Captain Sweet, the Flinders + topographics

In 1882 Sweet traveled on, and photographed along, the Great Northern Line from Port Augusta to Farina — the line was extended to Marree (Hergott Springs) in 1883 then Oodnadatta in 1891. Oodnadatta was the railhead of the Great Northern Railway line. The railway had replaced the camel trains, and Sweet’s topographic railway photos are about the nature of a particular place or object understood in its relation to the wider cultural, economic, political geography of the colony.

Captain Sweet, Pichi Richi hamlet, circa 1880

Sweet’s collodion wet plate images were a part of, and contributed to, a visual culture that expressed the colonisers’ expansionist gaze — the railway line was built to serve the mining and pastoral industries in the far north of the state. As mentioned in this earlier post on colonial photography in South Australia photography at the time was understood to constitute a powerful new technology of information transfer which offered a more realistic, more objective, and more truthful path to knowledge through unmediated representation.

This photography was slotted into the topographical tradition understood as ‘the accurate recording of particular places’. This in turn was transcended by something infinitely more serious and more powerful, a sublime style of painting that sought to represent the ‘grandeur of nature’, and to produce in us ‘feelings of awe, fear or horror in the early twentieth century–eg., Hans Heysen’s landscape paintings of the Flinders Ranges in the early twentieth century.

Captain Sweet, Quorn Railway Station,1882

As Kitty Magee observes in her Captain Sweet’s colonial imagination: the ideals of modernity in South Australian views photography 1866-1886 Sweet’s photographs were created for, and shaped by, the views trade whose tastes were driven by the colonial ideals of appropriation and settlement of territory, exploitation of raw materials and land for profit, and the establishment of British ‘civilisation’ and its infrastructures. The newly constructed railways opened up the land for economic development and profit.

We can look at Sweets imagery in the light of the 1970s New Topographics exhibition in the US, which was about the western expansion and ordinary looking landscapes. This allows us to interpret what art historians describe as Sweet’s ‘views’ of the Great Northern Railway and real places in the Flinders Ranges as a representation of the northern expansion (pastoral/agricultural) in South Australia. Rather than Sweet’s views being understood in terms of the old definition of a topographical landscape as a kind of descriptive map-work and survey, the views of towns can be understood as a representation of ordinary places as lived and understood by its local inhabitants. The images provided a sense of place and making the northern part of South Australia familiar.

Captain Sweet, Saltia Hotel, 1880

Contrary to Bunbury, Sweet’s views of the Flinders Ranges and of Darwin constitute part of a landscape tradition in South Australia. As a topographer photographer Sweet had a keen visual, cartographic and pictorial sensibility. His work was part of the visual construction of the Australian landscape through views photography prior to the emergence of the silver gelatin print, the hand-held camera and amateur photographers in the 1890s, such as H.H. Tilbrook; prior to the emergence of pictorialists such as Frederick Joyner and John Kauffmann in the early 20th century.

Pictorialism is where Melissa Miles’ The Language of Light and Dark: Light and Place in Australian Photography starts. Pictorialism represents a turn away from, and a rejection of, the topographic mode of working. Today this mode is a critical topography: one that refers back to Sweet but assumes, explores and investigates the connections, tensions and contradictions of specific or particular places that are then bought to light. The contradictions of particular places are what Sweet covered up with his celebration of the process of modernity in South Australia.

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