black and white 35mm archives

After seeing how successful the history section worked  when it was  integrated into  the contemporary photos in the  2018 Mallee Routes exhibition at the Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery,   I remembered that I had  some black and white 35mm  negatives of the Murray Mallee in my photographic  archives.  Over the weekend I went back and  looked at the contact sheets of the pictures from my  initial exploration of  the South Australian Mallee  country in the  late 1980s. I was curious to see  these 35mm photos,   and to assess  if  they would be suitable to construct  a history section in the Mallee Routes exhibition at the Murray Bridge Regional Gallery in early 2019.

I have not seen these 35mm pictures since they had been  sleeved and filed away in  the  1980s.   I had previously only looked at the large format b+w ones that I had made with the 5×7 Cambo on the same road trips,  when I  was   selecting  a couple of  my images for  the history section of  the 2018 Swan Hill exhibition. This land had been permanently altered  for  agricultural production. 


From what I could  judge  from looking at the contact sheets of  these 35mm images, these  were made on  a few day trips  to the Mallee  in the VW Kombi.   I recall that most of them were made with  Kodak Tri-X film using a Leicaflex SLR,   rather than the 35mm Leica M-4  rangefinder, that I normally used.   Surprisingly, I discovered that  there were  no medium format contact sheets of  photos of the  Mallee country  in the archives.

Over the weekend I  scanned a selection of these 35mm images, and then started  to assess them on the computer screen to see if they  could be linked to   the current malleeRoutes project in some way.   Judging from the contact sheets the day trips were a simple photographic  exploration of the Mallee,  and I   never returned to  photographically explore  this country more deeply.  There was no photographic project involved. 

The  Mallee lands were new to me then,  as I had only  lived in the cities of Melbourne and Adelaide after  migrating to Australia from New Zealand in the early 1970s.   I just drove along  the country roads in South Australia taking  snaps along the way, apart from   staying  a weekend  in Mantung with friends from Flinders University, which is where I made most of the 5×7 Mallee pictures. I knew little about it apart from most  (estimates are around 80%) of the mallee being  cleared for agricultural development, beginning in the 1880s.

The 35mm snaps were a noting  of what I found to be most striking about this part of the  Mallee landscape. What caught my eye were the ruins, the harshness of  the landscape, the limestone, the silos, the railway lines,   and the dryness. This was marginal land  with limited rainfall and grass,   and so  the colonial farmers  were dependent upon underground water with the  opening up the Murray Mallee for primary production.   This was a country  where the dreams of the settlers could quickly turn to nightmares from the  overstocking, rabbits, and  droughts.  Droughts are  a normal part of these marginal lands. These are damaged landscapes.

Marginal landscapes is a more suitable description for this kind of work as opposed to New Topographics,  which refers to  the  1975  exhibition in the US, ie.,  at  the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, (featuring Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel, Jr). This exhibition   referred back to the 19th century topographic photography in the US ( eg., William Henry Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan).    The  perspective  of  Adams and  Baltz, towards the transformation  of western spaces by real estate developers to build tract housing developments  and industrial parks was the language of a formalist,  geometric abstraction  of  a disengaged, autonomous Modernism. Their  emphasis was  on the geometric organization and composition of the picture,  and its formal beauty and elegance.

Contemporary  photographs in the topographical style in the second decade of the 21st century cannot be new anymore nor unconsciously adopt the  language of a formalist modernism. Nor can  the contemporary topographical style be  just be new landscape photography,  since the topographical style  is a particular approach to the landscape within a  plurality of photographic approaches to the landscape. It  is a perspective  that explores the negative human relationship to the land with an interpretative  documentary as opposed to a poetic approach.

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