post-photography?

A common interpretation of both contemporary photography is that photography is in a transition period  (eg.,drones, smartphones, webcam, Google Street View) and  the significance of the emergence of digital technology in photography  in the early 21st century is that it is best characterised as the post-photographic . The term post-photographic is too limited to make sense of 'photography in transition' as its central concern of the post photographic  is  primarily about the peril of manipulated appearances,  even though manipulation has always been a common practice of the modern uses of photography.  

The  post-photographic interpretation holds that the analogue photographic image offered the promise of objective representation. It is then argued that  this is  the main reason why, for the better part of the last two centuries, analogue photography has been our most adequate instrument  for documenting the world, its objects and ourselves. Photography's authority lay in its matter-of-factness; i.e., in the apparently privileged relationship between analogue photographs and the world.: ie., a photograph is  the causal product of a
mechanical photo-chemical process, Photographic theory found in the notion of indexicality a way to preserve and defend the documental value of photographs.


However, the technological developments of the last two decades made possible the transformation of analogue photography into digital information whose images are not bound by physical constraints other than the capacity of a hard drive.   Digital photographic images cannot be described as indexical sign, and  given that the plausibility of photography as a document has always rested on its unique indexical relation to the world, its supplantation by images lacking this characteristic hinders photography's traditional authority. 

Memories: alley, Bank St

 This scoping picture of a small  alley off Bank St was made whilst I recently  wandered  around Adelaide's CBD in the late morning. I had driven the car  from Encounter Bay to Seaford Meadows,  caught the train into the city,  had a coffee in Leigh St and then started wandering around.    

 I  drifted  into Bank St  from Leigh St  as I was  looking  to see if the cafes were still closed  post Covid-19. I had a sense that the street life was returning to the city,  and I was curious to see if  the cafe's in the pedestrian friendly side streets were starting to re-open. Some in Leigh St were still closed and I wondered  if this was also the case in  Bank St. 

at Garden Island

On my last trip to Adelaide I decided to  return to exploring the Port Adelaide region. As I was down that way  to see the chiropet with Kayla,   I decided  to spend some time  scoping  around  Garden Island area.  It has been ages since I have been there,  and I wanted to return to the ship graveyard that I photographed in the 1980s. 

Most of the ships in the graveyard can only be accessed by kayak.  I was  in luck that day as  I was able to  access part of the ship graveyard due to  the low  tide.   It was overcast, which is what I'd wanted for the photos.   

What had changed? Surprisingly, not that much. The Sunbeam was still there, even if its hull was more decayed.  The mangroves  were heavily infested with mosquitos so I didn't hang around trying to see if I could access the other ships from the river bank.   

the Torrens Island Quarantine Station

The previous  post (in May 2020) ended with the  question about how I was going to carry this  project  on,  given that  SA's  borders with  Victoria are closed,  due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the extensive community transmission in Melbourne. The question was:  

"where does that  post-industrial transformation [of Port Adelaide] leave this interlude in the drosscape project? Just wait out the current lockdown in Melbourne? Or continue to explore the Port Adelaide region when I could?" 

I then remembered that I  had started to revisit Port Adelaide. One occasion was  in 2017 when I  participated in an organized  phototrip to both the old Torrens Island Quarantine Station and to the inside of Hart's Mill at Port Adelaide. This was  with a group of friends under the umbrella of the South Australian Maritime Museum at Port Adelaide. 

The photos, which had been made with a medium format film camera, had just sat in the archives on my hard drive of the Mac Pro untouched. What they represent is an exploration of  the history of Port Adelaide region.  The  Maritime Museum's organised tours have been postponed in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. There is a sense of  historical déjà vu’, in living through the COVID-19 lockdown with what happened a century ago. 

Interlude: reconnecting with Port Adelaide

The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that my  planned  interstate travel in April 2020 to  photograph old industrial Melbourne  had to  be cancelled. SA's borders are closed and Melbourne still has several outbreak Covid-19 hotspots. The national lockdown  has meant very limited travel--initially staying at home, exercising in one's postcode  and photographing  locally.   Once the restrictions started to ease in South Australia to allow limited travel within the state's  borders,   I wondered if I  could introduce something  new  to keep the drosscape project going--ie., I could build on my  old Port Adelaide  photographs, and then link  them to  those  of industrial Melbourne? 

Would that change the nature of this low key  project? Would it become a project about memory: a project haunted by the past. If it was   possible to  photographed the Port anew, then what would that look like and how would it link to the old? 

I had photographed the industrial landscape of old Port Adelaide in the 1980s. Then the Port was characterised by obsolescence, decline and grime.   What of the present Port Adelaide,  which was in the process of being re-branded through an obliteration of the Port's history and its industrial and maritime working class character? 

 I returned to Port Adelaide after stage 1 of the easing  of restrictions,  and  I wandered around some of the areas where I'd photographed over a decade ago.  Though I made  the odd photo whilst I was there, I was more or less reconnecting with, and picking up the traces of the  photographic past. 

The  picture  below of the Port River estuary is from the archives,  and it was the first  location  that I  returned to and checked out.  Had anything changed? If so,  what?  Were there new photographic possibilities? 

Not really was my response. I needed to move on.  

As I wandered around  I kept wondering whether I could re-connect with this archival body of work that was made whilst I was living in Adelaide's CBD. Could I build on the documentary work that I had been doing then? If so,  what would be the  concept behind the  documentary  photography of this  old industrial area and that of Melbourne? Heritage photography? 

at Moonee Ponds Creek

I made a quick,  multipurpose road trip to Melbourne via a short detour through the Wimmera Mallee in mid-March (13-19th) 2019 to work on the old industrial Melbourne  project.     

Multipurpose,  as I wanted  to reconnect with the Mallee Routes project;   to spend time with my sister at Safety Beach; continue photographing  around Nth Melbourne;  check out the world of photobooks at both the Melbourne Art Book Fair and the 2018 ANZ Photobook Awards;  and have a look at some possible gallery spaces  at Abbotsford Convent to continue to exhibit the  ongoing collaborative Melbourne drosscape work with Stuart Murdoch. 

 For the drosscape work I  had caught the Metro train to the Nth Melbourne railway station from Frankston. I  then walked around Nth Melbourne with the 5x4 gear in a supermaket trolley for 5-6 hours--the gear is too heavy to carry for that length of time.   I initially walked along Laurens St, down Arden Street,  then made my way along the Moonnee Ponds Creek  Trail, which is part of the Capital City Trail.  

This is one of the  digital images that I  had made on an earlier trip,  and it was one that I had planned to re-photograph with the 5x4 Linhof Technika IV. It was this spot that I was walking to.  

However, the promised cloud cover had  gone by the time I arrived,   and the light  in the mid-afternoon was too sunny and contrasty for me.  I  consequently continued walking along the Moonnee Ponds Creek  Trail, crossed over a very busy Footscray Rd,  and spent some time  exploring  under and around  City Link in an area  adjacent to Enterprise Road. 

revisiting Nth Melbourne

Whilst we--Suzanne, myself and our  two standard poodles (Kayla and Maleko) --- were  in Melbourne in late November for family reasons I was able  to do a little bit of  photographic scoping around the North Melbourne  drosscapes  before the  cloud cover evaporated.  This scoping was  to find  sites for a future large  format  photo session in the autumn of 2019 so as  to  continue  the topographic photography of old  industrial  Melbourne that  I am working  in association with Stuart Murdoch. 

As it was early summer,  what was substantial early morning cloud cover on the Morning Peninsula, quickly disappeared over the city in the early afternoon.  That meant the end of any photography scoping for the day.    I was wanting to see this Industrial Melbourne Festival so Stuart and I decided to check out The Substation in Newport and the  Trocadero Art Space  in Footscray,   but, unfortunately, we were too late. The Industrial  Festival had been and gone. So we looked at these art spaces as possibilities  for future exhibitions for our industrial Melbourne work in 2019/2020  as we wanted to build on our 2018 exhibition in Adelaide  at Atkins Photo Lab  by exhibiting in  Melbourne.  

reflections on the post documentary

Viewing the various  images of industrial Melbourne in the initial Collaborations exhibition at Atkins Photo Lab in Adelaide  opened  up  the theoretical  project of  rethinking of documentary photography to the idea that these representations are  a form of industrial archaeology. What appeared  from reading these photos was a sense that  the photos appeared as  an excavation of a forgotten,  industrial Melbourne in that they were a  retrieval of  what has been overlooked as the ruins, detritus or wasteland  of industrial Melbourne.  Though they  enabled us, the viewer,  to form a sense  of  the historical textuality of modernity these  archaeological images would not be seen as art  by the art institution.   

Today the idea of photography as a medium that simply records the world around us seem positively quaint. However, the various images on the white wall of the gallery highlighted  how this  large format,  documentary photography also  placed  an emphasis on the modernist concern with  the   basic form of the art object -- ie., the shapes, colours and lines that make up the art work. The emphasis on the basic form of the image indicate  the aesthetic aspect of this documentary style in a topographic mode.  

Though the pictures are  a form of historical knowledge, the aesthetic dimension  moves this documentary photography  away from  the conventional notions of mechanical representation--capturing the real. This naturalism  continues to define  photojournalism,  the media's  reportage  tendency to reduce photography to illustration, and conventional understandings of  documentary photography.   Photographic images are anything but neutral reflections of the wider world or simple traces of a present past. In this return to the past the photos are a form of history making about the uncanny or the unhomely.     

The rethinking of documentary photography is  also  post modernist in  the sense  that it represents the present as if it were already past--as if it were history.   The exhibition highlighted this topographical photography as a historical practice with its inbuilt tensions (or dialectic) between formalism and historicism.  It indicates  how this photography plays with time and historical distance, representing  a moment in the past only to give it over to new interpretations and modes of seeing in subsequent viewings.

Yet contemporary photography is all about,, “interrogating the medium”, which often means shifting it away from documentary towards other, more conceptually driven art forms – abstract painting, sculpture, performance, video installation in a world of of image overload.  We now live in a  digital world drowning in images with the arrival of the smartphone camera.  The numbers are mind-boggling: 350m photographs a day uploaded on Facebook; 95m photographs and videos shared on Instagram daily. The combined number of images shared uploaded on both platforms now exceeds 290bn, while there are 188m daily active users of Snapchat. Artificial technology is just around the corner. 

In contrast the industrial Melbourne project is very modest and slow.  It works in terms of a series --bridges or freeways or creeks ---so that the images of these found object are connected to one another in an archivalist sense. Seriality can be understood in terms of difference as opposed to sameness, and photographic projects can be seen in terms of longevity as opposed to the instantaneous.  As Susan James argues in her Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures Across the Iron Curtain  the  linking of images in a series  forces the establishing of connections and relations. It bounces the gaze from one site to another, to build up meanings across time, thereby giving  us a sense  of our own  industrial history,  as well as  a perspective on the spaces that we currently inhabit.

Collaboration exhibition in Adelaide

The SALA  Festival exhibition referred to in the previous posts of the blog (hereherehere and here)  has a title. It is  called Collaboration: Interrogating Melbourne's changing urban landscape and it can be seen  at Atkins Photo Lab. The exhibition's opening night was August 3rd,  and the exhibition runs from  August 4th to September 7th  during  the state wide 2018 SALA festival.  

This  exhibition is the first step in a project based on  large format photography (both black and white and colour)  interpreting  the changing urbanscape in Melbourne's  CBD, its industrial suburbs such as North Melbourne, Footscray and Sunshine,  and  the ever expanding western suburban edges  from a topographical perspective.  

Paul Atkins opened the exhibition and he talked about the transformative changes in the cities that we live in.  Then Stuart gave an artist talk about how he approaches his photography.  Stuart  highlighted how the has been working on this part of industrial Melbourne  for over a decade as a film photographer,   and he has an extensive archive of 5x4 black and white negatives.  This archive is a form of remembering  of what once was.       

photographing the industrial sublime

As mentioned in this earlier post on this low key blog about documentary  photography Stuart Murdoch and myself are having  a collaborative  exhibition  at the Atkins Photo Lab for South Australia's 2018  SALA  festival.   Two  outtakes for the  SALA exhibition from  Stuart's extensive archive  can be seen here on his blog.  The exhibition is  about an old industrial Melbourne that is rapidly disappearing in a post-industrial world.  

The large format  black and white and colour photographs in the Collaborations exhibition  are  underpinned by the conceptual framework of the industrial sublime rather than the industrial picturesque.  An  issue that comes to the fore with presenting these photographs of the industrial sublime is:  'how can a topographical approach to photography represent the industrial sublime'? How can photography represent the whole social context of capitalism's industrial  modernity in Melbourne,  after the demise of the long shadow cast by Greenbergian formalist modernism?

Though the sublime is a traditional category of aesthetics, it has recently seen a resurgence of interest beyond the passing whims of artistic fashion.  The sublime flashes up when confronted by an experience that is immense,  its scope is difficult to comprehend,  and the disparities allow the  emergence of new voices.  The sublime indicates a breakdown and an inability to represent.