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black + white, critical writing, Melbourne, photography, topographics, urban

Interview: Stuart Murdoch

May 7, 2021

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.

Stuart is a Melbourne based photographer. He has adopted a topographic mode of working, continues to run a couple of photography blogs (one on photography and one on Sunshine); is a member of the Melbourne Photobook Collective; and an administrator of the Australian and New Zealand Topographics group on Flickr. He and I have occasionally collaborated around a rethinking documentary photography project.

Gary Sauer-Thompson (GS-T)

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

Stuart Murdoch, Port Melbourne, looking west, 1990

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.

Stuart Murdoch, Melbourne, 1989

This place — Melbourne — is my home.

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Covid-19,, South Australia, trees

Feature: Large format #2

April 18, 2021

This is the second post in the large format feature series on thoughtfactory.

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.

remnant bushland, Waitpinga

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.

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abstraction, critical writing, roadtrip

McCaughey on abstract photography

April 13, 2021

I came across some interesting remarks made by Patrick McCaughey in the 1970s about the relationship between photography and abstraction in Mellissa Miles’ text The Language of Light and Dark: Light and Place in Australian Photography. This was in an introduction to Aspects of Australian Photography (ed. Graham Howe, 1974) that McCaughey, a formalist art critic and art historian, wrote. His concern as a formal modernist was that photography, of it wanted to be a serious art, should work with the essential properties of photography as a medium rather than aspire to produce abstractions like painting.

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.

sandstone abstract, Otways

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.

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archives, landscape, Victoria

Otways: Archival

March 30, 2021

I have arranged to go on a large format field trip with the Melbourne based Friends of Photography Group (FOPG) in the Great Otway National Park in and around Lorne. Whilst preparing for this field trip by looking at Google maps I remembered that I had photographed in the western edge of the Otway National Park in 2016. This was on an earlier roadtrip that included Canberra, Ballarat and Melbourne.

farm, Johanna

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.

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large format, trees, Victoria

Feature: large format #1

March 10, 2021

I have just spent a lot of money on buying film from B+H in New York. It arrived within a week of ordering, which rather surprised me. I thought that it would take at least twice as long with the international border restrictions due to the Covid -19 pandemic. However, film photography, and especially large format colour photography, is becoming increasingly expensive. The costs, such as the ever rising price of film, the various customs/transport/GST charges, and the post processing at a commercial lab such as Atkins in Adelaide, certainly add up over a year. The cost is probably around, or even over, $A2000 a year.

So I have to do something with the large format images, since many of those that are not part of an exhibition, just sit on my computer’s hard drive, and never see the light of the day. I did think of starting a large format blog to justify the expense, time and difficulty in using large format cameras. As I have far too many blogs–and there is the wonderful Australian based view camera blog run by David Tatnall — I have decided to post some of the large format images here on a regular basis.

I plan to post them every now and again and to do so as a feature of the blog. This initial post reaches back into the archives circa 2015. I am not sure if I ever posted these images before. I didn’t really know what to do with them. For some reason I haven’t posted them on my low profile tree or Rhizomes blog.

Ballan Forest, Victoria, Australia, 2015

The picture above was made with a 5×4 Linhof Technika IV several years ago. I was staying at Creswick in Victoria to check out the Ballarat International Foto Biennale in 2015. Though I don’t remember much about the various exhibitions in the biennale, I do remember photographing in the Ballan eucalyptus forest. Or maybe it was the Bungal State Forest near Ballan.

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