I had several days in Melbourne centred around working with Stuart Murdoch on Saturday editing the 80 or so images for the Bowden Archives book. Thanks to Stuart I now have a dummy of the book which I can show to various people to see how they react, their impressions and judgements.
Whilst in Melbourne I helped Helga Leunig set her stall up at the Other Art Fair at the Facility in Kensington; saw some Penelope Hunt’s images from her Remains to be Seen and Water Lilies projects at her stall in the Other Art Fair; managed to take a few snaps around Docklands; had some printing done at Magnet; heard about an upcoming Melbourne Photo Festival; saw the NGV’s Festival of Photography that featured Bill Henson and William Eggleston; meet up with both Eric Algra re the Mallee Routes project and friends from the Lajamanu trip; and was shown around Sunshine by Stuart Murdoch. I wasn’t able to make any photos for the Mallee Routes project on my way back from Melbourne to Adelaide.
However, late on Saturday afternoon Stuart and I went on a photo shoot on the Western Ring Road. It took us a while to access this location situated amongst the various freeways connected to the Western Ring Road for our topographical photo shoot:
The photographic highpoint of the trip was this topographical photoshoot with Stuart even though it was very windy and the lovely afternoon autumn light had gone. We only had time to scope the location on this urban freeway corridor and to take a few photos with our medium format cameras. It’s a good location for a large format shoot with the right conditions: clouds, afternoon winter light and little in the way of a south westerly wind.
This brief photoshoot raised the question of a topographical approach to photography. What is it? In Andrew Sayer’s book Australian Art (2001) topographics refers to the colonial drawings that came out of naval and military culture and derived from the need got recognise coastlines. Often they are views from the water looking towards the shore. The standard reference point for contemporary Australian topographical photographers is the 1975 New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York which was curated by William Jenkins, where the photographers were mapping the built environment of the late 20th century American western landscape with its motels, housing developments, office parks, and endless parking lots.
In the catalogue essay Jenkins interpreted the exhibition images of the American West and Midwest as being “reduced to an essentially topographical state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion”. The subsequent reframing and restating of the exhibition 40 years latter interpret it as reinventing the genre of the landscape as the photographers grappled with finding a new idiom through which to represent the built environment.
In the nexus of space, place and landscape the topographical tradition in photography remains largely unrecognised by Australian curators. They tend to think in terms of either landscape (in relation to national identity myths) or documentary in the sense of social documentary or document as a record. However, the topographical approach to representing Melbourne’s built environment is neither landscape or social documentary. Mapping western Melbourne is different from Impressions of Melbourne.
Implied in both landscape and social documentary is the assumption of there being different regions or places, but the conventions associated with the topographical approach to the built environment and to place is overlooked. Place is usually made secondary to space, even though it implies an open, bounded region and so is different from space which is a homogenous and extended realm. On this latter account space is an objective feature of the physical world whilst place is a human and subjective construct.
Topographics is a form of mapping in its original sense of charting one’s way in a given place or region. Hence it can be something quite informal—indicating a sense of direction and giving a basis for orientation–in our case an orientation to the city of Melbourne. Construed in this way, mapping what already is can be construed as a place-finding, a term that is in the same league as place-taking and place-making.
What then is place?
Topos in Aristotle’s Physics (Bk IV) is conceived in terms of spatiality as place. For Aristotle spatiality is place and in the text he directs his inquiry by asking whether place exists, in what way it is, and what it is. Topos is understood in terms of presence and it is distinguished from the bodies or entities that exist in it in that it refers to inhabiting and surrounding. Surrounding is understood in terms of a container or vessel. Topos is the most snugly fitting container of that which is held in place. The basis of any such containment is precisely the boundary or border that acts to include what belongs to a given place—that surrounds it in an action of ‘having-around’.
This suggests that place is like a container that something fits in. Thus Sunshine, as an industrial suburb in the city of Melbourne, enfolds its inhabitants as it were. Sunshine is a place where we ourselves are orientated and situated.
Aristotle understands topos in dynamic rather than static terms. So thinking in terms of a matchbox and the matches contained in it is misleading. Place possesses an active power. It exerts a certain influence, and is not a body or object. It is a kind of surface or demarcating force. It is a boundary that emphasises connectivity and points too understanding things through their interconnection and complexity rather than their reduction. It is a dynamic and complex unity in which the elements within it are constituted through their constant interaction. This interaction always happens within certain indeterminate boundaries. History provides ‘a topology of the past’ in that history investigates and describes the structure (the logos) of the particular places (topoi) wherein historical actions happen.
The topographical approach does not depict the landscape per se, but what Australians have built on the physical landscape of Melbourne ‘s west (e.g., the industry, urban sprawl and Australian car culture in the late 20th century), and its subsequent transformations in the post industrial age. Representing the built environment of Melbourne’s west is a form of orientation to place. Topographical photography, therefore, situates the past in discrete places, fully recognises it there, and understands the way the landscape both embodies and supports forms of power, especially the power of money and class.
So a topographical photography, in exploring the placed character of existence, is attentive to place and memory, and is reinventing the landscape genre for the 21st post industrial century. Memory is involved because memory cannot be understood independently of the place in which the memory is located. Memory always stands in relation to the temporal and the spatial, which are themselves held together in place. It is also a form of remembrance in the sense of an overcoming of a form of forgetting.