The picture below was made in the local remnant bushland during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 in the late afternoon. It was made with a Linhof Technika IV using Kodak Portra 160 ASA film.
From memory, during the national lockdown we were able to move up to 5km from our place of residence. This bushland was within that range. I visited it often, in the early morning and afternoon on the poodlewalks. I even made a video using my old iPhone 6.
We were on the return leg of the roadtrip and stayed a couple of nights with the standard poodles at some upmarket seaside cottages near Johanna Beach that overlooked a farm. It was a short walk through the campsite and the sand dunes to the surfing beach, and a small drive across the Great Ocean Road to the edge of the forest along the Old Ocean Rd.
The insistence on medium-specificity in the visual arts arose in the era of modernism has become associated with the art critic Clement Greenberg’s commitment to medium-specificity as a condition of artistic value. This was spelt out in the aesthetics essay in the Adelaide Art Photographers c1970-2000 book published by Moon Arrow Press (Adelaide, 2019). With postmodernism (1980-1990s) and the anti-aesthetic environment the idea of a specific medium became akin to toxic waste, and it was seen as just too ideologically loaded.
Yet photographers continue to make photos in the 21st century, and see themselves as working in a specific photographic medium. Is it then possible to still speak of photography as a medium after the demise of modernism? If so, how can we understand contemporary photography as a medium?
The concept of the artistic medium can be traced back to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1766 essay, Laocoon. Lessing dismantles Horace’s famous claim “ut pictura poesis” (as is painting, so is poetry), arguing that these media are inherently different, because while poetry unfolds in time, painting exists in space. He refers to the media as two equitable and friendly neighbours who should not overstep their respective domains. Lessing contended that an artwork, in order to be successful, needs to adhere to the specific stylistic properties of its own medium.
Clement Greenberg’s influential co-opting of Kant’s aesthetics to buttress modernism in the face of influence of Duchamp and the emergence of Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual Art picks Lessing’s idea of medium up and linked it to taste, aesthetic judgement and value. Modernism, for Greenberg, is a heightened tendency towards aesthetic value. He states that medium-specificity is a characteristic which distinguished Modern Art from the previous art forms. Modernism consists in the emancipation of art from its classical role of pure representation.
Greenberg then defends and celebrates abstract painting as achieving the perfect expression of medium-specificity and purity — purity being the ideal state of medium-specificity, the work as uncontaminated by the influence of other media. By escaping from the chains of recognizable subject matter, the abstract painter became free to focus on the materiality of the medium. Thus, painting became an autonomous force that communicated nothing outside of its own self-contained properties. Greenberg’s general idea is that it is by virtue of its medium that each art is unique and strictly itself, and that an artwork is defined by the qualities of the materials used.
The Covid-19 pandemic put a stop to my planned travels to both Lorne and the Great Otway National Park with the Friends of Photography Group in April, and to Melbourne’s CBD to continue working on the drossscape project with Stuart Murdoch in June. I found it astounding that a neo-liberal government committed to austerity and financial orthodoxy locked down whole sections of economic activity knowing that this turn to public health restrictions meant jumping over the cliff edge of the sharpest recession in modern history.
Melbourne has become a no go destination due to the city becoming a hotspot with an outbreak of community transmission in a number of suburbs; those areas in Melbourne with high rates of household overcrowding, homelessness, housing affordability stress and financial hardship. A crucial source for the community transmission of Covid-19 was the security guard fiasco at the Melbourne quarantine hotels for those Australians returning from being overseas. The public health response to the failures in hotel quarantine infection control protocols was to reimpose restrictions on family and outdoor gatherings; a widespread testing blitz in the hotspot suburbs assisted by Australian defence force personnel; then a stage three lockdown of Melbourne itself.
One of the areas that I did explore that weekend was Mitre Rock, which is an isolated outcrop to the north of Mt Arapiles that looks out onto farmland:
Though I walked around Mitre Rock and went back several times I only made a couple of photos of this western wall of the outcrop. I didn’t make many 5×4 photos that weekend. I was finding my feet, as it were, as I didn’t know the area at all and I was more focused on continuing on to Murtoa in the Wimmera to make 5×4 photos for the Mallee Routes exhibition in December.