Sunday, June 28, 2015

In the picture: a relationship with place

The label 'landscape photography' is both misleading and revealing, generally referring to photographs of natural, industrial and urban landscapes. However the notion of landscape itself is anthropocentric, landscape only brought into being by the agency and through the perspective of the human subject. As such it reflects the culturally constructed separation of humans from the rest of the natural world. Landscape photography should challenge this dichotomy creating photographs made in rather than of places, being in these places physically ruptures the conceptual boundaries between us and nature.

A relationship with place provides meaning and subjectivity to the making of photographs in that place as opposed to the ubiquitous objectifying tourist gaze which is more an act of exploitation and consumption than creative expression. Developing a relationship with place demands more than simply making photographs there, and ideally will first occur without the technical distractions of cameras.

I recently read a collection of essays and stories by the author and journalist Nicolas Rothwell who I consider to be an enlightened, sensitive observer of country and culture in many of the more remote areas of Australia. He has worked often with the photographer Peter Eve and chose some of his photographs of Central and Northern Australia 'because we felt they answered, or amplified, some themes within the essays,and memory fragments that make up much of the text" (Rothwell from 'Another Country', p. 301).

Both the text and the images talk about and illustrate profound relationships with country only revealed through extended experience 'in and with' country, and informed by the depth and richness of indigenous relationships with country. I highly recommend the book.

Talking about Eve's philosophy and approach to photography Rothwell says "Much like the well-known street photographers of Paris in the 1920's, or New York in the 1960's, who would never have dreamed of raising their cameras until they had walked a city with obsessive thoroughness, so he believed that the bush needed to be understood before it could be seen. One needed to have a grasp - not just scientific but emotional - of how it worked as space.' ( Rothwell, p. 302)

This is not a romantic notion but one grounded in experience "plunging for hours on end into the stringybark forests of Arnhem Land or camping over days and weeks in the furnace of the remote East Kimberley during buildup months." Think of how Ansel Adams or Peter Drombovskis worked, hiking for days and weeks on end in the High Sierra or Tasmanian high country - extreme environments - or more recently Murray Frederickson's work over many years alone on remote Lake Eyre culminating in 'Salt'. 

Great work made out of intimate experience and understanding of country. Rothwell relates how Eve's approach "in his bid to find the code of the country called to mind a detective's repeated, advancing investigations. He was aiming to find out nothing less than how the system hung together: how, in each frame, the light moves." A 'good' landscape photographer needs the spirit of an explorer, the perceptions of a child and a forensic eye.

Before sight is site, place and experiences in and of that place. Time in that place over different times of the day and the year in different conditions - different experiences. These inform and develop sight, only one of many sensory responses to site. So an exchange, interaction, relationship develops. Place becomes what a philosopher brother of mine, Dominic, calls 'storied'. A beautiful concept hinting at the connections to country which are so refined and expanded in many indigenous peoples relationships to country.

Then perhaps the photographer may begin to see, to find images in a place, informed by relationship with that place, photographs with depth and integrity.

Monday, June 22, 2015

These stones gathered down the southern bank of the river beside the Story Pool remind me of the life force in all things, energy seeming to pulsate from the rocks themselves and a purpose in their gathering. I only begin to feel and see these things in places I know well. These things are given not taken... 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Riverbend below the falls

I had neglected my work for so long that serious work with a view camera surprised me with its complexities and technical demands. In many ways this recent trip is something of a watershed. Most of all with the end of a partnership, the most constant and enduring in my adult life. Two days back from the river my Fella was dead.

Early into radical life changes leaving Perth and academia to pursue photography 15 years ago, I took Fella home as a 6 week old puppy to where I had moved just out of Manjimup. Fella, like Andy, was larger than life: wicked, wonderful and loving. I was lucky but the end of such relationships is lifechanging - and there's been plenty of them the last 5 years... Andy, Mum, Dad...

Revisiting and working on the river also reminded me of my relationship with photography. In the few years prior to going East I had been very involved with arts organisations, beaurocracies and the business, the business of 'art'. It had it's pros and cons... you need a map and business sensibility to thrive in that world. I'm not sure I want to from what I've seen. I lost what I consider to be my only ability as an 'artist', lost my voice. The Story Pool gives it back.

But this comes with obligations. Take it seriously, learn and know your craft and don't blow images like the one here with inadequacy. Looks fine in digital repro from an 8 x 10 print scan but focus right hand side is shot to bits etc. There begins another discussion - you can get away with murder as a photographer in the digital world. But who wants to ?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Story Pool

I had, as mentioned in a previous post, finally got away for some time with cameras to a significant and special place on one of my favourite rivers - the Deep River in the southern forests near Walpole. I hadn't spent time there for over 10 years. I lived in the southern forest region at the time and 'found' this stretch of river in 2004. It blew me away. It is a very powerful place as well as beautiful. Although not a remote site, I have rarely seen anyone there, access is challenging at times.

I feel the presence of many generations of people and life from the past when on this valley floor though. The open granite expanse down which the river runs has pools, falls, rocks and rivulets that eminate power and life force. The beauty and topography of this area would have made it culturally significant and practical for gatherings and ceremony as well as providing much food in certain seasons. It has become significant in many ways to me since first visit.

Especially the Story Pool. Like dunefields it is ever changing depending on light, season and, above all, river levels. Water only flows into it for the winter months and spring most years. I can't resist photographing it every time I am there. Compare the pool in the photo above to that posted a few years ago on the invite to the exhibition breath taken in 2004.

The Story Pool always tells me things although I often don't understand their significance for many years. Just to be there in fading evening light is profound.

Fella at Linfarne, 2003.

Two days home from Deep River, though in the darkroom all day processing film from the trip, I noticed my old dog Fella was not well. He'd been ageing gradually for some years and I hadn't expected him to still be alive when I returned from Canberra. 

He reminded me a lot of Dad during his last months over the year since we'd been back together - sleeping a lot, occasionally laid low for a day or two exhausted by life, a little senile. But he was still comfortable and a huge presence. 

The third day back Fella was haggard and hunched, and increasingly restless and uncomfortable throughout the day. From experience I knew the only vets in town would be little help and vets were a last resort with Fella.

 (He ran under a 4WD when we first came to Esperance 10 years ago and wasn't expected to survive but did. The experience taught him little about roads but left him with a lifelong fear and loathing of vets. A visit to them them required sedation and muzzling and physical restraint once we got there. It was so traumatic for both of us that it was, as mentioned, a last resort.)

So I kept working in the darkroom all day to distract my concerns. By evening Fella was in pain. We would have to see the vet when they opened next day. It was a difficult night, and in the morning vets were reluctant to come out here so the trip to town and appointment were organised. We were at the vet just before lunch and Fella died close to 2.30 that afternoon. A great shock.

He was my constant companion from 6 weeks of age, a great friend. We miss him too much. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Since returning to my home I have been unable to just pick up where I left off... so much has changed. Reuniting with my two dogs was very special but, as experienced before, grief made most things meaningless. It takes conscious effort to become enthusiastic even about that which used to thrill and sustain me - photography. This is quite frightening.

Fella and Shep                                                

I finally managed to get away for a serious photography trip a month ago to a significant place made even more so by an event which followed.