intimate landscapes

This photo is made from an  ecological perspective on the landscapes that have been produced by the economic development of settler capitalism.    Today there is only scattered remnant vegetation left from the clearance  for agricultural production in the Fleurieu Peninsula. It's not  a pretty picture. 

The photo of an intimate landscape --dead  roadside vegetation--  is the opposite of a nostalgic picture of a cosy,  rural life  to a  harmonious settlement that has its roots in the yeoman tradition in the form of soldier settlements.  The state government,  as a  promoter of economic development,  in the early 20th century  was  also the architect of a desired cultural landscape and social class  that emphasised the virtues of small-scale family owned and operated yeoman farms. 

The ‘ pioneer legend’---which saw white settlement as a battle to win the land, in which humans were evenly pitted against nature---is  now a  form of myth making, given the emergence of agri-businesses and the family farm  becoming all but obsolete.   The pioneer idea, in pitting settlers against the land was not only fruitless, in leading to the ruin of the settlers, but self-defeating in ultimately ruining the land itself.

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.  

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. 

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: a DIY experiment

I've been thinking about doing a DIY book about my local seaside neighbourhood at Victor Harbor, South Australia for some time now. We've been coming down to the weekender from Adelaide regularly---it's been 15 years I think. I've been taking photos here and around the Fleurieu Peninsula for a number of years. 

Up to now I've been content to publish some of the photos  on my Flickr stream,  on my photoblog, Rhizomes1, and on poodlewalks, my visual diary.  Now I fell the need to begin to select the Victor Harbor photographs into some kind of project.

But what kind? I don't really know. Therein lies a problem, which  I will have to confront sometime in the future. So the book will be designed as a process of puttintg it together. 

I'm going to begin by using the Posterous  micro publishing platform to publish the images and text that would then form the raw material for  the book. I would then have something on the desktop  to work with, as opposed to it just being  an idea in my head. The result would be a first draft, as it were.

I've been wanting to make the shift to DIY publishing for some time,  but I've never found a way to cull the visual material for the book from what I am taking.  So Posterous is being used to help me address the culling problem.

 I'm not that  interested in making money by selling lots of books. That's a dream. So too is making the photobook as an art object in the Japanese tradition of Kohei Sugiura.  I'm more interested in putting together a well packaged and interesting book, and  acquiring the digital skills and knowledge from dong so.  

I understand that Independent publishing is flourishing thanks to on-demand printing. The trend to make, edit, design and produce your own photobook appears to have become  an underground phenomenon in our digital world.  

One advantage of the DIY book is that it enable the art photographer to sidestep the exhibition space of the art gallery system, which has become increasingly closed as the digital revolution transforms our visual culture. Its a reworking of the old idea of Salon de Refusés.