This photo is from the incompleted Port Adelaide project. The photo is of the Port River estuary looking across to Penrice Soda Products’ soda ash production facility at Osborne, Adelaide. It is is a film based photo made with a view camera. Sadly, my attempt in the 1980s to photograph Port Adelaide as a project didn’t get very far .
Looking back from the present I can see that, with the emergence of postmodernism and then digital technologies, this kind of topographical photography was about to disappear from view: a topographical photography has been transformed into a mere ghost of its former self.
The economic background is that Penrice Soda Holding Ltd went into liquidation on July 31st 2014, having collapsed in April 2014, leaving people without employment, and funds not available for their entitlements, and debts of more than $150 million. Penrice had use of hectares of Renewal SA land for storing their waste material.
Some of that waste material lies south of Penrice’s plant, on the west side of the Port River (between the rail freight line and the Port River) and some in piles on the east side of the River. The prime responsibility for the cleanup is with the company, but it is in receivership and unlikely to be able to meet the bill. The contaminated Osborne site becomes the responsibility of the state government (ie., Renewal SA.), since as no-one is likely to buy a contaminated site that has no use.
These photos from the archives are an archaic trace of a topographical photography in the period after poststructuralism/ postmodernism; a context where the digital technologies have displaced a topographical photography’s most fundamental properties and undermined its truth values. Digital technologies mean that we find it difficult to spot the fake from the real, that thing and sign are disappearing into one another and that film-based photography is dying. Digital images are the only kind that matter and they are less signs reality and more signs of signs.
Digitalisation abandons the rhetoric of truth that is based on its indexical relation to the world it images. This direct referent has been integral to photography’s success, and it gave photography its distinctiveness as a visual medium. Hence the idea of the end of photography by digital processing within contemporary photo criticism discourse.
However, the history of photography shows us that photography has never been one kind of technology, since this history has been marked by technological innovation and obsolescence. So there is no need to identify photography and a photographic culture with archaic technologies such as camera, film and the wet darkroom.
A more useful way to understand photography is to see it as part of a history of seeing in which difference and historical change play a key role. The historical specificity of vision depends on the the meaning of subject-object relations in general. An example is the larger organisation of representation, cognition, and subjectivity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; namely the Cartesian boundaries between observer and observed, subject and object, self and other, virtual and actual, representation and real. The historical specificity of vision here is photography as a transparent window onto an outside world.
This began to dissolve in the 19th century with Kant’s assumption that objects must conform to our cognitions, rather than our cognitions to objects. This is a new organisation of vision and positioning of the subject.
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