archives, critical writing, Tasmania, topographics

Tasmanian Elegies: antecedents

June 8, 2017

I have been slowly plugging away on the Tasmanian Elegies project. I have  been going through my film archives  and posting selected images on the Tumblr blog. I am up to my  2012 visit,   but I think that there is a gap of 4-5 years before I return to Tasmania on a phototrip. It looks as if the project  is starting to come together and that I will have enough images  to start thinking in terms of  a book for this project  after ‘The Bowden Archives: memory, text, place’    is done and dusted.  This is a project with a long gestation period.

I  will probably  enough images –see  the Tumblr blog— but it is the text that is going  to cause me trouble. Tasmanian Elegies  is at odds with the  emphasis on landscape photography   in Tasmania,  and that branch of landscape photography known as wilderness photography.I am probably going to have to go to a university library to access, and read  what Roslynn D. Haynes in her   Tasmanian Visions: Landscapes in Writing, Art and Photography (2006) has to say.

water tanks, Mt Lyell Mine, Queenstown

This emphasis on wilderness by Tasmanian photographers is understandable given the large number of wilderness areas  in Tasmania,  the ongoing threat to wilderness  from the mining and timber industries and the environmental movements defence of wilderness in the face of these threats.  Photography has become the chief visual instrument of environmentalists endeavouring to increase an awareness of the natural beauty and sublimity of Tasmania’s wilderness. Wilderness here  is usually  understood as  an unpeopled wilderness.

However, a more topographical approach in Tasmanian  photography   can be traced to both John Watt Beattie’s  photos  of the Mt Lyell Mine in Queenstown in the 1890s and Stephen Spurling 3rd’s  photograph’s of Tasmania including those of Queenstown  in the  first part of the 20th century. Then it is a jump to Martin Walch‘s great photos of the Mt Lyell Mine  in the early 21st century, when he was an artist in residence with the then  Copper Mines of Tasmania.   I have no idea what  happened in the 70 years inbetween Spurling 111  and Walch with respect to topographical photography and mining landscapes in particular.  That  requires more research.

Mt Lyell Mine, Queenstown

We can interpret  the 19th century photos of  Beattie and Spurling 3rd   to indicate the devastation of the environment caused by mining. Or, if we put it more generally, the negative impact on the environment by the resources industry.  The main assets of the wilderness area was their economic value: they needed to be subdued  and  their resources (minerals, water  or native timber) exploited for economic growth. A recent example is the clear felling of  Tasmania’s old growth native rainforests by  the woodchopping industry in the 1980s-2010   financed by public subsidies   prior to its rapid  decline in the 2nd decade of the 21st century.

This is the darker reality  of the wasteland of mining  presents a kind of landscape not widely represented by painters so photographers have few compositional devices on which to draw. Though the landscape of mining  or  that of clear felling does not conform to the conventions of the picturesque and the pastoral (filtered through painting),   then those of the topographic tradition,  with its emphasis on the human altered landscape and the built environment,   opens a pathway that can be explored. The initial opening made by, William Jenkins, the curator  of  the 1975  New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape exhibition  at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York,  was to recast the landscape photographer as a documentarian whose personality was removed from the picturemaking process so that the image could “speak” for itself.

However, the exhibition opens up a broader pathway in that  it is a critique of  the genre  of landscape photography in the US,  and then secondly, it develops a new idiom through which to represent the built environment of a post industrial society, with its landscape of housing developments, office parks,  endless parking lots and urban and suburban sprawl.    This tradition is not widely recognised by the curators in Australia’s art institution probably because New Topographics did not form a movement, per se, in photography.

 However, its critique of the traditional discourses on landscape photography of the western United States— i.e., the  traditional romanticization and monumentalization of the American West— which revealed a subversion of the genre’s founding myths and provide a conceptual redefinition of landscape is appropriate to the genre of  landscape in  Australia. The latter is premised on wilderness, the picturesque and the sublime,  and New Topographies highlights this tradition’s  inability to represent the contemporary landscape photography,  and  so it turns the conversation to the contemporary, built landscape. In doing so it  represents a transformation in the genre of landscape.

 

 

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