Blog

In Birchip: reflections on landscape photography

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 WimmeraMallee 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

Hopetoun revisited: water

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

Don Watson: The Bush

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 Regiona 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

The Mallee and the pastoral

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 pastoralism  was  undercut in the 1960s by Drysdale’s stoic outback figures, Nolan’s anti-heroic bushrangers and convicts and doomed explorers, Tucker’s eroded and metaphysical antipodean heads,  and Boyd’s haunted symbolic imagery. However, this  tradition was devoid  of  the Indigenous connection to land and  to the pre-existing Indigenous landscape,  whilst  the violent and traumatic process of colonisation and nation  building was removed.
 The pastoral  today  is a romantic one that refers to urban dwellers leaving the industrial city, retreating to the rural landscape in the wine regions and then returning to the city. It a kind of weekend retreat  in a cottage with walking in the full force of the elements and good pub food and wine in  which the person is refreshed  and renewed and so more able to cope with the tensions of  living in the industrial city.This version of  the pastoral, which  refers  back  to Virgil’s ‘Georgics’, and is the heart of European Classical education especially in Britain and German is a celebratory one.  It has a tendency to  idealise the countryside and adopt a  nostalgic look back at the past.

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

re-photographing the Mallee

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

empty landscapes

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

day trip to Mantung

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.

 On my return trip  back along the Karoonda Highway to Encounter Bay I made a side trip east  in a triangle from Mindarie  to Galga and Mantung and back to Mindarie  in the northern Murray Mallee region. I  wanted to reconnect with a photo trip that I made in the 1980s via Mannum and Swan Reach on the River Murray.  Several  of the archival black and white photos that I made whilst staying  at Mantung  that are  on my film gallery.  They form the beginnings of my contribution to the Mallee Routes project, which includes a digital gallery.

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

State of Hope: where’s the Mallee?

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

de-population

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

February road trip: Parilla

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