Captain Sweet, the Flinders + topographics

Did Captain Sweet photograph in the Flinders Ranges? I have kept asking myself that, given my realization that there is a big gap in research on early South Australia photography and South Australia’s lack of visibility in Australian photographic discourse. Sydney and Melbourne continue to remain the focal points.

So I started doing some research into views photography in the colonial period in South Australia When I came across this landscape of the Flinders between Beltana and Leigh Creek by Captain Sweet in 1885 I was intrigued.

Captain Sweet, landscape, Puttappa Gap, 1885.

I was aware that Sweet is seen as part of the colonial views trade photographic tradition (1860-1890) by photographic historians (Gael Newton, Isobel Crombie and Helen Ennis); that he had created the most comprehensive documentation of colonial South Australia by any single nineteenth photographer; that his colonial eye represented a positive interpretation of the process of modernity in the colony and that he is part of the photographic canon (ie., included in Gael Newton’s Shades of Light and Helen Ennis’s Intersections).

His photographic approach to the land in the Flinders was different to the emphasis on the mountain ranges, waterfalls, caves, fern gullies and the bush favoured by photographers in Melbourne and Sydney (eg., J.W. Lindt + N.J. Caire) and from the romantic framework of nature and the poeticising of place (eg., Charles Bayliss). Sweet also seems to be different to the standard understanding of the metropolitan views trade photographs being author-less and taken by operators. This kind of photography was an industry, and Sweet was a commercial photographer producing images for a commercial market. He was also part of a culture that was aesthetically aware and he could employ a range of picturesque compositional and stylistic techniques when needed.

The obvious art historical place to start my research into the representaton of the Flinders Ranges is Arid Arcadia: Art in the Flinders (AGSA, 2002) by Alisa Bunbury. Alisa Bunbury, then a specialist curator of Prints and Drawings at Art Gallery South Australia (1999-2002), specialises in Australian colonial art. In this text she notes that there is much research to be done in the history of colonial photography in the nineteenth century in the Flinders Ranges region of South Australia. Bunbury, then a curator of Prints and Drawings at Art Gallery South Australia, goes on to mention Captain Sweet’s 1882 studio advertisement about his picturesque scenery on the Great Northern Railway line from Port Augusta to Farina.

Captain Sweet, Pichi Richi Pass,1882

Bunbury comments that this advertisement demonstrates images of visual interest at the time — of gainful employment of the land and of national progress. (p. 58). Surprisingly, there are no images by Sweet in the text, despite Bunbury saying that Sweet had a reputation for accomplished photographic landscapes and views of country towns and stations. Bunbury quickly moves on to consider H. H. Tilbrook’s 1894 photos of the Flinders Ranges that he made around Wilpena Pound.

Bunbury’s thesis is that during the second half of the nineteenth century South Australia lacked a landscape tradition. Presumably, Captain Sweet as a topographical photographer was not considered to be a part of the landscape tradition. So he did not help to establish the landscape tradition in South Australia in the second half of the nineteen century.

Captain Sweet, Puttappa Gap, circa 1885

There is a widely recognised and long held distinction in the art institution between imaginative landscape and topography, or to put it another way, between landscape ‘proper’ – fine art landscape – and ‘mere’ topography or views. Topography is a mark of inferiority–obsolete and second rate. It is descriptive not imaginative and it is a kind of map-work. This is a hierarchy of genres in the representation of land that goes back to the 18th century (eg.,Henry Fuseli) premised on the distinction between imaginative and descriptive landscape painting.

The art historians depiction of Sweet’s photography as views refers to the topographic as descriptive–the ‘faithful representation’ of particular scenes. This understanding of topographics as real views of particular places was then developed in the 19th century’ with a linking of the topographic to travel and geography. Topographic as a word is not intended to just identify a genre but to indicate its limitations.

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