DAVID SANDERSON, the cinematographer, was responsible for the riveting imagery of hip theatre director Jim Sharman's 1978 feature film The Night, the Prowler. Adapted from a Patrick White short story and produced by Anthony Buckley, the film's mingled dark comedy and drama became an instant hit with cinema buffs. When Fender, as many knew him, also photographed the crazed antics of Max, the plumber from hell, for Peter Weir's award-winning 1979 telemovie thriller The Plumber, Sanderson seemed set for the brightest of careers in the Australian film industry, if not Hollywood. Tall and blond, wearing designer button-down shirts, jeans, work boots and sunglasses, he looked the part and might have been a character in a film. The old, gold-coloured Mercedes he drove added to the effect. Matt Carroll, who produced The Plumber and Sharman's first feature film, Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens, which Sanderson shot when he was only 23, remembers Sharman pointing out Sanderson's sensitive, slim fingers : "You only have to look at his hands to know how creative he is."
Alfred David Sanderson, who has died at 61, was born in Narrabri, the second of three sons of Dorothy Lewington and her husband, Donald Sanderson, a solicitor. After a brief sojourn in Grafton, the family moved in 1952 to the timber town of Wauchope, close to Port Macquarie and its surfing beaches. At 14, David was sent to board at Cranbrook School in Sydney, where his love of the arts, particularly photography, was nurtured and he was nicknamed Fender after the guitar he played. For his leaving certificate year, Sanderson returned to Wauchope and resumed a typical North Coast teenager's life. He surfed with mates in the early morning and played rhythm guitar " rock'n'roll with some blues " in a band, The Loose Ends. When he finished school, he joined the Commonwealth Bank. But banking was not for him. Moving to Sydney in 1966, he became a camera assistant at ABC television. Two years later he joined the Commonwealth Film Unit (now Film Australia), working with many who would achieve recognition in the industry including Weir and Carroll, the producer Richard Brennan, the director Haydn Keenan, the actor Richard Moir and the now internationally acclaimed cinematographer Don McAlpine.
In the 1970s, he studied cinematography at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. For some years afterwards, he divided his time between Australia and the US. The movie credits he accrued included nature photography on Picnic at Hanging Rock and director of photography on Harvest of Hate, directed by Michael Thornhill. As a still photographer, he joined group exhibitions in Los Angeles and had solo shows at Hogarth Galleries in Sydney. In Los Angeles he married Hilary Bean, an American actor who is now a jewellery designer. They lived briefly at the artist Martin SharpÍs house in Sydney. In 1980 he received an Emmy Award for cinematography in an episode of the children's television series, Once upon a Midnight Scary.
But in the coming decade, alcohol would interfere increasingly with his professional capacities and personal relationships. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a far less widely understood illness then. While the creativity and the unerring eye for the visually arresting remained with him always, the film career did not. Although Haydn Keenan was delighted with his lighting and enthusiasm on the 1988 cult film Pandemonium, by the end of the 1980s Sanderson had shot his last feature. Life became a roller-coaster ride between the dullness he experienced from medication and the manic outbursts that came when he lapsed from the regime of pills. With his marriage to Bean long over, he retired to Wauchope to care for his ageing mother. When she died, he moved with his brothers' support to Lighthouse Beach, Port Macquarie, and worked periodically as a still photographer. More recently various debilitating physical ailments brought several hospital stays but also a degree of personal equilibrium. Between stays in hospital he gained an arts degree from Southern Cross University and still found subjects, often single flower studies, to photograph, preferably with his trusty Hasselblad. In 2008 he spent four months in Westmead Hospital with complications from a fall. Enormously weakened, he returned to Lighthouse Beach and tried to carry on. He collapsed in the shower at home this month after a heart attack. The sound of running water and his cat's meowing alerted a neighbour, but it was too late. David Sanderson is survived by his brothers, Don and Buzz, and their families, and a circle of friends and fans.
Written by Meg Stewart