A key issue in contemporary photography is how can photography address climate change, given the convincing account by climate science with respect to the geological epoch of the Anthropocene. We now live in a world where non-human entries are more vast and powerful than we are: our reality is caught up in them, and they could well dislodge us from our commanding position over nature. This points towards a dark ecology that assumes an awareness of our ecological dependency, coupled with our realisation of how we have been re-shaping and damaging the planet’s ecological systems. If we are to really think the interconnectedness of all forms of life and all things, then hesitation, uncertainty, irony, and thoughtfulness need to be put back into ecological thinking.
If photography is to be relevant to this present, then what could an eco-orientated photography say? What kind of story could it visually narrate? Could such a photography create a cultural space within which very different kinds of knowledge and practice meet?
Though there is no blueprint, such a photography would need to be different to, and critical of, the photographic visions of settler colonial landscapes of John Watt Beattie and Nicholas Caire as these were premised on the emptiness, pristine wilderness and pastoral utopias . It would also need to critically assess the aesthetic concepts established during the Romantic era, which framed the golden age of landscape painting and the visual arts in the nineteenth century.
These aesthetic concepts divided the natural world into the 3 categories of the pastoral, the picturesque, and the sublime. If the first two historically represented nature as a comforting source of physical and spiritual sustenance, the sublime referred to the thrill and danger of confronting untamed nature and its overwhelming forces, such as thunderstorms, alps, deep chasms, wild rivers and stormy seas.
Whilst both the pastoral and picturesque reference human kind’s ability to control the natural world, pastoral landscapes historically celebrated the dominion of humankind over nature. If the roots of the pastoral lie in a form of poetry that celebrates the pleasures and songs of the herdsmen, then this steadily expanded to a visual representation of rural nature that exhibits the ideas and sentiments of those to whom the country affords pleasures and employment. The scenes, which are usually peaceful, historically depicted ripe harvests, lovely gardens, manicured lawns with broad vistas and fattened livestock, were in contrast to the views of the court or the city. John Constable’s landscape paintings of the English countryside are a classic example.
In colonial Australia the settlers developed and tried to tame nature so that the land yielded the necessities the colonialists needed 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 and pleasure. The Heidelberg School’s celebration of colour and light is a popular example of this tradition.