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A drink with… Dragan Radocaj

Dragan Radocaj is a fine art photographer based in the Barossa, South Australia whose pictures tell the stories of vineyards, people and wine. He talks to Decanter about his career and the inspiration behind his work.

This year marks 15 years since photographer Dragan Radocaj first visited the Barossa in South Australia. Initially a landscape specialist unfamiliar with wine, his powerful images have come to speak volumes about the vineyards, people and wines of this famous region. 

‘Marketing geniuses are always coming up with ideas to sell wines, but photographs are the way to get to the centre of the wine story. My photographs make the connection between the vines, the landscape, the people and the process of making wine.

‘I look long and hard, from every possible angle, to see what’s special about a vineyard. Once I’ve found the perfect angle, I’ll keep shooting again and again to capture all of its personality. I’ve done this for Rockford, Seppeltsfield, Henschke and a year-long photographic essay on Langmeil Winery’s The Freedom vines from 1843.

‘Old vines look like sculptures. After years spent revisiting them, I’ve come to treat them like peers, like friends. I give them respect.

‘At Henschke’s Hill of Grace vineyard, I had taken photographs of one particularly striking Grandfather vine captured over three different seasons. When I went back to photograph it to complete the seasonal story, I couldn’t find the right vine, even though I was so familiar with it. Then I realised one of its brittle arms had broken off. It made me so sad, so deeply upset. Like seeing a friend who has lost a part of their body.

Grandfather vine at Henschke’s Hill of Grace vineyard. Credit: Dragan Radocaj

‘In lots of shots I’ve taken, the vineyards don’t look the same anymore. My images are important historical documents about their life and journey.

‘I came to wine photography as an outsider, so I look at everything from a fresh perspective. I was completely swept away by the incredible canvas of colours: the vineyards, the mountains, the ferments, the grapes in the basket press. I was like a kid in a chocolate factory, shooting photographs every single day. I was living with my wife by the beach in Adelaide and travelling up to the Barossa. Eventually she said we’ve got to move, so in 2010 we bought a house in Tanunda.

‘I’ve found so much support in the Barossa. The people are very welcoming. And I’m familiar with this, because I grew up in a village of only 1,500 people in the former Yugoslavia. I was born in Sydney, but sent to live with my grandparents in the old country. I came back to Sydney when I was 23 and I didn’t speak any English. I had to start again.

‘I actually made three short films before I moved to Adelaide and started studying photography full time. I graduated in 2008. I was mentored by master photographer Andrew Dunbar and, through his introduction, my first client was Langmeil. It was the first time I’d ever been in the Barossa. I didn’t even drink much wine then – but that has changed!

‘I’ve been commissioned to shoot images of other wine regions too: McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, Langhorne Creek… But the Barossa is home, and even after all these years I don’t feel I’ve exhausted all my photography options here. I keep going back to my favourite sites, because I’m drawn to the light. It’s an urge I can’t resist. I’ve literally taken thousands of images in the same framing.

Rockford Wines. Credit: Dragan Radocaj

‘Whenever I need to relax, I take photos. When the moment is just perfect, adrenaline kicks in. I almost stop breathing when the perfect shot happens. It’s an incredible experience.

‘I don’t really like big blue skies. I like the drama of storms – the way light pokes through the grey clouds, lightning storms, dust storms, the rainbows at the end. That’s where the magic is. That’s why I’ll stand out in the vineyard and wait hours for the right moment. When people see these images, they feel emotion.

‘In 2019, I had the incredible honour of being named a Baron of the Barossa. I’ve never entered any photographic competitions, so this is the only award I’ve ever won.’

‘Seppeltsfield had me on a retainer for several years to photograph the property, and I started using the kitchen of the old Seppelt family homestead during Covid-19. Now Seppeltsfield has allowed me to use this as a gallery to exhibit and sell my fine art prints.

‘Because I’m now concentrating on fine art photography, I’m always out exploring the landscapes. I like to travel the backroads. I’ve travelled all my life and that’s where I like to be. You never know what’s around the next corner, and I’m very happy there.’

For more images, visit www.draganfineartgallery.com or visit the studio at 730 Seppeltsfield Rd, Barossa Valley, South Australia 5355.

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