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.  

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.   

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.