exhibitions, film, Mallee, topographics

The Mallee project starts

July 13, 2016

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.

garage, Tailem Bend

garage, Tailem Bend

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.

 railway station, Ouyen

railway station, Ouyen

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.

 Szarkowski here separates critique from photographic observation, and does so in such a way that this new mode of documentary photography can be understood as a model of politically neutral and critically uninflected observation.  In  divorcing seeing from critical theorizing about the nature of what was being seen enabled  Szarkowski to open up a legitimated space in the art institution into which  photographers could retreat from politics into the more abstracted realm of form.
Historically, the documentary mode of photography  in Australia was also associated initially with the mass media  magazines and newspapers in the 20th century. This tradition, which metamorphosed into photojournalism,   witnessed a steady devaluation of the primacy of the documentary photography in the form  of a public narrative,  due to  the sudden and vast influence of television; secondly by the equally transformative effects of commercial  news broadcasting; and thirdly by the advent of the Internet and wireless technologies. As a result the photojournalists on the various Fairfax and News Corp  newspapers in Australia were increasingly made redundant through  the 1st decade of the 21st century.


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.

Singer, Ouyen

Singer, Ouyen

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.





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