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.

walking the country

This particular project is slowly taking on a vague shape with the recent shift away from thinking in terms of the classic idea of the roadtrip to walking the country. I’d started with the roadtrip concept as these were the classic way that photographers had historically explored the country beyond the various state capitals. More recently biking has replaced the Kombi’s of old.

The 14 day camel trek from outside Arkaroola to Mt Hopeless that Suzanne and I did with her walking friends in 2018 has bought this project into focus. It is about going off road and walking in northern South Australia. The earlier road trips to Andamooka and Lajamanu can now be seen as precursors to walking in the northern region of South Australia. These roadtrips gave me a sense of the country beyond the settled areas: they opened my eyes up to the country through which the highways passed.

am, creek bed

Walking the country has come to the foreground because we have recently registered to walk in the Gammon Ranges with the ARPA Bushwalkers, and also signed up to do a camel trek from Blinman to Lake Frome in 2021. I suddenly realized that this mode of exploring the country of northern South Australia photographically meant a conceptual shift from roadtrips to walking.

Andamooka, South Australia

As I have been going through my archives  I realised that my travelling along  the long road to the north did not start with the trip to Lajamanu as I had previously thought. I had actually been to Andamooka twice on roadtrips. The first road  trip to Andamooka was in the 1990s where I had made a few photos. I then returned to Andamooka around 2001 with Suzanne and we  stayed there for several days. I had  more  time to  photograph the landscape.

Linhof Technika 70

Andamooka, South Australia

The above image comes from the earlier trip in the 1990s. This  was on my own–a road trip in the VW  Kombi. It was a basically break from writing the PhD on Heidegger at Flinders University of South Australia.   Judging from the archives only a few photos were made  on the 1990s roadtrip. Continue reading

walking in the Blue Mine Creek bed

At the end of the first day  of walking we camped at a wonderful campsite close to Blue Mine Gap on the north western edge of the Gammon Ranges. We  were  walking in there of  Sir Douglas Mawson’s  1906  explorations into the geology  of the northern Flinders Ranges.  In the 1920s  and 1930s Mawson amongst others concentrated his research and fieldwork  around the  mineralization the northern Flinders Ranges, eruptions of  the pre-Cambrian glaciation throughout the Flinders Ranges,   the Cambrian strata of the Flinders Range,  and the identification of uranium  at Mt Painter Inlier,  which is about 100 kilometres north east of Leigh Creek and south of the Mawson Plateau.    South Australia is one of the world’s focal points for the study of the late pre-Cambrian era and glaciation.

After lunch on the first day we crossed  a  creek bed. The camels were playing up a bit,  and this gave me  5-10 minutes or so  to do some photography  in and around the creek bed. Surprisingly, the  light was still soft due to the continuing cloud cover,  and the malaleucas in the  creek made a welcome change to the bareness and environmental degradation of the stony hills with the loss of endangered plants and animals from  the  history of extensive  pastoralism since the European occupation of the land.

malaleuca, creek bed

We had  left the Umberatana Station track to  walk in,  and along,  the Blue Mine Creek on the way to the campsite for the night.  It was dawning on me that there was a history of  extensive mining in  the region for copper in the 19th century,   and that the  systematic regional mapping of the northern Flinders Ranges  after 1945 centred around finding coal, petroleum and uranium.  Mining was  just as crucial as pastoralism in terms of land use.   Increasingly it is now eco-tourism that provides  the income and employment in the region.    Continue reading

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