coastal, digital, landscape

Edgelands: the Coorong

February 20, 2016

On the way back from Melbourne I spent a couple of  days  exploring the Coorong around Salt Creek to scope  for the second part of  the  Edgelands  project. Edgelands are often seen as dead zones or tracts of land with confused and unassigned values on the urban fringe. Our cities,  for instance,  have many inactive patches of land that fall out of favor with humans for many reasons. These humdrum urban corridors or borderlands  are usually seen as distinctively non-photogenic commonplace spaces.

However,  there are spaces  that are outside the urban fringe between the carefully defined spaces of farmland and national parks   that are also edgelands which have  a minimal human engagement.  In South Australia these can be found around  the Coorong. Most people visiting the Coorong either camp in the Pink Gum wood land near Salt Creek in the national park,  or they cross the waters of the Coorong at 42 mile or Tea Tree Crossing off the loop road to the sand dunes  for their wilderness camping or  to go fishing along  the shore of the ocean beach. Parts of the Ngrugie Ngoppup Walk near Salt Creek, for instance,  goes through  a space that  is  not obviously occupied and not clearly marked by traditional boundaries of farm and national park.

How  then, to photograph this landscape?

I wanted to avoid the dramatic morning and evening light favoured by an environmental Romanticism  that places the emphasis on both natural beauty  and  this remote  landscape being  a pristine natural world that is a refuge from the ravages of an industrial capitalism   fuelled by coal, oil and gas.  This  has resulted in a substantial level of landscape change —in both its nature and magnitude. The Coorong  is a melancholy landscape.

Coorong, midday

Coorong, midday


It is  a necessary to walk these spaces to discover them, as they are not obvious from the road or through a car windscreen the highway.   Ari and I  walked part of this space   in the middle of the day,  so that  I could take  some snaps with  a digital camera to study  on the  studio’s computer screen when I returned to Encounter Bay. This  is a landscape that evokes feelings of uncanny alienation and a mood of dark depression.  

In the context  of puzzling how to photograph this landscape I was interested in  an online  group exhibition  in Terratory Journal  curated by New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based photographer and writer Christine McFetridge, which looks at the relationship that photographic artists living in Australia and New Zealand have to the land.   McFetridge’s  essay is also entitled The Howling Tasmanian Wind—and in  it she  makes some brief remarks  on landscape photography in the Antipodes.  McFetridge states that:

much of the way artists from Australia and New Zealand interpret landscape photography owes its influence to the traditions of American, and to a lesser extent European, practice. Artists such as Robert Adams and Stephen Shore have informed the way photographers working with landscape have developed a visual language that exclusively their own and responds to their surroundings and to a sense of belonging and connection to place.

The idea of acquiring a visual language   for landscape photography is a good one and well worth exploring as we need to ask questions about how we see – and interpret – the land  through photography. What are the ways available to us to interpret and visually represent the landscape?

However, the body of work produced by Robert Adams and Stephen Shore,  which  influenced  Australian and New Zealand photographers and encouraged them to adopt a  a pictorialist approach, was 40 years ago. The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape exhibition  at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York was in October 1975.  Surely, there have been  traditions created  since the 1970s  by photographers in both New Zealand and Australia that have  emerged from  these photographers engagement with their own landscape or environment?  Would not contemporary landscape photographers in both New Zealand and Australia  now look to the body of work produced by their own photographers/visual artists,   rather than  to the  work of the forementioned American photographers?

lagoon + trees, Coorong

lagoon + trees, Coorong

My experience whilst scoping in the Coorong at midday  is an example. Whilst walking in the Coorong I kept on thinking about the work of Fred Williams,  rather than Stephen Shore  or Robert Adams, especially William’s  topographical representations of the Murray River landscapes. I considered that this visual language  was the one that was  appropriate to the Coorong landscape.  Such a language  has little to do with the nationalist landscape tradition in Australia in which Australian colonials sought  their defining moral qualities in a mythic bush setting. Nor does this visual language of edgelands in the Coorong express a  comforting image of a humanised nature,  a bunkering down with lizards, or nature as Gai (or Mother Earth) .

It is closer to the  dryland images of Russell Drysdale and Sidney Nolan in the 1940s,  since  it shows the effects of environmental mismanagement of the River Murray  by irrigated agriculture in NSW and Victoria.  It is environmental mismanagement  in that too much water has been taken out of the  rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin. The ecological health of the Coorong suffers as a consequence. The starkness and dryness is quite confronting when I was walking around the Coorong in late summer. Things appear to be getting worse not better,  and you get a premonition of a strange and weird  combination of ongoing ecological collapse.

Hence the appropriate  visual  language needs to sparse and bleak –eg., that of a dark ecology?– to picture this ecological degradation,   and to  express  our quite dark thoughts about ecological devastation. “Dark ecology,” is a term coined by Timothy Morton,  and it  challenges Romantic views of nature as separate from human action; inviting us instead to “make visible what is hiding underneath.” Dark Ecology explores the extremely degraded environment with its  standard, technocratic management of degraded terrain.  When you’re on the ground in the Coorong  this ecological devastation is hard to actually perceive. You do sense it to varying degrees, but it’s difficult to conceptualise what is going on, and to visually represent it.

lagoons + fence, Coorong

lagoons + fence, Coorong

A reason for adopting and working with  this kind of visual language  is that  sustainability” in 2015 has become just another opportunity for selling things or agri-business PR; or a justification for  embracing technological solutions  since protecting large functioning ecosystems like the Coorong from human development is mostly futile; or  spin to veil  the   view that as we destroy habitats, we create new ones since nature adapts.

This corporate view holds that have to step up and accept our responsibility to manage the planet rationally through the use of new technology guided by enlightened science and putting a price on things like trees, lakes, mist, crocodiles, rainforests, and watersheds, all of which can deliver “ecosystem services,” which can be bought and sold, measured and totted up.techno-optimism that has been promising us cornucopia for over a century. It’s an new version of the old-fashioned Big Science, Big Tech, and Big Money techno-optimism narrative that has been promising us cornucopia for over a century.

Another reason for is that we now live in an  an era in which humans are leaving their traces in geological systems In the humanities, the Anthropocene means the inauguration of a new era in which human activities have such an impact that they have been inscribed in the geographic record. Maybe global warming is changing the way light behaves?

Though there is now environmental water–water for the rivers—as a result off the Murray-Darling Basin Plan,  the environmental decline in the Coorong  that has occurred over decades is going to take at least  ten years  to  show lasting change and improvements to the ecological health of the rivers, floodplains and wetlands. No doubt that will be counteracted by  the effects of global warming.


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