from street to topographic photography

In looking over the non-Bowden  1980’s  photographic archives  for the proposed book on Adelaide photography  I realised that I was in the process of making  a shift  from  the then  fashionable  street  style photography of the 1970s to  a more topographic approach. Fashionable in the sense that New York in the 1960s was the centre of  photography with  Winogrand, Friedlander and Meyerowitz  laying down  the classic grooves for street photography.

This is an example of the street  photography  in Adelaide’s CBD that was made from a public space in the 1980s:

Franklin St, Adelaide

Street photography  is   candid photography –in this case it is a photo  of an office worker walking west along Franklin St after  leaving  the office in the late afternoon. This was  during an Adelaide  summer and it was a time  when white socks and sandals were the  summer fashion for men.  This fashion was much more practical in 40 degrees heat  than the traditional tie and suit.

Some of the  Port Adelaide work was  more topographical in that the focus of this project was on the social construction of space and  social product in the form of the altered landscape:

Penrice Soda, Osborne

This photo of urban space is of an  altered landscape, which  is one that has been transformed by human beings,  and the image represents the impact and imprint of industrial civilisation on the land. This project was a visual mapping of the space along  the Port River estuary.

Despite its more conceptual approach the  genre of a topographical approach  to the subject  of altered landscapes is not recognised in the written  histories  of Australian photography, and it is one that the Australian curators in the art institution have  overlooked,  or been blind to; even though the landscape has historically had a prominent place in Australia’s visual culture.

Topographics in the art history books–eg., Andrew Sayers 2001 book Australian Art—  is limited to  topographic drawings in the early 19th century  that come out of the naval and military culture in the early 19th century and which are concerned with recognising coastlines from the perspective of a ship looking towards the shore. It is surprising that Sayer’s  does not recognise that Bea Maddock’s 1990s panoramic drawing of the coastal profile of her homeland Tasmania in Terra Spiritus …with a darker shade of pale  was a reworking of the topographic tradition, given  its  explicit mention of  William Westall’s  topographical drawings made whilst  he was accompanying Mathew Flinders on his circumnavigation of  the Australian continent circa 1801-3.

Maddock’s  reworking  of the topographics tradition indicates that Sayer  has  missed the spatial or topographical turn in the humanities in which topographics becomes a form of mapping to help us understand  a place. This takes us beyond the field of cartography as it  is the graphic  figuration of a place or space,  and  it focuses on the significant features or aspects that can embody compressed time or history. It is not just place descriptions  but the art of mapping through graphic signs.  The topography of place  is made by visual signs or images as in drawings, words or photographs and it becomes an aesthetics of the everyday.  

Solvay Rd, Osborne

This topographical mapping can have different stylises or approaches  There is the topophilia approach suggested by Gaston Bachelard in his Poetics of Space; was picked up by the Situationist International in the 1960s with their cognitive mapping of a sense of urban space through re-appropriating  the alienated city through walking (psychogeography);   then by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan  in his Topophilia: A Study Of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Value in  the 1970s. Topophilia  refers to the heart felt attachments to place.

Another style of mapping is the more descriptive motivation of the images in question, made evident by the  camera and it is a kind of cataloguing the   visible features of single parts of a space or place to create a portrait. This is the tradition of  chorography,  which was a pictorial and sensual knowledge that attempted to give a panoramic or total view of the city through visual mapping.

The third  style or strand is a  formal strategy of  surveying, either by means of walking – a pre-eminent spatial practice – or by looking from above as in aerial  photography  In themselves two very different tactics, walking (eg., the Situationist drive),  and looking from above.  These are often complementary mapping procedures, in particular when it comes to mapping a space  or place.

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