Photography & Place & An Edwardian Summer

April 2, 2011
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In 1975 the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York, hosted the exhibition: New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. It is still talked about as one of the most influential shows of the modern era, with an index of its significance being that second-hand copies of the original catalogue now change hands for more than $1700.

The achievement of the show, which featured photographers such as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Nicholas Nixon, and the German duo, Bernd and Hilla Becher, was to explode the stereotype of the American landscape popularised by Ansel Adams. Instead of sweeping views of a majestic wilderness, these photographers produced deadpan images of suburban housing estates, factories, office blocks, trailer parks and industrial refuse. This was the United States that most people saw every day of their lives.

The banality of these pictures had a revelatory quality in 1975, in an art scene that had already been primed by Andy Warhol’s paintings and films, and the experiments of Conceptual Art. In retrospect we can see how these works foreshadowed today’s concerns about the degradation of the natural environment, and the spread of urban and industrial development. At the time, the instinctive response was to look for some vestige of beauty in these unprepossessing scenes, and many viewers found what they sought.

The strategies of the New Topography have become part of the standard repertoire of contemporary artists. No large exhibition is complete without numerous pieces that propose banality as an antidote for ‘the Romantic illusions of art’- a quaint old concept that has now absorbed more punches than Rocky Balboa.

 

Even though there is no reference made to the New Topography in curator Judy Annear’s catalogue essay for Photography and Place: Australian landscape photography 1970s until now, at the Art Gallery of NSW, there is an unmistakable feeling of déjà vu. In a show purporting to be about landscape there is virtually nothing that might be described as picturesque. Even the cleverly designed catalogue, which resembles a sheaf of postcards, must be seen as an ironic gesture, because the works themselves are anything but postcard-like.

One must acknowledge Annear’s expertise, as it is no mean feat to put together an entire exhibition of photographs of such minimal visual interest.

Initially it seems odd that anyone could put together a survey of Australian landscape photography over the past forty years and omit Richard Woldendorp, who towers over everyone else in the field. A case could be made a case for many other photographers, notably Murray Fredericks, but as a general rule critics should avoid reviewing the show that should have been, and concentrate on the show at hand.

It is important to realise this is not an exhibition about landscape, it is about “the idea of place”. Within the first paragraph of her essay Annear puts the word ‘photograph’ within fright quotes. She carries on in this cheerless vein with a working definition of landscape drawn from American academic, W.J.T.Mitchell: “landscape is a ‘social hieroglyph that conceals the actual basis of its value… by naturalizing its conventions and conventionalising its nature’”.

There are wheels within wheels here, as P.G.Wodehouse’s Monty Bodkin might say. “Social hieroglyph” is a term coined by Karl Marx in Das Kapital, although it’s usually translated as “social hieroglyphic”. It refers to the process of assigning value to an object of social utility. While the art of landscape may be appraised for its social utility, this seems a rather limited way of evaluating works often born of a sensuous, spontaneous appreciation of nature.

Annear takes her W.J.T.Mitchell quote from a secondary source, and gets the page reference wrong. I doubt whether even professor Mitchell would be so single-minded in his views, although one of his theses is: “landscape is boring; we must not say so.” He never approaches the subject with the same mixture of alarm and contempt one might discern in Annear’s essay. It’s not simply that she appears to have no real interest in landscape art – or perhaps Nature itself – she seems to see it as something vaguely sinister, intended to promote forms of social, racial and sexual discrimination.

Perhaps it’s necessary to coin a word. Let’s say that an ‘Annearism’ refers to the tendency to take a comparatively neutral term such as ‘landscape’, and invest it with negative connotations through the selective use of interdisciplinary theory. Almost any term is susceptible to this process. Think what depths of oppression lurk in words such as ‘mother’ or ‘father’, immersed as they are in the social constructions of capitalism and patriarchy.

One prospective Annearism may be that in Australia, landscape cannot be thought of except in terms of Terra Nullius, the discredited idea that indigenous Australians had no right of occupation prior to European conquest. If so, this disregards the genuine pleasure that many non-indigenous artists and photographers take in the landscape. Such works are not continuations of European imperialism, they are part of the process whereby all Australians may feel at home in this land.

Of the eighteen artists in this show, Wes Stacey, Peter Elliston and Ian North are represented by images that echo the ideas of the New Topographics in their studied informality. Others, notably Anne Ferran and Debra Phillips, have photographed empty fields, allegedly to demonstrate the impossibility of capturing a comprehensive historical understanding of place. Indigenous photographers, Michael Riley and Ricky Maynard, are more concerned with the connections between the land and its occupants.

Only David Stephenson’s eerily beautiful series, The Ice (1992), manages to make something out of near-nothingness. Ingeborg Tyssen’s Bush relevance pictures of 1986 are refreshingly out-of-step with the curator’s narrow ideas because they record the artist’s fascination with the rugged, sinuous, grotesque forms of the bush landscape.

The moral of this story is that “landscape” as an artistic genre may be a social construct, but the landscape itself is not subject to such constrictions. Most viewers are far more concerned with the subject of a photograph than its political framing and classification. To ignore this naïve but understandable expectation in favour of an ideological program is a curatorial gambit that might only be justified if it were a wildly original manoeuvre rather than a throwback to those days of ’75.

The perfect sequel to Photography & Place, is An Edwardian Summer at the Museum of Sydney. Where the former show brings us the chastening spectacle of many professional photographers striving to make uninteresting pictures, the latter presents the vision of one inspired amateur whose work reveals insights into public and private life during an era of rapid social and cultural change.

Arthur Wigram Allen (1862-1941) was a successful Sydney lawyer and camera nut who seems to have dragged his cumbersome apparatus all over the city, to the beach, the bush and various sporting contests. Although most of his pictures feature his immediate family and friends, Allen also had an eye for the bigger picture, capturing a unique record of the work and leisure pursuits of the time, as well as great ceremonial occasions such as a street parade for the Australian troops departing for the Boer War, or a crowded memorial service for Queen Victoria. One of his most intriguing photos shows the long-vanished amusement park, Wonderland City, at Tamarama in 1906, with 26,000 people in attendance.

Long practice, slow exposure times, and a certain natural flair, honed Allen’s abilities to the point where he displayed an uncanny knack for composition. A 1905 photograph of his daughter, arms raised, ready to dive into a pool is masterful; as is a 1903 picture of two small boys standing ankle deep in water, staring at a flotilla of model ships. A 1907 photo of a woman looking over the railings of the HMS Powerful shows an artist’s appreciation for the dynamic play of vertical and horizontal lines.

The most delightful works in this show are Allen’s family photos, which allow us an intimate acquaintance with the domestic world of an upper middle-class Edwardian household. What might have seemed banal at the time, outside the family circle, has become progressively more fascinating as that charmed epoch before the First World War has faded from our collective memory. It suggests that artists need not strive too hard to imbue their work with critical meaning. No matter how ingenious their efforts, history will draw its own conclusions.

Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, April 2, 2011

Photography & Place: Australian landscape photography 1970s until now. Art Gallery of NSW, until 29 May.

An Edwardian Summer:  Sydney & beyond through the lens of Arthur Wigram Allen. Museum of Sydney, until 26 April.