This was opening talk given at the Mallee Routes exhibition at the Atkins Lab, Adelaide in 2016.
Photographing the Mallee could be seen as the photographers just going to this region as witnesses and photographing it for what it was, without trying to put on it some formal idea of how to photograph it. On this interpretation the photographers were told how to photograph the Mallee by the thing itself. This is how Joel Meyerowitz understood his photography in Aftermath, his body of colour photographs about ground zero after the collapse of the World Trade Centre in September 11, 2001.
This approach is a misleading way to understand photographing the Mallee as there is ‘degree zero’ of photography. The photographers are using their photographic skills, attention to light+ form, and their understanding of an encultured landscape to pictorially interpret the social landscape of the Mallee. So how do we understand interpretation here?
Let me quote a remark made by G.W.F. Hegel about the role of philosophy in the Preface to his Philosophy of Right:
“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.”
You may wonder why I am quoting from a philosophical text that was written in 1821 several years before the invention of photography by Joseph Niépce (1827) or Louis Daguerre (1837). Hegel, as we know, is a notoriously, difficult philosopher, who emphasised the ‘labor of the concept’; philosophy leaving behind metaphor and the imagist thinking of poetry for the pure concept; and one who subordinates art to philosophy.
Even if Hegel’s quote is quite strange in that it is poetic, there still doesn’t seem to be much of a connection between philosophy and photography.
What if we replace the word philosophy with photography? If we do so, then we can see some affinities with 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 of dusk.
By noting these affinities I am suggesting that what Hegel is saying in this quote offers important insights for understanding the photography in the Mallee Routes project. This idea of late photography is not far fetched, since we only need to recall the photographs of old Paris by Charles Marville and Eugene Atet that survived the urban renewal of Paris undertaken by Baron Haussmann between the 1853 and 1870.
To see these insights we need to unpack the quote. So what sense can we make of this quote?
The quote is often interpreted by Anglo-American philosophers as a melancholic statement, as a form of resignation and a reconciliation to what is—a making palatable a grey present. The present is a cross to be borne. Sure, there is a rose in the cross of the present, but there is a tired acceptance and acquiescence in the deepening twilight of what is. There is a sense of closure.
On this interpretation philosophy generates its concepts in the dark; a monochromatic painting that mourns and laments what is being lost forever. Hegel, in other words, announces the coming of the night in which philosophy comes too late and can merely interpret what has been.
The standard criticism to this melancholic interpretation of Hegel, is that, rather than lament what is ending, we should yearn to avoid closure, and to seek a way out from the darkness. We need to search for the transitions from the darkness and the decay to a different and better world; rather than resigning ourselves to nocturnal reflections at the end of the day.
On this melancholic interpretation photography is a tired acceptance and acquiescence in the deepening twilight of what is. It is a lament for what has passed in the Mallee. It suggests that photography ends up at a point where it’s too late, it’s always too late; photography is doomed to come too late, and that it is to be practiced at dusk when the day is over. This implies that photography is a form of nostalgic mourning for what is passing away.
I would suggest that this as an unhelpful way to interpret the photographs in Mallee Routes, even if the Mallee as a form of life is now grown old. The photography in this project is not form of nostalgia, nor is it a mourning for what has been: namely, a form of life that has grown old and decaying.
I want to suggest that the melancholic interpretation of Hegel is misleading. I would like to re-interpret the quote; not to engage in what Hegel really meant, but to think through the quote in order to help us to both understand what photographing the Mallee involves, and to make sense of photography’s imagery of the Mallee.
The quote illustrates Hegel’s view that philosophy is ‘the comprehension of the present and the actual, not the setting up of a world beyond which exists God knows where’. The actual is a keyword since Hegel conceptualised the present in terms of potentiality of a form of life, and the realisation or actualisation of that potentiality. The Mallee for example, was seen in the early 20th century as having the potentiality of becoming an agricultural heartland. It signified modern progress that would bring prosperity.
Minerva in the mythology of the Romans is the goddess of wisdom, medicine and the arts, and was she was equated with the Greek goddess Athena, the patroness of Athens, the birthplace of philosophy. The nocturnal owl is one of philosophy’s ancient symbols, it traditionally served as an emblem of philosophy, and it was the bird accompanying Athena. This indicates that philosophy and the arts have similar classical roots, and that both are associated with wisdom and knowledge.
The meaning of the Hegelian quote or trope is that understanding, insight, wisdom arise when the object to be understood has played itself out, when it has actualized and thus exhausted its potentialities, and now faces only decline.
What Hegel is referring to is the end of an era, which is confirmed as such by the appearance of philosophical critique and appraisal that involves making explicit the ideas and beliefs that drove that era, but could not be fully articulated until it was over. The belatedness is endowed with the retroactive power of bring forth the actuality that was missed.
Hegel suggests that it only becomes possible, for us as historically situated creatures, to understand a particular period of history, when it is at an end (i.e. with hindsight). Clarity comes with reflection, and with the ability to see events in a much broader personal and societal context.
The Owl is a metaphor for ‘understanding’ and the ‘falling of dusk’ symbolic of the end of an era. The owl can see through the dark; a bird of prey that springs into action; a bird perched on the thin line between belatedness and retroaction.
This actuality interpretation is quite different to the melancholy one that laments what has passed away; one that is quite relevant to the fragmentary character of photographing the Mallee.
From the perspective of the actuality interpretation Hegel’s quote photography, like philosophy, looks backwards at the world, and it too has a historical character. If philosophy grasps its own time in thought, then photography grasps its own time in images. Photography, like philosophy, is unable to transcend its contemporary world, and it is a historically situated representation and reflection on what is.
On this account, photographing the Mallee means that photography is a looking backwards at the form of life in the Mallee now grown old. Photography looks to what has been before, and it seeks to make sense of that era that is coming to a close. It makes sense of it, given what what we find today. We look backwards to better understand our present position, but without any certainty about what may lie ahead.
Photography then interprets reality. It’s not an innocent interpretation that leaves what is interpreted unaffected. Interpretation is an intervention: the photographs in the Mallee Routes project change how we view the Mallee.
A brief word on Hegel’s words of philosophy paints its grey in grey. Hegel is referencing Goethe, for whom grey is all theory whilst green is life. Goethe’s words are put into Mephisto’s mouth, the devil enticing Faust away from dull philosophy to the full enjoyment of a colourful life, which was bound to end badly.
Grey in the visual arts is historically seen as neutral, and in modernism it became associated with the reductive values of the minimal and purity of form. Maybe Malevich could have painted grey on grey—a grey square on a grey background if he had read Hegel? Gerhard Richter views grey as making no statements and evoking neither feelings nor associations. Grey is lifeless. Grey, for others conveys despair, loss, mourning, blurring and obfuscation.
For Hegel, as well as Goethe, the primary optical phenomena are the polarities of lightness and darkness, not the colours into which Newton had shown white light could be decomposed. Light and dark have an immediate and false synthesis in grey, and a true reconciliation in colour. Grey is the absence of colour, or more accurately a non-colour.
So for Hegel the evening must be colourless because there is not enough light to create colour. Dusk is the vintage moment of greyness; it is also the moment of transition and transience; the moment of process. Whilst twilight is a darkening, it is not necessarily characterised by gloom or obscurity. Darkness has its own kind of clarity. Things are not ordinarily invisible at night, but their appearance is altered. Evening changes sense and image.
From this brief account ‘of painting grey in grey’ we can understand that the grey in grey of a shape of life grown old for Hegel contains the idea of something living on—a persistence of potentiality. The suggestion is that we live in a time of uncertainty and confusion, of presence and absence; and that the end of an epoch is also a new, strange beginning. It is a looking backward in order to narrativise the transition to a new form of life —in Hegel’s case modernity.
So photographing the Mallee, when its form or way of life has grown old, means that we see this form of life differently to those who viewed it in the bright, glaring noonday sun of progress in the early days of settlement. Progress, it was held, would bring prosperity and progress to all in the future. In photographing the Mallee photography is making present now what was absent then—eg., the environmental consequences to the landscape that result from clearing the Mallee for agriculture.
We see the consequences of progress, and so we gain a more complete understanding of this particular period of Australian history. If we assume Hegel’s legacy, in photographing in the twilight of this form of life, then we also begin to see the emergence of a beginning, say a more sustainable form of agriculture in the Mallee.
Though photographing the Mallee is an example of photography turning up late, wandering through places where things have happened, tottering up the effects of past events, it is not the undertaker that has come to bury the past. Nor is it a form of nostalgia for what once was—the communal Mallee form of life that once defined this region. It is not a form of mourning for the loss of the past that was never really known. Nor is it an inability to accept what is passing away.
The photographers are not making images that evoke melancholy that betrays an inability to come to terms with the past. This late photography is not the same as what many have suggested Atget was doing with his photographs of old Paris -evoking melancholy about a disappearing past.
Gary Sauer-Thompson, 29/12/2016