I have been looking at some recent scans of the seascapes that I made during 2022 with my vintage RolleiflexF TLR. This is a 60 year old camera and so it is no surprise that the elements of its Planar 75m lens that were joined with balsam glue have recently separated. Apparently the issue of lens separation is often associated with the camera having been exposed to high heat situations during its life. It can be repaired through baking the lens to de-glue the elements, but there is a risk of the elements cracking from the baking process. I decided to go ahead with the repair.
The 2022 seascape images that I made with this Rolleiflex TLR looked quite different to what I’d expected. From the traditional perspective of the quality of the image that is produced by a digital camera you could say that these are degraded images and so failures. That is how I saw them when I’d scanned the negatives and then compared them in Lightroom to the digital images made at the same time. I had initially thought that the degraded images resulted from the lens being salt damaged like the Leica M4-P due to by a rogue wave sweeping over me — but it was lens separation not a salt ladened camera.
I put the scans to one side and forgot about them. Some time later I went back and re-looked at Gustave Le Gray’s mid-19th century coastal photography of Normandy and the western coast of the Mediterranean. I concentrated on his seascapes, that were made using the wet-collodion process and from different negatives (one for the sea and another one for the sky) being combined to produce an image that showed both sky and sea in one unified, double-structured picture. He produced an album of sepia brown toned seascapes of albumen prints called Vistas del Mar. These are images from the prehistory of an instantaneous photography, or pictorial instantaneity, which emerged after 1878.
I found these images created by the combination of two different negatives taken at different moments with different exposure times stunning. They also raised the issues of how does photography represent time? How does photography figure the temporal nature of the medium? What kind of philosophy of time, if any, can be found in photography?
I want to pick up on an earlier post on photography and abstraction in relation to the practice of large format photography in order to begin to dig into what we mean by abstraction. There are multiple reasons for this. Firstly, the word abstract is vague, imprecise, and ambiguous, and secondly there has been little written about abstraction despite its centrality to the visual arts in the 20th century. Thirdly, there is even less written on abstraction in photography.
These reasons are underpinned by the habitual disdain for theoretical abstractions, which once informed empiricism, the philosophy with which the English-speaking world is most associated. This restricts abstraction to the mind wherein is identified as an abstract or general idea formed from sense data or sensory impressions of classes of objects or patterns in nature–ie, the general idea of rocks as opposed to these particular rocks. This post, then begins to explore what is conceptually meant by abstraction.
Abstraction in the visual arts in Australia is traditionally tied to both the modernist paintings in The Field Exhibition in the late 1960s, and to the modernist understanding of abstraction of Clement Greenberg’s conception of abstract visual art as the pinnacle of the medium of painting, due to it having succeeded (according to Greenberg) in stripping away other media. The art historical conception that is found in exhibition catalogues and art history books interprets abstraction as the absence of figuration or depiction of everyday objects. The consequence is that Patrick McCaughey, an Australian modernist follower of Greenberg, held that photographers should forget abstraction because it is not suited to the medium of photography. That was Greenberg’s position as well: the medium of photography in its essence was an art of documenting the world as opposed to documentary being a subdivision of photography.
If we are to explore abstraction in photography we need to step away from the habits and conventions of this modernist cultural frame in the sense of shifting our patterns of thought beyond familiar aesthetic norms so we can open up abstraction more broadly to new tendencies to stasis or change, eruptions and becomings. We need to look at abstraction conceptually, and not just in terms of what it has been as outlined in Lyle Rexer’s The Edge of Vision.
In the In Memoriam post on poodlewalks about having to put Kayla down due to her having cancer of the lymph nodes I mentioned that her love of being in, and walking in the local bushland, helped me to photograph the local Waitpinga bushland in the southern Fleurieu Peninsula of South Australia. Being-in-this-world with her helped me shift away from viewing nature (the local bushland) as simply natural beauty; or its re-enchantment (mythos) on offer in today’s tourist industry.
Kayla helped my photography in the sense that being with her enabled me to see the detail in the bushland, see the transience of nature, discover particular settings and individual trees, and to become attached to the earth beneath us. By seeing the changes in the bush I started seeing nature as history. Natural history as perishable nature refers to more than our evolving conceptions of nature because nature itself changes: bark breaks and falls to the ground, trees are uprooted, plants die, animals are killed, the earth’s water becomes polluted from the chemicals in the farm, and so on. Nature shares with human history a passing away or perishing. Walking each morning with Kayla helped me become aware of the subtle changes.
This particular tree in the Waitpinga bushland is one that I photographed in different weather conditions with different cameras and films. On this occasion I used a 5×7 Cambo S3 monorail. It had been raining during the night. The colours were strange and intense. My coming back to photograph the tree’s frequently hanging conditions meant that it became my favourite tree in this bushland.
We have a small space downstairs that’s a storeroom, even though I had thought that I could set it up as a studio space. In this space sits a Cambo studio stand, a 8×10 Sinar P monorail and two background poles that I’d purchased in the 1980s, a fridge for film and dog food, two filing cabinets and a camera trunk for a large format camera. But the photography has not happened, and the studio space has become a storeroom by default. Every time I go into the storeroom I become depressed looking at all that camera gear just sitting there waiting to be used. I keep asking myself: how can I use this setup.
The photography has not happened for several reasons. The studio space only has a small side window and so the exposures are more than 1-2 minutes during the summer months when the afternoon light comes into the room. It is is filtered through the bushes in the garden outside the window and when it is cloudy the exposures are around 4 minutes. During winter the studio is quite dark, and though I did consider some studio lights, I didn’t really want to go down that pathway, or spend money on that kind of equipment. Secondly, though I considered doing still life photography, and experimented a bit, I wasn’t all that interested in that photographic genre. So nothing happened.
Then I came across the above archival portrait of Suzanne that had been made in the large downstairs room with its big window just after we had moved from Adelaide to Encounter Bay on the Fleurieu Peninsula. I started thinking: well, why not portraits? Why not use the potential studio space to photograph our friends? I then remembered that I had initially rejected the studio portrait option as I’d thought that the 2 minute plus minimum exposures would be too long for people to pose.
Then I realised that long exposures incorporate time and the inevitable bodily movement of the sitter during that exposure is a representation of time. The tracing of movement through an extended exposure time is quite distinct from that produced by a series of instantaneous photographs. So why not turn what I’d initially thought to be as a negative into a positive?
I have been thinking about the relationship between climate change and a post-colonial photography of late. I have been asking myself how can still photography address climate change, given the convincing account by climate science with respect to the Anthropocene and the climate heating caused by the use of fossil fuels. If photography is to be relevant to the present, then what could an eco-orientated photography say? What kind of story could it visually narrate? I started a Tumblr blog to begin to explore this, but I have struggled with it and pretty much got nowhere.
I thought that photography could start with addressing the aesthetic concepts established during the Romantic era, and which framed the golden age of landscape painting and the visual arts in the nineteenth century; aesthetic concepts that divided the natural world into the 3 categories of the pastoral, the picturesque, and the sublime. The first two represent nature as a comforting source of physical and spiritual sustenance, whilst the sublime referred to the thrill and danger of confronting untamed nature and its overwhelming forces, such as thunderstorms, alps and deep chasms.
Whilst both the pastoral and picturesque reference human kind’s ability to control the natural world pastoral landscapes celebrate the dominion of mankind over nature. The scenes, which are usually peaceful, often depicting ripe harvests, lovely gardens, manicured lawns with broad vistas, and fattened livestock, are in contrast to those of the court or the city. If the roots of the pastoral lie in a form of poetry that celebrates the pleasures and songs of the herdsmen, then this was steadily expanded to a representation of rural nature that exhibits the ideas and sentiments of those to whom the country affords pleasures and employment. Hence Constable’s landscape paintings of the English countryside.
Human kind in colonial Australia has developed and tamed the landscape – the land yields the necessities we need to live, as well as beauty and safety. If Joseph Lycett established the pastoral landscape tradition in Australia, then Arthur Streeton’s ‘The purple noon’s transparent might’ is an iconic example of the representation of the Australian pastoral landscape. In this tradition of the Australian idealisation of settler landscapes — Australia as a Promised Land — Europeans are seen to be in harmony with a fertile land, a land which has been ordered and produced by them and in which they are able to experience leisure. This involved the masking and displacing of environmental pillage and political conquest by nostalgic valuations of the very spaces and biosystems that were being destroyed. This settler pastoralism denies and conceals the colonial exploitation and the dispossession and the genocide of the First Nations people.