a Wimmera detour through historical traces

I am off to Melbourne to attend the Melbourne Art Book Fair 2019   at the NGV  and to see what is happening in the world of Photobooks.  I plan to make a detour via the Wimmera Mallee as the weather  forecast  is for  overcast cloud cover and cool conditions around  the Horsham region. It is forecasted to be hot and sunny on the return leg to Adelaide, which is not good conditions for my large format photography.

I am using this quick detour to pickup  the Mallee Routes project as this   has been on the back burner over the long, dry  hot  summer months in 2018-19.   I haven’t made any road trips  for the project since spring of 2018, nor have I been on any photo camps   since those in 2018 at Lake Boga in Victoria and Balranald in NSW in 2018.  I need to reconnect with the project after working on Reconnections: Walking Wellington and the coastal macro photography whilst on the daily poodlewalks.

I plan to travel on the B240  to St Arnaud, camping  overnight in the Horsham area–probably staying over night at Lake Marma at Murtoa, then spending  the next  day moving around  the Buloke region—Minyip, Donald, Charlton, Wycheproof, and Birchip in the Loddon Mallee  before spending the night at Foletti Park in Donald.   There is no specific location or subject matter that I have in mind on this minor detour; it is more   reconnecting with the project after a 6 month break and then seeing what eventuates.  Hopefully the forecast for cloudy weather holds   for the detour to Melbourne.  

The six-month break has seen me become more focused on finding ways to photographing the history of Mallee–digging behind the present to what has been. it is now envisaged that the Murray Bridge exhibition in December 2019 will have one gallery (the Jean Symonds Gallery ) of the 3 galleries devoted to photographing the history of the Mallee. This  is conceptual in approach,   as  it will pose the question: how do you photograph the  history the Mallee?

This history of a place is what I am currently struggling with.  What are the  different ways to photograph the   history  of the Mallee prior to the wheat belt present or the 1970s motels in the regional towns,  apart from using old photos from the 1920s in the public archive, such as Trove.  I need to do some research on the ways to   photograph this history from the perspective of the present.


Whilst on the Wimmera detour to and from Melbourne I realised that   my approach to the history of  the Mallee is informed by  Thomas Struth’s  black and white photographs of  the streets and buildings of Dussefdorf,   New York and European cities in the 1970s from a single-point perspective, even lighting,  frontal compositions and sharp-all-over focus,  Struth’s photographs of Düsseldorf’s streets and buildings, for instance,  is  where the old and austere meets the modern and faceless. They   are a kind of embedded history of German power and identity, especially that  of the National Socialism,   and Struth highlighted the desolation of this period through the documentation of its public spaces, which, in the photographs, are devoid of a public.   These are images of places, not spaces.

Struth’s approach was to ask: how is history embedded in the architecture of a city? How does a community represent itself in its architecture, truthfully or otherwise?  These photographs were made when the streets (in Düsseldorf, Brussels or New York)  were empty and  they show ensembles of buildings in which there is no dominant focus. Struth refers to them as  ‘unconscious places’, in the sense that such sites ‘inscribe their history into the unconscious minds of the people who occupy them’. In these photographs of  anonymous and unspectacular city streets Struth  explores  a layering of historical traces.   There is attention to the unseen:–to  the traces of history and to the way that  we erase or ignore history whilst we look towards the future. These cityscape  photos, which  show the signs of history that permeate the everyday world, are the opposite of seeing objects sub specie aeternitatis: beholding them as if they had nothing to do with us or our particular points of view.

This work rejects the personal, pointing away from the subjectivity of the photographer and creating an abstract space for the  way in which reality is experienced by the viewer.  Rather than emotion, projection or identication, these works emphasize vision and cognition. They oer what is ultimately an academic gaze, painstaking, informed and informing, imbued with authority, yet often turned towards subjects that power might not choose to examine directly. 
The takeaway from this is that  the vernacular architecture and the ordinary spaces in the small towns in the Wimmera Mallee embed traces of its  agricultural history. The history of these small towns, such as Donald, is a layered one. The presence  (here and now) of the buildings and spaces in towns like Donald or Murtoa is marked by an absent history,  in the sense that the absent history  is a supplement to presence. This absence (what is not  here and now) requires me to read what is not there. Presence is the privileged term in this duality  for photographers and an instead of placing an emphasis on presence we can highlight the supplement as  absence (absent history) through its traces. Absent history as  a trace has a double gesture or movement  of erasure and inscription.
So we can  conceptualise the history of  these buildings and spaces through a play of presence  and absence so that absence can be thought of as a kind of presence and presence as a kind of absence.This allows the photographer to think beyond the static binary distinction that once connected presence to truth or origin and absence to imitation or copy  to forms of mediation like languagerepresentations and images. Photography becomes the preserver of the  traces of an absent history.
The title of the history section of the exhibition is Absent HistoryAn example.  




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