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.
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.
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.