It is not possible for me, living in South Australia as I do, to make large format photos of empty city streets as Thomas Struth did with his Dusseldorf and New York work; a body of work that explored the relationship between the unconscious and the past and sought to represent within the visible cityscape the hidden impulses and forces which have shaped the city. His compositions are simple and the photographs are neither staged nor digitally manipulated in post-production. Strong contrasts of light and shade are also avoided, Struth preferring the greyish, uninflected light of early morning.
Adelaide has limited architecture for this older tradition of urban architectural/street photography with its pictorial strategy of a central perspective and foregrounding background, that recalls the nineteenth-century Parisian vistas of French photographers Eugène Atget and Charles Marville. However, the social and historical institutional context of the architecture and the deserted town can be achieved with the country towns in the Victorian and South Australian Mallee since history and architecture are intertwined here:
Many of the regional towns in the Victorian and South Australian Mallee have changing population compositions, with some localities experiencing decline. The small country towns in the Mallee, for instance are struggling to stay alive. Some are changing from being agricultural service towns to tourist towns, but for many of the smaller towns along the Mallee Highway there isn’t much tourism happening. People pretty much drive through these towns on their way to Canberra or Sydney.
The pictures int the project would go beyond documenting the silos as a series in the tradition of Bernd and Hilla Becher and their typologies of old industrial structures in Germany. My initial fascinations is to their forms, which seemed to symbolize pure function, and so I am drawn to them much like the European Modernist architects such as Le Corbusier to the grain elevators in the US. Le Corbusier in Towards a New Architecture (in 1923) described these simple, undecorated machine-buildings as the “first fruits of a new age.”
Frank Gohlke’s pictures of grain elevators in the US go beyond the formal qualities of the grain elevators in Minnesota to represent their significance as markers in an otherwise uniform and flat landscape. Gohlke frames the landscape as a manmade construct: an artifact of the way we live. His photographs of landscapes refer to the embodied practices and relationships of particular people in particular places and so different to the documentary history based work by Hal Pratt from 2003 –2009 of the 350 grain silo facilities across country NSW on behalf of the NSW State Library
What Gohlke’s work highlighted is that the silos cannot be considered in isolation from the landscape; the building, its purpose and the surrounding farmland and the railway line are inseparable. The landscape is not a collection of fixed objects on a static spatial grid but a fluid and dynamic set of relationships and its appearance is the result of a multitude of forces acting in time on the land itself and its human activity. How then to photograph this?
Maybe by the pictures expressing the silence of emptying out of these agricultural towns and the empty streets/spaces and so a bearing witness to the larger historical trajectory as defined by places. It can possibly do this by representing what might otherwise go unnoticed or at least under noticed. The silos in themselves are nothing machine themselves—anonymous sculptures in the landscape– but a large format camera can depict the overall scene and its particularities.
The emptiness refers to the historical trajectory of the steady drift of the population away from the country towns that initially emerged when the railways advanced towards and through the Mallee, thereby putting wheat crops within reach of markets and then the soldier settlements after World War 1. The small farms declined as the consolidation of farmland started during the 1980s as the cereal farms were increasing in size to remain viable.
The decline quickened with the severe economic downturn Australia-wide in the late 1980s and early 1990s which resulted in the scaling back of government services in the Mallee towns. The heightened sense of stillness, of things in arrest, can suggest the longer passage of time that has led to this particular ensemble of urban artefacts being here at this moment of time.
The view of the silos that people in their cars have is the quintessential view obtained through the windshield of a car or truck while traveling on a highway through these towns on route to Canberra, Sydney, or Melbourne. The fleeting world outside the window as the car moved rapidly through the countryside gives us our first taste of an ever-changing landscape. We would unconsciously experience these places without being conscious of how the visible town fabric embodies the shared meanings and memories of the people who live there.
What is unconscious becomes more visible when walking the town as it is then that the unconscious-a layer beneath the visible edifice, a foundation that supports the parts above ground—becomes more visible. Walking the town allows you to dig away to find out what’s beneath, and shapes, the surface. If the large format camera brings structure and order to the landscape, then what particular objects in the landscape give one a sense of that complex relationships o causality that makes things look the way they do?