As is well known, the history of the Mallee is one of an extensive clearing of the Mallee scrub woodland and then substantial engineering efforts to pipe water across the semi-arid Wimmera region. Whilst searching for photos for the history gallery, and for the historical section of the forthcoming exhibition at the Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery in March 2018, I came across some historical images relating to land clearing and water infrastructure to establish the expansion of rain-fed agriculture into arid lands.
These ‘development’ pictures of the settlement of the wheatlands show a pioneering settler world that has disappeared into the archives of the state and national libraries. The heavy roller (scrub -bashers) and the subsequent stump-jump plough were 19th century technologies associated with heavy, slow hand labour and peasant agriculture.
This was domesticating the land— clearing, settling, organising and establishing and agricultural industry on marginal lands by the pioneering settlers. They had high hopes and big dreams for this agricultural frontier after 1918. What enabled the agricultural expansion was a big investment in railway networks, public works and roads in the early 20th century.
Once the marginal land had been settled and the wheat industry established technology in the form of the internal combustion engine (tractors, cars and trucks) and increased mechanisation made life and work easier by the 1940s. It was drought that was the big problem in these arid lands— it occurred in 1914-16, the early 1930s, in 1945-6, in 1957-9, and 1965-66–and resulted in the failure of soldier settlement schemes, farm bankruptcies, foreclosures and widespread soil erosion. Drought, high winds, and constant tillage to increase crop rotation eroded the land and lead to the widespread dust storms. Read More
When I was at the Morgan photo camp with Gilbert Roe in early November I noticed that the stretch of land around Morgan and Waikerie was increasingly being transformed by the ongoing clearing of the original mallee scrub and its replacement by irrigation in the form of irrigated agriculture. This is a landscape is one of red sands, the Murray River and gum trees and the horticultural crops now being grown appear to be primarily critus fruit (mandarins and oranges) and vines. It is an extensive transformation of the land.
This transformation is an indication of the ongoing history of the continual clearing of the Mallee scrub in this region. From what I can gather it started when soldier-settlers returned from World War I and grew grenache and palomino grapes for the big wineries to make generic sherries and ports. In the 1960s and ’70s, the emerging Australian thirst for table wine required huge quantities of sweet white gordo and sultana grapes to fill flagons and casks of fruity moselle. Through the 1990s and early 2000s it was sunshine-in-a-glass chardonnay and shiraz exported to the supermarkets in the UK in bulk.
Even though this part of the South Australian mallee is above Goyder’s Line, the extensive irrigation based on the extraction of water from the River Murray overcomes the lack of rain. The water for irrigation is based on a water entitlement (calculated based on crop area and crop requirement) with the total usage capped by State legislation. Any expansion comes from either buying up properties or water trading. The region has a high vulnerability and high dependence on water whilst the community has limited options and a low ability to cope with a reduction in water allocation.
I leave Encounter Bay tomorrow for a 5 day photocamp at Morgan in South Australia with Gilbert, even though it is a little late in the year to be photographing in the SA Mallee. I haven’t been able to get away on a phototrip to the Mallee as I’d previously planned, due to the need to kickstart the Adelaide Photography 1970-2000 book.
I am hoping that the weather in early November is reasonably cool (it does not get too hot), the mosquitos are few and far between and there is some cloud cover .
Though I haven’t been able to go on road trips in the Mallee during the late winter and early spring months,. I have been looking at other bodies of work that bear some kind of resemblance to Mallee Routes. One is the Desert Cantos by Richard Misrach, a significant and remarkable body of work of the deserts of the American West, begun in 1979. It is evaluated in this essay by Gerry Badger.
Can trauma be connected to a topographic approach to photographing the Mallee?
I have been mulling over this whilst I put the Mallee Routes project aside for a month or so, so that I could work on the Adelaide Photography 1970-2000 book, which is to be produced by Adam Dutkiewicz and myself for Moon Arrow Press in 2018. The Adelaide Photography project has been kickstarted, as it were, and the break has been beneficial.
The reason I started to think in terms the topographical approach to my photography on the Mallee Routes project is that the topographical approach is roughly seen in the art institution as being observing the word in a sort of detached way, so as to show you something that was always there but that you didn’t see before. This approach is also held to characterise what the art market has called the Düsseldorf School of Photography, even though this photographers are diverse and conceptually orientated. Read More
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