deal was done and, for £150 (a lot of money back then), Dorothy became the proud new owner of a Swiss-made, professional 16mm Bolex camera.  

ABC cameraman Warwick Curtis who sold his Bolex to the Hallams

Warwick Curtis gave them a rudimentary explanation of the technical inside-outs of the Bolex and, with 400ft of film supplied by the ABC, the Hallams returned home to work out from an instruction manual how to actually use it.

So it was that in early March 1961, nine months after television arrived in Tasmania, Dorothy filmed her first news story for the ABC on the 16mm Bolex, which she still has to this day.

Her first ‘trial’ story was about the Nubeena Show. 

The ABC gave us several tips: we needed an establishing shot, then move in to a medium shot, and then the close-ups which was the ‘golden rule’ of cinematography, you had to have a lot of close-ups. Then they needed a lot of bridging shots, and people going into frame and out of frame as well. We did all those things, tried to follow the rules. But they did say ‘don’t pan unless it’s absolutely necessary’ – I ignored that.

The show was an indoor event and the Hallams used their 8mm lighting kit, with Maurice as gaffer.

We had four 500-watt globes attached to steel rods in a y-shape. Maurice held it up wherever I needed light. We could have attached a light to the camera but we never did buy that or any other new lights, we didn’t need them.

The film was shown on television a couple of days later, on 13 March 1961. Warren Denning sent a note: ‘I was as pleased as you were that your first assignment hit the target, and delighted that it attracted so much attention.’

Most of Dorothy’s filming was off-the-shoulder following the action, there was seldom time to set up a tripod. 

Expert advice: Renowned cinematographer Neil Davis who showed Dorothy how to use her light meter

As she became more skilled, she realised she needed a light meter to get optimum results. And this time she had an expert instructing her, Neil Davis, who later became internationally famous as a war cinematographer and photojournalist. 

Neil happened to be at the ABC when Maurice and I visited, and he took us outside on Harrington Street and explained how to use my new light meter. He was very nice. Showed me how to use the meter to set the exposure on the camera lens correctly. Told me what to do in dull light, that was important.    

Dorothy’s light meter

Maurice continued to go on film shoots whenever he could, but sometimes Dorothy would do the whole job herself – writing the shotlist, the story summary, then packing up these with the film and organising delivery to Hobart.

Very often we’d ask friends to take it. There were lots of hire cars and buses going from Port Arthur, so we’d use them. And failing all that, or if it was hot news, we’d take the film to the ABC in Hobart ourselves. 

NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED

Dorothy says she always liked the ‘human interest’ stories, and enjoyed meeting people from all walks of life.

Her favourite assignment, and the most challenging, was in 1966. Charter boat operator Wyn Westcott had the contract to deliver mail and groceries every fortnight to Tasman Island. Dorothy and Maurice organised to go with him and film the three lighthouse keepers and their families who were the only people living there. 

The landing platform (foreground) and trolley rail tracks going up to the cliff face

The waters around the island are notoriously rough, and Dorothy and Maurice went out four or five times with Westcott on his boat Serena, having to abort each time due to the danger.

Dorothy remained determined to get the story. Trying again, Westcott managed to anchor the boat a little way off the island. 

But actually getting onto the island and then up to the lighthouse at the top of 270-metre dolerite cliffs was not for the faint-hearted.

‘Lighthouse Children’ – life on Tasman Island, ABC News film by Dorothy Hallam, 28 October 1966

We had to scramble into a dinghy and then we were rowed over underneath a flying fox which was dangling on a steel rope between a place they call Anchor Rock at the base of the island and a landing on the island which was perched on the cliff about 100 feet (30 metres) above sea level. It was very rough, with waves crashing on the rocks, and we had to wait till the dinghy peaked on the top of a wave before we could jump into the fox. Luckily, the head lighthouse keeper was there to catch us as we jumped in.

The flying fox in front of Anchor Rock

The flying fox then propelled them to the landing on the cliff, where they transferred to a small wooden trolley, which was just a plank (about the size of a dining table) with a small board edging at one end.  

A steep section of the trolley track – passengers were practically standing vertical with no rail to hang onto

The trolley had four wheels and it was hauled up on a track, like a railway track. So we had to sit on the plank, no safety rails to hold onto, with all the mail and groceries, and it was very steep in places, especially at the start, you were tilting so much that you were almost standing.

Dorothy filmed the ascent, making it all the more precarious. She says she had no fear – ‘If I had a camera in my hand, I could do almost anything’.

Dorothy with the Bolex, talking to the lighthouse keepers’ families

When they arrived at the top of the island, Dorothy and Maurice were greeted by the three mothers and their children. 

I filmed as the mail was delivered to the three houses on the island. And then I filmed the children doing their correspondence lessons, which we’d brought in the mail. After that we had morning tea which the women had prepared – asparagus rolls sandwiches, tea, coffee and so on. 

The return journey, descending down the steep cliffs towards the treacherous waves crashing on the rock below, was possibly even more hair-raising than going up. And, of course, Dorothy filmed every moment, despite having no railing or support to hold onto. The only downside of the whole enterprise, she says, was that on one of the earlier attempts to reach the island she was seasick!.

But it was all worth it. The story went to air several days later and it was the longest film I ever had on air. Almost four minutes.’  

No one lives on Tasman Island any more. The lighthouse was automated in 1976 and the last staff left the following year. Dorothy’s story is one of very few records of Tasman Island before automation and, as far as I have been able to determine, the only one that gives an insight to the people who once lived and worked there.

Revisiting Tasman Island: Dorothy with son Phil at the lighthouse / Photo: Phil Hallam

A few years ago, Dorothy’s son Phil hired a helicopter to take her back to Tasman Island. She was sad to see the trolley and haulage system in disrepair though happy that a group called Friends of Tasman Island still goes out once a year to do maintenance on the houses and the lighthouse.

I took the Bolex, but it’s so heavy I have difficulty lifting the thing now. I couldn’t stand with it, couldn’t do what I used to do, didn’t have the balance I used to do. And after more than 40 years, I couldn’t remember how to use it!

The landing platform where the flying fox delivered passengers / Photo: Phil Hall

LIFE AFTER THE ABC

Dorothy worked for the ABC as a permanent freelancer for 22 years. In that time she filmed 176 stories, initially in black-and-white and later in colour when the ABC transitioned to the new format in 1975. It wasn’t until ABC Hobart changed to video cameras around 1983 that she decided to call it a day.

She left with a copy of only one of her films – a story she’d shot in 1974 of her father Eric regretfully bulldozing her grandfather’s orchard when the apple industry became economically unviable. It was of sentimental value.

She and Maurice went on to lead busy and active lives. In 1985, they finally moved out of the house they shared with her parents, building a new home on the nearby family property, ‘The Marsh’, where Dorothy still lives.

They both continued to work on the farm, Dorothy helping with hay making and working on the grader in the orchards during the apple-picking season. They contributed to history books and other projects on both the apple industry and the Peninsula more generally, joining the local history society. Dorothy did a lot of gardening, fruit preserving (which she still does), photography and oil painting (she sometimes exhibited). And, of course, there was time to enjoy with their family, now expanding with the arrival of grandchildren.

This idyllic lifestyle continued for almost 30 years, until rocked in 2012 when their much-loved daughter Karina succumbed to breast cancer, aged 56.

Then in February the following year Maurice died suddenly and unexpectedly, after suffering a short illness. 

Losing a daughter, defying the order of the generations, is heart-breaking for any mother. But to also lose a life partner after 65 years of marriage would bring most people to breaking point.  

I found it particularly difficult dealing with Karina’s death, it shouldn’t have been that way around, I would have willingly given my life instead but of course that wasn’t possible. And to lose Maurice was devastating. All I could do was keep busy. I did a lot of gardening, not so much photography (people were taking pictures on mobile phones so I pretty much gave it up), and I wrote a diary for each of my sons on what they and their families were doing.

But it was her passion for film-making that helped to fully restore her joie de vivre.

A FILMIC RENAISSANCE

Dorothy’s work may well have fallen through the cracks of history had it not been for historian and family friend James Parker. 

After 12 years working in various roles in the film industry in Melbourne and Sydney, he returned to his home state of Tasmania in 1987 and became involved with the Tasman Peninsula Historical Society (now renamed the Tasman & Forestier History Group). It was there that Dorothy and her films came into his orbit. He tells me:

James Parker, local historian / Photo: David Brill

I saw some of her colour 8mm footage that she’d filmed of the farm in 1960 and it really excited me. I organised for it to be transferred to videotape about 20 years ago. Then I made an 8-minute VHF video, which I called ‘Four Seasons on the Farm’ and I set it to Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ and it worked out well. It was very well received at community events. 

James then decided to track down Dorothy’s ABC films and ensure they’d be preserved for posterity.

What happened next epitomises the tragedy of budget cuts to the ABC, which has resulted in diminished staff numbers and resources.

I’d become involved with the Tasman Peninsula Historical Society and made enquiries to the ABC about Doff’s stories. Her documentation was very good – she had albums that recorded the date of every story and various details. So I thought it would not be too hard to locate them – silly me! ABC Tasmania had sent all their film archives to the Tasmanian State Archives, who, after a few years, decided that they couldn’t deal with them and sent them back. The footage ended up in the main archives of the ABC in Sydney, in a mess and uncatalogued. This is all the film shot for the ABC in Tasmania, not just Doff’s. So I enquired about how much it would cost to locate her films and obtain rights to use them, and it was quite expensive.

It wasn’t until some years later, after James delivered a eulogy at Maurice’s funeral, that he really applied himself to finding a way to complete the project. 

I just felt it was now or never. So through the Tasman Peninsula Historical Society, I applied for a grant. In 2015 we got $8,540 from Arts Tasmania which was enough to get the ABC Archives to search for and compile many of Dorothy’s films. They retrieved about 60 film segments in very good condition, and digitised them. These were vision-only as the segments, when they went to air, were ‘voiced-over’ in real time by the news announcer.  There was no recording of the full program as it went to air, so only the cut footage would be archived, without sound.

What makes this story all the more remarkable is that Dorothy’s carefully compiled personal records extended to sound.

It was always very satisfying to watch the films go to air, but I was always concentrating on my camera work, and Maurice and I would miss most of the commentary. So after 18 films, we began to make our own recordings off the TV so we could listen back to them after the broadcast.

Her son Phil recalls:  Mum would bring a microphone and one of those large reel-to-reel tape recorders into the lounge and we kids were threatened with death if we dared to talk.

For James Parker of the historical society, this was gold. The funding he’d raised was enough to have Dorothy’s home sound recordings synched with her pictures, so that today her stories provide not only a unique record of the Tasman Peninsula but a rare intact record of the fledgling beginnings of television news and newsreel coverage in Tasmania.

Now we can hear what had only ever been broadcast once, it’s quite extraordinary. … It was important for me to do, I suppose in the first place just personally I’d got to know and love Dorothy, but it’s an extraordinary record of not only the region but of a life’s work, and I think that’s terribly important. It’s one of the most significant things I’ve ever done.

For Dorothy, it was extraordinary to be able to watch the films again. 

Seeing it all over again, I had no idea that I ever would, so it’s just amazing what they can do with technology now. Quite a lot of them I seem to have forgotten, it’s all coming back to life again. 

To date, 28 of Dorothy’s ABC films have been restored and synched with the original newsreader commentary. The total cost of project was a little over $21,000. About 60 per cent of the Arts Tasmania grant went to the ABC for searching for the films, digitising and non-theatrical copyright. The remaining 40 per cent covered the costs of synching the audio. Other small donations from members of the historical society and substantial in-kind donations made up the outstanding $12,500 required to bring the project to fruition 

HONOURING AN ELDER

In 2018, Dorothy received an unexpected call, from Peter Curtis ACS, himself a highly respected ABC cinematographer and son of Warwick Curtis from whom Dorothy had bought her Bolex almost 60 years before. Peter, the President of the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Cinematographers Society, was inviting her to a meeting to be addressed by one of the ACS’s female members, up-and-coming drama cinematographer Bonnie Elliott.

When Bonnie’s speech concluded, there was one more piece of business: Peter presented Dorothy with Honorary Membership of the ACS. 

For Dorothy it was a complete surprise.

I had absolutely no idea, and Peter presented me with the award. … I really don’t know what all the fuss is about.

Cinematographers Peter Curtis and Bonnie Elliott with Dorothy and her ACS honorary membership certificate

ABC Alumni’s Tasmanian co-convenor and ACS ambassador David Brill was also there [what is it about Tasmania and legendary news cinematographers!] and has no doubt about the importance of recognising Dorothy and her work:

She’s one of the greats. It wasn’t easy for anyone in those days, with the rudimentary cameras and equipment. Having seen her footage, I really admire what she achieved. She’s a great inspiration to me. 

Two Tasmanian cinematography legends, Dorothy Hallam with David Brill who says ‘She’s one of the greats … I really admire what she’s achieved’

Dorothy remains an avid viewer and supporter of the ABC.

I still watch the ABC, especially the News. Oh yes. I think I miss out on something if I miss out on the News. There’s just something about the ABC that I love. But they’re showing a lot of repeats, like the other stations. 

Despite her grand age, Dorothy is remarkably fit. 

‘Her mind’s as sharp as a tack,’ both sons say. ‘You can’t put anything over her.’

Dorothy says her secret is that she never feels alone. She has her family, swelled by nine grandchildren and six great grandchildren (who all call her ‘Doffy’).

Dorothy and her sons Gavin and Phil, who recall having to be quiet while she taped the newsreader voiceover of her stories as they aired on television

And now, with the renaissance of her films, she’s feted by visitors who want to hear more about her film work. Or perhaps they come for her famous home-made sponge cake and sandwiches, served with coffee (her beverage of choice) or tea.

The gentle woman with her country hospitality belies the extraordinary talent and accomplishments of her 22-year brilliant career at the ABC.

At 97, Dorothy Hallam remains a staunch supporter off the ABC and a much
     loved industry elder / Photo: David Brill

1 ABC 7ZL HOBART

Radio 7ZL was the first radio station in Hobart. It was owned by private operators until 1932 when it became the local station of the government’s new Australian Broadcasting Commission network. Today it’s known as 936 ABC Hobart. For more details, click here.   

2 OTHER PIONEER ABC FEMALE NEWS CINEMATOGRAPHERS 

 At least two other women worked as news cinematographers for the ABC in the 1960s. 

3 Claire Lupton

Claire Lupton worked as a production assistant in the ABC’s Sydney newsroom from 1958. While there, the male cameramen, as they were then called, unofficially taught her how to shoot. In late 1960, shadowing the rostered cameraman at a Formula One racing meet, she filmed some shots that were considered good enough to include in the coverage aired that night – making her the first female to have footage included in an ABC News report. When she moved to Port Moresby in early 1961, working in the record library of ABC’s 9PA radio station, she was also engaged by the ABC as a stringer to cover Papua New Guinea stories, filming on her own 16mm Bell & Howell camera. In 1965 she moved to southern New South Wales, continuing to work as a stringer for the ABC and also commercial TV, contributing stories to ABC News as well as rural coverage for other programs including Bellbird, the long-running ‘soap opera’ serial that ran nightly Monday-Thursday before the 7pm News. She has also worked as a radio host for ABC Albury and journalist for the Bega District News. Now 88, Claire remains a staunch ABC supporter and President of ABC Friends Bega Valley. 

4 Pat Walter, ACS 

Pat Walter ACS was a renowned news cinematographer. A former psychiatric nurse who’d endured a tough early life, she began as a stringer in Adelaide in 1964 and went on to become the first camerawoman appointed to a staff position at the ABC. She initially used her own Bell & Howell 16mm camera and later moved to newer (and heavier) cameras such as the CP16 which also recorded magnetic sound on a strip on the side of the film. Pat covered numerous confronting events including Cyclone Tracy which devastated Darwin in 1974, the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires in South Australia, murder investigations, horrific accidents and natural disasters, as well as politics, business and visiting celebrities. She also filmed documentaries and segments for a variety of other programs, worked for all three commercial stations, and sometimes edited her own films. Her work is widely admired, earning coveted ACS recognition. Pat died in 2017, aged 91.

Please contact us if you know of any other women behind the lens for the ABC in the 1960s.

DR VIVIAN BENJAFIELD

*Dorothy’s uncle Dr Vivian Benjafield was the Chief Medical Officer on the hospital ship HMAT Armadale, serving with distinction attending hundreds of grievously wounded soldiers in the Gallipoli campaign of World War 1. 

*In 1943, working as a Macquarie Street surgeon in Sydney, Dr Vivian Benjafield became embroiled in the famous Supreme Court case in which artists Mary Edwell-Burke and Joseph Wolinski contested William Dobell’s Archibald prize-winning portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith, claiming it was a caricature and therefore shouldn’t have won. Benjafield was called to give expert evidence by the plaintiff’s counsel, Garfield Barwick, and offered up the following unflattering assessment of Dobell’s picture: ‘I would say that it represents the body of a man who had died in that position and had remained in that position for a period of some months and had dried up.’ It made no difference – the case was lost and Dobell’s modernist portrait prevailed.

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Helen Grasswill is a Walkley, Logies and Human Rights award-winning journalist. She worked for the ABC for nearly 30 years, including 22 years at ‘Australian Story’ of which she was a founding producer, and is now Deputy Chair of ABC Alumni.

5 Comments

  1. Fascinating story and so important to illustrate the professionalism of a woman really such a standout in the masculine culture of her time. Loved all the supporting pics and the video clip. Wonderfully crafted story by Helen Grasswill.

  2. Thank you for bringing this brilliant, resilient woman to our attention. Dorothy and other pioneering women photographers deserve to have their stories told, and their work exhibited more broadly as they are so inspiring. Might I suggest doing so at the National Library in Canberra or some other appropriate venue. These women should not be forgotten and need to be celebrated while at least some of them, like Dorothy are still alive. I would be first in the queue to see such an exhibit.

  3. Dorothy came to my attention via the excellent web series Women of the Island, initiated by fellow film makers here in Tassie. They had found Dorothy’s story and as a result I approached Peter Curtis to inquire why Doff wasn’t an Honorary Life Member of the ACS and Peter took it from there. I also filmed Dorothy and James presenting a few of her restored synced films to a crowded hall in Koonya. If any one is interested I can upload the film and provide a link. James talks to Doff about her history and we see a few of her films. Meanwhile feel free to check out the excellent work done by the Women of the Island team including the original story about Dorothy. https://www.womenoftheisland.com/photo-stories#/the-tasman-correspondent/

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