In memory of John Bowring ACS

Marius Sestier was the first cinematographer Australia had seen when he turned up to shoot the Melbourne cup in 1896, a famous horse race even back then that had already been running for 35 years. He was in the employ of the Lumiere brother’s, two frenchman that arguably created cinematography with the building of their new machine, the motion picture camera only a year earlier in 1895. This footage from the Melbourne cup still survives today and you can see it online at the national film and sound archive.

One of the first shoots I went on with John Bowring was 100 years later at the 1996 Melbourne cup. JB was asked to try to replicate Maurice Sestiers’ footage 100 years later using a camera of that era to mark the 100th anniversary of motion picture image making in Australia. With zeal, JB set about finding the oldest camera he could to do the job.

He ended up finding a 1908 hand cranked pathe-feres camera that we had to restore to working order, making wooden cores that we then hand wound film onto to load into it. We found we had to patch up the holes borers had made in it’s wooden magazine.

The first test footage, shots of the Lemac office on the corner of Griffith’s and Highett st in Richmond were too good. Even JB thought no-one would be able to tell that the film had been shot with such an ancient relic of a camera. As the day of the race approached, he decided to shoot the race with some film loaded backwards into the relatively modern bell and & howell sprung wound eyemo camera from the 40’s. Of course he’d also take one of his beloved Aaton XTR’s. He was chuffed that we had three generations of cameras there to cover the event.

In order to get the same shots Marius had shot 100 years before, we had to shoot the finish of the race looking up directly up the straight and then race over to the mounting yards to see the winning horses comes in. 100 years later there were thousands more people in the way. I’ll never forget the image of JB disappearing from my sight as I tried to keep up with him racing to the mounting yard.

We were in full suit and tie as required for crossing the members area on race day and there was no way I could keep up with him. I only had the relatively lightweight Aaton. He was carrying the beloved Pathe and it’s enormous and heavy wooden legs. I was only able to find him by spotting the camera held high above the crowd with his hand pumping the crank handle. The little fat man sure was fast on his feet and I was always astounded by how quickly he could move and reposition himself with a camera.

I couldn’t think of a better embodiment of the craft of cinematography in John Bowring nor a more fitting way to honor its invention.

First and foremost, John was a magnificent cinematographer. His pictures were always world class. He worked so quickly and in such a no fuss way. His on set demeanour was exemplary and yet he was also wickedly funny and always had a great yarn to tell.

I know this because I worked with JB for 5 years. 2 years at Lemac in rentals then 3 years as his camera assistant.

Being your assistant jb, was like a lifestyle choice. You really did know where every single mackers in Australia was. I was constantly on the road with you. I had to also learn how to record sound. I had to load magazines in the back of the Tarago in-between locations.

I’d hardly left Victoria when I started at Lemac in 1995. By the time I left 5 years later you’d taken me round Australia and around the world several times. Cocklebiddy and Kabooltcha were both highlights. You took me to Gold membership status with Qantas. And you never got over loosing your million points when Ansett collapsed.

I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to work with you.

JB you were a mentor to me. I consider my time working with you to be my apprenticeship, in an era where they don’t really exist anymore. I learned a lifetimes worth in the 5 years I worked with you at Lemac. I knew I was lucky even then to be working under you. You just had so much energy and enthusiasm. It was infectious.

You were so passionate about the craft of cinematography and anything that advanced it. You seemed to survive on a few hours sleep. I would return to the Lemac motor Inn (the sydney house that Lemac owned) after a long day on set exhausted and ready for bed. You’d pour a drambuie and start catching up on correspondence.

You were also generous. You always encouraged me to shoot for myself, to take short ends from the fridge. You’d set me assignments to shoot time-lapse or a simple subject like a sunset. I’d shoot the film and then have to face your critique of the results. I’d sit next to you as you coaxed your beloved marconi telecine along. Two of us sitting in the dark together. I so wanted to please you JB and impress you.

And you were so generous with your knowledge. You shared it with any that would care to listen. You were also humble. You were famous for your one word acceptance speeches at the ACS awards.

You taught me so much JB. Not only did you teach me how to shoot, you showed me how to act as a DP. On set, you were always supportive and positive to your directors, even in the most dire circumstances. You taught me to always provide safe harbour to the directors I was working with. You rarely were without your direct and cheeky sense of humour.

Even once I left Lemac and set off on my own career as a cinematographer, your voice still spoke to me. Even now after you’ve gone, I still feel your guidance. Your principals still inform the way I expose an image or approach testing a new camera or widget.

You probably bored a few people to tears with your love of film but it was informed and not just nostalgia or rhetoric.

You weren’t a troglodyte though. You eagerly explored new image-making technology. You were an imaging technologist before the phrase was even invented.

It was only in 1999 that I shot with you for FACTS, the federation of Commercial Television stations. They wanted to present a case to argue for High Definition transmission to be made part of the new Digital Television standards in Australia. We travelled around Australia with a then prototype Sony High Definition HDCAM camera. It was so early that this camera was a 1035 prototype F900 rather than 1080 camera. We visited most of the set’s of the currently shooting commercial drama and TV shows to shoot HD segments to cut into a 10 minute presenter that would be played to pollies. I was particularly proud because a few of my own shots made it into the cut.

You did seem to take a long time to forgive me for loosing a precious HDCAM tape while we were shooting at Don Bourkes place. You didn’t seem as amused as I was that I’d lost a HDCAM tape in Burke’s actual backyard.

That’s the thing isn’t it. Now you’re gone, I can’t ask you questions or make amends for those little errors I made. I’d also like to publicly humiliate myself and ask for your forgiveness for not taking a change bag with us when we went to shoot Michael Klim at the AIS in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics. We drove all the way there form Sydney for 15 mins of shooting time with him and I couldn’t face your reaction if I told you I’d forgotten the change bag. Instead I improvised and made a change bag out of your luggage. Zipping up the case So I could put my hands in you to load the magazine, you didn’t seem any the wiser when i took just a little longer to do it.

Of course it’s a mortal sin to have not told you there and then about my mistake. I thought at the time it was punishment enough that I was forced to load a magazine amongst your smalls.

Luckily the film went though ok. You seemed to forgive me later.

JB, there is no equal for your passion, enthusiasm and love of cinematography. You were fearless too. You were also a genuine pioneer and innovator and visionary. You were driven to educate and inform.

Before my time at Lemac, I know you were the first to champion super 16 as an origination format. Standard 16 was all but dying and you realized it would be a great low cost alternative to 35mm for drama, both theatric and for television. Romper Stomper was the first super 16 feature to shoot here on Aaton’s supplied by you with the late Ron Hagen taking full advantage for his brilliant hand held cinematography.

I watched you build a design and build a complex multi-cam pedestal camera system for Murder Call from scratch. It was a hybrid of film and video hardware.

16×9 seems completely normal and natural to us today, but there was a time when producers would refuse to even consider originating 16×9. You agitated long and hard to educate producers on the error of their ways, warning them to future proof their productions.

Timecode on film was a deep passion as well. Your rules for established practice made it bulletproof and you often were consulted by other rental companies and post production companies when things went wrong.

As a mentor I was one of many that you had taken under your wing. Other familiar names include

Toby Oliver
Justin Brickle
Noel Jones
Roger Van Wensveen.
the late Will Gibson
Peter Stott
Ashleigh Carter
Michael Vlack
Ben Cunningham
Matt Govoni
Soren Philips

Once people knew you were a disciple of brolga, you were afforded an instant level of respect, just for having done time with you. On the road with you, you loved to torture me with training exercises. Your favourite was 20 questions.

How many frames to a foot of super 16 ? And 35 ?

Some might have thought you were difficult to please and a task-master. Some would even say you were infuriating as a boss. All I ever saw was someone who wanted perfection in his craft. If you were upset with me, it was only because I don’t measure up to your high standards. It was only your disappointment in not reaching my potential. It was never personal..and you were always a straight shooter.

I miss you jb. Rather selfishly, I’m going to miss that huge cinematographer’s brain of yours. You always had a great solution for any difficult shooting scenario.

In writing this I released you were only a few years older than I am now when I first came to work for you. The fact that you managed to build up Australia’s largest australian owned camera rental company is such a short time is testament to your foresight. Many have come and gone, but Lemac has thrived.

That’s because Lemac is an extension of you JB. Lemac is your spirit personified.

I had a short film to shoot recently and I wanted to do something rather unorthodox. To use an anamorphic lens adaptor that was created for another purpose as a primary shooting lens.

Even though you must have lost money on it you helped me with the design and construction of it. The guys down at lemac worked for hours on making this idiotic contraption for me. You seemed skeptical but indulged me.

I was so proud of the fact that you loved the film when it was finished. That was my greatest reward. To impress you.

Since leaving Lemac over 10 years ago it’s been a constant in my working and personal life. Selfishly I was waiting for you to return from NAB so I could ask your advice on some camera issues I was having.

I have no doubt that Sue and all the crew down there will keep Lemac going in your spirit.

I’m going to miss the way you fearlessly shirt-fronted camera manufactures to tell them the shortcomings of their gear. I’ll miss your sense of humour, the twinkle in your eye when you were onto something. I’m going to miss dropping into Lemac for 5 minutes to drop something off and leaving hours later, well after the doors had shut.

I’m going to miss you and your friendship.

You made me the Cinematographer I am today, and I only hope I can continue to impress you.

About johnbrawley

Director Of Photography striving to create compelling images
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4 Responses to In memory of John Bowring ACS

  1. PETER STOTT says:

    John Brawley, you’ve beautifully articulated all that those of us who cherish having crossed paths with Mr Bowring feel.
    Thank you for taking the time to honour the dynamo from Lemac.

  2. Jon Stubbs says:


    I couldn’t have put it better myself. I worked in the Sydney office of Lemac way back in 1993.1994 and even the thought of JB coming up from Melbourne would make us all a tad on edge he was always good to be around. Even on my forced return to the UK he did all he could to try and see if he could help me stay. He was a selfish, generous man and will no doubt be missed Down Under as he will be here in the North East of England!

    Cheers Jon

  3. Pingback: Blackmagic Cinema Camera – Let’s take it from the top | johnbrawley

  4. Jim Nicholls says:

    I remember John followed me on stage after a presentation I gave on high speed imaging at a Sydney SMPTE conference and he always remembered me as he had to sit through my presentation. I was always very pleased (and chuffed) when he said hello to me at the occasion ACS meeting held at LEMAC. Even then he was an inspiring, generous figure whose passion infected everyone around him. He was a giant in the industry who inspired us all, and whose memory continues to inspire us. I can’t think of any greater tribute!


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