The Mallee project is now up and running. It kinda came together, spontaneously. How about that?
Our initial meeting earlier this week at Henley Beach to kickstart the Mallee project was able to take place because Eric Algra had flown over to Adelaide from Melbourne to work for a week on his new Elizabeth project. It was a fruitful meeting that covered a lot of ground. All of us share a fascination with the Mallee, its history, and its social and agricultural landscape. This is a dry, hot region featuring sand dunes, salt bushes, shrubs and strange dwarf gum tree, Eucalyptus Dumosa, usually called Mallee. What’s more we are are comfortable in each other’s company.
We–Eric Algra, Gilbert Roe and myself — reckoned that we would have enough work from our previous road trips to the Mallee to have a modest group exhibition this year. This initial exhibition, which kicks the public side of the project off, will be in October at Atkins Photo Lab’s new gallery space in Adelaide. This is at the same time as APSCON16 is happening in Adelaide— that is, the annual conference of the Australian Photographic Society, which is the national body of the very active, state based camera clubs.
This is the first time that I will have worked on a project with a group of photographers, and it will be interesting to see how the project develops over the next few years, as we continue to build up a body of work from our future road trips and exhibit in various towns and cities. Maybe we could exhibit online or bring some writers or poets in? It’s envisaged as a multidimensional project.
The exhibition space at the Atkins Photo Lab allows us to have a panel each with one common panel to share. Currently, I have just enough work from my photo trip on the Mallee Highway in autumn this year for my panel. It will be the film based work, rather than the digital ones, and my contribution will probably be a couple of framed prints from the 5×4 negatives. I’m not sure what we will do with the fourth or common panel—that’s to be sorted as well as the possibility of some form of catalogue.
The work of the Mallee project will be seen as working within the photographic documentary tradition a period where the focus is on process – image manipulation, performance, collage, archival appropriation and elaborate over-curation. Looking back we can se that the modernist interpretation of this tradition is to contrast the documentary work made during the infancy of the genre in the 1930s and 1940s with the new documentary of the 1960s —ie., Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winograd. John Szarkowski, the curator of the MOMA exhibition of these three photographers, in prefacing the highly influential exhibition entitled New Documents in 1967, wrote:
In the past decade, this new generation of photographers has redirected the technique and aesthetic of documentary photography to more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life but to know it, not to persuade but to understand. The world, in spite of its terrors is approached as the ultimate source of wonder and fascination, no less precious for being irrational and incoherent.
What emerged from the wreckage was the emergence of exhibitions then photobooks during the 1980s as the pre-eminent vehicle for a documentary photographer. These forms offered an alternate model for formal experimentation, narrative sequencing, the rhetoric of the photo, the poetics of form and public discourse than the mass media magazines and newspapers.
The original template is Walker Evans’s American Photographs, published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1938, then Robert Frank’s The Americans in 1958. More recent examples include Michael Schmidt’s Waffenruhe, in 1987, Chris Killip’s, In Flagrante, 1988, and Paul Graham’s New Europe, 1993 which interrogated the gap between the reified public image of national identity, the messy inheritance of history and the lived daily experience of ordinary lives in western liberal democracies.
What these text suggest is that, since the older models of traditional documentary form were no longer suited to an digital cultural environment in which that genre was being debased and marginalised, so new formal inventions were necessary. One way to do this is to avoid the stance of ‘meaning always arrived,’ guaranteed by the transparency of rhetoric and the finality of photographic truth. We need to make the shift to a more open ended approach through the sequencing of images to allow a greater layering of meaning thereby offering more interpretative possibilities of the work for the viewer.
This is the pathway opened by Walker Evans’ American Photographs: a sophisticated layering of meaning, both within individual images and more crucially across the progression of a photographic sequence, that enables his work to be more open, ambiguous, and thus demanding that the images be read. This text insists on the fragmentary qualities of photographic images, and it is this tendency, and the narrative strengths of which it is capable, that allow us to avoid the debilitated documentary practice of the untarnished reality of images.
Surprisingly, people are supportive of, and interested in, the Mallee project when it’s mentioned or when they come across a reference to it. The Mallee, it would seem, has a special place in people’s hearts in Australia. I don’t why. I thought that it –including the open Wimmera plains and broad-acre and dryland farming —was a neglected and forgotten part of Australian history. It’s only an irrigation system of farming based on cheap water and more intensive dairy that resonates today.
The pioneer myth says that native timbers were cleared to provide broad-acre crop land, settlers experimented with labour-saving machinery, they developed methods of managing their soils, and they grazed livestock on native pasture. This was a significant achievement in conquering an inhospitable nature.It ignores the land and environmental degradation that resulted.