architecture, black + white, critical writing, history, landscape, South Australia, topographics

the spatial turn + topographic photography

August 25, 2017

The idea of linking  the spatial turn in the humanities to my 1980s photos emerged whilst I was exploring my   photographic archive for the proposed Adelaide Art Photography: 1970-80 book to be published by Moon Arrow Press.  Noticing  a shift in my photography  from street to topographics,  I started to make connections  in  my archive blog  to the spatial turn in the humanities in relation to the landscape and space that had emerged in the 1980s. This spatial  turn refers to  the landscape and space being  understood in terms of  them being socially constructed and continuously reshaped.

The factory in this photo, which was situated near the railway bridge  has long gone. So have the mangroves,  replaced by  a housing development that was designed to revitalise Port Adelaide.  This then is an urbanscape whose history is that of being continuously transformed by the power of capital since the 19th century.  It is not a landscape the traditional English sense of  a picture of natural inland scenery,  or  the Australian sense of a national landscape painting associated with Romanticism as in the Heidelberg School.     Landscape in this traditional sense  usually veils historically specific social relations behind the smooth and often aesthetic appearance of “nature. The tradition of the  landscape in the visual arts acts to “naturalize” what is deeply cultural,  social and economic.

mangroves, Port River estuary

The emphasis of the Port Adelaide  photography, which  is on place  and the mapping of place,  is a part of the tradition of chorography  that seeks to understand and represent the unique character of individual places. In chorography, the skills of the artist (painter and writer) were more relevant than those of the astronomer and mathematician, which were critical in geography.  Choreography is a part of the  pictorial topographic mapping tradition. 

The spatial turn is associated with the importation of French theory, in particular the work of Braudel, Bachelard,  Foucault, Lefebvre, de Certeau, and Virilio, which newly emphasized the power relations implicit in  the landscape. The geographer Edward Soja in his Postmodern Geographies  (1989) observed that  by  the early 1970s,  many people in the field sought alternative paths to rigorous geographical analysis that were not reducible to pure geometries. In this new critical geography, rather than being seen only as a physical backdrop, container, or stage to human life, space is more insightfully viewed as a complex social formation, part of a dynamic process. Space is a social product rooted in human practices, and it  is no longer viewed as  a container or a setting, or as a given entity,  inert and naturalised.

By making this argument, geographers opened their discipline to humanists and social scientists who found congenial both a skepticism toward positivist social science, scientism,  and a focus on the texture of experience. For non-geographers, the spatial turn has been largely defined by a greater awareness of place, manifested in specific sites where human action takes place. The studies of place in the humanities have tended to focus on the particular, the narrative, and the concrete, to show a strong sense of the constructedness of place, of placemaking as an ongoing and always contested process, and of the creative variety of cultural practices employed for placemaking.

car + mangroves, Port River estuary

This spatial turn  represents a rupture with the pictorial English sense of landscape as an aesthetically unified space that designates a type of painting.  In this type of painting  landscape is seen, either framed within a sketch or painting, composed within the borders of a map, or viewed from a physical eminence through receding planes of perspective. Its roots lie in those  landowners seeking to represent their newly acquired or consolidated estates or properties.   These are manufactured landscape images  that tap into the desires and fears of living people who respond by creating imaginative geographies that shape in large measure their embodied experience of Australia  as landscape.

The topographical approach to photography is a part of this spatial turn in the humanities as  it  explores change through spaced shows that space is made not, not given, and that it is  constantly reproduced and transformed in daily life.

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