Sony A7 R111

The dog fence + photographic eye

This then is a mythologized landscape deriving from European settlers confrontation with Australia, and it shapes the way we view the “empty,” sunlit land —as desolate, with its absence of productive land, sustenance and comfort. The loss is still present today–for us it is both the landscape’s environmental loss and the Adnyamathanha people’s knowledge and understanding of the land as teeming with tracks, life, form and colour.

old dog fence

As we made our way across a gibber plain the historical ruins of the old dog or dingo fence, which runs east west across South Australia, gave us an insight into the cause of this damaged land — pastoralism. The dog fence was initially build as a rabbit proof fence in the 1880s and then converted to a dog barrier in 1948 to protect the pastoralist’s sheep flocks. As we continued heading north past the fence we entered into an area inhabited by dingoes, where sheep grazing has been abandoned, and where cattle are run. This was the southern part of the historical territory of the Diyari people, who saw/viewed/observed the landscape quite differently to that of the European setters.

We entered a sandy plain with wattle and saltbush and camped for the night near a clay pan which collects the excess water that runs off the surrounding stony areas. Due to the lack of rain most of the grasses had died back to dry butts. The soil moisture of the clay looked limited–presumably the water runs off into the eroded areas. This land was so different from the imperial and colonial maps of the Australian inland that constituted the interior as an ideal site for expansion of the British Empire. The reality of what the explorers discovered and reported was far removed from these utopian visions. Though the narratives in the explorer’s journals are about discovery, exploration, penetration and mapping a tabula rasa by heroic males, their journals also capture those moments when Europeans came face-to-face with the reality that the Australian interior was a frequently hostile and alienating place.

clay plain

As I walked around taking photographs in the late afternoon I wondered if a post-colonial photography needed to shift away from the broad view of the linear perspective the explorer’s dominating eye with its hierarchy of the observer at the top and the picture plane of objects below. Should such a photography shift its attention to the ground level detail of the land: the grasses, the salt bush, eroded clay, the white bones of dead animals, or the roots of the tree in the creek beds?

The photography becomes unstructured, scattered, an accumulation of detail: it consists of blotches, patches, shapes. Is this a way to map the terrain rather than tell a story? A way to start to place the photographer in the landscape as opposed to the duality of the photographer being outside the landscape looking at it as an observer?

2 thoughts on “The dog fence + photographic eye

  1. well said, Gary – and for those reasons I think Alexander Schramm was the most important painter to work in colonial South Australia, as he devoted much of his time and energy to showing us the Indigenous people and how they lived. He is now well represented in the AGSA but was largely forgotten by the end of the 19th c; he really only started to receive recognition again mid-20th century.

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