critical writing, large format, trees

Photography and the anti-pastoral: part 1

September 21, 2023

One problem with the colonial pastoral landscape as the middle ground between the city and wilderness is the masking and displacing of environmental destruction by nostalgic valuations of the very spaces and biosystems that were being destroyed. Another is that settler pastoralism historically denied and concealed the dispossession and the destruction of the First Nations people. Thirdly, the settler pastoral no longer makes sense in the Anthropocene, as it is an outmoded genre because the relation between the human and nonhuman worlds is no longer a harmonious one; it has become destructive. Both the Anthropocene being premised on the collapse of the human/nature divide and the current environmental crisis, in so far as it affects both the land and its inhabitants and the human and the more-than-human, challenges us to reconsider our conceptions of nature. To be contemporary an ecologically orientated photography and philosophy need to be critical of the pastoral tradition and no longer be nice and green and a celebration of all things natural.

If the aesthetic categories of the pastoral and picturesque are rejected then we are left with the Romantic sublime. In Australian photographic culture this has been developed by Bill Henson. Henson is an important figure because unlike many photographers who hold aesthetics in low esteem Henson does not have a fear of aesthetics; does not think that its time is well and truely over; nor does he reduce aesthetics to beauty then dismiss it wholesale. He accepts the core of the Romantic revolution, namely the institution of art as ontological knowledge and that art is an object of philosophy. The celebrated style of Bill Henson’s landscapes, which were shown in an exhibition in the Castlemaine Art Gallery in 2016, work within and develop, the tradition of the Romantic sublime in Australian as dreamscapes.

An accessible and useful interpretation of the Romantic aesthetic background in the art institution is given by M. H. Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953). Abrams uses two metaphors to characterize the 18th and 19th-century English literature, respectively:—the mirror as a cool, intellectual reflection of outward reality and the lamp as an illumination shed by artists upon their inner and outer worlds. The shift of emphasis from the former to the latter he takes to be the decisive event in the Romantic theory of knowledge as it emerged around the beginning of the nineteenth century. The artwork ceases to function as a mirror reflecting some external reality and becomes a lamp which projects its own internally generated light onto things. The underlying concept for the lamp is expression.

The mirror lamp duality is entrenched in Australia and if it situates Henson’s landscapes as developing the Romantic tradition, then it places nineteenth century photographers such as Captain Samuel Sweet in Adelaide in the mirror tradition. Though my large format photographic approach to the landscape would be situated within the mirror tradition, the the mirror metaphor doesn’t make sense of the way I approach my photography. This involves checking things out, thinking critically about the subject, and making judgements about how to photograph. My large format photography at Mt Arapiles-Tooan State Park in the Wimmera Plains in Victoria illustrates this approach.

Part 2 of ‘Photography and the anti-pastoral’ will be published soon.

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