This was my first attempt at a dark landscape. It is roadside vegetation in Waitpinga on the southern Fleurieu Peninsula on a no through road that I would often walk down with the standard poodles. It was made in 2013, and I didn’t really know what I was doing apart from not photographing the beautiful.
I wasn’t photographing the tree per se that is the grotesque or formlessness as a way to explore alternative modes of expression to that of the beautiful, pastoral landscapes that celebrate the dominion of mankind over nature, and the picturesque. I was more attracted by the gloominess of what was left of the native scrub or bush in relation to the field for the grazing cattle. If the field represented the “mastering” and “possessing” of wild nature, then the roadside vegetation was all that left of the bush. It was to be brooding. That’s about it.
I hadn’t connected this first take at gloomy landscapes to Australian photographers working in the Gothic tradition, or those who recognised the Gothic nature of the Australian landscape. I must have felt I was doing something different that was worth exploring as I did black and white interpretations, and then I went back and did some large format versions in both colour (5×4) and black and white (8×10). It was vaguely something to do with Romanticism and the sublime; vaguely because the roadside vegetation in Australian today was a long, long way from Casper David Friedrich’s 1818 painting of the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog and Kant’s subject affirming concept of the sublime. All the photographic interpretations that I made of the roadside vegetation at Waitpinga involved the contra-jour (shooting into the light) technique, and none of them were made at twilight. Some were made early in the morning just before it started to rain. I wasn’t thinking about making photos at twilight as I was more attuned to the early morning or late afternoon light. Photography was about light not gloom.
Latter that year, when I was staying at American River on Kangaroo Island, I did make a dark landscape closer to twilight time. But I was still thinking in terms of lovely soft light as well as gloominess. After viewing the image of the scanned negative on the computer screen I realised that you can’t really have it both ways.
I didn’t know what a dark or gloomy landscape was supposed to represent; nor did I connect it to a sense of disquiet or to the uncanny, the way that the Gothic tradition was linked to colonialism and white settlement in Australia, or those Australian photographers working in the Australian Gothic tradition. I didn’t even know that there was an Australian Gothic tradition.
What I did have in mind then was the on-going eclipse of the natural through the clearing of the land for farming. This eclipse is felt keenly in South Australia, which continues to rely on the water from the River Murray, which is in slow and steady decline due to the water taken by irrigated agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin. It was only latter that I started becoming aware of the aboriginal absence in both the pastoral landscape and in the mediascape’s flow of popular and tourist images of the Fleurieu Peninsula.