Photography and place: Australian landscape photography 1970s until now at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, until 29 May
The Australian landscape seems to require photography. The question of who, how, where, how often and why thankfully remains open, at least among the eighteen photographers included in Photography and Place at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Australia, so conflicted about cities, is one of the most urbanized societies on earth, a situation which makes the looming question of the landscape all the more urgent. Wilderness will aways dominate the continent, never allowing settlements to be interspersed as they are in the United States or Europe. The land provokes sentimentality, poetry and bitterness. In the heart of the cities which cling to the coastal fringe, it can seem another universe until a dust storm, fire, flood or the daily violence of the sunlight reminds us of nature’s nonnegotiable and indifferent presence.
The exhibition traces the increasing conceptualization of the landscape photograph during the past four decades. It reveals the particular appropriateness or even unavoidability of a subjective approach to photographing the Australian landscape. A similar evolution, progressive, digressive or regressive according to your point of view, can be seen in the AGNSW’s fine collection of Australian landscape paintings. The gap between the faithful witnessing of a natural phenomenon evident in a painting such as WC Piguenit’s The flood in the Darling 1890 (1895) and Sydney Nolan’s almost dreamed Central Australia (1950) is enormous; the landscape and the human mind are more than big enough to accommodate both, but it seems impossible to return from the latter to the former.
A photographer faced with such vastness becomes unusually conscious of his or her choice of subject. A tree stump or a fragment of graffiti becomes an event and maybe even a story. For an Australian photographer, the possibility of recording what is there is far more difficult than imposing one’s own subjective ‘project’ on the landscape. Surveying the entirety of such a place would seem more the task of a scanner than a camera (Australia was one of the first countries to be committed to Google Street View and this form of ‘objective photography’ now covers virtually every passable road on the continent). The landscape is not only too large, but too (seemingly) undifferentiated for the camera to resolve the sense of place effortlessly captured in, say, the Swiss Alps or Route 66 (a quick view of the continent on Google Earth will show that while the Street View camera logos are scattered all over the place, the little squares which denote the presumably ‘subjective’ snapshots of ordinary folks are almost obsessively clustered around featured attractions — the Sydney Opera House, Uluru, the Big Banana, et. al.).
There is a feeling of the hand-made about these photographs — the presence of the photographer, always sensed, becomes undeniable as time passes. The three large format black and white landscapes by Peter Elliston at the start of the exhibition are more than they seem. A subtle human presence completely overwhelms what might otherwise be romantic desert landscapes (more rough and tumble Anthony Mann than sentimental John Ford). Within his disciplined, deep focus images of the desert, human interventions — whether seemingly tiny (a name carved in a sandstone cliff in Chambers Pillar, Northern Territory (1984)) or of geopolitical importance (the highly secret US/Australian joint defense facility in Pine Gap from Burt Bluff, Northern Territory (1984)) — have a wounding force.
Most of the photographs were conceived as part of a series, an approach which opens up an addition dimension of subjectivity while having the happy side effect, in our digital era, of necessitating a trip to the gallery to see the photographs in physical space, arranged as the artist intended. The Horizon series (1979), by US-born photographer Lynn Silverman, seems to inadvertently and humorously sum up the conundrum of the Australian landscape photographer. Each montage is comprised of two photographs, one above the other. On top is an anonymous flat outback landscape, mostly sky, while the bottom in each case frames the ground at the photographer’s feet (literally including her shoes at the bottom of the frame). While the former are generic, the latter frame various ‘attractions’ — a calcified dead bird, a shrub, an ant’s nest — bene trovato in the seemingly undifferentiated landscape. Compared to the specificity and poignance of these objects, the photographed horizon becomes a helpless attempt to mark the site of discovery in an unknown land. We are free to look at the photos in the order we choose, but logic of course suggests that for Silverman the ‘looking down’ came before the more familiar ‘looking out.’
A seemingly less rigorous series is Wesley Stacey’s The Road (1973-5). These Instamatic color snapshots, part of a series of 280 photographs, capture seemingly random moments in a long car trip. With the itinerary named — Outback to the City and Up the Centre: South Australia to the Northern Territory — the dimension of time is brought into the landscape; there could be two dozen images, there could be thirty thousand or there could be twenty four per second. Many capture empty roadscapes framed by a scrap of windshield while others, such as a photo of a girl opening a gate, suggest the beginnings of stories. Stacey’s other color photos in the exhibition, such as Umbie Gumbie Thicket, Edge of the new forest at Wallaga and Damp Gully (all 1981) depict the Australian bush in moments of transition, perhaps at the verge of a city, perhaps regenerating around some form of wound.
Ian North’s Canberra Suite (1980-1) is both a high and decisive point in the exhibition. Canberra, the “bush capital,” would have to be the perfect subject for an Australian landscape photographer. What makes a city photogenic, or cinematic (not the same thing), is a slippery business which has more to do with being interesting than being beautiful. The camera craves new sensations; beauty, at least the familiar beauty of a Brooklyn Bridge, Eiffel Tower or Sydney Harbour, is not enough. There is a fundamental mystery to Canberra which seems unsolvable (a real masterpiece of film noir is just waiting to be made there). A city which can seem the Platonic ideal of the Australian suburb is in fact never quite generic, adulterated by an inimitable mixture of nature, urbanity, comfort and menace, the planned city and the laissez faire. Canberra’s conflicted soul is dragged out into the sun by North’s deliberately undramatic gaze. The ‘city’ he stumbles across is lonely, desiccated and yet somehow dignified, if only by the fact — another imposed concept — that it happens to be a national capital. The fact that the Suite was taken thirty years ago makes no difference; what we see has enough ‘Canberrosity’ to make the label on the wall redundant.
Canberra Suite, like about half of the photographs on display, is in and requires color. Color photography, competing as it does with human vision, seems to really open the conceptual floodgates for the photographer. A certain conceptual detachment or abstraction is intrinsic to black and white photography, and most of the black and white photographs here play it relatively straight. In the work of Elliston, Silverman or Ingeborg Tyssen, any conceptual agenda is sublimated within a proud tradition of large format landscape photography, a tradition which seeks before and in addition to all else, beauty. The color photograph, perhaps because of its intrinsic realism, requires manipulation on the part of the photographer. Even trying to mimic what we see becomes a deliberate choice on the part of the artist, one fraught with technical and philosophical difficulty. Stacey’s Road snapshots and North’s Canberra epic have a deliberately offhand quality; the color is washed out or muddy and highlights are allowed to blow out (black and white negative, with its superior dynamic range, at least has a chance of standing up to the Australian sun). Their offhandedness creates a certain photographic realism even if the images do not seek to mimic what the human eye is capable of seeing.
The manipulation of color takes many forms in the latter stages of the exhibition. Deborah Phillips’ image (Untitled 7 (view from the model plane launch area) (2001) from the series The world as puzzle) of the ancient and often-dry Lake George (close to Canberra) is spectacular, the closest thing to an adaptation of large format black and white photography into color. Rosemary Laing’s enormous after Heysen (2004) deliberately quotes Summer (1909), a watercolor by Australian landscape painter Hans Heysen. Even without this reference, the image, with its deliberately overexposed sky and pale shadows, clearly seeks to converse with a bucolic tradition in Australian landscape painting. The harshness of photographic overexposure — a quality reinforced by its use in cinema — is completely different, visually and emotionally, from the summery glow of Heysen’s painting. This intellectual painterliness is far more effective to my eye than the almost entirely abstracted, and nearly decorative landscapes of Simone Douglas (Blind II, III, IV (2000)).
Like many AGNSW exhibitions, Photography and Place is accompanied by an excellent film and lecture series. The program presents an opportunity to see good prints of many classic Australian films of the past four decades, some of which which run wild with the sense of menace hinted at in the photographs. In films such as Wake in Fright (1971), Long Weekend (1978) and The Cars that ate Paris (1975), the only thing worse than the landscape is the people in it. Any attempt at escape, whether for Thoreauvian purposes or mere survival, is thwarted by the dead hand of a broken society. There is a pitiless self-criticism in these films, evident even in Peter Weir’s quasi-lighthearted The Cars that ate Paris, which seems far healthier than the strain of boosterish self-congratulation which sometimes infects more recent Australian movies. In these films, as the western genre is to America, so horror is to Australia. Civilization stands not a chance.
Among the photographers, Bill Henson and Simryn Gill seem to best grasp the inherent creepiness which proliferates where the landscape meets humanity. Gill’s black and white series, Rampant (1999) reveals abandoned clothes carefully arranged in a rank subtropical landscape of exotic plants. The images have the quality of a horror movie, as though some pattern indiscernible in the arrangement of the shirts and dresses leads toward the heart of some unspeakable evil. They recall the feeling (for which there really ought to be a word) of a walk or bicycle ride in seemingly pristine forest ruined, or at least irretrievably altered, by a sudden awareness of the human detritus around you — litter, weeds, maybe a little toilet paper.
Henson’s photographs play with the sinister using light rather than any identifiable landscape. The three on display (all Untitled) are much more abstract than his more famous (and controversial) portraits. In each, a recognizably generic landscape has been bent out of shape, degraded just to the point before total abstraction. A sunset could be an explosion, defocused roads and street lamps quiver with anguish. Here and elsewhere it is unclear exactly which category of Australian landscape we are looking at — is this bush, outback, paddock, suburb, city, or are these different words for the same thing?