Alex James’s Landscape Photographs of Time and History

‘Photographs of Time and History’, book foreword in The Twilight of Mr Kemp: Landscapes 1797-1897, by Alexander James, unpaginated two pages. ISBN 0-9532458-4-5

In that period after the sun sets below the horizon, but before the landscape sinks into complete darkness, Alex James works like a demon. With a view camera he urgently exposes sheet after sheet of large-format film. As the gloaming intensifies, his exposures lengthen, from several seconds to many minutes. Eventually he is focussing only on the beam of a torch, and the chemical phenomenon of reciprocity departure has curdled the colour of the last remaining glow of sky a sour yellow.

James is photographing sites where, perhaps, tragedies once occurred. As Europeans moved across the landscape they sowed the ground with such stories. There were not only the massacres and dispersals they perpetuated on the indigenous population, but also their own random mishaps and misadventures — their drownings, their shootings, their shipwrecks, their bungled escapes and their disappearances.

Not for James the antiseptic, suprahuman wildernesses of, say, a Peter Dombrovskis. Against those anodyne microcosmic or macrocosmic spectacles James counterposes a large-format landscape photography where places are entangled with stories, light seems to grow up and out from the ground, and the landscape is not there to be consumed by the viewer, but instead sometimes threatens to engulf the viewer themself.

James is born and bred in south eastern New South Wales and has a profound affection for the place. Since he was a child he has skied, bushwalked and surfed from the Snowy Mountains to the South Coast. [M1] He also loves the process of large-format photography, the muscular physical challenge of getting his camera to the spot, the forensic accumulation of detail, and the dilation of time during the exposure. Like many locals a starting point for establishing a deeper connection to his land and its uncomfortable past began with various local histories. As a genre, these popular local histories are often not much more than patchwork compilations of picturesque anecdotes from various sources which, their authors enthusiastically presuppose, have somehow combined to form the unique character of the region and its current inhabitants. However by re-attaching them to specific landscapes, James has used these local stories to produce a sophisticated visual experience.

In one such history he found an account of a twelve-year old boy who had drowned in the Molonglo River in 1843. This story, complete even with a spooky premonition by the boy’s mother, is typical of the hundreds of such stories from the nineteenth century which testify to the disquieting sense of unbelonging which underscored colonial expansion and settlement.

James returned to the site — now, probably, just below the dam that forms Lake Burley Griffin — to photograph a shallow watercourse choked with weeds and swallowed up by scrubby trees. The receding surface of the water is crawling with worm-like tree-flowers and striated with reflections from the trees, while the vertical plane of the photograph is criss-crossed by a latticework of falling branches which further repel the eye. The threads of light which do manage to penetrate this suffocating space are stained an eerie, indistinct colour — a colour which we know has not been dialled up in Photoshop, but is the chemical and optical result of the process of photography itself at this time of day.

Another oral-history story, which almost has the metaphorical resonances of a fable, concerns a horse which, in the 1890s, escaped a cruel owner on Montagu Island by swimming back to the mainland nearly nine kilometres away — not once, not twice, but three times. In James’s photographs of a low rock platform sloping away into the sea (the only place on the island where the horse could conceivably have entered the water to begin its epic swims) the waves have dissolved under his long exposure into an etheric vapour, and the horizon-line appears like the impossibly distant edge of the world.

Various views of South Coast beaches and headlands are gathered under the title Spring 1797. The date refers to the months when a group of shipwrecked sailors attempted to walk up the coast towards Sydney from Victoria. Despite considerable help from the local indigenous tribes the group progressively died of starvation until only three remained to be found, near death, a few miles south of Botany Bay. James’s crepuscular photographs of the regions they passed through turn what could have been pretty postcard views of holiday beaches, or pleasant pastoral scenes from tourist drives, into something like the ominous and brooding landscape the sailors must have experienced as they trudged through them.

An even more scary ambience is created in a series of rainforest views James titles Spring 1830, in reference to a letter sent at that time by a Batemans Bay resident to the Governor seeking his permission to murder a group of local Aborigines who had been spearing cattle. In James’s airless photographs his wide-angle lens appears to have spreadeagled the ground itself, and the serpentine forms of roots and branches writhe and twist away, plunging into the loam beneath the dense leaf-litter. Each of these shadowless scenes is steeped in an identical sanguineous light.

From these low chthonic reaches, James also took his camera higher, up into the airy tops of the High Country and even above the snow line. For instance Spring 1862 refers to Eugene von Guerard’s expedition to Mount Kosciusko accompanying a scientific survey led by the German scientist George Neumayer, where yet again the expedition’s work was interrupted by a member of the party who got himself lost for several days. But in rephotographing von Guerard’s original famous view from Mount Townsend one hundred and forty-six years later James found himself, like his predecessors, dangerously caught out by the rapidly changing weather, and barely able to make it back to the safety of his tent after darkness unexpectedly closed in.

In these images the scale opens out to approach the majestic, but the horizon line remains high and the colours remain cloying. In the summer of 1835 a mounted policeman shot an escaping bushranger who was desperately swimming across the Snowy River, and his body was never seen again. In James’s photographs of the river the surface of the water becomes skinned with a viscous and glaucous blur.

Towards the end of the book the images approach white-out and the spatial stability offered by a horizon line all but disappears. The series Autumn 1983 is based on the story of a settler who was thrown from his horse and drowned after being caught in a freak snow storm while running cattle in the Snowy Mountains. At this elevation stories such as these seem to have created their own small seismic events as they crack the collapsing crust of snow, revealing the basalt bones beneath. Up here, where the delicate balance of the weather defines the look of the landscape, these fracturing, brittle surfaces have an almost apocalyptic beauty.

All of James’s landscapes are entangled and layered. In his vision time is folded into space, and history is folded into geography. His love for his home, the south-eastern regions of New South Wales, has been deepened by his use of local histories and the bizarre range of stories they offer up. But his photographs do not celebrate the bravery and struggle of the white ‘pioneers’ who ‘opened’ up the land for us. Nor, on the other hand, do they dismissively condemn them for the dispossession of those that, some claim, still have the only authentic relationship to the land — the Aborigines.[M2]  Rather, the loose connections he makes between story and place mobilise the imagination of the audience to narrativize the scenes in a provisional, unsettled way. The viewer virtually enters the scenes and animates them by following along the tracks and lines of tree trunks with their eye, or by spreading their gaze out to suffuse them up to the horizon.

These sites are not monuments to Australian history, like Gallipoli Cove or the Burke and Wills ‘Dig Tree’. They are not sites for prescribed acts of historical memory as a form of national allegiance. The photographs are probably not even taken precisely where the event actually took place, even if, indeed, the event actually happened in precisely the dislocated, fragmentary way in which it has eventually come down to us. Nonetheless story and place adhere to each other like a vague haunting, intermixing and catalysing in the imagination of the viewer. These photographs are experiments in producing a new relationship between ourselves and the land we have inherited — for better or for worse, and along with all of its stories.

Martyn Jolly

October 2008

Dr Martyn Jolly is Head of Photography and Media Arts at the Australian National University School of Art.

 [M1]I mainly ski these days so if you could put “skied” instead of snowboarded and “surfed” instead of swum.

[M2]Again use indigenous Australians or indigenous population, or finish sentance after ‘relationships with land’ – whatever you think.

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