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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

Ballarat International Foto Biennale 2017: Fringe

From what I can judge, it looks as if  the Ballarat International Foto Biennale  2017 (BIFB17) is starting to come together. It has a online public space as the new website has gone live.    However, there is nothing yet  about the photographers who comprise  the core programme,  what the 2017 Biennale is trying to achieve in relation to contemporary Australian photography, or what the issues the  symposiums and talks will address. My understanding is that the full program will be released in April,  with glimpses and reveals being unravelled from late January.

At this stage, apart from the portrait and icons photographic competitions, there is little public information about either the content or the  approach of the biennale.  Given that  her background  is in graphic design and strategic branding, rather than art  festival directorships  or in photography,   it is hard to form  a sense of what Fiona Sweet’s first  Ballarat International Foto Biennale will be like. Given the emphasis on visual narrative in  her   design background it will be interesting to see what  the core  idea of the Biennale’s  graphic design and visual campaign will be,  and how she will grow the regional and national brand so that it becomes a global centre for the photographic arts.

Registrations for the Fringe Program were recently  opened, and we have applied  to exhibit work from  the Mallee Routes  project in one of  the Fringe spaces.  We want to show some recent work –ie.,  some of the pictures  that we have made since our initial exhibition at the Atkins Photo Lab’s gallery  in late 2016 that explore place through the language of loss, land, culture and memory. In this mapping of  photography to place the images map critical histories, preserving place and memory by giving voice to the invisible stories. This mapping of photography to place  uncovers  traces and share experiences of places that transform over time.

 At this stage we are currently waiting to hear if our application for a particular space in the Fringe  has been successful.    Read More

painting the silos

One innovative  representation of the Victorian Mallee that I came across whilst on the Hopetown phototrip  in 2016  was the murals that were being  painted on the silos throughout  the Victorian  north-west Mallee. One  notable example was the mural on GrainCorp’s disused silo at Brim,  which  had been  painted by the Brisbane street artist Guido van Helten  in collaboration with the local community.

This site  has become a tourist icon in the Wimmera,  judging by the number of  people I saw who were  stopping, photographing and talking about it:

 

The individuals in the mural  are unknown as the mural is about  place,  community and the whole Wimmera region which has been struggling through drought. It suggests that it  is still a tough life  to keep  the farm going.  The work represents  the struggles pf the people in the Mallee in coming to terms with their place  at a time of immense economic pressure and climate change.  Read More

wheat

The wheat was everywhere  whilst I was on the Hopetoun road trip.  I took a few 35mm snapshots  of the dryland wheat fields with my  old  film Leica (an M4-P) whilst I was on my way back to our  campsite at Hopetoun  from Sea Lake. I’d been to Lake Tyrrell  that afternoon to look for the remains of an old salt works butI didn’t have much luck. I just couldn’t find it.

The wheat field  was somewhere on the road after I’d passed after Woomelang. It was a quick snap because I was hit by a swarm of mosquitos I was taking photos.   The mosquitos made it  impossible to spend  the time setting  up a large format camera to photograph this wheat field in the late afternoon light.     

It was just on the cusp of harvest time when I was there. It looked as if it was going to a bumper harvest, due to all the winter rain. That probably meant low prices and high rates of on-farm grain storage. A bumper harvest  does mean income  for famers and that, in turn,  means that they are able to pay off debt. Read More

Mallee abstractions

Whilst I was on the   Hopetoun road trip in the Victorian Mallee in 2017 I experimented with photographing with black and white medium format film and with making some industrial  abstractions.  I wanted to broaden the way that I was photographing and I thought that black and white would work quite well  with some subject matter in the Mallee.

This is an example from a photoshoot on a trip to  Rainbow and Warracknabeal. It was over 40 degrees when  I was scoping around Warracknabeal and I ended up wandering around an abandoned flour mill site  at midday looking for some subject matter in the shade. I came across a couple of old   water tanks and made some abstractions synthroid price.

The black and white photos were not that successful as I failed to expose the  contrasty subject matter  properly,  whilst  the development  of the negatives by Black and White Photographics was overdone.  Basically, they overcooked the negatives despite instructions to do the opposite. I realise that if  I am to continue to work with medium format black and white film on the Mallee Routes project,  then I am going to have to develop the negatives myself. I need greater control.    Read More

where photography meets philosophy

I ‘ve been  in the process of reworking the  little speech that I gave at the opening exhibition of Mallee Routes at  the Atkins Photo Lab in Adelaide in late 2016. It has been posted on the text  tab on the website.  The speech, which was designed to link photography to the Humanities,  was based around a quote by  G.W.F. Hegel on philosophy that is towards the end of the  Preface to his Philosophy of Right (published in 1821). This is the quote:

When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a form of life grown old. Philosophy cannot rejuvenate it, but only understand it. The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the coming of the dusk.”

In  the speech I suggested  that if we replace the word philosophy with photography,  then we could  see some affinities between  Hegel’s text and the photography in the Mallee Routes project. The affinities include: the monochrome painting of grey in grey; the Mallee as a form of life grown old; photography cannot rejuvenate this form of life only understand it;  photography takes place at the coming off dusk.

The speech then unpacked what this could mean for photographing the Mallee project through interpreting (or a making sense of) Hegel’s quote.

What I wanted to avoid in taking  this approach was  a melancholy interpretation of Hegel’s quote, and in turn,   the  photos in Mallee Routes project.   On this interpretation  photographing the Mallee is a form of  nostalgic mourning for a 20th century  form of life that is passing away, a late photography  is a way  of preserving  the traces of a life that has passed, whilst  finding it difficult to accept what has been  lost.  Hence there is a  mourning for what is being lost.  Read More