abstraction, exhibitions, landscape, rocks

Photography, Landscape, Place

September 24, 2021

The abstract photographic work of rocks can be interpreted as being part of the complex landscape tradition with its contested concepts and meanings. As such they can be situated in relation to the 2011 exhibition of Photography and Place: Australian Landscape Photography 1970s Until Now that was curated by Judy Annear, then a curator at the Art Gallery of NSW. This was a key moment in the interpretation of photography’s relationship to the landscape during the 1970-2011 period as it happened after conceptual art and the land rights movement.

In her review of the exhibition Susan Best, the art historian, puts the issue raised by Photography and Place succinctly: how can photography represent the land after conceptual art and land rights. Best responds by saying that this meant that the straightforward depiction of the land by photography — ie., stepping into the picture as it were — was seen to be of little value or interest in the artworld. Best shows that the artists represented in Photography and Place explore the complex terrain of representing the land in a post colonial period in very diverse ways.

rock form, Waitpinga, South Australia

The artists were: Simone Douglas, Peter Elliston, Anne Ferran, Simryn Gill, Bill Henson, Douglas Holleley, Marion Marrison, Ricky Maynard, Ian North, Paul Ogier, Debra Phillips, Jon Rhodes, Michael Riley, Lynn Silverman, Wesley Stacey, David Stephenson, and Ingeborg Tyssen. So how did the photographers approach representing the landscape after the demise of modernism?

In her curatorial statement Annear says that:

“From the 1980s onwards artists worked increasingly in series rather than single images further exploding notions of fixed pictorial codes and perspectives. The journey of discovery ceased to have romantic connotations and became very much a discovery of detail, occasionally cinematic in scale but as often focused on the intimacies of the local.”

Annear adds that a number of artists in Photography & place deconstructed the view before the camera lens and reconstructed what could be seen in order to present a less partial depiction of the environment.

However, there is a confusion in Annear’s curatorial statement between location or site and place; or rather she reduces place to a location in a space. As a consequence Annear obscures the idea of place as being bounded by (placedness) which is quite different to a location, locale or site in an abstract or undifferentiated space. Annear thinks in terms of place as location in this statement:

“This exhibition looked at earlier work from the 1970s and compared and contrasted intention and effect in relation to more recent photography. It examined photographs which presented very specific views of locations and what that location or place could be taken to represent.”

Annear assimilates the one to the other: ie., place to location in space. However, we need to separate the two since they imply different approaches to photographing the land.

Kings Head, Waitpinga

Place implies boundedness or limit, whereas space implies openess or expansiveness. If place is a certain sort of opened space, then it is a space opened within a boundary.What Annear’s “place or location” misses is the idea of placedness or being-placed as involving a genuine relation to place and a refusal of any reduction of place to something else; or its treatment as merely derivative ie., as a product of the subject or of the interaction between subjects, in other words, as subjective or intersubjective (psychological, social, cultural, or political) constructions.

Place has ontological depth: what it is for us to be is for us to be in place – to be placed. As Jeff Malpas argues being-placed is always a being in relation to place and this forces us to attend to our own radical finitude, our own boundedness, our own limit that is enabling as well as constraining. This is closer to aboriginal people’s conception of country as a nourishing terrain, than to taking photos of the land though the window of a Kombi with an Instamatic camera, ie., the untutored view of a site of a Wesley Stacey. Place, with the latter’s reference to conceptual photography, becomes an arbitrarily designated position or location within a spatial field.

In contrast, Deborah Rose Bird says that country as a nourishing terrain is a place that gives and receives life. Not just imagined or represented, it is lived in and lived with. Country as a place is home that is cared for.

near Dep’s Beach, Waitpinga

In contrast to my rock photos of the northern Flinders Ranges that were made on various camel treks and walks, those of the southern Fleurieu Peninsula are of a particular regional place that is my home. The northern Flinders Ranges are the home of the Adynamathanha people, but this region is not my home. Walking through this country can put us in a detached, disengaged, and often misleading relation to the actual landscapes we are in.

This goes some way to answering the question I posed here: “What would it be like to photograph this country  from the perspective of the Ngarrindgeri people after land rights ? ” We now realize that country is not just land or a landscape. Could the idea of place, with its relational way to understanding human being’s relationship to the land, provide a link to the Ngarrindgeri’s conception of country? Does place offer a different way to viewing the land that creates a separation between nature and people?; a way to examine the interrelationships of people to their place worlds?

If the idea of place does have this potential, then two questions emerge for photographers: firstly, do photographers have to move away from the European perspective system with its linear perspective that was the visual regime of colonialism; and, secondly, is photographic abstraction of land surfaces a viable pathway for the photographic representation of the land after conceptual photography and land rights. Does abstraction represent a pathway to think through mapping the complex terrain of the historically shaped land, as opposed to the colonial ways of seeing and depicting landscape, or the gaze though the window of a car driving across the land?

The photographic gaze through a car window with its single point perspective is not a plausible way to become better acquainted with the texture of the land, or to show how it is to be a part of the land. This splits the viewer off from the objective world and places the photographer outside looking in.

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