Captain Sweet, the Flinders + topographics

As the second camel trek draws I ask myself did: Captain Sweet photograph in the Flinders Ranges? I have kept asking myself this, 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 what art historians call views photography in the colonial period in South Australia When I came across this landscape of the Flinders Ranges between Beltana and Leigh Creek by Captain Sweet in 1885 I was intrigued. Were there more photographs of the Flinders Ranges by Sweet?

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, explores Heysen’s paintings of an arid landscape in depth, then mentions Frederick Joyner and Harold Cazneaux.

Bunbury’s thesis is that during the second half of the nineteenth century South Australia lacked a landscape tradition. The inference is that Captain Sweet as a topographical photographer was not considered to be a part of the landscape tradition in a way that Heysen or Cazneaux were. 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

One possible reason for this is the 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. Art historians had been quick to expand this definition of topography as distinct from and inferior to landscape art with the distinction between evidence and art. The former in terms of picturing places has little aesthetic value or interest.

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 in relation to picturing places is not intended to just identify a genre but to indicate its limitations.

SA colonial photography: a note

I am not having that much success in my research on expedition photography in South Australia. I recently came across a book on colonial photography in Australia entitled Shifting Focus: Colonial Australian Photography 1850-1920 ed., Anne Maxwell and Josephine Croci (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2015). It looked promising as the Introduction states that photography circa 1850-60 was shown in the technology section (optical instruments) of the Great Exhibition in London (1851) and not in the fine art section. Photography, they continue, shared with science common roots in empiricism and positivism, an optimistic faith in progress, and common agendas to see and know the world. Photography entered the nineteenth-century imagination as a way of capturing the world in precise detail, and bringing it home for careful study. References to travel, geography, topography, and landscape are common in this period.

This insight references Joan Schwarz’s article ‘Records of Simple Truth and Precision: Photography, Archives and the Illusion of Control’ (2000) that is based on her PhD thesis. Schwartz argues that in the 1840s travel was embraced as a way of seeing and knowing the world and photographs offered a new means of acquiring, ordering and disseminating geographical information. This was an era when geographical movement was embraced as intellectual method,and observation was the paradigm of knowing, photography made it possible to gather and disseminate all kinds of information in visual form, with unprecedented ease and accuracy. Photography’s links with science meant that it was seen as a method for observing, representing, and knowing the world. Photography was seen as an enhanced form of visual note taking, a tool of observation, and an accurate and reliable means of documentation.The photograph as a means of extending human powers of scientific observation is characterized as the topographical tradition, with the positivist rhetoric of unmediated representation being expressed as a “mirror” of nature, a “window” on the world, and a “mirror” with a memory.

Captain Samuel Sweet, Palmerston township, 1870

Expedition photography in South Australia would fit snugly within the emergent role of photography in making and communicating new knowledge and its significance for natural history as part of the work of empire. Bernard Smith in his European Vision and the South Pacific says that the development and introduction of photography represented a significant juncture in the use of images as records and for interpreting visible phenomena. This emerging photographic culture was directed, as needed, towards fulfilling an official agenda of satisfying the appetite of a European public eager for curiosities suitably composed to current tastes. Images of natural history subjects were produced not only as scientific documents or as artistic conceits but also to validate and promote Britain’s expanding empire.

Shifting Focus does mention expedition photography in South Australia: — namely, Tim Smith’s and Kitty Magee’s articles on Goyder’s 1869 Northern Territory Survey Expedition to survey this territory so as to establish colonial settlement in and around Port Darwin. Joseph Brooks and especially Captain Sweet photographed the early stage of this part of Australian colonial settlement process — ie., they, and especially Sweet, made positive views of colonial development, progress and prosperity.

Sweet’s Darwin photos were taken while he was working as a ship’s captain for the South Australian Government, commanding a supply vessel supporting the exploration (1869) and settlement (1869-71) of Darwin and the construction of the Overland Telegraph (1870-72). Sweet was not employed as a photographer when he took these photographs and his Darwin photographs can be also understood as a surrogate for travel at a time when travel was the premier avenue to knowledge of the world. Photographs were cheaper, more truthful, more accessible, more convenient, and more egalitarian than other forms of visual imagery.