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. The silos  are the vernacular architecture of the Mallee and they  show  the transformation of  the regional  space in Victoria  as this agricultural architecture is situated within  an   altered landscape–industrial agricultural landscapes. The large format photographs  of   these simple, mass produced  utilitarian buildings, which  are everywhere in the Mallee, is in colour and so  breaks  from the  black and white work of  the 1970s US New Topographics.

It refers back more to the colour  tradition of  Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfield,  Joel Meyerowitz and Richard Mirasch who  made colour a ‘respectable’ medium for art  photographers in the 1980s.  This is a photography that  deploys  the ‘straight’ aesthetic of the landscape tradition with its reliance upon classical composition,  the camera’s  disconcerting tendency to beautify the most nominally unprepossessing of subjects,  and the illusion of transparency.

There are two problems with the deadpan  topographic directness.  Firstly, it downplays the way that  photographs are always coded, landscapes always read, and the constructedness of the photograph as text.  The Mallee  landscape is a set of images codified as a set of values (openness, progress, economic growth,  community).  Secondly, it  conceals  the  hidden history of corporate power–the Mallee landscape is mostly private property criss crossed by highways and roads with some public conservation parks of Mallee scrub. The question of ownership is crucial. Who owns  the places that the images depict?

This is a photography that needs   to address the politics of landscape representation and the concealment of power needs   to address the politics of landscape representation and the concealment of power   The topographic  transparency, as it were,  is part of the lexicon of concealment. Given this limitation of the conventions of the topographic landscape photography there is a  need to  reach beyond what is already there in the photograph.

Travelling though these landscapes as a photographer means primarily looking for the light and  the beautiful forms, even though   every facet of the landscape is suffused with political implications.  This landscape  is littered with the tawdry evidence of twentieth century civilisation: – the  petrol  stations, the neon signs, the dingy cafes and bakeries, the ramshackle wooden housing,  decaying sports fields,  and the  haphazard  industrial developments. This is  the detritus generated by the wholesale exploitation of nature to ensure economic growth.

So the photos need to point to,  or suggest,  what is mission or overlooked.

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