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Ron's submerged home, showing the peak flood level (left); Ron as a young man at The Maitland Mercury newspaper office; some flood-damaged items from Ron's collection.

Art from disaster: Ron Morrison’s last exhibition

When a monster flood ripped through the Northern NSW town of Lismore and surrounding districts in 2022, veteran photographer Ron Morrison lost almost all his possessions and his health took a severe hit. Forced from a comfortable ground-floor flat beneath his son’s home in the riverside town of Woodburn into respite care in a nursing home, Ron – already frail – struggled with the situation. Ron’s wife Liz had already been moved into care before the flood, due to slowly encroaching dementia.

Liz Morrison in the ground-floor apartment she shared with Ron, before it was destroyed by the 2022 flood.

As the flood approached, Ron and his ambulance officer son Ken had been warned that the water might rise to perhaps a metre up the walls of the downstairs flat. Accordingly, they moved everything higher. Nobody was prepared for what really happened. This enormous flood rose to a metre or so up the walls of the home’s upper storey. Woodburn was utterly wrecked. One enduring image of the small town is of refugees huddling on the small section of elevated bridge that remained out of the water.

Ron was evacuated by boat, leaving behind his possessions including his priceless trove of photographs, slides and negatives. (Fortunately, he had transferred many similar items in previous years to Newcastle Region Library and to us – Greg and Sylvia Ray.) What struck Ron very forcibly at this time was a sense of deja vu: back in 1955 – then a budding young press photographer – Ron covered the immense floods that struck NSW that year. Sent up the Hunter River to Singleton, newlywed Ron was completely out of contact with his wife Liz and with his newspaper. Grave fears were held for his safety and when he returned it was with hair-raising stories of narrow escapes, brave rescues and a terrible post-flood aftermath for a great many people.

Ron’s 2022 predicament struck him as tremendously ironic. His life and career, it seemed, were destined to be book-ended by massive floods. This time, however, he was not merely documenting the disaster’s effects on other people, but living the fear and loss from the other side.

Like most of the many others affected by this nightmarish disaster, Ron had to wait weeks before he was able to get back home to see what the flood had left behind. What he found was awful. The stink of the flood aftermath was the same as he remembered from 1955, as was the silt and detritus that the waters carried into every nook and cranny. Some items survived well enough, including one of his beloved old cameras. But his books, years worth of correspondence and records, and album after album of photos and negatives were either lost or ruined. It was a heavy blow to a man who famously hated to discard anything.

Another of Ron’s defining characteristics was his imagination, coupled with a strong entrepreneurial streak. He was always having ideas for books, exhibitions and other projects. This attribute came to the fore when he was confronted with the extent of the ruin of his belongings and he quickly began to think and talk about a possible exhibition. Ron always had an eye for the abstract. Among his favourite images were large prints created when paint-covered nude people pressed their bodies against canvases. He once exhibited prints created by passing light through slide mounts in which pieces of crushed cellophane were sandwiched, for example.

As he sadly dragged countless old photos and documents from the smelly, silty mess of his former home at Woodburn he couldn’t help but see a certain artistry in some of the items and he imagined the possibility of an exhibition displaying this perverse and random art. As much as anything else, he thought, it might be a form of therapy to help him recover from the trauma of the disaster. He wrote to his friend Nick Mitzevich, director of the National Gallery of Australia, who wrote a return letter supporting the idea. Ron died, however, on Jul;y 29, 2022, before he could bring his idea to fruition. The material he had sent to Nick Mitzevich was passed to me, and then to another old friend, fellow photographer Allan Chawner.

Perhaps Ron’s proposed exhibition will become a reality one day. But in the meantime, this blog post might serve as a modest substitute and tribute.

Thanks to Ron and Liz’s children Ken and Janet for their help in compiling this post.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Terry Linsell

    Hi Greg
    Just a test to see if you get this. Logged in first this time.
    Very sad about Ron.

    1. Greg Ray

      Hi Terry,
      Yes, got the comment.

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