La Trobe Valley roadtrip

The MA was problematic as I only had a vague idea of what kind of realist narrative form and coherence I was looking for photographically speaking. I suspected that the photography made on the roadtrip would be descriptive:—- a series of static pictures in which all is contingency. Photography then becomes an ‘apologist of what exists’–the last thing I wanted.  

Loy Yang Power Station

I still held that photography matters—photography was becoming increasingly central to the critical discourses and institutions of art. The old identification of painting with art itself – identifying the representational system of art, exclusively, with the representational system of painting–was displaced.   The “crisis of representation” was just an expression of the loss of the monopoly of representation by painting, because after photography, film, television, video could also produce images, even moving images, and transmit images in real time.  How could description as a series of static pictures become a critical realism?

I started to address the form-problem through a photographic road trip in an old Kombi to Melbourne and to the east coast of Australia, returning to Adelaide along the River Murray. As I was in search of industrial Australia’s dark side I spent some time exploring Victoria’s La Trobe Valley. At the time I saw, with the demise of Australia’s nuclear ambitions in the 1960s, that the coal fired power stations , such as the Loy Yang power station, were the energy centre of Australia’s postwar industrial capitalism with its identity of human welling with economic growth and its myth of automatic progress.

However, I kinda lost my way on the trip. The Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme part of the road trip—it signified Australia’s modernity premised on dominating nature — didn’t work out visually. I was trying to find a way with few signposts in the Romantic tradition about how photography could be self-reflective and narrate the dark side of Australia’s industrial modernity. What I producing was description not narration.

That is what I was struggling with. Should photography then be an art of dissonance? Could it be? Or should it be a direct committed, political representation rather than a negative art? What did it mean to represent something negatively to counter the enjoyment intrinsic to art, as opposed to positive pictures of selected fragments of everyday life–(eg., a power station in a pastoral landscape), or the directness of committed political art?

Loy Yang Power Station, La Trobe Valley

I did manage to photograph the old brown coal-fired Yallourn C D and E power station in the La Trobe Valley. These polluting, industrial monsters were my interpretation of Australia’s version of 19th century Britain’s dark satanic mills.

Nor did I know of any photography that negatively presented subjects like this, or represented realities below or behind the threshold of visibility thereby going beyond the capabilities of 19th century realism or the human eye. All was description. There was no narration. Any sense of a totality–eg., a self-valorizing capital and the abstract world of money—was way beyond me. It was unpresentable.

Yallourn C D & E Power Station

An era starts to end with thee Hazelwood Power Station in the la Trobe Valley closing and its chimney’s dismantled. The coal-fired power stations in the La Trobe Valley are now seen as producing greenhouse gases that cause climate heating, which in turn results in increased drought, melting glaciers and icebergs and mega bushfires in Australia.

Once I realized that road trip wasn’t a success in terms of building on the local pictures for the politics and art MA, I concentrated on continuing to photograph around Port Adelaide, and making road trips around South Australia. I accepted that photographic realist photography contained submerged possibilities in that photography had a hybrid character. It had a mongrel ‘form’ that is made up, in its particularity, of a ‘mixture’ of fragments and combinations of other media and forms.

Why not a critical realist photography as a photo-text comprised of an assemblage of fragments set in relationships?

When I returned to photography in the first decade of the 21st century I picked up photographing Port Adelaide That return is outside the parameters of this book.

2 thoughts on “La Trobe Valley roadtrip

  1. Dean Kyte June 10, 2020 / 8:43 am

    Thanks for your kind comments about my post on “Two visions of Melbourne”, Gary. From what you say above, it sounds like you hit upon the same problem that I have tried, in that post and others, to resolve by adding a sonic element to the still image.

    It seems like there’s only so much abstract work a photograph can do on its own. There’s very little it can ‘say’. It’s charm and challenge is how limited and reductive it is. It’s a rather Zen exercise to take a photograph—particularly on film, where the constraints are multiplied to the n-th.

    I always take a throwaway comment by Robert Bresson as one of my guiding lights. He said in an interview once something to the effect that the highest expression of an artform is its capacity to ‘do the impossible’, to do the exact opposite of what it’s intended to do—the movement towards ultimate abstraction, you might say. I always read that statement as meaning that, for photography and film, the highest expression is the (almost?) impossible capacity to ‘photograph the invisible’, which is to say, to ‘X-ray’ those subjective dimensions you indicate, to go beyond presentation to representation, beyond description to narration.

    For me, that ‘highest expression’ seems so impossible a problem that the only way I’ve found to resolve it (unsatisfactorily, I think) is with a sonic dimension.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with this interesting problem!


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