I want to pick up on an earlier post on photography and abstraction in relation to the practice of large format photography in order to begin to dig into what we mean by abstraction. There are multiple reasons for this. Firstly, the word abstract is vague, imprecise, and ambiguous, and secondly there has been little written about abstraction despite its centrality to the visual arts in the 20th century. Thirdly, there is even less written on abstraction in photography.
These reasons are underpinned by the habitual disdain for theoretical abstractions, which once informed empiricism, the philosophy with which the English-speaking world is most associated. This restricts abstraction to the mind wherein is identified as an abstract or general idea formed from sense data or sensory impressions of classes of objects or patterns in nature–ie, the general idea of rocks as opposed to these particular rocks. This post, then begins to explore what is conceptually meant by abstraction.
Abstraction in the visual arts in Australia is traditionally tied to both the modernist paintings in The Field Exhibition in the late 1960s, and to the modernist understanding of abstraction of Clement Greenberg’s conception of abstract visual art as the pinnacle of the medium of painting, due to it having succeeded (according to Greenberg) in stripping away other media. The art historical conception that is found in exhibition catalogues and art history books interprets abstraction as the absence of figuration or depiction of everyday objects. The consequence is that Patrick McCaughey, an Australian modernist follower of Greenberg, held that photographers should forget abstraction because it is not suited to the medium of photography. That was Greenberg’s position as well: the medium of photography in its essence was an art of documenting the world as opposed to documentary being a subdivision of photography.
If we are to explore abstraction in photography we need to step away from the habits and conventions of this modernist cultural frame in the sense of shifting our patterns of thought beyond familiar aesthetic norms so we can open up abstraction more broadly to new tendencies to stasis or change, eruptions and becomings. We need to look at abstraction conceptually, and not just in terms of what it has been as outlined in Lyle Rexer’s The Edge of Vision.
We have a small space downstairs that’s a storeroom, even though I had thought that I could set it up as a studio space. In this space sits a Cambo studio stand, a 8×10 Sinar P monorail and two background poles that I’d purchased in the 1980s, a fridge for film and dog food, two filing cabinets and a camera trunk for a large format camera. But the photography has not happened, and the studio space has become a storeroom by default. Every time I go into the storeroom I become depressed looking at all that camera gear just sitting there waiting to be used. I keep asking myself: how can I use this setup.
The photography has not happened for several reasons. The studio space only has a small side window and so the exposures are more than 1-2 minutes during the summer months when the afternoon light comes into the room. It is is filtered through the bushes in the garden outside the window and when it is cloudy the exposures are around 4 minutes. During winter the studio is quite dark, and though I did consider some studio lights, I didn’t really want to go down that pathway, or spend money on that kind of equipment. Secondly, though I considered doing still life photography, and experimented a bit, I wasn’t all that interested in that photographic genre. So nothing happened.
Then I came across the above archival portrait of Suzanne that had been made in the large downstairs room with its big window just after we had moved from Adelaide to Encounter Bay on the Fleurieu Peninsula. I started thinking: well, why not portraits? Why not use the potential studio space to photograph our friends? I then remembered that I had initially rejected the studio portrait option as I’d thought that the 2 minute plus minimum exposures would be too long for people to pose.
Then I realised that long exposures incorporate time and the inevitable bodily movement of the sitter during that exposure is a representation of time. The tracing of movement through an extended exposure time is quite distinct from that produced by a series of instantaneous photographs. So why not turn what I’d initially thought to be as a negative into a positive?
This feature is part of an infrequent series of posts of images made with large format cameras. The previous post in the series was Feature #3 of a wetland in the Hindmarsh River in Victor Harbor.
I made the picture below with an 8×10 Cambo monorail in the early morning. It is of the wetlands of the River Murray near the Overland Corner Reserve in the Riverland region of South Australia. I was exploring the area around the Overland Corner tracing the overland route used by the drovers (ie., overlanders) to take stock from New South Wales to Adelaide between 1830 and the early 1840s. This route followed a much older Aboriginal pathway. At the time I was trying to gain a sense of the history of the River Murray in the Riverland region.
I camped overnight in the reserve close to the River Murray and made a number of pictures the following morning. The pictures were for a collaborative project on the River Murray that eventually fell through when the organizer and the lead artist just walked away from the project without saying anything.
There was no water in the wetlands even though the River Murray was just to the right of the picture. The ground was very dry and many of the trees in the “wetland” were dead. The wetlands along the river were dying from lack of water due to there being no flooding in recent years. So much water was being taken out by upstream irrigators that there was nothing left for environmental flows. The decade old Murray-Darling Plan to increase the environmental flows by 450 gigalitres has failed, but the irrigators have increased their allocations. Surprise, surprise.
GST: Now that we have a broad understanding of your project in relation to Melbourne photography I thought that we might zoom in on some particular photos. Could you select 2-3 photos that are an important/significant to you in this project, and then talk about how you came to see, how you approached making it and why it is significance for your project. The kind of photo that I have in mind is one that represents a hurrah moment—ie., I’ve stopped stumbling around, its coming together and this photo points the way, or gives me confidence to continue working on the project in isolation.
SM: The way I now work means those hurray moments are few and far between. Picture choices in the early days were based on pictorial strengths and merits alone. Dipping back into my archive has proved fruitful and it helps me to look forward to attempt to capture changes before they occur. The subject matter that I pursue has not really changed in 30+ years of working with cameras, only the spaces themselves. Now in the 21st century revisiting these sites is important as they are markers of Melbourne’s development along with my own as a visual creative.
The photo of St Albans (circa 1990) has had a significant impact on my work:
I literally stopped the cab I was driving and pulled my kit out of the boot. I did this on occasion, on weekend day shifts in particular. While this image echoed aspects of Robert Adams’ work, it was for me a uniquely Melbourne suburban picture. By the way the site has radically altered in some way but is still the same in others.
Grass fires in suburban Melbourne, and I’m sure in other large cities too, are a common thing. Especially in parts of the city close to the edge as was St. Albans in those days. So this picture has always held a prominent position in my mind. For all the elements captured, and the signs and signifiers it carried. The burnt grass, the powerlines the vehicular tracks, all these signs/man made marks demonstrated a use of the space and land that was and remains contemporary. It continually draws me back in even after nearly 30 years of looking at it as a contact image. I still on occasion drive past it, the changes are significant, but the space is still empty, and now near a major Arterial road, the M8 ring road.
I have finally picked up working on the Adelaide Photography 1970-2000 book with Adam Dutkiewicz that is to be published by Moon Arrow Press. There has been more than a year’s break from the early stages of planning due to other book and exhibition commitments by Adam and myself. We have just called for submissions for the portfolios in the book, and we are now sitting back and waiting to see what comes in from the call out. Though it is not really clear at this early stage what kind of work will be submitted, the book’s explicit regional focus will fill one of the gaps in the art history of Australian photography that has traditionally been written around a cumulative teleology of styles and periods.
The design of the book is simple: each photographer will be given 6-8 pages to present their work from this period, and they will have a text to describe their work and their biography or profile. As there are currently around 20 photographers who expressed an interest in submitting a portfolio and there is some text, the book looks to be around 130 pages. The launch of the book will be at an exhibition of some of the prints in Adelaide early in 2020.
The year 2000 is a useful cutoff point for the book because this is when photography started to go global: the explosion of websites, art fairs, festivals, biennales, travelling museum exhibitions, catalogues, conferences, artist residencies etc associated with the international transmission of objects, ideas and photographers operating across the boundaries of nation states. If this meant that the hold that European and North American artists had over the production of contemporary art has been broken, that the art world has become more event-driven with biennials and art fairs in far-flung locations, then it also means the biennales are institutional sites whose ways of seeing contain an aesthetic regime of experience.