Dust storm

In the autumn of 2016 I encountered a dust storm whilst  I  was  camping at Ouyen with Gilbert Roe  for several days in order to make  some large format,  black and white photographs of the silos along the Mallee Highway.  These were  for  the Weltraum exhibition at the Magpie Springs gallery; a group exhibition that was a part of  the small 2016 Shimmer Photographic Biennale. This is South Australia’s only  photographic biennale,  and it is  organised and supported by the Onkaparinga Council. 

After an early morning  silo photoshoot at Galeh  I spent the day travelling along the Mallee Highway from Ouyen to Piangil in the Victorian Mallee.  Piangil is the northern  end point of the Mallee Highway,   and it is just south of the Murray Valley Highway, the River Murray, and Tooleybuc in NSW.  Whilst  returning to the Ouyen camp around lunch time I encountered a dust storm sweeping across the sun drenched agricultural landscape from the south west.

I stopped along the highway and took a number of snaps of the dust storm with my digital camera. This is one of them: dust storm, Victorian Mallee

I didn’t dare use my large format cameras to photograph the dust storm because  the swirling  dust was too great and the wind was far too strong.  The dust storm gave way to rain that night and  to overcast conditions the next day. Normally, it is very bright and sunny in the Mallee. The dry,  flat landscape is sun drenched. 

Though I’d driven along this part of the Mallee Highway on my trips to and from Canberra, I couldn’t really remember what there was in this landscape. The landscape  all looks the same—-excessively cleared—- when you are driving through it  at a 100 kilometres an hour. So I  needed to  scope  the silos along the northern Victorian section of the Mallee Highway to see what was there. It is the excessive clearing of the Mallee that causes the dust storms.

There weren’t many silos on the Ouyen to Piangil   part of the highway so the dust storm  sweeping across  the landscape provided me with a way to start photographing The Mallee,  rather than just the concrete silos in the landscape:

dust cloud

When I was looking over the images  on the computer screen back at Encounter Studio in Victor Harbor  I could see was the snaps that I’d  taken  on the Ouyen  photo trip put  photographing the silos into perspective. It was a self-contained project—eg., 15 Silos along the Mallee Highway.   The snaps I’d taken enabled me to see that The Mallee was an interesting place in terms of both past and present and what was visible and what was invisible. Whilst reviewing the  images of  dust storm on the computer screen I recalled the way  that the Mallee is conventionally understood  in negative terms in our culture: as ugly, grey scrub; as dry, flat and monotonous;  the country lacks any aesthetic value; it was akin to a desert with frequent drought and terrible dust storms; and people were crazy to live there.

These snaps from the Ouyen   photo trip gave rise to the idea of  doing a  Mallee  project. I mentioned the idea  to Gilbert Roe and he was keen  and I recalled seeing photographs of scoreboards as well as   rural towns and  agricultural landscapes  in  South Australia  by Eric Algra.   Gilbert contacted Eric who was keen to come on board.  Eric mentioned that he  had an  archive of Mallee images from his black and white film days,  and so the Mallee Routes project was born. What was not discussed at an initial meeting was the structure of the project:  would  it be a basic travel narrative that documents  the travelling photographer’s visual impressions of what they had seen in their journey into the unknown?

What was agreed was that photography is an act of seeing or looking toward the empirical realm. It  doesn’t merely register or reproduce the world by lifting the illusory curtain to say this is how it is:   photography  is  an aesthetic project creates its readings or interpretations of the Mallee  in close proximity  to this world, by closely adhering to visible details. This topos of seeing in the realist tradition  presupposes the photographer –the authorial subject–as the subject of visual perception; the viewer of the image is neutral,  detached and contemplative; and a world of objects that can be ‘seen’.

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