This 35mm outtake is one of the exploratory pictures that I made whilst I was working out how to approach photographing the 15 silos on the Mallee Highway project. Several work in progress images from this series form my contribution to the Weltraum exhibition at Magpie Springs in the 2016 Shimmer Photographic Biennale.
The location of the picture is Murrayville in the Victorian Mallee, and I was photographing all the silos on the Mallee Highway whilst making my way to the camp at Ouyen with Gilbert Roe. I made notes as photographed each silo along the way as to side of the silo provided the best perspective and whether am or pm was the most suitable time.
The options that I had were: should I stand well back from the silo and make it part of the landscape rather than focus on the silo itself; should I use backlight to give the landscape a gloomy atmosphere; should I use colour or black and white film; what camera would I use? I decided that I would focus on the silo, use frontal light, work in black and white, and photograph with the Cambo 8 x10 monorail.
In the light of this straight-on gaze of the large format camera the photographic approach of the above 35mm outtake is sidelined to become a part of the Mallee Project.
This was a conceptual project based on using one camera, one lens and one film.It was conceptual both in the historical sense of coming after conceptual art, and also conceptual in that the project internalises and builds upon the lessons of conceptual art.
The title of of the project provide a verbal ‘score’ to be filled out by specific photographic realizations or performances. This practice refers back to the legacy of Marcel Duchamp that stems particularly from his instruction-framed piece, 3 Standard Stoppages. The title is formulated in advance of taking the photographs; in other words, it provided the nub of an instruction which is then duly carried out along the Mallee Highway. This suggests that the project is a very specific kind of artistic activity – that is, following a predetermined route in my car and systematically photographing just the silos.
One historical strand is Ed Rushca and his 1963 book Twentysix Gasoline Stations (between LA and Oklahoma on Route 66), which art historians interpret in terms of v humble objects, deadpan images, no-style photography, and simple documentation.The work of art is the book itself, simply but carefully designed, whereas the photographs inside showed no traces of aesthetic decision making at all, as if the artist had merely pointed the camera out the car window in order to fulfill the requirements of the textual phrase.
Anther historical strand is Bernd and Hilla Becher’s project of systematically photographing industrial structures—-water towers, blast furnaces, gas tanks, mine heads, grain elevators and the like—- to form a network or series of photographs. They started their typology of industrial structures or anonymous sculptures’ or Grundformen (basic forms) in the late 1950s. Their approach avoids ‘context’ and ‘association. As Blake Stimson states:
Their system is based on a rigorous set of procedural rules: a standardised format and ratio of figure to ground, a uniformly level, full-frontal view, near-identical flat lighting conditions or the approximation of such conditions in the photographic processing, a consistent lack of human presence, a consistent use of the restricted chromatic spectrum offered by black and white photography rather than the broad range given by colour, precise uniformity in print quality, sizing, framing and presentation, and a shared function for all the structures photographed for a given series.
The use of repetition endows the buildings they photograph with the ‘anonymity’ or basic forms that divorces the meanings of these forms from original purpose and everyday social function, and to allow us to read them ahistorically and extra-socially and appreciate them as autonomous aesthetic objects or ‘sculpture’.
The silos on the Mallee Highway have aged and are now empty of all but the memory of the grain they once housed and the agricultural progress and utopian thinking they once embodied in the early twentieth century. The silos are anonymous sculptures’ in the Mallee landscape but these Grundformen ( or basic forms) are also an economic architecture, and as such, they are the silent relics of history and represent the failed political desires of the past. These aging agricultural structures still resonant with the memory of all their modern collective ambitions about progress and the Mallee as a place to live.
If the political past needs to be negotiated within our sense of the present, then how do we incorporate the past into the present and weld that present to a future?