Karlu Karlu: photographing landscapes

On the return trip  once  we had linked up to the Stuart Highway via  the Buntine and Buchanan Highways we moved quickly south trying to make up for extra  time in taking the northern route  from Lajamanu. Our aim was get beyond Tennant Creek  so that we could camp overnight in our swags  at  Karlu Karlu,   a series of round boulders, which have formed from an enormous chunk of granite, and which are  strewn across a large area of a wide, shallow valley.

We wanted  to photograph the  impressive rock formations  of huge, red, rounded granite boulders in the early morning light because daylight drains all the colour out of rocks, and flattens the shapes. The next morning, whilst   I was photographing the rocks I realised  how much my approach to photographing the landscape worked within the common conception of the landscape tradition in which the ‘landscape’ is a pictorial way of representing,  and in doing so it is transformed into something   useful for human beings.

rock+tree, Karlu Karlu

Thus the  colonial photographers on the various expeditions  to Alice Springs and beyond were interested in how the land could be useful for  development–ie., for the pastoral industry or  for agriculture. Karlu Karlu in contemporary postcolonial Australia  is an iconic  site for the tourism industry,  which frames the landscape as something to be viewed and appreciated. Karlu Karlu  is  right up with  Uluru and the Olgas as iconic  tourist sites.

According to the common conception the landscape  is the product of an essentially representational construal of our relation to the land which involves operation and detachment. In photographing the rocks I, as a photographer, take the landscape to involve the presentation of  the world as an object, seen from a certain view, structured , framed and made available  to our gaze. These views  affect us, but because they have already been seen as views, so they are separated from us, and our involvement with them is based purely in the spectatorial.

This standard conception of  the visual or pictorial presentation is one in which we remain as mere observers of the presented scene, with  a strong sense of a separation between the viewer and what is viewed in photography, more so than in other modes of presentation.

rocks, Karlu Karlu, NT

After being at Lajamanu, the problem that I experienced with this standard conception is  the separation bit.  I realise that the landscape is about connection as well as separation; connection in the sense of being involved in it and  with the modes of life of this place. The area used to be a meeting place for many tribes, with many languages, all of whom shared responsibility for the place--namely the  language groups of  the  Alyawarre, Kayteye, Warumunga and Warlpiri people.

In settler capitalism, for instance,   Karlu Karlu was known as Devils Marbles.  It was in 2008 that  the government handed back ownership of Karlu Karlu to its traditional owners, after a 28-year campaign. Karlu Karlu (in Alyawarre a local Aboriginal language) is now recognised and acknowledged as  a sacred site for a number of aboriginal people including the Walpirri.

The tourist aesthetic  frames Karlu Karlu as  wilderness,  and it emphasises the  timeless natural to the exclusion of the human avoiding.  This is an aesthetic which frames the subject matter through the absence of any reference to  the human.

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