The Covid-19 exhibition

It increasingly looks as if the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has resulted from the virus being transmitted from wild animals to humans. The public health response to the pandemic in Australia was a nation-wide lockdown that started on 21st March. This meant that we had to stay at home (self-isolate) apart from necessary visits to the supermarket, a medical centre, or a pharmacy. Though we could exercise within our own postcode, we were required to practice social distancing in public spaces.

The first step in easing the lockdown restrictions on the 12th of May meant that in South Australia we could go to cafes and restaurants within the limits of a maximum of 10 people eating outside and social distancing. On the 22nd of May 10 people were allowed inside. We could travel within the state’s borders, caravan parks could open and tourist travel within South Australia’s state borders was encouraged. From June 1 up to 80 people will be allowed at restaurants, cafes, wineries, pubs, breweries and bars; cinemas, theatres, museums and galleries; and gyms  provided that there’s no more than 20 to a group. South Australia’s borders remain closed. These could be opened to some states in early July.

Southern Ocean

This step by step easing of restrictions is designed to avoid a second wave of the virus. It means that we are living with the Covid-19 virus for a year or more– until a vaccine is found. Given the ongoing community transmission emerging from the break down in hotel quarantine for overseas travellers there will be no economic “snapback” to life as it was before the pandemic; or a flicking the switch back to small government and free markets, or a return to the austerity mode of governance (the “deficit up = taxes will rise or spending will be cut” meme).

The Covid-19 virus has  caused deep structural damage to the supply side of the economy, destroyed an unknown number of businesses, devastated the labour force, caused long-term damage to the balance sheets of households, banks and companies, and triggered cascading financial crises across the world. The slow recovery is a rebuild into a world different to the one we once knew.

The above photos were made during the early stages of the nationwide lockdown – prior to the easing of the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

Gary Sauer-Thompson is a photographer and blogger based in Encounter Bay on the southern Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia. Gary  has an M.Com in economics (Canterbury University, New Zealand), studied photography at the Photography Images College in South Melbourne, and has a PhD in Philosophy (from Flinders University of South Australia). He has published a number of books and he exhibits regularly. He has worked as an economist, a tramways conductor, an academic, and a political and policy advisor.

Wellington, New Zealand, 2020 photo by Sally Jackman

Gary left full-time paid work in Canberra in 2011 to become a independent photographer. He runs the poodlewalks and Mallee Routes websites, which explore different approaches to contemporary photography.

A substantial part of Gary’s photography emerges from his walking with the standard poodles. Currently the poodles are Kayla:

Sony a7R111
Kayla, Rosetta Head, Victor Harbor

and Maleko:

Sony A7 R111
Maleko, Kings Head, Waitpinga

The poodlewalks are twice a day: in the morning with Kayla and in the afternoon with Maleko. Suzanne and I swap around.

The place-based photos in this exhibition were made by Gary Sauer-Thompson and form part of the Fleurieuscapes project. They were made during the Covid-19 lockdown when Gary was on the morning and evening poodle walks along both the coast and the back country roads, and are a supplement, and a background to, Gary’s contribution to the Friends of Photography Group’s (FOPG) online exhibition of film photography. The photos in the FOPG exhibition were also made during the Covid-19 lockdown.

The photos in the exhibition are reproductions of the negative in a networked digital culture in which we all now live. The film was exposed using medium format film cameras (a Rolleiflex SL66 and a Rolleiflex TLR) with the negatives developed by an employee at Atkins Lab. The negative is scanned into a digital file, post-processed using Adobe’s Lightroom software and uploaded to the virtual gallery. If prints are to be made from these digital files, then these would be made by a skilled printer employed at Atkins Lab. This is an example of the expanding field of photography against the backdrop of increasing digitalisation and dematerialisation.

Rolleiflex TLR
rubbish, dump, Waitpinga 2019

If these multiple reproductions represent the continuation of the analogue in a digital form, then reproduction is at the heart of photography’s existence.  The process of reproduction with its collective labour brings the economics of photographic practice into the foreground. Photography’s history, however, is haunted its own ghost—eg., a linear historical narrative, the purity of the medium, the photographic canon, and a master image presented as an act of personal expression of an artistic genius–that veil the multiple reproducibilities of photography.

The photos in the Covid-19 exhibition emerge from an intimate knowledge of the local area or place that has been acquired from the daily poodlewalks. The emphasis is on the object, rather than the subject; without the image of the object being seen as a self-enclosed entity that can be examined in isolation. The image, by its very nature, refers to all manner of parallel, contiguous and tangential images, texts, genres and discourses. Hence the proliferation of meaning beyond what is explicit in the image. 

Natural and artistic beauty

In modernity nature and history have been treated as two separate spheres with the natural sciences and the humanities as the forms of knowledge corresponding to them. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment Adorno and Horkheimer argue that if the Enlightenment’s mastery over nature meant the liberation human beings from nature, then  the history of capitalist modernity is a history of the destruction of nature. The picture could not be clearer: nature is on the verge of extinction due to our consumption, flying, mining and burning of oil.  

In Aesthetic Theory Adorno’s account of of art history, natural beauty was replaced by artistic beauty a long time ago (ie., with Schelling and Hegel). Adorno insists that our encounter with nature is always mediated, but at the same time nature is a moment outside society and history. Nature ultimately resists appropriation, silently refutes our concepts and our thinking.  Adorno argues that the point with natural beauty is that it contains amemory of this loss. This means that natural beauty is a memory of “a condition free from domination”. Something is still there deep down, beneath all progress; something that could be sensed only in the aesthetic experience.

granitescape near Petrel Cove

A classic example is Australian wilderness photography, which is orientated to showing and preserving the natural beauty of what remains of wild nature in modernity. What is still there is the reconciliatory, non-dominative moment found in natural beauty. Moments of natural beauty are a sudden emergence, vanishing as soon as we try to verbalize them. Art suggests the transience evoked by the experience of natural beauty. If we attempt to articulate natural beauty, its fleetingness inevitably escapes us, and we end up describing nature, and so are back once again subsuming (natural) objects into our concepts:

At the same time, natural beauty contains a promise of freedom, that is, a possibility yet to come. Natural beauty contains an opening towards something that we still do not recognize, something constantly waiting to spring forth. Adorno argues that art harbors a possibility to connect to this nature-to-come. Art does contain exclusive traces of what is lost and art is our best option to get out of the anthropocentrism which prevents us from even understanding the current situation. 

The memory/promise that nature contained is now preserved in the artwork.This does not mean to portray nature—rather art stands in for nature in the sense of referring to a meaning that exceeds what is there. The experience of natural beauty suggests that for a moment everything could be different. History is suspended. There is a promise of something else–the possibility of a reconciliation between subject and object as opposed to the domination of the object  by the knowing subject apprehending objects through concepts. 

Whilst I was working on The Covid-19 exhibition with my film camera and tripod I also made a number of handheld scoping images and snapshots with my digital camera— a Sony a7 R111.This is my everyday camera, in the sense that I always carry it with me whilst I am on the poodlewalks.

These supplementary photos are snapshots as they are more spontaneous and of the moment when compared to the more studied and controlled film photos in the Covid-19 exhibition.


Some indiction of what work and transport within our cities could look like in a post-isolation society. Here is some reading on plagues and pandemics from the archives of the New York Review of Books.

Notes on photography as art works. 

Art photography is deemed to be autonomous in modernity in that it has historically been liberated from its social function origins in its mythical and religious past.  Modern art was not to be bounded by the limits of the past. Art shakes off the past by freeing itself from the past. The history of art is always the yet to come. The feature of autonomous art is the creation of something without direct purpose or function, albeit an art with a cultural role to make available those experiential and imaginative dimensions of our lives that lie outside the boundaries of scientific and conceptual discourses. Art is autonomous—of both the artistic tradition and a controlling social world.

The crisis of modernity is the gulf or the ever widening rift between the growing dominance of the instrumental rationality of the empirical sciences and the first person experiences and values deprived of religious sanction. From Kant onwards aesthetic experience was tasked with negotiating this gulf/rift, or the diremptions of modernity. Hegel introduces art’s dialectical capacity to reflect on its own powers and limits and to point beyond itself. Twentieth century modernism is art reflecting on its disenchanted awareness of its own limitations and its celebration of art’s capacity to dwell in aporia and contradictions.

This conception of autonomy is linked by Adorno to the concept of consistency, by which is meant the idea of a work being identical to its structure —the artwork is an integrated totality.  The coherence  of the work —its truth— is consistent within itself, but it is also open to that which lies beyond its autonomous sphere. The material and structure of the autonomous art work unconsciously contains the social relations of modern capitalism.  

However,  this being -in-itself conception of the autonomous art work is illusory on two accounts. Its autonomy is an illusion given the commodity character of all art in a capitalist society where commodification is the dominant mode of social relations. Secondly,  art’s presentation of itself as being-in-itself is negated by the means of  this presentation being constructs. 

Illusion is a defining characteristic of art works in that an art work is an art work insofar as it pretends to be something that it is not.  Art works pretend to be coherent meaningful, unified wholes. They pretend to being-in-itself. The illusory quality of art conceals the artwork’s material  historical production. The art work’s manner of coming to be negates the very claim to existence that they propagate. 

Rolleiflex SL66
granite study, Waitpinga

The illusionary aspect of an art work is that it seeks to conceal its materiality (history ) and its  true meaning, Yet on the other hand is the unmistakable objective character of art works—art works are objects in the world. Art’s illusion presentation of itself as immediacy or being-inn-itself is how art appears. This is illusion as semblance (Schein)—phenomenality or  appearance as a shining forth  of essence. Appearance or semblance (Schein) is the domain of images

Art establishes its autonomy against commodification, despite being constituted by it.The commodity is defined by the independence of its exchange-value from its use value. In so far as autonomous art achieves a claim to what is not exchangeable, it becomes the ironic form in which uses can be recovered from their exchangeable form. The autonomous artwork is akin to the magical fetish in revealing what the autonomy of capital represses: that everything cannot be reduced to exchange-value. 

Rolleiflex SL66
Dep’s Beach

This is Adorno’s account of the modern artwork in the 20th century: — an account structured on the dialectic of enigmatic art based on the opposition between appearance/phenomenality and objectification/reification. There is an interplay of the artwork’s surface level phenomenally as a sensuous object and the artworks underlying force as a formal construct. However, since the artworks’s underlying objective structuration is actualised only in the realm of phenomenally, the phenomenal dimension of the art work participates equally in the workings of force.

The spirit (forms of experience or value) of the artwork emerges from the agon between force and Schein, each resisting the pull of the other, yet in that resistance, reversing into its own opposite. The art work becomes a force field of antagonisms–a field of forces–and so the locus of agency is the artwork, not the aesthetic subject as it was for the Jena Romantics (e.g., Friedrich Schlegel) and the American photographic modernists. For the latter (and the postmodernists) agency lies squarely with the aesthetic ironist, whose process of self-formation embraces the inherently unsettled tensions of the forms of thought in relation to the world, oscillates between various attitudinal stances, and distances one’s self-understanding from one’s emerging form of life.

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