The history of the representations of landscape in Australia was complex, if not contradictory, given that landscape is a contested term, meaning very different things to different people. The modernists, for instance, held that landscape was an anachronistic genre, part of a old, privileged gum tree tradition ‘overthrown’ by Modernism. Landscape as a term should be abandoned it was held. Currently, landscape is often viewed in the art institution to be of little or no relevance in our overwhelmingly urban, more or less progressive, global culture.
On the other hand, the view that the visual representations of landscape (the bush) were deemed to be old fashioned and irrelevant only lasted until various modernists — such as Nolan, Boyd, Williams — turned to representing the landscape after stepping outside the capital cities into what they called the Outback or the dead centre. Then the visual representations of landscape became okay and their representations were not ideological ie., it was not embedded in ideology. Landscape is the framed view whose paradox islandscape is that it is both what is other to the human subject: land, place, nature; and yet, it is also the space for projection, and can become, therefore, a sublimated self-portrait or a field of dreams.
This contradictory history of modernism has dissolved in three ways. Firstly, is the idea of topographics as a ‘man-altered landscape’ that emerged after the influential New Topographics exhibition in 1975 at George Eastman House. Secondly, we can understand the representation of ‘landscape’ as the means by which artists engage with issues of place, with questions about our location in the world – a location which is always, as Merleau-Ponty made clear, originally grounded in our immediate bodily location.
I have decided to do the odd interview with photographers whose work I find interesting and who are interested in engaging in a conversation about their work. ‘Interviews’ will only be an occasional feature of the Thoughtfactory blog. This, the first in the series, is with Stuart Murdoch.
Thanks for offering to do the interview on your industrial Melbourne photos Stuart. The interview will be posted on the Thoughtfactory blog and it maybe cross posted to the blog of View Camera Australia. My observation of what is happening in photo-land is that most photographers in Australia traditionally talk about a particular print, or about their technique, or their equipment, despite, or in spite of, the art world being conceptually orientated since conceptual art in the 1960s. This traditional photo land approach strikes me as an unhelpful way to make sense of your industrial photos of Melbourne series, which has been ongoing for a decade or more. A more fruitful approach is to shift the emphasis to understanding your series of photos as a project.
Can you describe what this project is (ie., the idea behind the project), what you are trying to do with making this project and how has it evolved over time. If it has evolved over time, how has this changed the way you have have approached photographing industrial Melbourne. Can you describe what photographic and or literary or cultural influences have informed your photography, and how have these shaped the way that have understood both the project and they way you approached the photography.
Stuart Murdoch (SM) Thanks for the invitation Gary, and what a great set of questions to kick off with.
Initially I never set out to photograph the industrial in Melbourne. Like many students starting out I aspired to making work that was considered valuable and usually pictorially conservative subject matter. At University I discovered Robert Adams, and The New Topographic Exhibition in 1977 1. I never looked back and continue working in this way to this day. I have seen enough of each of the photographer’s work, leading up to and after the exhibition, to gain an understanding and appreciation of ideas being put forward by William Jenkins2.
Robert Adams especially has for me been particularly inspiring. I have quite a few of his monographs and other books. His early essays, helped clarify in my own mind something I’d seen around me, since my early days of photography in the late 1980’s, but was unable to articulate, until, as he suggests in one of his essays, I found a map and compass and sent out to find my own way. Adams’ ideas about hope are central to how I approach my photography.
The idea that the urban was worthy of photographing was revelatory. But I wanted more than a dispassionate view that Jenkins espoused to frame the approach to the New Topographics. The question I asked myself was it; or is it ever, possible to photograph one’s own place with “dispassionate neutrality”? 3 I would argue that it is not. Though the New Topographic Photographers like Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Joe Deal, may have approached or attempted to approach their work from a neutral and distant style, my own work is more ardent.
The picture below was made in the local remnant bushland during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 in the late afternoon. It was made with a Linhof Technika IV using Kodak Portra 160 ASA film.
From memory, during the national lockdown we were able to move up to 5km from our place of residence. This bushland was within that range. I visited it often, in the early morning and afternoon on the poodlewalks. I even made a video using my old iPhone 6.
McCaughey said that photographers should stop aspiring to be artists and instead embrace the essential properties of their medium: its ubiquity, accessibility and reproducibility. The more the photographer accepts his (sic) role as a photographer and the less concerned he (sic) is to prove himself as an artist, accepting the habits of artist, exhibiting as an artist and seeking a role and status akin painters sculptors, the better off photography is. Photographers should forget abstraction because it is not suited to the medium. Photography is always photography of something.
This was Greenberg’s position: photography’s essential properties were delimited according to the medium’s supposedly direct relationship to the external visual world and that what the medium is becomes deﬁned via what it is not. The determination of any given medium is partly through negation.
However McCaughey’s modernist purity position is one that says what counts as a medium is a given with determinable criteria thereby allowing him to identify a medium or judge its value in advance. Consequently, it dismisses abstraction in photography by definition, in spite of there being a tradition of abstract photography and that there is an expanding field in any medium.
An expanding ﬁeld in photography in the 1970s opens up the possibility of a whole range of new practices can each count as a photographic medium. It would also highlight different photographic practices moving away from traditional documentary and formalist modernism with the paradigm shift in the art world away from modernism.
We were on the return leg of the roadtrip and stayed a couple of nights with the standard poodles at some upmarket seaside cottages near Johanna Beach that overlooked a farm. It was a short walk through the campsite and the sand dunes to the surfing beach, and a small drive across the Great Ocean Road to the edge of the forest along the Old Ocean Rd.