archives, Melbourne, topographics

Stuart Murdoch + topographics

July 25, 2021

The image below was a time when I made on a deliberate excursion to a part of town I had stumbled upon.

Stuart Murdoch, terrain, 1989/1990

Collecting sailors from ships and dropping them in the CBD was a common job. This ‘job’ took me to what was then a swamp under and around the Westgate bridge. One side has become a popular park and reserve. The other side a busy dock and terminal for the delivery of imported vehicles.  The powerlines in both these pictures had me at one point contemplating a body of work centred around these structures. Both these places were ignored and in the case of the swamp actually dangerous.

At the time I made them I was very happy with them as pictures and now as I look back over my work nearly 40 years later they now have another significance in mapping my own experience of the place I call home, Melbourne. This space too has changed significantly. It has become an extension of the Port of Melbourne. This was originally a swamp and the reclamation began in the 1980s as evidenced by the piles of rubble in the foreground of the picture. Revisiting this place recently all traces of the swamp are gone and most of the areas is heavy manicured and reclaimed. Only the power lines exist still and they are fenced off.

History is important. Consider this image of Brooklyn:

Stuart Murdoch, Brooklyn, 1996

It encapsulates what Melbourne has changed from, particularly in the western suburbs. Things have changed so much in this location I can only roughly place it in my mind. So to re-shoot in a topographical survey manner would be difficult. The creek, is still there but the infrastructure in the background puzzles me as to its exact spot. All the elements come together though and it has the right amount of evidence of human input while nature clings on tenaciously.

What I suspect has happened is that cultural shifts and attitudes to these space have attempted to redress the years of neglect from the industrial areas of Melbourne, making a greener more resilient space that contributes to the micro climate of the area. As well as many other benefits for the environment and the community.

GST: Do you have any sense of the suburban location of this terrain image?

SM: This was made in the then swamp under the West Gate Bridge on the Port Melbourne side of the Maribrynong River. The land has all been reclaimed and is now part of the dock infrastructure of Melbourne. Accessible by vehicle but there is no parking. There is a park adjacent with ample parking though. Accessing this area during a weekday  could be problematic as there would be a LOT of truck movements going on. This map link is roughly where I made the image in the early 1990s.

GST: I would like to pick up on the St. Albans picture (circa 1990) and look at it in terms of it being a part of the New Topographics tradition/movement. What strikes me about this image is the environmental undercurrent to the New Topographics conception of the “man” altered landscape.

Giselda Parak in her interesting article , ‘From Topographic’ to’ Environmental’:– A Look into the Past and Present Topographic Movement (Depth of Field, Vol 7, No 1, December 2015) argues that the New Topographics exhibition can be understood as a catalyst of a transnational movement; that the ‘topographical’ perspective developed in centers that were independent of each other with various time-lags between them, and was shaped by different players; the individuals often only knew by hearsay of their American ‘precursors’; and that the label ‘New Topographics’ neglected the immanent references to the environment made by the photographers.

So the question is: were you conscious of the environmental dimension of the ‘man altered landscape’ when you made this photo? If so, what were these considerations? If not, when did you become conscious of the environmental dimension of these urbanscapes, and how did this shape how you made your photos.

SM: I doubt that my thinking at the time was really considering the environmental movement.I was very familiar with it of course. I remember the image used by Labour to help win their election to power in the 1980s for example. For a while at the beginning of my studies I attempted to find and make images in the vein of Ansel Adams and Peter Dombrovski. I soon realised this was futile as I had neither the time nor the resources to reach truly wild places like Dombrovski’s 1980/81 image of Morning Mist, Rock Island Blend, Franklin River Tasmania used by Labor in the election campaign that led them to power in the mid-1980s. At some point I had actively begun searching for places on the edge of Melbourne where growth was encroaching on the landscape.

Very early in my formal training I decided that my work was not intended to be read as a political/environmental statement. My intention had been to find some other poetic connection, I was always thinking about Robert Adams’ essays. In particular his ideas that expressed how the landscape can transcend the individual into the cultural and geographic in the essay . (‘Truth and Landscape’, pg 13-20 in Essays in Defense of Traditional Values, 1981). Like so many creative endeavours it was part of a longer self-directed journey, that I had begun at Art school and continued on afterwards, in a kind of blind and ad-hoc way.

Stuart Murdoch, Doncaster, 2002

GST: More broadly, how did you understand what environmentalism meant in 1990? For instance, environmentalism was a big deal in Tasmania and Australia from the 1980s onwards, and many photographers took this into consideration. But what did environmentalism mean in relation to photographing industrial western Melbourne, if anything?

Stuart Murdoch, Flinders St, circa 1999.

SM: As far as environmentalism was concerned, I was aware of it and supported it but my creative work was never meant to critique Australian’s use of land in the suburban context. Environmentalism in Australia for me in the 1990s, meant organisations like the Australian Wilderness Society were interested in pictures of ‘virgin’ landscape which is difficult to access and photograph from suburban Melbourne. Eventually I lost interest in these ideas of landscape and focused on photographing what I considered interesting and tapped into the ideas of the New Topographics and Robert Adams’ ideas. I probably really became interested in the west when we moved here in 2000. It now meant I could quickly and easily visit and document the changes going on around me.

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