the photographic landscape tradition

I am finding that many of the non-drought  images of the River Murray and the Coorong in my  archives are representations of natural beauty.  This seems to me, when looking back on these images today,  to be an inadequate way to photograph the River Murray and its various  wetlands, given the  damage to their ecological health  from both the  lack of environmental flows and the Millennium Drought.

This damage is  particularly noticeable in  the Coorong’s South Lagoon, and as this lagoon  is currently  in a  stressed ecological state, so the conventional landscape style photographs of  natural beauty  are inappropriate.


The problem with  conventional landscape photography in Australia is that is usually about the beauty of the landscape as a natural wilderness,  whilst  the River Murray and its various wetlands are manufactured landscapes. Since the 20th century the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin  have been engineered for irrigated agriculture and these rivers have been,  and are, managed for the benefit of irrigation and water for the various cities.

The above photo of the Murray Mouth, for instance,  is aesthetically pleasing: it is a harmonious composition within the  picturesque  landscape tradition.   What is not shown in the photo is that  the Murray Mouth  can only remain open if it is being constantly dredged,  due to the lack of environmental flows.

The above photo works with a picturesque aesthetic  that  uses a strong central horizon line and an arrangement of objects in the foreground that serve to anchor the image within a set perspective and scale. It works within  the compositional conventions of landscape painting, such as the landscape format, vanishing-point perspective and the rule of thirds.



Rebecca McCauley says that the picturesque tradition in Australian landscape photography  borrows from:

colonial legacies of image-making that rely strongly on a fixed point of perspective, presenting the image as a window onto a field of Western spatial and temporal correlations, further encoding a rational and mediated view of the world. These scenic views perform a normalising function to an outsider, rendering unfamiliar scenes visibly manageable and containable.

This colonial photography had two strands:  one strand exemplified by Captain Sweet,   Nicholas Caire and  Charles Bayless in the 19th century and Harry Godson in the 20th century that highlights   the civilised progress and the exploitation of natural resources, such as minerals, arable land and timber. The   other strand is the picturesque  wilderness one exemplified by Nick Rains  or Peter Eastway is constructed as a  part of picturesque tourism: the travelling photographer creates generalised images designed  to build a typical picture of a country or region.

The picturesque stand in  the  Australian landscape tradition searches  for paradigmatic landscapes that  helped map the routes of picturesque tourism. Such images reinforce the notion of the natural beauty  for purposes of national identity, a concept that is bound up in what Benedict Anderson terms imagined communities, whereby the shared sense of nationhood you feel is reinforced through cultural symbols,  in this case our affinity for the Australianness  of the landscape in the face of progress and social development.


So Australian  landscape photography is socially constructed, as opposed to merely being the result of the aesthetic or personal agenda of the photographer.

The Australian  photographic  emphasis on the natural beauty of wilderness in landscape photography  is misleading in so far as  there is no reference to human presence or activity;   no visible signs of natural history;  no scars  from clearing the land and taming the wild river to make it suitable for the  extraction of  water  for  irrigated agriculture,  towns and cities.

Given the  projections  of the negative  effects of  climate change  for the Murray-Darling Basin,  there is a need to move beyond natural beauty and the picturesque to construct oppositional landscapes that are based around  interpretations of the collision between nature and society.


2 thoughts on “the photographic landscape tradition

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