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.

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.

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.

at Yudnamutana

We are in the process of deciding whether or not to return to walking in the northern Flinders Ranges in 2021. The two options currently on the table are either walking in the Gammon Ranges with Suzanne’s walking friends under the umbrella of the ARPA Bushwalkers; or doing another camel trek, this time from Blinman to Lake Frome.

I have returned to looking through the archival photos made on the earlier 14 day camel trek in the northern Flinders Ranges we did in 2018. This picture is from the morning of day 2 just before we started the days walk:

Rock face, am

Day 2 was a short walk and it enabled us to spend the afternoon exploring the ruins of Yudnamutana mine and the smelter site. Yudanamutana also refers to the copper field of this name.

This mine was worked intermittently for copper from around 1862; work was abandoned in 1867, then picked up by the Flinders Copper Mining Company and worked between 1914 and 1918.

The camel trek solution

I found the  solution to my predicament about how I could  photograph in northern South Australia. I could do  a camel trek with  experienced cameliers. The camels would carry the swag, food and water,  we would do the walking and the cameleers would guide us through the remote, semi-arid landscape.  So we booked a 12 day walk  as part of a party of six  starting on June 19th and finishing on July 2nd.   The trek started from  near Arkaroola and it  finished at  Mt Hopeless, reputed to be the northern edge of the Flinders Ranges.  The group included 3 friends from Suzanne’s Heysen Trail walking group.

We left the stormy winter weather at Encounter Bay on the southern coast of  the Fleurieu Peninsula,  and drove  up to Alpana Station near Blinman. We  arriving  in the late afternoon  and stayed overnight in the shearers quarters.  This  gave me an hour or so for a bit of photography wandering around the station  before dinner in the North Blinman Hotel. I had no time to explore Blinman itself,  to check out the Blinman mine,  or scope the fascinating landscape around Blinman.

emu,  Alpana Station, Blinman

I had a digital camera–the Sony a7R111– and two film cameras–a Leica M4-P and a Rolleiflex TLR. I decided against taking a carbon fibre tripod to use with  the Rolleiflex, as the Sony  has good low light capabilities and can be handheld in low light.   This was to be a trial  run to see if my body  could handle the walking  for 12 days, and whether or not I could do any  photography. I considered using large format (ie., taking the 5×4 Linhof Technika IV) to be over the top.  I understood that as everything centred around the 12 camels–the pace, the camp site,  where to walk, and the loading and unloading of the camels  each day— this might allow some time for photography.   Continue reading

before and after Port Augusta

The landscape just south of   Port Augusta  (ie., after  Port Pirie ) is quite different to the landscape  north of Port Augusta on the way to Woomera.  It is a study in contrasts: farmland and desert.

The Princess Highway, south of Port Augusta,  runs  between Spencer Gulf and the lower Flinders Ranges,   and  the country between the highway and the Flinders Ranges  is primarily farmland.   The landscape looked very green and lush after all the winter and spring storms and rains.

lower Flinders Ranges
lower Flinders Ranges

The electricity grid  that extends down to Adelaide is very obvious in the landscape. Port Augusta is a transport hub and  a crossroads.  The old coal-fired power stations (the Playford A and Northern Power Stations) have been closed, as has the Leigh Creek coal mine.  There is a community push for a transition from coal to renewable energy (solar thermal plants) and to make Port Augusta a renewable energy power hub. 

Continue reading