The idea of linking the spatial turn in the humanities to my 1980s photos emerged whilst I was exploring my photographic archive for the proposed Adelaide Art Photography: 1970-80 book to be published by Moon Arrow Press. Noticing a shift in my photography from street to topographics, I started to make connections in my archive blog to the spatial turn in the humanities in relation to the landscape and space that had emerged in the 1980s. This spatial turn refers to the landscape and space being understood in terms of them being socially constructed and continuously reshaped.
The factory in this photo, which was situated near the railway bridge has long gone. So have the mangroves, replaced by a housing development that was designed to revitalise Port Adelaide. This then is an urbanscape whose history is that of being continuously transformed by the power of capital since the 19th century. It is not a landscape the traditional English sense of a picture of natural inland scenery, or the Australian sense of a national landscape painting associated with Romanticism as in the Heidelberg School. Landscape in this traditional sense usually veils historically specific social relations behind the smooth and often aesthetic appearance of “nature. The tradition of the landscape in the visual arts acts to “naturalize” what is deeply cultural, social and economic.
The emphasis of the Port Adelaide photography, which is on place and the mapping of place, is a part of the tradition of chorography that seeks to understand and represent the unique character of individual places. In chorography, the skills of the artist (painter and writer) were more relevant than those of the astronomer and mathematician, which were critical in geography. Choreography is a part of the pictorial topographic mapping tradition.
The spatial turn is associated with the importation of French theory, in particular the work of Braudel, Bachelard, Foucault, Lefebvre, de Certeau, and Virilio, which newly emphasized the power relations implicit in the landscape. The geographer Edward Soja in his Postmodern Geographies (1989) observed that by the early 1970s, many people in the field sought alternative paths to rigorous geographical analysis that were not reducible to pure geometries. In this new critical geography, rather than being seen only as a physical backdrop, container, or stage to human life, space is more insightfully viewed as a complex social formation, part of a dynamic process. Space is a social product rooted in human practices, and it is no longer viewed as a container or a setting, or as a given entity, inert and naturalised.
By making this argument, geographers opened their discipline to humanists and social scientists who found congenial both a skepticism toward positivist social science, scientism, and a focus on the texture of experience. For non-geographers, the spatial turn has been largely defined by a greater awareness of place, manifested in specific sites where human action takes place. The studies of place in the humanities have tended to focus on the particular, the narrative, and the concrete, to show a strong sense of the constructedness of place, of placemaking as an ongoing and always contested process, and of the creative variety of cultural practices employed for placemaking.
This spatial turn represents a rupture with the pictorial English sense of landscape as an aesthetically unified space that designates a type of painting. In this type of painting landscape is seen, either framed within a sketch or painting, composed within the borders of a map, or viewed from a physical eminence through receding planes of perspective. Its roots lie in those landowners seeking to represent their newly acquired or consolidated estates or properties. These are manufactured landscape images that tap into the desires and fears of living people who respond by creating imaginative geographies that shape in large measure their embodied experience of Australia as landscape.
The topographical approach to photography is a part of this spatial turn in the humanities as it explores change through spaced shows that space is made not, not given, and that it is constantly reproduced and transformed in daily life.