I briefly explored in and around Birchip during the Hopetoun photo camp in July, looking for material for a large format photoshoot. Birchip is in the Wimmera–Mallee region of Victoria. It is situated in mostly wheat country, and it lies between Donald in the south, Sea Lake in the north, Hopetoun and Warracknabeal in the west and Boort and Wedderburn in the east.
This is a pretty amateurish photo–it was exposed at midday using my Sony NEX-7 digital camera. This is not a good time to photograph using digital technology, especially when photographing into the sun. Hence the flare. However, the composition is okay, the picture suits the 5×7 format, and the softer light of the late afternoon or flat light would work. So the scoping has done its job. I have something to work on and work with.
But how to do this photographically?
The scoping picture is a deadpan image of an unexpressive and repetitive subject that appears impersonal, blank and boring. It repeats the same idea–silos in the landscape— in different ways whilst avoiding the artistic subjectivity and narrativity represented by photojournalism. There is no event in this picture, there is little human interest, and no first hand witness to pain and suffering associated with tragedies. It is not a subjective documentary of the auteur photographers such as Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand in the US or Carol Jerrems in Australia. Nor is it an architectural photograph that celebrates the building and the style of the master architect.
Instead we have a cool, distanced view of ordinary, everyday subject matter that many would tend to characterise as ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’. For many it is the blank gaze of a deadpan photography –what you see is what you get. This is it. Most would see it as unexciting, emotionless, dull, flat and boring. Mind numbing. Read More
In late July Gilbert Roe and myself had a 5 day camp at Lake Lascelles in Hopetoun, which is in the northern western part of the Wimmera Mallee in Victoria . It was a winter camp and it was very cold at night with sub zero temperatures in the early morning. On the last morning of the camp there was heavy fog in Hopetoun, which meant a midday departure, since the tent’s fly need to dry before it was packed away.
It was a fruitful trip despite a lack of photos being taken. The details of the second exhibition of the Mallee Routes project at Swan Hill Regional Galley in March 2018 was sorted with Ian Tulley, the Director of the Gallery, in that the large gallery space will host two exhibitions: one by Paul Oswin’s bird drawings and the other showing the photos from the Mallee Routes project. Secondly, we made contact with the ACRE project, even though I have yet to figure out how a documentary style photography can be a part of this ongoing regional project. Read More
I had planned to go on a roadtrip to the Mallee this week on my own, but an infected tooth has seen that trip cancelled. Instead I am reading Don Watson’s book The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia (2016). From what I can gather the book is based Watson buying a 4WD in 2009 and setting off across the eastern part of the country on a road trip. Along the way he interviewed scientists, bushies and graziers. The book is intertextual in that Watson constantly refers to other books about the bush, and though there are photos, there is no mention of what photographing the landscape might mean. It is a literary text.
It is a sprawling, rich book, in that it is part memoir, part travelogue, part deconstruction of myths (e.g., mateship, national character ) part natural history and part history of both the white silence about the Frontier Wars and the clearing and unsustainable land use by the pioneer settlers, pastoralists and farmers. Watson writes from within the lived experience of growing up in this extensively transformed landscape, and he is examining his own relationship with the land and his past as well as that of the pioneer settlers and pastoralists.
His argument in the book is that linguistic domination is the foundation of modern Australia, the frenzied clearing of the bush and the killing of the Aboriginal people has been the fundamental building block on which our national character has been formed. Our society is built upon violence, dispossession, appropriation and a militant misunderstanding of those with whom we should have listened to and respected.
The chapter I am reading is on the Mallee and it is entitled ‘A collision of cultures’, which refers to Paul Carter’s Ground Truthing: Explorations in a Creative Region—a spatial history of the Mallee. Watson is driving through the Victorian mallee in 2011 during a mouse plague. He notes that the mallee refers to both the southern edge of the arid zone in a band of mallee scrub extending from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia to south-central NSW, and in South Australia and Victoria to a specific place bordering on the lower Murray.
This is a land of wheat, scorching heat, mice and locust plagues and dust storms that is notable for its solemn silence and emptiness. The chapter on the Mallee is about demonstrating the linguistic domination by the white setters who were indifferent to the language and culture of the Indigenous people. Read More
Photographing the rural landscapes of the Mallee country needs to be distinguished from the idyllic pastoral tradition in Australian visual culture that in the Heidelberg tradition emphasised the tamed farmland with its abundance of natural resources. The artists represent this in the almost mandatory blue and gold palette.
This form of pastoralism refers to representations of a rural landscape during the European colonial settlement of the land, with its sheep grazing and cropping, its link to national identity, the heroic, white bush worker, the taming of the landscape and progress. This white setter pastoralism, systematically removed Indigenous people from the Australian landscape recreated a white colonial landscape which was devoid of life prior to European (characterised as human) settlement. The painters in creating a harsh but yielding Australian landscape and populating it with Aussie Bushmen, laid the foundations for contemporary Australia.
This is a mythical past when life, though tough, was rooted in the security of the seasons and community, the land was fertile, and the small towns were prosperous. This mythical past is then set against the difficulties and uncertainties of the present and the confusions of the future with the decline of the family farm and the emergence of climate change.
It is hard to see the mallee in South Australia in terms of this kind of pastoral. We are a long way from Henry David Thoreau and his simple life close to nature at Walden Pond, which he counterposed to the tensions of urban civilization, even if the ethos of country mindedness–the Australian version of agrarianism—assumes that the rural way of life is a morally better life. The Mallee is no Arcadia and the pastoral romantic (the classic British genre) with its journey from the city to Arcadia and back to the city renewed’ does work for the Australian mallee landscape and its peoples. Read More
In a previous post I mentioned how I had reconnected to an old photo trip that I made in the 1980s in the VW Kombi to Mantung and Galga in the South Australian Mallee. However, I didn’t mention that I had some re-photography possibilities in mind. On the earlier trip I made several black and white photos with a large format camera ( these are in my film gallery on the Mallee Routes website), and I was wondering whether it was possible/feasible to re-photograph the sites and buildings that I’d photographed in the 1980s? If it were feasible, would it be worthwhile doing? If it were worthwhile, what would re-photography mean in the context of the Mallee Routes project?
These questions were in the back of my mind when I was at the Loxton photo camp in late April and I was exploring this area of the South Australian Mallee. I returned to the particular places I had photographed at Mantung and Galga in the 1980s to see what remained, what had disappeared, and what could be re-photographed. In particular I was looking for this old, petroleum storage shed in Galga:
Rephotography is the process of photographing a picture again after a period of time has passed. In the past 40 years, there has been a large increase in use of rephotography within artistic and cultural projects around the world. They are usually designed to better understand change to the landscape over time. These days the internet is awash with software-aided ‘computational rephotography’, augmented by Photoshop, such that ‘then’ and ‘now’ have been mashed-up, transposed and composited like never before. My approach, in contrast, has its roots in the pre-digital re-photography of the 1970s/1980s. Read More
I went on a 4 day photo trip into the South Australian Mallee with Gilbert Roe last week. We travelled on the Karoonda Highway to Loxton, camped Monday to Thursday in the caravan park by the River Murray and made individual day trips south into Mallee country from our base. The season of the lazy hazy autumn days finally finished whilst when we were camping at Loxton. It rained quite a lot on the first couple of nights we we’re there.
I explored along the Stott Highway, which runs from Loxton to Swan Reach, wandering along unsealed roads that ran east west in the Wunkar, Mantung, Galga and Wanbi region. I’d briefly checked out this area on a recent day trip, and I wanted to explore the area around Mantung in greater depth. This is limestone country. It is very dry and quite harsh, as very little rainfall recharges the underlying limestone aquifer. The main recharge is rainfall in south western Victoria and the water slowly moves in a north westerly direction via Pinnaroo and Murrayville towards Loxton and the River Murray, which acts as a drain for all the aquifers in the Murray Basin.
As the slow moving underground water moves through the limestone aquifer it dissolves soluble salts and becomes increasingly saline. Some of the biggest salt loads to the River Murray come from the Mallee Region–due to land clearing — whilst the future increases in the salt load into the river can be lessened through changes in agriculture in the dryland areas of the Mallee Region. Changes means increased revegetation, but conservation farming practices had not been widely adopted across the region, and so there is soil degradation, surface soil loss, rising water tables and increased erosion. The CSIRO ’s climate change research forecasts a dramatic rise in extreme weather events such as droughts and heatwaves, and a sharp drop in winter and spring rainfall across southern Australia.
The area I was in is on the western edge of the limestone aquifer and it was a region of drylands farming that has been deeply impacted by the drought in the first decade of the 21st century. I’d spent most of the day on Wednesday and Thursday photographing, and I hardly saw one car and a tractor in a field on each day.This part of the South Australia Mallee is an empty landscape. It has been de-populated. The farms are increasingly corporate as a result of the process of amalgamation of small holdings and people live in Loxton and travel to work on the farm each day. The commute is about 30 minutes. Read More
I made a day trip into the South Australian mallee along the Karoonda Highway on Tuesday. Elders Weather website said that there would be rain, cloud and sunshine on that day–conditions that are more congenial for my style of photography than the blues skies and sunshine that was forecast for the next 5 days including Easter. The dryland region along the Karoonda Highway was new territory for me, as I’d only been as far as the small Karoonda township previously. This is girl in a suitcase territory.
I made it as far as Wanbi on the highway in the northern Mallee region where I had lunch before turning back. This region is of corporate farming, dryland grazing and cropping and it is sparsely populated as the economies of scale had forced smaller landholders out of business. I found the small towns along the highway—-Wynarka, Borrika, Sandlewood, Halidon, Mindarie and Wanbi—to be much more impoverished and deserted than the hamlets/towns on the Mallee Highway in Victoria. People had left these hamlets in South Australia, rather than continuing to make a life for themselves they were in along the Mallee Highway in Victoria.
Decline, rather than prosperity, development and progress, was the characteristics of the Mallee region along the Karoonda Highway. Some of the towns were ruins because people who didn’t have a lot of land, can’t survive on the land. So ends the rural yeoman ideal with its vision of asserting dominance over nature to build an agrarian society of independent and morally superior, white yeoman citizenry living on their own family farms.
It was important for me to reconnect with this personal history as my memories of this part of the South Australia Mallee was that it was quite dry, harsh, and reliant on the extraction of salty ground water from deep limestone groundwater aquifers. I only had time to quickly walk around the hamlet on this occasion. I wanted to see what was there, so that I could return when I was camping with Gilbert Roe at Loxton in the last week of April. Read More
The latest issue of the Griffith Review is No 55 and it is about the future of a post-colonial South Australia. The issue is entitled State of Hope and it is edited by Julianne Schultz and Patrick Allington and it consists of short essays and memoir, fiction pieces and poetry, and photo stories. Authors include Robyn Archer, John Spoehr, Peter Stanley, Angela Woollacott, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Chris Wallace, Dennis Atkins, Nicholas Jose, and Ali Cobby Eckermann. This is an Adelaide and South Australia primarily seen by those working within a literary culture, which includes print journalists in the mainstream media and literary creatives in academia. There are reviews of the text here and here.
The marketing blurb to the State of Hope text says that:
As the industrial model that shaped twentieth-century South Australia is replaced by an uncertain future, now more than ever the state needs to draw on the strengths of its past in order to move ahead. Now, on the cusp of change, the state needs to draw on its talent for experiment and innovation in order to thrive in an increasingly competitive world. State of Hope explores the economic, social, environmental and cultural challenges facing South Australia, and the possibilities of renewal and revitalisation.
This is a reasonable assessment since South Australia is undergoing extensive de-industrialization that began in the 1970s and an uncertain post-industrial future does loom. However, South Australia is not alone in this–eg., witness Victoria. Surely the process of de-industrialization and an uncertain future after the closure of the manufacturing industry and the end of the mining boom also applies to Australia as a whole? So what is unique to South Australia? An uncertain future? Difficulties in making the transition to a post -industrial society?
It is good to see that the future is not disconnected from the past, and it is refreshing to see that history has not been erased from our present concerns about our futures in South Australia.
Surprisingly, some of the short stories appear to have little connection to South Australia, and there is little by way of inclusion of contemporary photography about Adelaide or South Australia. There is visual photo essay on rural South Australian with the Lost geographies by Annette Willis: a photo story concerned with the past failure of settler culture in South Australia north of the Goyder line in the Flinders Ranges. The Riverland and its wineries are also included in State of Hope text, but not the Mallee country. Read More
My various road trips have highlighted the number of empty houses in both the South Australian and Victorian Mallee due to the de-population of the countryside. People are leaving the countryside and moving to the more prosperous towns and cities. As young people depart, they leave small towns and hamlets of empty houses and shuttered shops, of closed schools and cafes, and a greying population.
What is not happening in the Mallee is that the relatively affluent city folk are leaving their capital city and moving to poorer, rural parts of regional Australia , buying or leasing properties as holiday places or thereand living their full-time or for long periods each year. The relatively affluent city folk are moving to the coastline of eastern and southern Australia, not to the Mallee. Moreover, immigrants tend to head for the towns and cities where jobs are more plentiful and where others from similar ethnic backgrounds have already established themselves. Read More
I made a day trip to the Mallee in mid-February , taking advantage of the weather forecast promising overcast conditions. I stayed on familiar territory by travelling along the Mallee Highway. It was an opportunistic scoping trip. I needed to reconnect with the project after being in Tasmania, to explore the towns along the Mallee Highway, to reconnect with people in Murrayville, and to assess whether I needed to camp for several days to do the large format photography that I had in mind.
One town that I drove around was Parilla in the southern Mallee of South Australia. This town or hamlet is between Lameroo and Pinnaroo, and it is not that far from the South Australian/Victorian border. The farmers in this region of the Mallee grow potatoes and onions using the underground water. There is no water pipeline from the River Murray near Tailem Bend in this region of the Mallee as there is in the Wimmera.
The grain in the Viterra bulk grain silos adjacent to the railway line are now transported out by truck as the branch railway line into this part of the Murray Mallee has been closed. The Canadian based Viterra owns and operates 95% of the grain handling and storage facilities is South Australia after taking over ABB Grain in 2009. Viterra, in turn, was taken over by Glencore, a large commodities trading company (zinc, copper, grain, coal etc), in 2012. The global market has come to the Mallee. Read More