The key idea behind the LBM Dispatch, named for and printed by Alex Soth’s limited-run publishing house, Little Brown Mushroom, is a reimagining of the iconic American roadtrips photography book as a series of small newspapers, each of which chronicles a quick trip Brad Zellar and Alex Soth have taken through a different state or territory of the USA. Previous Dispatches have covered Michigan, Ohio, and California’s “Three Valleys—Silicon, San Joaquin, and Death” and the Texas Triangle.
They pretend to be newspapermen and in the course of these road trips they end up in places that might well have been foreign countries. Little townships, small town service clubs and fraternal organizations, church dances, crime scenes, small business expos all quite different from the bland development of corporate America.
The Mallee is similar. Once you get off the highways and into the heart of the heart of the country you find that the historical notions about regional Australia’s cultural life and values are still out there. Sure, they’re under siege with the economic hardship and alcohol but there is a strong local culture, community, social life and sense of place. The Mallee, judging from my Hopetown photo road trip, has a strong and deeply rooted regional identity.
One difference between Zellar and Soth’s road trips and mine is that they do a lot of research, planning, and preparation before they get into the van. They inform themselves about the history, literature, music, and art that’s been produced in the region they plan to travel to and explore. In contrast, I ramble around without having much idea of the place I am going to. I just turn up and take it from there.I’m not actually looking for anything specific; there’s no predetermined idea in my mind. Apart from starting a gallery of historical photos for the Mallee Routes project I know nothing about the fiction, poetry or art produced in, or about, the area I am in.
Another difference between us is that they produce a Dispatch after each state they visit which can then be bought by the public whilst I just put a few images on my Tumblr blog, with a vague idea of eventually producing a book. It is vague because I haven’t done very much towards producing the book, primarily because I don’t know what kind of text to include in it. As it currently stands, the Tumblr blog is just a series of photographs made whilst I was on the road.
Therein lies a third difference. LBM Dispatch is constructed around a collaboration between a photographer (Soth) and a writer (Zellar) who has a history of writing stories based on photographs. In contrast, I am trying to do it solo with little historical connection to a literary culture. If literature plunges you into the power of storytelling and narrative, as many hold, then I don’t have a story to tell—yet.
The vague idea I have with respect to the Mallee project is to link the ‘on-the-road photos’ to a humanities culture. However, the humanities and the arts are being cut away, in college/university education. They are seen by policymakers as useless frills, at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market. It is science and technology that are seen to be of crucial importance for the future health of the nation. Future health here means economic growth and profit, and growth is an idea so entrenched in Western culture that it is difficult to even perceive it as a problem in the first place. Growth is a core element of the progressivist ethos that defines the nature of Western modernity.
For the agri-businesses in the Mallee greater economic privatization is the optimal means of protecting the environment. Hence we have the extension of markets into the natural environment–eg., the River Murray–and the resistance to collective oversight and regulation of those markets. This has lead to environmental tragedy; tragedy as a narrative form, whose core is not the occurrence of a calamitous outcome, but rather the foreboding knowledge that things could not have been otherwise. When agri-businesses rationally (defined economically in terms of individual self-interest)take too much water out of the River Murray to perpetually increase their profit, then the river stops being a river. It becomes a series of irrigation pools.
Tragedy here places the stress on the inevitability of the tragic outcome–the depletion of the commons.