Cardinal Points: The Significance of Visual vectors in Australian landscape Photography

‘Cardinal Points: The significance of visual vectors in Australian Landscape Photography’, Art Gallery of New South Wales photography symposium, 9 April, 2011

For Australia’s landscape photographers of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the acknowledgment of their point of view as photographers suddenly became very important. They all used very different strategies, but their intentions were strongly aligned.

For instance Wesley Stacey, shooting one-handed out of the windows of his Kombi as he freewheeled across Australia, often included his rear vision mirror or his window frame in the shot. And the shots themselves were presented as artefacts, instamatic ‘snaps’ with rounded corners like you’d get from the chemists, simply mounted onto long boards.

Douglas Holleley also travelled across Australia in a kombi, courtesy of the Australian taxpayer on an Australia Council Grant. He packed a quick-shooting Polaroid SX-70 camera as well as Polaroid film for an 8 x 10 view camera. Of course his rigorous grids are much more formalistically structured than Stacey’s deliberately spontaneous compositions, yet they also draw attention to the point of view of the photographer, incorporating what Gael Newton and Robert MacFarlane called a ‘geodesic perspective’, a subjectively imposed geometry to interpret raw nature. Yet Holleley’s geometry, combined with his rich gelatinous chemical pigments and the shifts in focus and angle of view in each segment also created an almost three-dimensional, optically induced, phenomenological environment almost as immersive as Stacey’s hyperactive hippy instamatics. As Newton and McFarlane say; ‘…forms often explod[ing] on the consciousness of the viewer’. (And I remember Douglas demanding that I squint and align my eyes to the separate vanishing points in order to get the full retinal wallop.)

Although using different photographic materials, a sense of the viewer’s direct involvement was often the same objective for every photographer. On his travels across Australia Jon Rhodes took traditional 35mm images. But in his magnificent album Australia he, like Holleley, recommends paying attention to the optical effect on the retina of the a wide-angle, deep focus, and dense assertive grain structure of his images: “I think the best viewing distance for these pictures is at least 10 to 12 inches — the closer the better. Try also looking at them with one eye (instead of two) for most wonderful 3-D effects …”

The viewer’s acting of looking became important for Marion Marrison in her underrated 1979 series Bonnet Hill Bush taken in a patch of suburban scrub near where she lived in Tasmania. Four years before, Marrison had worked on the Australian Conservation Foundation’s documentation of the union Green Bans on various acts of environmental vandalism in Sydney. For that book she photographed Kelly’s Bush, a piece of Sydney Harbour foreshore saved from development, as well as cemtennial Park and the Botanic Gardens. Rather than undertaking epic pilgrimages across Australia, Marrison found a microcosmic Australia literally in her own backyard. And rather than imposing a geometry on it, she finds a geometry within it, visually curating the fallen trunks and branches into an order which registers her own personal point of view, and her own presence as an aesthetic appreciator immersed in the environment — however modestly scaled.

But the most explicit, constructed acknowledgement of ‘point of view’ was in Lyn Silverman’s series Horizons. It was reprinted, along with two short texts written for the photographs by Meaghan Morris in 1980 as: ‘Collecting ground sample and locating them in relation to the horizon from where the were photographed’ and ‘Two types of photography criticism located in relation to Lynn Silverman’s series’ in Art & Text 6 1982. The scientistic vibe of the titles was augmented by an explorer’s map tracing the photographer’s outback journey. On the pages of the journal the bottom row of photographs, each one primly pinned into position by the photographers own hiking boots, was rhymed by an informal text by Morris about Silverman’s photographs; while the top row of photographs, of the distant horizon and sky, was rhymed by a more ‘theoretical’ text by Morris about the role of the desert in Australian culture.

The top text deals with how the urban imagination invests the desert with meaning. The desert is a site for the mythic construction of the ‘real’ Australia, while in contradiction it is also experientially constructed as elusive, self-effacing, boring and repulsive. “The wanderer, artist, tourist who goes there repeats the great itineraries of the predecessors, follows the broken lines on the map of a trap which has already been made. The generalized space of the inland solicits an act of repetition which is always, in the beginning, a rediscovery of the same.” (pp71-72)

The bottom text describes how the photographs reconstruct the viewer’s experience of inland space. They contrast the familiar scan of a generalized horizon with the lingering difference and precision of the exact details of the bushes and stones at the photographer’s/viewer’s feet. “The work then confronts us, not with objective and subjective interpretations of the same space, but with two different ways of manipulating subject-object relationships. One makes myth, the other makes personal statement; one includes us, the other addresses.” (pp67-68) The horizon addresses a universal ‘us’ with an imperial view, while the ground includes us individually into the photographer’s particular place and time. “What remains is a set of tracks. Not the single broken line of the traveler marking progress on a map; but a double line, an exploration of reversibility, the trace of a movement on a strange, still space in which everybody looks at elsewhere, and somebody looked at here.”

The photographs themselves, while shot with a 35mm camera, were developed in the high acutance developer Rodinol, which gives each tiny clump of film grain a distinctly sharp edge, so while not having the simmering granular tactility of Rhodes’ 35mm shots, or the creamy emulsive pigmentation of Holleley’s Polaroids, or the raw instamatic casualness of Stacey’s snaps, they produced their own retinal qualities — a sharp microscopic mesh anchoring the field of vision equally across the entire surface of the photograph.

So, why were these distinct formal and optical strategies used at this time? Because the landscape had long been the neglected poor cousin in Australian photography. While there had been lots happening in fashion photography, street photography, photojournalism, and magazine editorial photography from the 1960s into the 1970s, landscape photography had remained stagnant since the 1950s, cycling through the same formats of the picturesque, the picaresque, the pastoral and the aerial. At the same time however the landscape continued to serve the function it had always served in Australia culture, of being the site where issues of Australian identity were debated. And Australian identity, a perennial hot topic, became even hotter in the 1970s with the political resurgence of the Left; feminism; the resurgence of Aboriginal activism; the impacts of globalization on regional identities; the beginnings of a shift in focus from Europe  and America to Asia; and the beginnings of the modern Green movement with green bans and campaigns to save the wilderness. All of these issues were set against post modern discourses which were

References:

Gael Newton and Robert McFarlane, ‘Introduction’, Visions of Australia, Douglas Holleley, Angus and Robertson, 1980

Marion Marrison and Peter Manning, Green Bans, Australian Conservation Foundation, 1975

Lyn Silverman, ‘Collecting ground sample and locating them in relation to the horizon from where the were photographed’ and Meaghan Morris ‘Two types of photography criticism located in relation to Lynn Silverman’s series’, Art & Text 6, 1982.

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