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.


  1. Just reading 'The Wings of the Kite-Hawk' by Rothwell. Like 'Another Country', Australian landscape moves him in strange and interesting ways. Like this picture, he has a beauty about him that is sublime, I reckon.

    1. Yes Dom, I like his self deprecating bewilderment at country and honest recognition of how removed we are from indigenous relationships with country, and 'nature' as first world people enmeshed in the comforts and illusions of contemporary existence. I especially appreciate this as he has and still does put in a lot of his time in difficult remote desert landscapes respectfully accompanying mob whose history with these places goes back tens of thousands of years. Yet he often catches glimpses of the depth of this relationship and relates to the austere sublime in deserts and desert people... without wanting to sound essentialist.