architecture, colour, film, topographics

silo, Cowangi, Mallee Highway

October 29, 2015

I’ve finally scanned the medium format negatives  from the scoping I did  for the silo project  whilst I was  returning to Adelaide from the Canberra trip,  as well as those made  in the Wimmera  when I was returning  to Adelaide from being at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale.  This project evokes  the solitary road trip and  cross-country journeys,  as a working model of photography without the 35mm “grab-shot” style that captured flux and contradictions of modern life with a fresh immediacy. It is a winter project, given the summer heat in the Mallee.

This is an image of a silo at Cowangie,  in the Victorian part of  the Malle Highway  made with an old,  mechanical  handheld Rolleiflex SL66.   The picture that I also made  whilst I was scoping with  the digital camera  at the same time can be seen  here.

silo, Cowangie, Mallee Highway

silo, Cowangie, Mallee Highway

This  photography  of contemporary, rural Australian Mallee  is in the topographical style–an Australian topographics.   It is how I would make the picture in black and white using  the  8×10 Cambo monorail: straight on to the object,  with  cloud cover,  gentle light and some context to the landscape.  I wish that I ‘d taken the picture with the  8×10 then and there; but at the time when I was  in the field,  I wasn’t sure of  the right perspective to adopt. Hence the number of different interpretations I made with a digital camera. I then had to see them on the computer screen to be able to judge which of the  various interpretations was the most appropriate.

The photograph  endeavours to avoid being nostalgic  about the Australian Mallee and its fading small farm past to concentrate more on the object. It is  akin to the work of  Brend and Hilla Becher,  with their connection to  Minimalism and Conceptual Art and their systematic series or typologies industrial architecture.  Their pictures  of the architecture (eg., coal bunkers and pit heads) showed  a resource  industry that was visibly defunct and dying,  instead of the glimpses of hope of a thriving, developing nation that was evident in the 1970s American  New Topographics.  

The US curators interpret the topographical style of the 1970s photographers  of the post-war American urban landscape who took the built environment as their  subject  (eg., the influential 1976  New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape  exhibition) as a  “documentary style”  utilizing a detached stance. Seemingly stripped of expressivity, their photographs were seen to have the appearance of objective or “topographic” renderings rather than subjective impressions.  The latter was  interpreted along positivist lines as neutral, uninflected, and objective.   They were seen to be as aesthetically neutral as real estate snapshots, with the photographs showing the facts without offering their opinions about the rapid development they recorded. Deadpan documentation of banal vernacular architecture as it were.

The Becher’s  work was in the form of grids of black-and-white photographs of variant examples of a single type of industrial structure—architectural forms they referred to as “anonymous sculptures”.   At each site the Bechers also created overall landscape views of the entire plant, which set the structures in their context and show how they relate to each other. Grain elevators  were included in their work.   The Becher’s industrial landscapes were made on large format cameras, long exposures (f/32 or f/45 at 20 seconds),  objects composed in the centre of the picture, the  horizon is  below the 3/4 line of the object, they composed on cloudy days  usually in winter with neutral lighting and the absence of any dramatic effects. They showed these monumental  buildings as sculptural forms in the landscape.

silo + railway, Cowangie

silo + railway, Cowangie

Is there a tradition of  Australian topographics in Australian art photography?

Some of the work would exist in the archives  without it being recognised as such by the curators or the art galleries. There wouldn’t be much as the  topographics approach is  now out of fashion (it belongs to the past in art historical terms);  and the approach by Australian photographers, by and large, to documenting and interpreting the notion of ‘place’ as a subject has been fragmentary—- in comparison to  the photographic traditions in America, Europe or New Zealand. Today, Australian art photographers primarily see place in terms of the city they dwell in, rather than the rural landscape they occasionally visit. That interior landscape is often represented as a mythical Badlands in Australian culture.

We can , however, identify two stands  in the Australian landscape  tradition. On the one hand,  there  are the stereotypical images of a pastoral, and pastoralist, country  in a settler society whose  theory and practice of capitalist land use, and its  a way of seeing and doing,  is increasingly being seen as unsustainable. These types of landscape photography celebrate the  conversion of the Australian bush into farmland. The nineteenth century saw photographers  produce pictorial representations of the bush that helped  to create landscapes that served the interests of colonial power,  and then the economic and political interests of a settler society’s property rights and land ownership.  Landscape photography renders the land settleable —the landscape was picturesque not inhospitable and so ripe for settlement and exploitation.

The second strand  in the category of landscape  are those  touristic and wilderness images of remote or accessible sites made  for  both the tourism industry (Steve Parish) and the conservation movement’s  setting aside‘ of sanctuaries of pristine‘ places (eg., Olegas Truchanas or Peter Dombrovskis).  These promote the conservation of the Australian bush.   Both strands of the landscape tradition  generally work within  the aesthetic modes of the sublime, the picturesque  (eg., Max Dupain’s pictorialist photographs of Australian people and landscapes) and the beautiful that are derived from the traditions of European landscape painting.

So a photography  of silos along the Mallee Highway needs to question its own landscape photography  traditions in which it is located.



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