(The gallery for this text is Roadtrips. The footnotes for the text are in the pdf).
In the 1990s prior to putting photography aside to complete a PhD in philosophy I started making various road trips in South Australia, mostly to the mid-north of the state. The picture-making was topographical in orientation, as I was interested in a mapping of the present: the way that industrial capitalism had reshaped the physical form of the land. Wittgenstein’s remarks below seem appropriate to, or resonate with, the topographical conception of photography:
‘I am trying to conduct you on tours in a certain country. I will try to show that the philosophical difficulties … arise because we find ourselves in a strange town and do not know our way about. So we must learn the topography by going from one place in the town to another, and from there to another, and so on. And one must do this so often that one knows one’s way, either immediately or pretty soon after looking around a bit, wherever one may be set down.’
The road trips indicated how narrow industrialisation in South Australia had been, and how much the land had been shaped by the cultural and economic practices of agriculture. This landscape had a dark side as it was premised on the dispossession of the Aboriginal people from their land, with the land depicted as barren waste awaiting conversion into productive land by the white settlers. I slowly became aware of the power of the landscape in the formation of colonial, regional and national identity in Australia’s pre-industrial modernity.
In term of landscape as art there is a long standing division in art history between landscape and topographics in picture-making. The latter is traditionally as a mapping of the surface features of a region and its seen as inferior form of picture-making because it was depicted as real views of the geography of place that lacked imagination. Colonial landscape photography was seen to strip the aesthetic appeal from landscapes as a genre. Real views means accurate representation the landscape and prior to photography it was drawing that precisely recorded what one saw in specific places. The real places depicted through a European perspective system are contested sites, places over which different interests assert incompatible claims, where the past and present compete for attention and where the local is at odds with the national.
A central figure of topographics as a map of a known place in the history of photography is Atget’s photographs of Paris. We interpret these topographic photos and we also encounter them as image-objects whose force-relation affect us in powerfully emotional ways. They are images of a home-place that Atget was familiar with. Atget’s photos show that the very value of topography is that it is a way of knowing and understanding a place, not as it would have appeared to a visitor, tourist or traveller, but as it would have been known and understood, as a place rather than an urban space. This place-based photography is premised on an understanding that human beings stand in an essential relation to place and are constituted in and through that relation.
In the US photography of the 1970s topographics meant photographing in a documentary style the change in suburbs in American technological modernity, and the architectural phenomenon of industrial parks and the newly built tract house estates. Place remained in the background disconnected from the tract architecture of the space of the mid-west, even though this kind of estranged dwelling was the way people ordinarily lived, it was a relation to home, and people’s identity is bound up with this mode of living. This kind of urban landscape or environing world would shape people’s memories, feelings and thoughts. Human identity is in some deep way tied to locality or the places they inhabit. There is a close connection between the human being-in-the-world, and spatiality, locality and embodiment.
The concern of the US style and approach to new topographics was with the turn away from the traditional depictions of the landscape as wilderness to industrial landscapes, suburban sprawl and everyday scenes. It was medium specific in its modernist orientation, its objectivity displaced the emphasis on subjectivity through keeping authorial input to a minimum, and placed an emphasis on the straightforwardness or matter-of-factness of the photo-document. However, place by and large was reduced to space. The assumption of the new topographics was that this mode of existence and architecture was flawed, yet what was missing was the questionability of place, of dwelling and identity; a thinking through the assumed concepts. Did the people who lived in this tract housing belong to this place? Was their identity linked to this mode of existence? Was there a sense of belonging-together? The concern was with the turn away from the traditional depictions of the landscape as wilderness to industrial landscapes.
If urban sprawl in 20th century industrial modernity became a subject of photographic debate then so did its effects on the adjacent environment. From this perspective the original label ‘New Topographics’ in the US neglected the immanent references to the environment made by photographers starting in the 1980s. These references come to mind: Richard Misrach’s Bravo 20, The Bombing of the American West and Petrochemical America; Lewis Baltz’s San Quentin Point; Martin Manz and Reinhard Matz’s Unsere Landschaften (Our Landscapes); Wout Berger’s Poisoned Landscape. The New Topographics movement contributed to establishing a critical environmental representations in the canon of artistic photography. This type of ‘environmental photography’ has adapted the 1970s New Topographics exhibition’s subtitle of a ‘man-made landscape’, to point out the negative influence of humans on the Earth.What emerged from the US style topographical perspective was a transnational tradition of critical photographic landscape depiction in urban centres in France, Germany and the Netherlands that were independent of each other, with various time-lags between them, and which were shaped by different photographers.
In Australia the topographical approach to picture making, with its representations of real places based on knowing and understanding a particular place, is a repressed current in a realist documentary photography. Topographics that either placed an emphasis on exploring the landscape or urbanscape as a human altered landscapes, or understood landscape through place was not recognised by art historians. The topos of photography as a mapping of the present represents human situatedness through attachment to place with its set of interconnections or relationships. It is philosophy not art history that recognises the distinction between race and place, and that place with its centrality of boundedness, local attachments and interconnections is a necessary element of the structure of human existence. Place is as much about bounding and enclosing as it is about opening and connecting.
Can we understand the ‘contested places’ part in photographic topographics as real views of contested places in Australia in terms of its environmental undercurrent? One significant account of the environmental undercurrent in the human altered landscape of the present in Australia is that of Richard and Val Routley’s The Fight for the Forests (1975); the subtitle of which was The takeover of Australian forests for pines, wood chips and intensive forestry. The Routleys identified a ‘wood production ideology’ of the forest industries and the state forest services; an ideology focused on providing cheap wood for private industry and with a determination for Australia to become a large woodchip exporter. The Routley’s highlighted the clearing of “useless” native forests to plant the pine trees, and the clear-felling of native forests in order to export woodchips. Nature (old growth native forests) was framed as available for our unconstrained use and was reduced to being a mere resource to be exploited by industry.
This emphasis on preserving old growth native forests provides a way to look at how the land had been transformed in South Australia — it was stripped of trees to make away for agriculture. Brian Medlin, who had traveled and camped widely in South Australia and Victoria, broadened this critique. In Human Nature, Human Survival he reminded us of Australia’s terrible past with its destruction of land, its flora and fauna and aboriginal civilization. To save our civilization we must get our philosophy right. Philosophy, for Medlin is the commitment to thinking about the whole of life and he understands philosophy as a way of life. In his ‘Ecological Crisis and Social Order’ in the Level-headed Revolutionary, Medlin argued that humans need to recognise their place in the natural world, embracing all of nature:
“We shall never be safe in the world for as long as we think only of our own safety in it, that we shall never properly cherish our resources while we think of them only as resources. Amongst the many bad features of this limited perception of the world, the worst is that it readily goes over into an adversarial attitude to non-human nature … The non-human world is to be valued, but not simply because it may serve humankind. Nor is it to be valued as an extension of ourselves. Not even as a means of self-realisation. It is to be valued for itself, because it has value in itself. Until we win our way back to a proper reverence for non-human nature, we shall remain lost in a world growing ever more hostile to us. We shall remain lost in the world because subjectively we are not really in it at all, but apart from it. Lost, not in being mis-placed, but in having no place. Our resources are mere resources, external to us.”
Nature is historical in the sense that it constantly changes and because it has been profoundly – often negatively – affected by human history. Capitalism has a destructive and self-destructive relation to nature. The damage we have inflicted on non-human nature has been extensive, and it could assume catastrophic proportions if we continue to behave as we do now. We are now destroying not just what we are trying to preserve but what we need to survive.
Climate heating spells the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history. What was once regarded as a necessary, natural condition, underlying the contingent changes of history, now appears to be an effect of human history.
So how do we find our way back to a proper reverence for non-human nature of a damaged life in a desolate present, or time of destitution in which technological ordering encompasses the basic characteristics of human life which too becomes a resource? Medlin’s argument for valuing the natural world for itself is premised on a:
scientific appreciation of our place in nature. An appreciation that will eventually engender a direct experience of ourselves as part of the world. An appreciation of our ignorance and dependence ….as animals in the universe. Of our dependence as a species woven by time into the one world whose fabric we unravel at our peril.
This points to caring for country instead of using the land as a resource for our prosperity. Philosophy would argue for this through a critique of the dominant form of reason — for Medlin this is confusing rationality with ratiocination and not allowing for poetry and literature opening a path to intuition as a road to truth. In his essay “On the Nature of Philosophy”, Medlin says that philosophy at its best:
will teach us how best to act when we cannot know what is the best thing to do… Philosophy is about the texture of human life. Philosophy is about getting life right and about making life right.
This connects with Adorno’s insight in Minima Moralia that wrong life cannot be lived rightly, that the true field of philosophy is the teaching of the good life, and that philosophical practice consists in the systematic refusal of consolation and the justification of what exists.
A philosophical unpacking of Medlin’s argument for valuing the natural world for itself would point to caring for country, instead of using the land as a resource for our prosperity. Philosophy would argue for this through a critique of the dominant form of reason — for Medlin this is confusing rationality with ratiocination and not allowing for poetry and literature opening a path to intuition as a road to truth.
Caring for country as a way to develop a proper reverence for non-human nature implies tying a person to place to which he or she belongs. Country is a bounded open region, a nourishing terrain and a place in which things are gathered and disclosed. This requires philosophy to distinguish place as an abode within which someone resides or dwells from simple physical location and from space as physical extension. Analytic philosophy’s conventional position is that space is primarily a feature of the physical universe, with place, as a human or subjective construct. Medlin does not undertake any clarification here, even though the Eskimo conception of country that he refers to is not founded on subjectivity, nor is it a physical location or position —ie., the where-ness of things. Our place, or situatedness, in the natural world remains obscure.
Medlin is unclear how poetry, literature, and we can add the visual arts, help to open up a path to intuition as a road to truth. Does this refer to a poetic mode of thinking? Is it a mode of thinking that would help to turn us back to place as in Wordsworth, Hölderlin, Proust, Namatjira, or Colin McCahon? The poetics of art, poetry and literature work within and through specific places. If so, how would it do this thinking through place with its local resonances via intuition? Medlin doesn’t say.
We can unpack the latter by turning to Adorno, who held that the dominant form of reason in industrial capitalism has two strands: that of instrumentalization – coming to cognize and experience objects only insofar as they further our practical project; and secondly, the intensification of socially expressed self-preservation – only relating to objects insofar as they have economic value.
Adorno argued that it is crucial – for aesthetic, normative, and epistemic reasons – that art resist this social form of reason, in which objects only appear in relation to their economic fungibility and instrumental value. And this entails that the artwork must be radically autonomous; it must refuse all appearance of economic or instrumental value. Autonomy, then, is the crucial feature of art, in Adorno’s view. It is only autonomy which lends art the power to realize and express our needs; and to stand against the instrumentalized model of reason exterior to it.
Why the central importance of art?
Adorno argues that the truth content of art is inseparable from the sensuous particularity of an art work because the kind of knowledge implicit in art works is different from the knowledge of objects given by the natural or social sciences. The instrumental rationality in the theoretical and conceptual ways of knowing the world for self-preservation, and the control of nature, is one that creates modern science, economics and bureaucratic rationality. To do its job it needs to get rid of sensuous materiality, concreteness, and the experience of those things. For Adorno it was the radical afunctionality of the works of art that conferred upon them the capacity to embody and articulate resistance against the contemporary world of universal exchange.
The core thesis of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is that a modernist art practice criticises an abstract, instrumental rationality as a mode of domination by remaining a repository for an alternative mimetic rationality. Modernist art becomes the voice of sensuous particularity against abstract rationality — art is a refuge for mimetic comportment. Mimesis is found in modernist art because art is a sphere which in Adorno’s time is free from the demands of self-preservation and the pursuit of profit.
Art for Adorno is rationalized through and through, and itself a species of identity thinking., but it is a product of identity thinking that harbours the illusion of a resistance to identity thinking and the existence of that illusion within the work of art makes a difference that matters to the truth of the work of art. Mimesis stands for the fuller experience of reason that is repressed and denied by identity thinking, yet still operative within it. Artworks are true—and their truth is aimed against the falsity of our way of thinking.
Since this truth content of art is inseparable from the sensuous particularity of an art work, the kind of knowledge implicit in art works is different from the knowledge of objects given by the natural or social sciences. The instrumental rationality in the theoretical and conceptual ways of knowing the world for self-preservation and the control of nature is one that creates modern science, economics and bureaucratic rationality, needs to get rid of sensuous materiality, concreteness, and the experience of those thing.
In Aesthetic Theory Adorno suggests that aesthetic agency can help us recognise the value of the non-human world in so far as the image of natural beauty can lead us out of simply viewing nature as an object to be dominated for the purpose of self-preservation. Nature is something we have learned to master to such an extent that it is almost obliterated. Our experience of nature (first nature) is mediated through a world of images, norms and conventions in our social world (second nature), and this prevents us from stepping outside this and returning to a time when nature is free from domination.
Things become complex because our social world presents itself as first nature, thus creating the illusion that things – i.e. social conditions and relations – are naturally ordained. In other words, our image of first nature is, in fact, retroactively modelled from the standpoint of second nature, so that (in a way) there’s always already something mythical about the encounter with what we misperceive as natural. We are stuck in a second nature which deprives us of all contact with first nature.The natural appearance of society can be awfully hard to see through. The natural appearance of society can be awfully hard to see through.
Art now “stands in for” first nature. The view in Aesthetic Theory is that natural beauty does not appear in nature; it appears in the work of art. So it is only as second nature – as art – that natural beauty appears beautiful. That art beauty has replaced natural beauty means, in short, that beauty, which once used to reside in the landscapes, plants or bodies, turned into something produced by the subjects. But the closest we can get to this absent nature is art, and more precisely natural beauty, which contains both a memory of something lost, and a promise of something yet to come. It means, that the memory/promise that nature contained is now preserved in the artwork.
It is the aesthetic experience of natural beauty in art that for a moment; breaks the illusion that second nature that appears to be unchanging; in that moment it becomes clear that everything could be different. It helps to dislodge our instrumental concepts, opens us to non-cognitive experience (one without instrumental concepts) and to be able to relate to the object—a landscape—on its own terms. We see that the world can be in certain states that are not for the subject. History is suspended. There is a promise of something else that is not yet—relating to nature in a non-dominating way. This is a rationality that does not dominate nature as an adversary out of the anxiety of self-preservation and through subsumptive identity thinking; but one based on a living bodily experience that then reflectively and mindfully listens to and is responsive to its object for its own sake. It discloses a world to us that is rejected by the conceptual network of instrumental reason.
The reason behind this argument is that the underlying conflict between an instrumental economic reason (an extrinsically formed capacity to produce universals) obscures the non-identical (the individual particularity of things that is supposedly lost when they are subsumed under a general term). It is mimesis that discloses the non-identical that remains in the sense that the ‘non-identical’ is what is left behind by the conceptual apparatus of instrumental reason, which presses experience and judgment within increasingly constrictive bounds, into which experience, judgment and ethical life do not in fact fit. Mimesis serves as a constant ‘return of the repressed’ – it is through mimesis that we find the possibility of the irruption of these suppressed experiences, impulses, and so forth. Mimesis’ functions as a short-form reference to these non-instrumental phenomena—the non-cognitive qualities of aesthetic experience help us to make sense of the world.
The non-identical is no longer viewed as the isolated particular which it is forced back into being by the identity-thinking of economic reason. The particular is now seen as standing in a pattern of relations to other particulars, a historically sedimented ‘constellation’ which defines its identity. The non-identical is disclosed through a mimetic rationality, which holds the promise of resistance to a dominate order as a mode of contact and engagement: one that is marked by awe, respect and supplication, but also, to the contrary, productive of an affective bringing-close, which moves humans toward the rhythms of nature.
Art for Adorno is rationalized through and through, and itself a species of identity thinking. But it is also a product of identity thinking that harbours the illusion of a resistance to identity thinking; and the existence of that illusion within the work of art makes a difference that matters to the truth of the work of art. Mimesis stands for the fuller experience of reason that is repressed and denied by identity thinking, yet still operative within it. Artworks are true—and their truth is aimed against the falsity of our way of thinking
From the perspective of 2021 the historical image-texts in The Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia look back on what has been in terms of recovery and reclamation. This process is through a search for a time lost, and now partly regained. It is a search for a lost time and a lost place: a recovery of time in place. A remembrance of things past — tied to an uncompleted MA under Brian Medlin that had been forgotten, but recovered through photography being situated in specific place — Bowden in Adelaide in the 1980s.
This time is prior to the rupture of digital technology, social media, user generated content, the networked image and the field of photographic studies. The latter was not even recognized as a knowledge field in academia in the late 1970s. The academic photographic literature was sparse, photographic scholars were thin on the ground, and art history was a conservative discipline with a history of rejecting photographs as a topic to be explored. Hence the emphasis in the book on working from the complex writings of the German theorists in the early twentieth century. What a change after 2000. By 2010 photographic studies had become fully absorbed in the knowledge economy. There were photography specific journals (History of Photography, Photography & Culture, Photographies, and Philosophy of Photography), and academia was open to the study of photography and to the use of photographs as sources.
Photography runs in all directions, permeating diverse aspects of society. It became acceptable to explore the historical links between photography, philosophy and aesthetics (as a philosophy of art) and to accept that photography had spawned its own layer of theory. This opens up a space to recover a ground between philosophy and art in which the art object isn’t rendered redundant by theory (theory augments art without replacing it) as established by the Jena Romantics. They wrote in fragments, synthesized poetry and philosophy, and understood theory as art reflecting on itself. This is a new relationship between art and theory to that of Platonism.
The mirror within the frame brings with it a history of reflection; one in which the visual arts have traditionally worked within, and struggled with. The terms of this were set by a particular philosophical tradition first enacted within Plato’s Republic in the well known discussion of art in Book X and continued in the Ion. Platonism assumes that the relationship between a name and object named is a mimetic one, and goes to argue that truth cannot pertain to painting. Paintings (and the visual arts) cannot present the essential being of that which is presented only the appearance. Platonism holds that knowledge of appearance does not entail knowledge of essential being: painting is the imitation of an image; a mimetic representation of an image or presentation. Paintings as imitation can only ever be correct depictions but never true. The trope of irony was then used to block both the referential function of photographic language and the attempts to make it referential, whilst the fragment challenged philosophy’s traditional patronizing attitude to art.
As we have seen photography as a medium in the late 20th century flipped back and forth, appearing both as an apparatus of transparent and mechanical reproduction, and as an aesthetic mode for the exploration of interiority. The European/North American photographic canon, as defined by the art institutions, was initially shaped by and expressed a historical aesthetic defined by a formalist modernism. This aesthetic modernism promoted the artist rather than artisan, art rather than craft as the means to explore an authenticity aligned to subjective intuition and unique vision. Language and images came to be seen as non-referential: an autonomous and self-expressive structure rather than representation and communicative.
From the ruins of modernism photography moved from the peripheries to the centre of the art world with postmodernism in the 1980s, which saw the emergence of a pluralism or an anti-aesthetic postmodernism in which the field of photography expanded. Photography was the battleground in which the modernist and postmodernist forces confronted each other. By 2000 a once marginalized, minor and irregularly seen visual medium had shifted away from the contingent, the candid and the unstaged to the foregrounding of language and a patchwork of stylistic fragments. The text was in charge. It quickly became apparent that a photographic image has different modalities of existence: an art object, a mirror, a document, a commodity, personal snapshots, a personal portrait, a mirror with a memory.
The canonical model of the history of photography that dominated art historical accounts of photography became increasingly outmoded. That model was premised on Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography which approaches shifts within photographic art practice through the lens of medium specificity; is grounded on the art history of Heinrich Wolfflin and Alois Riegl who defined art history as study of the formal properties of works of art; interpreted modernity as pure or straight photography; and privileged American photography. Photography was a distinct autonomous medium with a unique stylistic history and master photographers. Straight photography was the only kind of photography that allowed for artistic expression because it articulated what was uniquely photographic.
The hegemony of modernism in the art world was challenged by the street radicalism of 1968. This highlighted that there was no univocal modernism with its universal modernist narrative; as was suggested by The Field exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 1968, which equated the linear logic of the modernist tradition with what was then currently fashionable in New York. Associated with the recognition of many different modernisms was the dissolution of the traditional linear art history of modern art with its categories, periods and masterpieces and its avant grade notions of formal innovation and experimentation. Photography’s other histories were acknowledged and a social history of art came to the fore.
The emergence of aboriginal art with Western Desert painting (Clifford Possum, Rover Thomas, Paddy Bedford, Emily Kame Kngwarreye) meant that art historians could no longer assume that the metropolitan perspective of a Paris or New York defined contemporary art. These contemporary painters highlight how our historical present is a coming together of different times, a coexistence of different temporalities and various ways of being in time. They undercut the claims about the primacy of the unrestricted autonomy of the artist with a notion of artistic practices as a form of social discourse. Artistic subjectivity entails intersubjectivity. Works of art are public artefacts — that is, there for others within a world of shared norms and values. Works of art engage their audience with a shared and public content.
The 1970s/1980s then were a sea change even if the social liberal moment of 1968 did not usher in post-capitalist, libertarian or a post-patriarchal future. The 1968 project to transform the world had failed, and many of the survivors of these struggles moved into the spaces of relative freedom and autonomy represented by the university. Though the legacy of the radicalism of the 1970s is diverse and contradictory, the specific historical moment of 1968 did not thwart the development of capitalism, even if this radicalism did erode the power of a conservative patriarchal culture for several decades. The movement 1968 was a period when making photographs and thinking about them critically was possible; it also changed the way we viewed photography’s history and gave rise to photography becoming a field of serious academic inquiry.
By the end of the 1990s it looked as if photography’s triumph in the artworld marked by the large-scale digital colour prints of Jeff Wall and the Düsseldorf School’s image-objects represented the end of a particular pictorial paradigm of analogue photography as the realist depiction of things. What emerged was a computational turn with its networked digital image, social media, the free flow of photographs as data, big data and machine learning. From the perspective of the cultural turn in the humanities — ie., the recognition of the constitutive power of culture as a key part of everyday life — the photographic is now the visual regime of post-modernity and visual studies is its discipline. If photography is now included in some histories of Australian art, Adelaide is still seen non-place of cultural vibrancy, innovation or ideas judging by Charles Green’s Peripheral Visions: Contemporary Australia Art 1970-1994.
Bleak times indeed for a topography as a way of critically knowing and understanding a place as it would have appeared to the local inhabitants, and not to tourists looking for romantic or sublime landscapes.