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Retracing His Tracks

Rick Smolan '72, Robyn Davidson and friends, on the set of a major motion picture about an experience they shared in 1977.

Photojournalist Rick Smolan '72, author Robyn Davidson and friends, on the set of a major motion picture about an experience they shared in 1977.

Rick Smolan ’72 revisits his past through acclaimed new film

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

Imagine walking into a room and finding photos of a much younger you plastered on the wall. There’s your 1977 driver’s license, your yearbook picture, some candid family shots, and you don’t know how they got there. Then someone calls your name—but another person answers, and he looks just like you did, 37 years ago. In fact, he’s wearing a custom-made outfit identical to one you used to own.

This was the mind-bending reality Rick Smolan ’72 fell into when he visited the set of Tracks, a critically acclaimed movie about a woman he met in Alice Springs, Australia, and the journey they shared. Based on the bestselling autobiography by Robyn Davidson, the movie stars Adam Driver (Girls) as a 27-year-old Smolan and Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are All Right) as Davidson. It premieres in the U.S. on Sept. 19.

Smolan traveled to Alice Springs in spring 1976 as a guest of the Australian prime minister. Leaving his hotel one morning—en route to a Time magazine assignment—he happened to look up.

Above him, Davidson was washing the hotel's windows, and she was, as he later described, "the most beautiful woman I'd seen in my life." Smolan did what any smitten, 20-something photographer might do—he snapped a photo. But the young woman was far from amused, and his apologies did not seem to help.

Against common wisdom, Davidson had been planning a 1,700-mile trek across the Outback with just her camels and dog, a journey that no one had attempted alone. She'd spent two years training, and she looked forward to the solitude and the chance to learn from the Aborigines she'd meet. But she still needed funding. And after another chance encounter with Smolan—when she learned that he'd been photographing native Australian elders, and that he shared her concern for their welfare—she asked if she could use him as a reference in a letter she was writing to National Geographic, asking the editors to help fund her trip.

Smolan agreed, not knowing that the encounter would bring him his first National Geographic assignment—a cover story—and many adventures along the way.

"Most people who heard about the trip thought it was crazy, because there was so much that could—and did—go wrong," Smolan says. “Ultimately, you could say I was protected by my ignorance, and to an extent, so was Robyn. I don’t think either of us realized the thread that her life was hanging on." 

rick smolan, outback

Photo courtesy of Rick Smolan '72.

What could go wrong ...

To complete the cover story, Smolan drove out to meet Davidson five times throughout her nine-month journey, spending a cumulative three months with her under the desert sky. The land was vast and largely unpopulated, save for scattered Aborigines and 50,000 wild camels, and it was 1977, so there were no cell phones or GPS devices. If Davidson wandered too far off course, ran out of water, lost her camels or became injured or sick, she would most likely die.

During the journey, Davidson was attacked by wild camels and ran out of food (she ate her dog’s biscuits). One wrong turn took her away from a road that eventually led to a well; by the time she realized her mistake, she was four weeks off schedule and nearly out of water. There were interpersonal stressors, too, since Davidson had planned a solo journey. She hadn't wanted friends to join her, and she wasn't eager to spend time even with the photojournalist who helped her win funding for the trip.

Smolan also had hair-raising moments. He drove a Land Cruiser outfitted with two gas tanks, but during one trip to meet Davidson, a switch controlling the tanks jammed, and the vehicle was unable to draw fuel. He had no idea how to fix it, his two-way radio was not working and there were no people or landmarks in sight. (Fortunately, the switch eventually gave way.) 

Despite—or perhaps because of—these challenges, time together in the wilderness eventually led to friendship. Smolan and Davidson came to know each other well and shared a brief romance.

“She was a fascinating person—she’d tell me these great stories, and she just had a very unique point of view,” says Smolan. “We grew close, and at the end of each visit, I would look at her in my rearview mirror and wonder if that would be my last memory of her. It was scary—I don't think I realized just how scary, then.”  

From memoir to classic

Smolan’s National Geographic cover story about the trip was a hit, and while Davidson and Smolan went separate ways shortly after the trip, they remained friends. In 1979, she sent him a manuscript of her memoir, Tracks, which included some of his photos. (As Smolan notes with a laugh, the book's heroine is initially irritated by the young photographer, but, as in life, "he redeems himself by the end.") Translated into 18 languages, the book is now an Australian classic taught in the country’s public schools.

Smolan also published a book about the experience, From Alice to Ocean: Alone in the Outback (1980), and over the decades, he moved from photojournalism to high-tech, interactive publishing. He established an award-winning software company, and his celebrated Day in the Life series is said to have created the mass market for large-format illustrated books. Another of his companies, Against All Odds Productions, co-founded with partner Jennifer Ewitt, was named by Fortune magazine as one of the Top 25 Coolest Companies in America.

From print to screen

Over the years, Smolan received occasional calls from movie producers who planned to translate Davidson’s book to the silver screen; Julia Roberts, Helen Hunt and Nicole Kidman each signed on at various points to play the leading role. “The scripts were very Hollywood,” Smolan says with a laugh, adding that in one version, his character was a fashion/war photographer who arrived on the scene with a bevy of supermodels. “It’s a good thing that none of them got made.”

Then came the call from producer Emile Sherman (The King’s Speech), who was committed to making a more factual film. The producers solicited Smolan’s input and usually took his advice.(In one noteworthy exception, Smolan's onscreen persona directs Davidson's during a photo shoot. "A photojournalist would never do that!" Smolan exclaims. "But they thought it worked well for the film." See clip below.) 

Smolan and Davidson returned to the places Davidson had walked years earlier to watch the movie being made. They spent two weeks on set, and, to Smolan’s astonishment, the filmmakers used his 1977 photos as source material, replicating every detail down to exact copies of the clothing he and Davidson wore.

“It was definitely eerie,” Smolan says with a laugh. “There were moments when I just couldn’t believe this was happening,” particularly when Driver and Wasikowska called each other by their characters’ names off camera and when, after reporting to the makeup trailer to prepare for his cameo in the film, Smolan discovered photos of himself plastered around the frame of Driver’s makeup mirror.

The surrealism heightened during a private screening of the film in a nearly empty theater in Los Angeles. Much to Smolan’s surprise, the movie brought back emotions and memories he had long forgotten. “It was like getting hit by a truck you didn’t see coming," he says. "But once I’d gotten that out of the way—when I saw it a second time, at the Venice Film Festival premiere—I enjoyed it. It’s a beautifully made film.”

Many critics agree. London's Telegraph and Empire dubbed the movie a "beautiful," "vivid" and "captivating" four-star film, and The Guardian noted that Wasikowska's performance is perhaps the best of her career.

High-tech bridges

Last year, Smolan and Davidson toured the festival circuit with the actors and filmmakers and answered audience questions after each screening. Today, Smolan is developing a new book of photos with an accompanying app that makes high-tech inroads between his past and present lives, and he will be launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project when the movie opens on Sept. 19. 

The first half of the book chronicles Davidson’s 1977 journey through Smolan's sweeping, panoramic photos, many never published before. The second half includes still images from the movie set as well as movie frames. “And there’s a cool app that lets [readers] point their iPad or Android device at a photo of Robyn and, within a millisecond, they will see the corresponding movie scene,” Smolan explains. He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project.

 Asked if he’d enjoyed the experience of seeing his memories filtered through many different lenses—first through Davidson, then the screenwriter, director and actors—Smolan is characteristically amiable. “It was definitely a bit strange, but it was so much fun, especially for a photographer,” he says. “It was like stepping inside photographs I’d taken 40 years ago.”

click to see photo of tracks

Click the image above to see more of Smolan's photos and film stills in "Tracks: Then and Now."

Learn more

Published September 15, 2014