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
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.
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
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