La Trobe Valley roadtrip

In the 1980s I started work on an MA consisting of photographs and a dissertation in the philosophy department at Flinders University of South Australia under Brian Medlin. The MA project was a critique of capitalist industrialization, and it was meant to be a politics and art type project  that associated realism with some form of explanatory power or grasp of social truth.

I never completed the MA. I aborted it and upgraded to a PhD in continental philosophy about the need for philosophy to return to, and be a part of, everyday life. The photography was put in cold storage. Returning to the archive now means that this is a photography is looking back at the past from the present—history is always written from the present.

The MA was at a time when modernists celebrated both the liberation of visual art from realist representation as a realisation of art’s true vocation and celebrated the freedom achieved through  art. Modernism replaced the autonomy of Descarte’s thinking subject from nature, society and history with the artistic subject as a fictive being within the play of visual language.

Collapse the difference between signifier and signified– signs are the new reality—condemns the world to textual play, thereby surrendering subjectivity to the prison-house of language and art to textual play. Realism was seen as an exhausted pictorial tradition, and it was reduced to a caricatured ‘straw man’ version of the form and its association with a simple referential naivety – the transparent window on a stable world–with its omniscient photographer as narrator. This was part of the broad drift to problematize or reject photography as a realistic and documentary form towards elaborate photographic constructs or photographic tableaus.   Realism was taboo and documentary could only be deconstructed.

regional Victoria

One strand in the politics and art debate held that art and aesthetic concerns should be subordinated to political imperatives, or indeed that
aesthetic value is reducible to social and political value. Raymond Williams’ literary theory rejects the concepts of ‘the aesthetic’ and ‘aesthetic value’ without replacing them with alternative concepts.  Another strand was held Herbert Marcuse who argued that the subversive potential of art lies only in the ‘aesthetic form’ which liberates Eros and celebrates human subjectivity in a way which transcends every ‘realistic’ political programme.

Within this context the intellectual content of the abandoned MA project was provided by the Romantic, pre-Marxist critique of early industrial capitalism (eg., the British tradition of Coleridge, Carlyle, Ruskin and William Morris that Raymond Williams had recovered in his Culture and Society). Culture was the name for certain pre- capitalist social and cultural values that were lost in industrial capitalism. Lukacs’  early The Theory of the Novel (1916) spells this out. He describes the social world of modernity as confronting its members as a ‘second nature’ of senseless conventions, so that they are, paradoxically, homeless in the world that should be their home. Under capitalism the social world comes to appear as an object externally related to the self living in that world.

The Theory of the Novel is a theorisation of alienation, and it laments the loss of a meaningful human community (represented by ancient Greece), or human society as a ‘totality’. The Greek epic is less a genre among others than it is the expression of a certain social form of life – a ‘people’ – and the poetry of a common world. In modernity, by contrast, forms of intelligibility and meaning are no longer authorised by tradition and custom; there is a disharmony disjunction between form and life; and artistic freedom expresses itself in terms of an ironic subjectivity.

Ours is a secularised, disenchanted modern world  with its fragmented and individualistic (non-) community. The universal primacy of individual experience is the ideology of modern times, in that subjectivity proclaims itself to be the only authentic substance of experience and volition.  Individualism is the hegemonic form of the social in capitalist modernity. 

Most of the English Romantic critics of industrial capitalism were poets and writers, but their sources were the philosophical writings of the  Jena Romantics. The latter’s writings about modern poetry and the novel came to stand in for an idea of modern art in general, with its  freedom from generic conventions and grounded in its newness and individuality. The structure of the modern artwork  is self-determining and autopoietic. 

Lukács held that in modernity the prose of the world becomes specifically the domination of capitalist prose over the inner poetry of human experience. Lukács was concerned with the fate of the novel in modernity not the visual arts. Hence the problem: can the poetry of photography stand in opposition to capital’s prose?

wandering in Port Adelaide

I have scanned a few more archival images from those I made when I wandered around the urban part of the Port Adelaide precinct with a Leica in the late afternoon during winter. The Port had a gritty, grungy, industrial, working class character in the 1980s.

billboard, Port Adelaide

What drastically reduced the need for waterside labour at Port Adelaide’s inner harbour was the development of deep berths at Outer Harbour to accommodate larger ships, coupled with the introduction of bulk handling facilities and containerisation in the 1970s. The 1970s and 80s was also a period of general decline in raw material processing and manufacturing in the Port, with many mills, foundries and factories closing or relocating.

The result was that historic buildings were closed and even vandalized whilst shops in the main streets of the suburb were empty and boarded up. It was becoming a place of social and economic obsolescence, a derelict dockland – stagnant and lifeless.

Melbourne: street + documentary

Some of my black and white Melbourne street photos from the late 1970s/early 1980s have appeared on a couple of previous blog posts–eg., here and here. The picture below is from the same period.

The conventional account holds that street photography positions itself as art whereas documentary photography is more concerned with injustice or narrative. The former tends to be spontaneous and it seeks to capture a moment that would have, without the photographer’s intervention, gone unnoticed. Documentary photography is more considered and ethical in its approach. Street photography is associated with the imagination (the free play of the faculties) and the poetic, whereas documentary photography is associated with truth, matter of fact and empirical knowledge.

alleyway, Fitzroy, Melbourne

Street photography is closely associated with a snapshot aesthetic or more broadly a snapshot culture that breaks down the borders between the private and public realms. A minimal description is a fragmentary photo in space and time with a loose and informal composition that is coupled to the semantic area of a photographer shooting or hunting with a portable, handheld 35mm camera searching for meaningful, memorable moments.

Conventional art history holds that the style of street photography became recognized as a genre in its own right during the early 1930s with figures such as Henri Cartier-BressonBrassaï and André Kertész,  While there are precedents, and areas of overlap with documentary and architectural photography, street photography is associated with the photographer’s skill in capturing something of the mystery and aura of everyday city living. Some hold that the human figure becomes the street photograph’s defining feature. Robert Frank is seen as the central figure in this tradition.

Melbourne: street photos

In the previous post I mentioned that after moving to Adelaide from Melbourne, I would frequently return to Melbourne in the early 1980’s to photograph. I used to catch the overnight Overland train, or hitch hike between Adelaide and Melbourne. I travelled lightly, with just a Leica M4 rangefinder and some 35mm black and white film.

stiletto, Melbourne

These snapshots were mostly photos of various images in shop windows, which I was also doing in Adelaide’s Rundle Mall. Melbourne’s more interesting shop windows had graphic window designs expressing desire, fantasy and consumer dreaming.

The spectacular image culture is the very heart of consumer capitalismThe spectacular image culture is much more than something at which we passively gaze as it increasingly defines our perception of life itself, and the way we relate to others.

Photography at Kew Depot (in the 1970s)

As mentioned in the previous post I was stationed at the Kew Depot in the mid-to late 1970s, when I was working on the Melbourne trams and studying photography at Photography Studies College (PSC) in South Melbourne (now Southbank). I was studying part time at PSC just after its name changed to PSC from the Gallery School of Photographic Art. That would have been around around 1978. Haynes started his school in the early 1970’s.

Working on the trams were quite a contrast to being an economist in New Zealand. The former was a working class world in industrial Melbourne and the mid-to late 1970s was a period when the LNP Coalition under Malcolm Fraser was in power. I remember my political shock at Fraser taking a confrontational approach to the management of industrial matters, implementing an inflation-first approach (contributing to unemployment), repressive labour laws, and in 1982 a national wage freeze. 

No 840, Kew Depot

Whilst at Kew Depot I made the odd b+w portrait of some of the people who worked on the trams, or who were also based at the depot. These were in a naive social documentary style, and they would have been made towards the end of the 1970s, as course at Photographic Studies College required the students to photograph in colour transparency using an Olympus SLR camera purchased through the college.I would take the film to be processed to Bond Colour (now Bond Imaging) in Richmond.

Melbourne tramway snapshots

The first snapshot section of The Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia will start with some of the tramway photos. These will build around this one in the previous post, and they will be based on some more of the pictures made in the Kew Depot.

An example:

George, Kew Depot, Kew

The above picture is inside the operational office. This is where you waited until the tram you were working on stopped outside and walked to it to start your shift.

No 4607, Kew Depot

I was based at the Kew Depot when I worked on the tramways. It was all shift work. I worked the early morning (5am start) and the evening (5pm start) shift on alternate weeks rather the broken shifts at the commuter peak in the morning and evenings. I usually walked to work from Fitzroy in the morning.

This kind of shift made me quite tired. I did it so that I could attend the part time courses at the Photography Studies College and take photos during the day for the courses.

Melbourne snapshots

As mentioned in an earlier post of this blog the first section of The Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia consists of street photography or snapshots that were made made in Melbourne and Adelaide with 35mm cameras and black and white film. This section has been reframed as part of a snapshot culture or snapshot aesthetic and it leads into the second Bowden section.

In the 1970s, when the American cultural invasion was in full swing, I was living in Fitzroy, working on the Melbourne Trams as a conductor. and studying at Photographic Studies College. Whilst I was working at the Kew Depot I made a few photos of the people I worked with. This is one:

2148, Kew Depot, Melbourne 1976

As is well known the early 1970s saw a revitalisation of art photography in Australia, mirroring similar developments in the US and Britain. This ‘photo boom’, as it is known, witnessed the establishment of a number of specialist galleries with curators dedicated to photography; the establishment of the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney; and the development of photography courses in Australian art schools.

This ‘photo boom’ was part of the broadening of art history in the sense of the shift from art history’s Eurocentric approach to Australian art in the departments of art history as well in the art galleries. Before the 1960s, which saw the first widely accessible book, Bernard Smith’s Australian Painting 1788-1960, there was scarcely any general awareness of Australian art.

The River Torrens (Karrawirra Parri) near Bowden

When going through my large format archives the other day I came across some images I’d made of the River Torrens (Karrawirra Parri) as it flowed through the Adelaide Parklands near Coopers Brewery on the corner of Port Rd and Park Terrace.

I often wandered around this section of the parklands when I was living in Bowden, as it was just a few minutes walk from the studio in Gibson St, and so much quicker to access than the seaside beaches or Port Adelaide.

River Torrens (Karrawirra Parri) at West End.

I would often walk Fiche, my standard poodle, there in the morning or in the afternoon. We would usually walk through Park 27A (now known as the John E. Brown Park) across the Railway Bridge, to the weir at the base of Torrens Lake. Sometimes we would skirt around the Adelaide Gaol on our way to the Morphett St Bridge, Elder Park and the Festival Centre.

Roadtrips: Andamooka

As noted in some of the earlier posts in this blog the third section of The Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia consists of the various road trips of different kinds whilst I was living in Bowden, then Ovingham, and finally in Adelaide.

The mini trips include those around the edge of Adelaide. These include those to the suburban beaches to escape the summer heat in Bowden, explorations around Port Adelaide, trips to the Mt Lofty Ranges, then to Victor Harbor (and Kangaroo Island). The longer roadtrips were to the South Australian Mallee and the mid-north, and those along the River Murray to Melbourne and the east coast of Australia.

The last road trip, which ends the third section, is the trip that Suzanne and I made in 2000-2001 to Andamooka in the northern part of South Australia.

house, Andamooka, 2001

A colour version of this picture of this shelter or house can be seen here on my ‘On the Road’ Tumblr blog.

The 1990’s: turning to colour

I’ve started working on the Bowden Archives book, though in a casual way as I’m slowly easing myself into an earlier draft of the book. The current work so far has primarily been picking up the old texts, starting to rework them into some sort of rough shape, and flicking through my archives.

A initial draft of the Preface has been written, as has an early draft of the text for the first section, which consists of street photography images. In the 70s and 80s I was using a Leica M-4 with black and white film as my main walkabout camera, and the text for this section is on, and briefly about, a snapshot culture. I have basically re-defined the street photography that I did as snapshots, or as photos belonging to the snapshot culture.

The third section of the book is tentatively titled ‘road trips’. It will be thinner than the other two sections, but it will point towards my future photography in the first decade of the 21st century. At this stage I have no idea what kind of text I am going to write for this part of the book.

Wetlands, Kangaroo Island, SA 1995

By the 1990s I no longer had a wet darkroom and I was busy finishing my PhD in philosophy at Flinders University of South Australia. Photography was on the back burner and the photography that I did in the 1990s was basically done whilst Suzanne and I went on various holidays and road trips. The above photos was on one trip to Kangaroo Island, which I’d never been to.