topographics and altered landscapes

I introduced the term 'altered landscapes' in an earlier post  when mentioning that the  landscape of the Fleuriu Peninsula has been extensively  cleared  so that it could  become productive  farming country.

Altered landscapes, in the art historical context, refers to the influential 1975 exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester New York  entitled New Topgraphics: Photographs of a Man Altered Landscape. It was curated by William Jenkins and included Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel Jr.  

In the catalogue Jenkins defined the common denominator of the show as "a problem of style" "stylistic anonymity", an alleged absence of style with a strong claim for objectivity and emotional neutrality. He says: 

It must be made clear that “New Topographics” is not an attempt to validate one category of pictures to the exclusion of others. As individuals the photographers take great pains to prevent the slightest trace of judgment of opinion from entering their work . . . This viewpoint, which extends throughout the exhibition, is anthropological rather than critical, scientific rather than artistic. The exhibition, as an entity separate from the photographers, will hopefully carry the same non-judgmental connotation as the pictures which comprise it. If “New Topographics has a central purpose it is simply to postulate, at least for the time being, what it means to make a documentary photograph.

At the time this collection of mostly black and white photographs by ten photographers (only Stephen Shore photographed in colour) was interpreted as a deadpan documentation of the contemporary banal urbanscape, and it was placed in opposition to the monumental photography of nature along the lines of Ansel Adams that elevated the natural,  the elemental and  the idealized.

It was deemed to be an aesthetic of the banal that was made by machines. Thus the old  modernist view of photography  as the anti-aesthetic medium par exellence, in virtue of its mechanical nature and casual  basis, returns.  Modernism's notion of a disinterested and self-sufficient art was premised  on positivism--on Wittgenstein's  logical positivism and langiuage philosophy.  

In spite  of the inclusion of  Bernd and Hilla Becher, then teaching at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (Germany), the  'deadpan documentation'  of the suburban sprawl of motels, parking lots, neon signs shops, industrial buildings,  and tract houses  was linked back to  the 19th century topographic work of Timothy O'Sullivan (old topographics?)  rather than  to Walker EvansJenkins mentioned Edward Ruscha's work, especially the numerous artist books (“26 Gasoline Stations” (1962), “Various Small Fires” (1964), “34 Parking Lots” (1967), etc.) that he self-published in the 1960s as one of the inspirations for the exhibition.  

What was actually offered, of course, was more of a  particular interpretation of the American western landscape than topographics per se. The Bechers understood  the latter in terms of multiple  photographs of the same objects that are displayed in grids. The images of structures with similar functions are  displayed side by side to invite viewers to compare their forms and designs based on function, regional idiosyncrasies, or the age of the structures.

Tthe title of Twentysix Gasoline Stations was selected in advance of the photographs and Ruscha followed a predetermined route in his car on Route 66 and systematically recorded just the gas stations in a deadpan way. The instruction, or rule governed performance, (record 26 gasoline stations on Route 6) can be understood as evading authorial or artistic agency and generating chance operations.  Ruscha's understanding of photography --the amateur snapshot's recoding of just facts  brings together authorial abnegration, indexicality and openenss to chance.  For all of Jenkin's curatorial gesture to Ed Ruscha and conceptual art, it was only Lewis Blatz and the Bechers themselves who worked in a conceptual grid like way.

It was an interpretation of the contemporary American urbanscape as a site for critical cultural inquiry and a rethinking of the landscape tradition; one that  expressed the growing unease about how the natural landscape was being eroded and damaged by industrial development and the spread of cities. The  significance  of this mode of picture making is that it  offered a way for photographers to represent  the "landscape" without the  notions of the picturesque or the sublime. 

pictures and the 'white cube'

Brian O’Doherty’s “Inside the White Cube”, which  was originally published as a series of three articles in Artforum in 1976, and then subsequently collected in a book of the same name, has a simple  but powerful argument about exhibitions spaces in art galleries  in a world where our experience is governed by pictures. Pictures in newspapers and magazines, on television and in the cinema. 

O'Doherty argued that the familiar gallery space is not a neutral container, but a historical construct. Furthermore, it is an aesthetic object in and of itself. The ideal form of the white cube that modernism developed for the gallery space is inseparable from the artworks exhibited inside it. Indeed, the white cube not only conditions, but also overpowers the artworks themselves in its shift from placing content within a context to making the context itself the content. 

The white cube is conceived as a place free of context, where time and social space are thought to be excluded from the experience of artworks. It is only through the apparent neutrality of appearing outside of daily life and politics that the works within the white cube can appear to be self-contained—only by being freed from historical time can they attain their aura of timelessness. 

The white cube establishes a crucial dichotomy between that which is to be kept outside (the social and the political) and that which is inside (the staying value of art). The gallery space is saturated with ideology.  The white cube was constructed in order to give the artworks a timeless quality (and thus, lasting value) in both an economic and a political sense. It was a space for the immortality of a certain class's cultural values, as well as a staging ground for objects of sound economic investment for possible buyers. 

The task of critical art  becomes one of reflecting upon  and restaging this space. This is what happened in the 1970s. Firstly, there was  the postmodern critique of the art gallery system by  Douglas Crimp in his  On The Museum's Ruins,  a  collection of essays originally published in Parachute and October in the 1980s. In the lead essay   Crimp argued that the art gallery or museum is an enclosure of decaying and dead objects.

Secondly, photography  in the 1980s concerned itself with issues around representation, ideology, truth and reality. It was a part of both the questioning of documentary photography's value as a witness to history and  the analyses of the  impact of  photography  on  visual art. 

 Walter Benjamin in his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction essay said that  the primary question was not whether photography was art, but whether the invention of photography  had transformed thevery nature of art.  Few, however,  had taken  seriously photography's power to transform  visual art--ie., painting.  


For modernists, it was painting that sets the agenda for post-war art, and for John Szarkowski at MOMA, that meant an art  stripped of its extraneous features  can be made from the elementary properties of its medium. That meant  to make art from, and about, art. Hence the modernist challenge to transform photography into painting.  

In his On The Museum's Ruins essay   however,  Crimp  used  the  photographs  of Robert Rauschenberg  to argue that photography began to conspire with painting in its own destruction. The notions of   originality, authenticity  and aura that are essential to the ordered discourse of the modernist art gallery are undermined  by the techniques of quotation, repetition, excerptation and confiscation of already existing images. 

Though the  presentation of visual art in the white cube continues to  exist---and it  is still the dominant mode of presentation-- different spaces have been  opened up. These  allow for  other kinds of  relationships between the art work, the space and the viewer; one  in which art and life are reconnected, and history is included. 

The backlash to postmodernism came in the 1990s  in the form of a reaction against theory ---a backlash to questions about language, the structure of signification, subjectivity and power. This backlash the influence of European philosophy (Jacques Derrida) and cultural theorists like Walter Benjamin --the  culture wars --  unseated the critic in the name of the beauty and freedom of art.  

The conservative's desire was to shoot down the idea that philosophy-- or more specifically the dreaded deconstruction of  the theorists---  can ever tell us anything about the visual arts.  Their rhetoric  is that the humanities have been taken over by the left   and  they that tear up the visual arts (and literature)  and reassemble it to say what they think it says.

In doing so they resist the physical and aesthetic pleasures of the image  (and the text) and the individual's experience of art.   Our emotional response to artworks---aesthetic experience---is what matters.

art history's blindness

I've started reading Jane Hylton's The Painted Coast: Views of the Fleurieu Peninsula in order to gain a sense of the visual history of this part of South Australia from the 1840s to the present. It's a catalogue of an exhibition of 200 images held at the Art Gallery of the South Australia in Adelaide  in the 1990s.

The strength of this text is that it  is an archive of our cultural memory of this region in a global world.  The art gallery is functioning both as a temple and as an educational institution in representing the region to itself and others. 

Artists in the text are reduced to painters and there is no exploration of the interrelationship between photography and painting or painting and film. Painting exists in its own universe, even though most of the images produced of the Fleurieu Peninsula in our image based culture would now be digital photographs.

The art historical curator's argument is that the movement of this local landscape  tradition comes from genius  painters influencing other painters to produce their masterpieces.The art gallery is a refuge of a hermetically sealed art,  and the criterion for determining the order of aesthetic objects throughout the modernist era was the "self-evident" quality of masterpieces.  

This erasure of photography is ironic given the demise of painting arguments about painting's exhaustion that were circulating through the art institution in the 1980s. Painting as a central mode of modernist practice was also radically displaced in the 1960s by what has come to be called conceptual art, and also by the increasing engagement with lens-based media, photography video, and ultimately digital technologies.One of the things that Conceptual Art in the 1960s attempted was the dismantling of the hierarchy of media according to which painting (sculpture trailing slightly behind) is assumed inherently superior to, most notably, photography.   

Even though Hylton was a curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia photography and film play no role  in this art history of the Fleurieu Peninsula. It's only the work of the  painters that matter,  and it is assumed that the other visual media had no influence on what and how they painted. Or if it did it is insignificant.

This is art history narrowly defined and behind it sits the institutional authority of the  art gallery.This holds that painting estsblishes the visual and intellectual  visual frame and that photography can be respectable only insofar as it repeats or rehearses the pictorial strategies of painting. 

This traditional art history of pictures reduces our visual culture to painting,  and it rejects the idea that in the late 20th centry painting has become one kind of image amongst many including prints, photography, film, video, and television or televisuality.  There is a sense that art history has to keep at bay the new media to defend its traditional terrain and  to protect its boundaries. It is defensive because there is no re-thinking of the traditional frame of art history that is being deployed by Hylton.

I appreciate that there was a return to expressionist painting in the 1980s but this post conceptual-period also witnessed the emergence of photographic works of large scale and in colour (eg., Jeff Wall, Andreas Gurskey, Thomas Ruff, Gregory Crewdson)  in the art institution. The shift is towards producing big pictures whether in photography or paint and it places the viewer in front of a single large, recognizable  picture that is intelligible at first glance. The big picture has visual authority.  

Hence there are  good grounds to talk in terms of the crisis of the art gallery and to  call into question  the powerful fiction that presents art as a coherent system and art history as its ideal order. Photography disrupted modernism's discourse on originality and the irreducibility --the aura ---of the unique object, forming a faultline along which the sensibility of postmodernism began to coalesce. 

However, the modernist fetsh of art has, to a large extent, transformed photography from a subversive element within modernism to yet another avante-garde strategy in the art institution.  

photography + abstraction

Some of my rock studies of the rockfaces of the granite  coastline west of Victor Harbor move towards abstraction have as their reference point the pictures taken by  Charles Bayliss of the Jenolan Caves in NSW in the 1880s. 

I know very little about  the avant garde and modernist abstraction in mid-20th century Adelaide in both photography and painting. It has been widely assumed that photography was about representation; no matter how off-register, its subject matter was shaped by our sense of objective reality.Yet abstraction has been intrinsic to photograph from  its  beginning with Henry Fox Talbot--eg., the direct capture of light without a camera (Laszlo Moholy-Nagy photograms), digital sampling found images, radical cropping, and various deliberate destablizations of photographic reference.

However, Helen Ennis in  the 'Introduction' to her Photography and Australia says that: 

The one constant in photographic practice in Australia is so striking it warrants identification at the start--the orientation towards realism. Those using photogrpahy in Australia have long been preoccupied with  the physical, material aspects of life rather than its metaphysical or spiritual dimension. Consequently, there is a weightiness to the great majority of Australian photographs---overwhelming they are of 'things', including actions and events, which have a concrete reality and verifiable independent existence. ...For most of the twentieth centry, inward looking-looking approaches, whether symbolist, surrealist, or abstract, never really took hold.

It is strange that Ennis equates abstraction with inward looking, spiritual, metaphsyical,  rather than objective form, light, tone, colour given the hegemony of modernist in the art insitution.   

My art history understanding is that  the modernist abstraction movement in painting  emeged in Sydney with Ralph Balson and Grace Cowley etc in the 1930s. Sydney was metropolitan, Adelaide was provincal whilst Melbourne rejected abstraction for figurative painting e.g., John Brack.

Bernard Smith  in his Australian Painting (I have the 2nd Edition)  does say that  the contemporary art movement in Adelaide in the 1950s included a strand of abstract expressionism due to the arrival of migrant artists from central Europe, such as  Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz and Ludwig Dutkiewicz, who lived and worked in Adelaide for the rest of their lives.  

But there are no images of their work in Smith's seminal text.  His argument is that good art does not arrive from the European messengers setting foot in the country, but from the provincal visual tradition being transformed by the innovations from overseas. 

It [the finest art] has arisen not as the immediate point of impact of the novel metropolitan style upon the slower moving provinvcal style, but latter, when the innovation  has found a creative point of accommodation with the sluggish provincal tradition which, though out of  date by the standards of its metropolitan sources, has put down its roots in the environment of the country. (p.334)

The inference is that nothing much happened in Adelaide that was of interest to the modern art movement in Australia. Sydney became metropolitan--it drew its creative energies and dynamism from within itself---whilst  Adelaide remained a cultural  province with its sluggish and conservative visual arts. Adelaide, as a cultural backwater, looked to Sydney for innovation and new styles.

So we have a black hole in art history of the art institution --we don't really know what kind of abstraction took  place in the visual arts --painting, printing  and photography---in the 1950s and 1960s in Adelaide. This other history has to be excauvated. 

altered landscapes

Although people from Adelaide use their 4 wheel drives  to go to Victor Harbor to escape their  daily work routines and  relax in nature,  the landscape around the coastline is an altered landscape. Apart from the Deep Creek Conservation Park in the south west corner of the Fleurieu Peninsula  the landscape is farming country.

The native bush  or scrub has been cleared for the grazing  of sheep and cattle.  The landscape has a bare or denuded look. It is stripped, stark  country.

There is very little native bush left outside the conservation parks. Most of  what is left  is on the  side  of the unsealed  back country roads, or along the various creek beds that run through  private property. 

 Remnant roadside vegetation is a distinctive feature of rural environments in southern Australia and there is ongoing and incremental degradation of  this vegetation, often due to illegal clearance.  Roadside vegetation is in a general state of decline throughout South Australia and it is increasingly uncommon to find roadsides that contain high quality remnant native vegetation.  

If roadside vegetation is often the only remaining original vegetation in cleared landscapes, then this may bethe only hoe for soem species in that locality.  There is not enough to  form a linear habitat network  for vertebrates and invertebrates. 

photographic histories

In her Other histories: photography and Australia essay Helen Ennis says that up to the late 1960s a strict hierarchy operated  in art history in Australia. In this  hierarchy the traditional art forms of painting, and to a lesser degree sculpture, were regarded as most important, followed by drawing and printmaking. Art photography was mostly confined to a medium specific realm, rarely penetrating the larger art world. It occupied a peripheral position in relation to mainstream art practice in the art institution. 

Moreover, as Geoffrey Batchen, points in his essay  ‘Australian made’,  in  his Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History, Australia's photographic history is:

positioned, when it is thought of it all, as no more than a supplement to The History of Photography as we have come to know it through Helmut Gersheim and Beaumont Newhall  and all their more recent followers. This establishment history, already circumscribed by its monotonous quest for orginality, priority, and the heights of artistic sensibilty, has by and large confined its attention to developments in France and Britain in the nineteenth century and the United States in the twentieth.  As a consequence, no photographs from Australia are featured in its hallowed lineup of masterworks.   

Since the scholarly  history of Australian photographic tradition was only constructed in the 1980s Australian art photographers (photography as 'self-expression')  took their bearings from American art photography in the 1960 and 1970s. 

The regional or Australian history of art photographic that emerged late in the 1980s was premised on the modernist, essentialist approach championed by Szarkowski and others with its conventions and categories  of artistic genius, an oeuvre, innovation, technical excellence, period style and rarity. Modernist formalism ruled.  

 Gael Newton in her  Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988 was  an attempt to establish some sort of local artistic tradition for the medium.  The above  categories were simplified into ‘pictorial power’ and ‘artistic merit’  and the  text was premised on the  search for exceptional images produced by a few clebrated photographers. It was organized into photographic art history's  stylistic categories of pictorialism, modernism, documentary and  postmodernism.  

Given this history of our visual culture both the representation of the landscape in Australian  visual culture and the  visual language  of that tradition have been established by painting  and the  books on painting by art historians. In order to see how the Fleurieu Peninsula has been visually represented in the past we need to turn to the modernist painters of the 1940s-1960s, such as  Dorrit Black, James CantKathleen Sauerbier and Dora Chapman.

The painter that is the most significant for me is James Cant's representations of the local  bush and scrub around Aldinga and Willunga. Less important is  Lee Friedlander's  interesting photographs of  trees and shrubs in the US are not as crucial, as these do not refer to this particular place. Nor did I know about  the colonial photography produced in  the nineteenth century as the first South Australian survey history of photography, A Century in Focus: South Australian Photography 1840s-1940s by  Julie Robertson and Maria Zaagla,  was not produced until  2007. 

landscape detail + the non-identical

Often it is the detail in the landscape  along the coastline of Victor Harbor that is significant. It is not the big panorama images  or the picturesque, which has been absorbed by the  tourist aesthetic to sell the tourist product for discerrning consumers seeking a quality experience. 

But it is difficult to represent the details in terms of the identity of the landscape: what we have is ordinariness and familiarity or the simple being there  of  particular objects in the material world but which do appear strange. They are near but far.    

We are familiar with the landscape from being in it, but though it is ordinary, nondescript and banal it also eludes us and slips away from us. What eludes us is the non-identical. It doesn't fit our comfortable categories and it slips away from them.

The image  becomes enigmaticas they have the duality of being determinate and indeterminate.They become questions marks because of  their unfamiliarity and we apprehend them  apart from the dominate synthesizing function of our everyday categories. 

The way or the path is into  the "non-identity" between "concept and object, mind and matter, the individual and nature". The landscape, in contrast to philosophy,    pa foregrounds the "primacy of the object" over thought and the "non-identity" between concept and object.  Modern philosophy, in contrast,  has privileged thought and its concepts and,  as a result, philosophy has not done justice to that in the object which does not fit under the rigid classifying gaze of our concepts.  

If the recognition of conceptual limits necessarily leads to conceptual attempts to overcome them, then the  non-identical resists this. The landscape detail in  recognizing the limitations to our conceptual understanding and the irreducibility of objects to our concepts, assists the non-identical against the idenity represented by the static systems of concepts embodied in the  tourist aesthetic.  

In a world of becoming  the non-identical lets us recognize the limitations to conceptual understanding, the dependence of our concepts upon objects, and the irreducibility of objects to our concepts. What is left behind by the concept is not an inaccessible and indefinable X as it represents a turn  to our embodied existence in the world.  

This path here is away from the particular object  to an experience of the object standing in a pattern of relations to other  particulars---a historically sedimented constellation. 

Part one: Landscapes, tourism, the picturesque

My first photographs during my early visits to the seaside town of Victor Harbor in South Australia were of the granite rocks that helped form the foreshore between  Rosetta Head and Kings Head. It was a favourite place to  walk with the dogs when I was holiday in on the coast and I started to  take the odd snap. 

 Eventually I  returned without the dogs  to take photos of the individual rocks that I'd seen whilst on the walks; more often than not I was  working with  slow film, a medium format camera,  tripod and longish exposures. I was operating with already formed picturesque images in my head from the local tourism advertisments of natural scenery. 

I slowly shifted away from a moody romantic style of bird's eye views of the coastline  with dark foreboding  skies---the sublime--- to the detail of the coastalscape.   I became very aware of the light during the day,  and I gained a local knowledge of when was the best time to photograph that particular part of the coastline and in what season.  

I wasn't thinking in terms of a philosophy of nature,  mythic landscapes, or the memories of past landscapes of my childhood in New Zealand. Nor did  the painters of the sublime in landscape --- JMW Turner, Albert Bierstadt, Caspar David Friedrich,   John Martin or Eugene Von Guérard --have much impact.  I had no knowledge of the importance of Claude Lorraine's topographical representations of the natural wold  for landscape painting: namely, the way the landscape was organized along three planes: a background with undefined details; a darkened foreground and a strongly lit middle gound with a framing device (trees o frsides of mountainss) designed to draw the viewers attention to the highlighted middle distance. 

 Though I was aware of some of the work about  the Fleurieu Peninsula  done by the early South Australian modernist painters I pretty much photographed what was in front of me.  It was that basic and naive. I had no idea of  the eighteenth century's aesthetic categories of the beautiful and the sublime, or how the picturesque was a hybrid category that mediated the other two in order to represent those objects that were rough to be beautiful and too small to be terrifying.  

It was the kitschy tourist postcards in the gift shops and news agents, which  resonated with my pre-formed image, that I was reacting to.  What eventuated was  a more classical modernist  photographic approach, as the photography became a training ground in terms of composition of the picture,  texture, tone,  lighting, colour and the overall design of the image.  

The Fleuieu Peninsula  has an interesting coastline and it's largely been  ignored, apart from the standard heavily saturated tourist images in the postcards, calenders  and the more popular photographic books about the Australian landscape.  This is the tourist aesthetic designed as guides for travellers,  with their  picturesque  conventions that shape the way tourists can appreciate the landscape and promise certain experiences of natural beauty.  

The pictureque constructs the landscape as scenery: you stop off at certain points in your journey to admire the view  of the rugged contours of wild nature. This is done from a specific viewpoint that encourages the tourist to  take a photo according to  certain aesthetic critiera related to the proportioning middle distance, planar recession,  graduated light and dark areas. It is a reaction to the rigid geometery of the cities and urban settlement and provides a way to perveive visual qualities in nature.

Australia didn't have those ruins of old castles and monasteries in the landscape that had been worn down by the weatherand overgrown by weeds  that featured so heavily in the eighteenth century European picturesque. Australia's twentieth century picturesque expressed nature's otherness to  the modern city, with  its freeways, supermarkets and airports,  with an off-freeway world being pictorally packaged as a spectacle for tourists. The actual landscape  is caught in a frame, fixed as a still, and made ready for the market as portable property. 

The City of Victor Harbor, for instance,  packaged itself as a tourist town--as a living gallery of landscape pictures--and this packaging is a part of  our mass visual culture.  This place branding accepts a landscape that had been permanently  transformed by farming, railways  and roads and it highlights what is eye pleasing and spiritually fulfilling. The new pictureque  mapped what was considered to be painterly--a visual romanticism that functioned as a practical aethetic of beauty  for  tourists and photographers. 

The new picturesque is controlled by the tourism industry and it functioned to reconcile people with the  seaside world around them. It markets the landscape as promising an experience of nature that is evocative, inspiring and emotionally pleasing. The promise of beauty and variety is similar to the  same kind of experience sought by the romantic travellers of the eighteenth century. 

The local photographers who live and work in the Fleurieu Peninsula, and who are producing images for postcards, calendars and other promotional material,  are basically producing images of what they believe the tourists to the region imagine they want to see.  In doing so they are perpeturating the dominant visual conventions of the picturesque  constructed in the eighteenth century Britain,  and repoduced over time in Australia within the landscape tradition.

They  continue to express the pictureques convention of containing  the wild, irregular and rugged characteristics of nature within a refined and perfected form so that it could be consumed and appreciated by tourists and locals in a comfortable and controlled way. 

Preface: contra Romanticism and wilderness photography

Wilderness photography and its aesthetics of wild places is not suitable approach to photographing Victor Harbor and the southern Fleurieu Peninsula. It forces the need to rethink wilderness as an island in sea of urban-industrial modernity; as the last place where industrial capitalism has not fully destroyed the earth.   

The  coastal town is situated on the cusp of land and sea with a lot of the landscape along the coastline transformed into  farmland. Part of this (dairy) farmland is now being sold off for housing. Victor Harbor and the other towns on the coast  are altered landscapes;  not wild places,  such as the south-west Tasmanian wildernesss photographed by Peter Dombrovskis.

Dombrovskis' photography  was an art whose picturesque conventions were placed in the service of nature conservation and environmental protection and it criticised civilization in the name of preserving the natural  beauty  of wilderness. This kind of wilderness  photography can  be understood as those images that are grounded in the rugged, masculine  individual's intimacy with nature.  This photography, which is very popular with the public, has been ignored, shunned even, by the modernist art institution.

 In an exhibition at the Braemer Galley entitled Different Ways of looking at our World Mike StaceyLen Metcalf and Ian Brown, in a common statement, state that their common conception of  wilderness photography  emerges from:

 much of their life engrossed  in the natural world, bushwalking, rockclimbing, skiing, mountaineering, wandering… and seeing. Their images are grounded in an intimacy with nature that emerges through long experience, up close and slow with the bush, the birds and the rocks, the wind, the water. [They] try to capture the grandeur and nuance of nature, selecting subjects of power and subtlety from what, at first glance, can be an overwhelming abundance of subject matter. By immersing themselves calmly in a place, they seek the spiritual in nature, extending the notion of beauty into the ethereal; the true essence of what surrounds us.  

This kind of wilderness photography goes beyond natural beauty and unique artistic vision to the transcendental---to the spiritual and the ethereal as the essence of natural beauty and natural being. Len Metcalf states this explicitly:

As a conservationist I believe that mother nature is the creative and controlling primary force in the universe. While creating my art in magical locations I am reminded of the interconnectedness of our world. ....Currently the direction of my work strives to move away from the current ‘landscape photographer’ status quo, in an attempt to discover a Modern Australian Landscape Style. One where the artwork is timeless, unique and the photographs illustrate the spiritual within nature. I search for a unique vision in my search for significant form. 

The roots of this philosophy of nature  are in  Romanticism and its deism and sense of the sublime.  Romanticism's concept of the sublime is grounded in those  wild places that inspire awe and fear,  and its enthusiasm is for the strange, remote, primitive  and the mysterious. Wilderness, as a landscape where the supernatural lay just beneath the surface, was expressed in the asthetics of the sublime.  

In Australia wilderness became uniquely Australian---wilderness had no counterpart  in the Old World-- and it became a cultural and moral resource that formed the basis for national self-esteem in oppostion to the provinciality of Australia compared to the history and tradition of Europe.  It was in the wildness of its nature that Australia was unmatched. Hence the tight fit between the landscape traditon and nationality expressed in the Heidleberg School.  

 

Although Victor Harbor was a refuge from the anxieties and hollowness of society and making money in Adelaide it was civilization, given the way that its history of  whaling, pioneering, farming, and seaside holday resort was premised on the conquest of nature.  So an art photography of the southern Fleurieu Peninsula  needs to explore  both the landscape and the built urbanscape,  and the way that these have been historically transformed.

Though some of the rhizomatic roots of this work are located with the American version of the  topographic movement  the cultural tradtions of wilderness  remain important to us because they  require us to critically examine what kind of marks we humans want to leave on the natural world. The photography in this book is one  informed by environmentalism. 

Introduction: a sense of place

Our connection to Victor Harbor as a place, as opposed to a tourist location, came with the decision by Suzanne's parents-- Bruce and Marjorie Heath---to retire to this region of the southern Fleurieu Peninsula  from Melbourne.  

Suzanne's  parents built  their  retirement house near Rosetta Head, and though Bruce, died in 1980 just after the house was built, Marjorie lived in the house until her death in 1997. Both Bruce and Marjorie loved the local landscape of the Fleurieu Peninsula.  This place--it was bounded by Aldinga, Kangaroo Island,  and lakes Alexandrina and Albert  near the mouth of the River Murray---became their home. 

Gary meet Suzanne in 1993  and we used to visit Marjorie on weekends and  public holidays. Whilst staying at Solway Cresent  Gary started taking photographs of the local landscape.These were  in the pre-digital days  of film cameras when all the work--processing and printing --- was done by the professional photography labs. 

Suzanne and her sister Barbara inherited the house when Marjorie died,  and Suzanne bought Barbara out, primarly because Suzanne lived in Adelaide whilst Barbara lived in Brisbane. Suzanne and Gary continued to visit on weekends and holidays.

Solway Cresent became a weekender. Over the next decade Victor Harbor became a place,   a  home away from the inner city apartment  in Adelaide's CBD and the world of work. The region became a place in that we developed a sense of human attachment and belonging.

The photography became an expression of our  sense of place, a way of giving meaning to this geographic space. We started to realize that the landscape of the Fleurieu Peninsula had its own identity. The local painters exhibiting in the local art galleries were pre-modernist in that their paintings were of gum tree a la Hans Heysen or Horace Hurtle Trenerry,  rural cottages, or picturesque seascapes with their  blue sky and sea.  

Modernism was not solely an urban phenopmenon as there  the modernist painters of the Fleurieu Peninsula   such as Dorrit Black, Dora Chapman and James Cant in the 1940's -1970s. The local visual art scene was either  unaware of, or had fogotten,  this body of work,  or the regional culture  was indifferent to abstraction and  the abstract expressionist representations of the locality. What was missing was Black's emphasis on the form of the landscape;  Cant's closely observed  paintings of the undergrowth and minutia of the Australian bush or scrub; Chapman's  abstractions of eucalepts; or the surrealism of Ivor Francis.