Ken Duncan is one of Australia’s most famous and successful artists. He’s also a passionate Christian who gives credit where credit is due – to the “great God” who has transformed his artworks. And his entire life.
Everyone can take a panoramic shot with their smart phone but Ken Duncan made everyone take notice of panoramic shots, long before cameras were pocket-sized. Back in the 1980s, Australian photographer Duncan pioneered the wide-angled shot as a piece of household art. His style of landscape photography, in particular, swiftly became part of the landscape of Australian loungerooms and rumpus rooms.
Credit doesn’t go to Duncan for his success, though. By his own admission – with no hint of joking or false humility – Australia’s most famous lens man thanks the Creator for any creativity he conjures. “You know, if you let God in, an average person can do extraordinary things. I’m a living testimony to that: an average photographer with a great God.”
Speaking excitedly and often roaming from topic to topic, Duncan is a free-wheeling bloke who happily shares with Insights what it’s like to be a Christian artist. “If you want to be creative, it’s a good thing to know the creator. Man’s creativity is limited but God’s creativity is unlimited. And that’s the hardest thing because people so want to be in control – yet they’re not in control – and they don’t want to allow God to control the action.”
“I know where my help comes from. The more you take credit for that, the less you will be connected to that power.”
Duncan was raised in a Christian household but he wasn’t always “connected to that power”. Speaking over the phone from his Central Coast base, Duncan mentions his parents several times in our conversation — “My parents are probably the greatest examples of Christians that I have ever met” — as well as the church communities they were part of it.
“My mum was a Methodist and my dad was a Presbyterian, so you had the serious and the dancer. Great combination,” shares Duncan about growing up around rural New South Wales and knowing that plenty of people were praying with his parents — for him. “I was quite adventurous and getting involved with Buddhism, Hinduism and Aboriginal spiritualism; you name it. I just know that the power of those prayers really protected me in many situations.”
With his parents, Duncan spent plenty of time in Uniting Church Congregations as a younger man and it’s obvious how grateful he is for the prayerful support they offered him. Duncan doesn’t pinpoint the exact moment that God gripped his heart through Jesus Christ but he does explain one of the creative differences it made.
“My photos beforehand, when I look back, were just God trying to get my attention. I look back at those shots and I can see what God was trying to say.” In particular, Duncan vividly remembers one photograph he took called Cannonball.
While he has taken famous shots of Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef and other iconic Australian landmarks, Duncan distinctly remembers when he “nearly died of hypothermia” trying to capture a big wave crashing on the rocks. “And that was my life at the time” admits Duncan about what his art was imitating. But what stands out to Duncan about taking Cannonball is how the end result features a road going off to one side, towards a light. The photographer didn’t plan for that to be as prominent, or meaningful, as it turned out to be.
“That ‘narrow little road’, you know?” hints Duncan about its deeper meaning. “God was seeking me there, saying, ‘Have you had enough yet?’
“I tell ya, I was lost in the wilderness, trying to find meaning to life. What I found when I came to God through Jesus is my whole life changed. You know, that’s the key – it’s not by how great we are but how good Jesus is to make that way, so we can be connected with God, the creator of the universe. Man, what a privilege to have him as your best friend.”
Duncan also believes he takes better photos since he wholeheartedly became a Christian. “[Some] people in the world think being a Christian is limiting but it’s the opposite. It’s opening up to the whole universe of God; it’s quite amazing.”
“He constantly keeps you looking to new frontiers; not just doing the same thing all the time. Now, I’m not saying that I’ve got this down pat. I am rebellious some times and I think I know better than God some times. I think, ‘Oh, I’ve done this before; this is going to be a great shot.’
“I’ll do one for God and 52 of mine, and guess which wins?”
It’s understandable that Duncan could think he’s a big deal, though. He was the preferred photographer for classic Australian rock band Midnight Oil, has scored cabinets full of awards, and forged a trademarked photographic style that still stands out around the world. Such an established artist seems to have every right to not be humble but Duncan keeps pointing us back to the source of his artistry.
“God is my supplier. He’s awesome. For me, I could just be the photographer. I can just go and start more galleries around the world, making lots more money. But in the end, what is the point, you know? God really challenged me at one point; He said, ‘Son, what’s more important? That your name be lifted up or mine?’ And it really hit me: ‘Well, your name, God. Your name is more important.’”