Colonial expedition photographs: an absence

I have been reading some books on colonial photography in South Australia to look for some 19th century photographs of the northern Flinders Ranges and northern South Australia. Even though photography in the field would have been very difficult with the wet plate process at the time, I was expecting to find some examples of colonial expedition photography as the dry-plate process was available in the colony by the early 1880s. My initial understanding was that photographers had accompanied some of the inland expeditions to northern South Australia and across to western Australia in the 1880s-1890s. Cameras, for instance, were used on David Lindsay’s 1885-6 exploring expedition from Adelaide to Port Darwin by Lieutenant Hermann Dittrich, the German naturalist/botanist was on the expedition on the recommendation of Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. Unfortunately, the dry plate glass negatives were severely overexposed and useless.

I started with A Century in Focus: South Australian Photographs 1940s-1940 by the Art Gallery of South of South Australia (AGSA) — the most obvious place. It was a disappointment. For instance, The Elder Scientific Exploration Expedition, 1891–92 under David Lindsay, which left from the northern railway terminus (near Andamooka) in South Australia and traveled across the Great Victoria Desert to Western Australia, made substantial use of photography. Yet Dr Frederick John Elliot, the expedition’s medical officer and photographer, is not mentioned in A Century in Focus.

This is a strange omission since there are a selection of photos that Elliot made in the State Library of South Australia’s (SLSA) Elder Scientific Exploration Expedition collection.

F. J. Elliot, Creek, Everard Ranges, 1891

It is a puzzle that the AGSA missed this body of expedition photography. Was it a lack of research? Were the researchers content to work only from their own collection?

European exploration of South Australia was effectively complete by the time of the Elder Scientific Exploration Expedition of 1891–92. So what about photography made on earlier expedition in the northern Flinders Ranges and beyond?

The dog fence + photographic eye

Day 11 was a 15 kilometre walk on a mild, dry winters day through Murnpeowie Station, over stony plains, lunch at Mundawatana Creek, then across a gibber plain, through the dog fence to a camp on a clay plain. Most of the trees were confined to creek beds and run-off areas. As we walked through the territory, which was a long way from the benign, pristine and photogenic landscapes and iconic vistas of the tourist brochures — the Outback — I wondered about the absence of photographers in the explorer’s expeditions to Lake Eyre and the northern Flinders Ranges and Central Australia until Francis Gillen and Baldwin Spencer in the late 1890s. Maps, journals and sketches filled the space of photography’s absence in exploration to discover land of economic value was crucial to the well-being of colonial Australia.

Why was photography absent in colonial exploration? Did the interior of South Australia lack pictorial interest for photographers? Were the explorers more interested in their journey and not the landscape they were traveling through? Did the explorers hold that photography was not really needed? The abandoned Elder Scientific Exploration of 1891-2 under David Lindsay appears to be the first to successfully make use of photography. Dr Frederick John Elliot, the photographer on that expedition, does not rate a mention in A Century in Focus: South Australian Photography 1840’s-1940s. Nor is the expedition mentioned in this text.

firewood

The Pastoral Land Management and Conservation Act 1989 limits land uses on pastoral leaseholds almost solely to grazing specified stock on native pastures. The rangeland at Murnpeowie Station over which we walking was unsuitable for agriculture. How sustainable is pastoralism as a land use—sheep and cattle grazing on natural vegetation— in this arid zone? The leased land that I was walking over looked denuded, eroded and degraded from drought and over-stocking, and it had little protective plant cover.

This is a culturally encoded landscape. The pioneer legend is about the battle that the explorers fought and won over great natural difficulties and obstacles, whose triumph resulted in permanent occupation and settlement of a vast continent through subduing the land and battling the elements by those pastoralists who first “settled” the land. The legend celebrates the courage, enterprise, hard work and perseverance of the explorers pastoralists, and then the farmers. Settlement was held to be the necessary and benevolent introduction of British civilization.

The pioneer legend overlooks two significant aspect of the colonial history. Firstly, there is the long history of the environmental degradation of the land from 100 years of pastoralism’s bad management practices since European settlement. Habitat change and the introduction of feral predators and herbivores resulted in medium sized mammal species (bilbies) becoming either endangered or extinct.

polypipe, Murnpeowie Station

Secondly, the Aboriginal people’s presence in the legend is one of adversaries who had to be battled and put in their place in the process of subduing the land. The aboriginal perspective on the frontier violence had no place in the pioneer legend. The legend, which mythologized the violent frontier, indicates the then cultural supremacy of the pastoral industry in South Australia.

Presumably, as the Adnyamathanha people were dispossessed from their traditional land many were able to retreat to the ranges, sheltering there from the violence and disruptions of colonial contact and the beginnings of pastoralism in their traditional countries on the surrounding plains. Those who resisted were depicted as savage blacks by the pastoralists.

In naming places (Lake Eyre, Lake Torrens, Mt Babbage, Mt Hopeless etc) the white colonial history ignores both aboriginal names and that aboriginal peoples have a long-established and visually sophisticated culture; avoids the violence on the South Australian frontier in the Flinders Ranges; avoids any overt representation of armed conflict between the squatters and the aboriginal people; downplays the pastoralist’s campaigns against the Adnyamathanha people; idealizes the pastoralists whilst marginalizing the indigenous resistance to the invader taking their land and water. The European/Australian art of this period is also devoid of the history of this frontier struggle.

Mt Babbage + photography

On Day 10 walking we left the Terrapinna Gorge and Tors, turned away from the ephemeral Hamilton Creek and started to make our way north to the end point of the northern Flinders Ranges. We were over half way to Mt Hopeless. It was sunny with a blue sky and just the odd cloud –not desirable photographic conditions. The stony ground was flatter, with scattered low shrubs, granite boulders and undulating hills. I had a sense that only a few of the Heysen Trail bushwalkers walked this way.

landscape, northern Flinders Ranges

The only sense of the geography I had was that we were making our way to the northern edge of Moolawatana Station and to the dog-proof fence, which we would cross the following day as we made our way north. I just followed along behind the camel train.

Mt Babbage, northern Flinders Ranges

We lunched at the foot of Mt Babbage — a small mesa (300 metres in height) on the high plain that we were walking along. Most of the party walked up to its summit before lunch. I stayed back to photograph the granite boulders in a watercourse.

The mesa was named after Benjamin Herschel Babbage who had conducted a geological and mineralogical survey for the South Australia colony in the northern Flinders Ranges up to Lake Blanche in 1858. The survey was to ascertain mineralogical resources, (to search for copper and gold) and to open up the country (for farming and grazing land) — it was still terra incognita to Europeans. Their maps of ‘the interior’ implied an inner realm separated from the exterior by a curtain that had only been penetrated by explorers. Their map was of a harsh and forbidding country (a dead heart), until Hans Heysen established the arid arcadia as a sublime landscape in the 1920s.

maps + territory

On days 7 + 8 of the camel trek I started to think how this country in the northern Flinders Ranges had had been historically framed. In the mid-nineteen century this territory had historically been mapped as the ‘New World’ frontier–the edge of civilization as it were–by the white colonialists and settlers. What I knew was that the imperial map said this territory was terra nullius; that historically the settler societies are brought into being through invasion; and an outback mythology emerged with its images of vast stations, droving, skilled horse work, and dusty and laconic stockworkers that celebrated the pastoral industry.

When we left the John Waterhole in the Hamilton Creek we walk the country along tributory creeks full of scrubby melaleuca bush. It was often slow going as the density of the bush made it difficult walking for the camels to get through whilst carrying their bulky loads.

melaleucas + creek bed

After leaving the creeks we walked across undulating territory with Mt Babbage on our right. We passed the ruins of a well (Harrison’s well), a bore (Con’s Bore), a mining site and an abandoned station— Mt Fitting Station. We were skirting around Terrapinna Gorge which Hamilton Creek runs through because the camels could not walk along the gorge’s very stony ground.

I started to wonder how the European signs and codes had mapped this territory, rather than thinking about its political economy or its environmental degradation from pastoral overgrazing. Was there a history of the  codes, models, and signs that were the organizing forms that mapped and so shaped how we interpreted this territory.

mining ruins

As we walked along the station tracks of Moolawotana Station parallel to Hamilton Creek  to camp in the sand a short distance from the Terrapinna Waterhole at the northern end of Terrapinna Gorge I wondered how the economics of this landscape in the British empire was shaped by culture. How had this landscape been mapped in colonial and even precolonial times by the Europeans?

Whilst photographing this part of the country after setting up the camp I remembered Baudrillard’s thesis in Simulacra and Simulation (1981) that the map precedes the territory. Baudrillard suggests, a map as a text stops functioning as a representation and begins to function as a simulation. If in the order of representation the territory precedes the map, then in a simulation the map precedes the territory. That is, in representation the map comes after the real world, but in simulation the map comes first and begins to shape the real world.

re-assessing

I realized when I was at Karlu Karlu in 2016 hat I found  the country in the northern part of South Australia  (ie., north of  Port Augusta) that we  had passed through on the way to and from  Lajamanu to be as  interesting as  the destination itself. I realized that wanted to explore this country rather than travel though  for 12 hours a day to  get to a particular destination. It was the journey, not the destination that was crucial for me.

Pylons+ Flinders Ranges

But how to explore the northern part of Australia? Aerial photography was too expensive; I didn’t  have a 4 wheel drive; I wasn’t prepared to go into this semi arid county on my own;  I wasn’t interested in just sticking to the main highways, stopping for a break and a quick photo;   or just taking photos through a car window as I travelled  through the landscapes limited.

The landscape looked interesting through the window:  there were the salt lakes either side of the Stuart Highway, the various deserts, the pastoral landscapes north of  Goyder’s Line, the Flinders Ranges themselves,  and the country of the northern Flinders Ranges. This was a landscape that I didn’t know.  Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

photography after Lajamanu

We left Lajamanu via Top Springs so that we could link up to the Stuart Highway via  the Buntine and Buchanan Highways. The Landrover’s  compressor  housing had been  damaged,  and  so we had to avoid the long drive over  the severe corrugations on the Tamani Road.   Whilst having lunch at Top Springs I realised that the photography being done on this road trip was working within contemporary art, in that  it is part of the current of art that emerges from post colonialism in a globalised world.

Top Springs, Northern Territory

This contemporary art current is a new temporality: it is decentred and diverse, is post medium, is  more open to an interaction with artists from different cultures, has no brief against the art of the past, no sense that the past is something from which liberation must be won, has taken leave of the linear conception of history with its carrying art into the future whilst waging war  against the old old forms.   The conception of time is one of a set of possibilities rather than a linear progression. Continue reading

landscapes at Lajamanu

Whilst I was in Lajamanu I experimented  with making a few black and white landscapes around Hooker Creek as well as making  the  coloured ones. These images show that the conventional idea of the arid landscape in this region of  the Tanami desert as a timeless   boring,  barren landscape that you drive through to get to the Kimberley is misleading. This representation of  the desert–the emptiness, hostility and otherness—has its roots in the 19th century colonial English male explorers (e.g.,  Charles Sturt   and Edward John Eyre)  inland expeditions.

In contrast to the view of deserts as  timeless lands, as ‘a featureless tract of eternity in which nothing had changed or would change deserts have a history and the ones in central or arid Australia are post-glacial and,  as they are the product of historical processes, there is a diversity of  central Australia’s deserts. They are different places with different histories.

The  photo  experiment was done as a reaction to the hyped up, heavily saturated  colours of the tourist aesthetic that I’d seen everywhere  on the internet before started  the trip  to the Tanami Desert. The saturated red dirt, green bushes, blue sky is the norm—- e.g., the stock Getty images of the country– form the backbone of  the aesthetics of  travel photography. Their conception of the Outback is the romanticised one of the dream of escape, adventure and opportunity to be free.

Lajamanu landscape#2

Lajamanu landscape#1

These landscapes  were made in the early morning just after sunrise and before the light became too bright,  contrasty and hard to photograph.   They were made hand held with slow film as I didn’t take a tripod with me due to a lack of room in the Landrover Discovery. This is country that is going to be affected by climate change. Hence the relevance of a climart that acknowledges that we are part of nature and not separate from it,  and which helps to encourage the transformational thinking required to move us towards environmental sustainability.
Continue reading

more Tanami landscapes

The most seductive time  for my photography in the Tamani Desert was just as  the sun dipped below the horizon. The magic hour. Except that the hour was more like 15 -20 minutes:

Magic "hour"

Magic “hour”

It was a world of gentle and subtle  pastel colours. Even more so than just after dawn. I confess that I had the colour palette of Albert Namatjira  in mind when I was photographing at twilight.   His water colour landscapes of the desert country around Hermannsburg (Ntaria), particularly the Arrernte lands around the Western MacDonnell Ranges, were delicately coloured.  His watercolours of ghost gums, desert flowers and rocky outcrops of the MacDonnell Ranges  were  often seen as both derivative ( he used an existing white man’s art form) and  pretty in a chocolate-box kind of way. They were  viewed as  ultimately vacuous. Continue reading

Hooker Creek

Whilst I was at Lajamanu I would sleep in  a swag  on the verandah of the Learning Centre, rise before dawn, quickly  dress,  then  walk around the township  taking photos before the early morning  light became too bright.

I usually ended up in the Hooker Creek area and wandering along the dry river bed as this gave me more time  for photography. The township is on the eastern side of  Hooker Creek. The creek is normally dry and a flooded Hooker Creek is  a rare occurrence in the Wet season at  Lajamanu.

tree, Hooker Creek

tree, Hooker Creek

Lajamanu used to be known as Hooker Creek circa 1948 –1978 . That was when it was a government settlement which also included  a Baptist mission from the 1960s. Government here means the Commonwealth government since  1 January 1911 marked the date  in which the Northern Territory became the responsibility of the Commonwealth.  At the time there was a belief that Aboriginal people were an inferior and doomed race.

Some held the view that full blood Aboriginal people would die out in within a few generations, and the best thing that government policy makers could do for them was to provide a comfortable existence until that happened. Settlement meant the Chief Protector was empowered to assume the care, custody or control of any Aboriginal or half-caste if, in his opinion, it was necessary or desirable in the interests of that person for this to be done. Continue reading