photography as a kind of pictorial readymade

The significance of photography as a medium—or what makes photography a single, unified medium—was a key idea in modernist aesthetics that was centred around formalism and the autonomous art object that was designed to be stored in art galleries/museums as part of  our society’s cultural heritage.   

The shift in critical discourse,  initiated by  postmodernism,   has been away from  photography per se, to the more generic term picture. The latter   term encompasses a range of pictorial arts (including, in principle, moving pictures) and thereby disavows in advance any strong (or narrow) conception of medium specificity.

Associated with this shift away from Greenberg modernism  from the 1960s to the 1980s is the preference for unpretentious snapshot effects, documentary value, and deadpan anti-aesthetic qualities, as well as in their use of photography for appropriating and recycling existing imagery.  This tendency or conceptualism trajectory had  an interest in the photograph as a kind of pictorial readymade that can be appropriated and repurposed in ways that limit authorial control. 

a Leica world

The Leica  camera's  has a classical  minimalist design. For Leica form follows function. This is such a contrast to the computerised digital cameras of today. 

The bottom line of the Leica camera (film based or filmless) is that  it is grounded in the great German tradition of solid engineering. The film based products, like those from Linhof,  last forever and do not bring repeat business. 

During the 20th century Leica developed excellent technical solutions, supplied reliable goods and created long-lasting relationships with the customers. The main qualities - over-engineering, obsession with detail and an extreme emphasis on durability - demand a price: the products last a lifetime  and do not bring repeat business. 

The  M4-P (1981)  was primitive technology compared to the Cannon and Nikon DSLR's that other photographers were using. Leica is a conservative company--the single lens reflex  film cameras had  eclipsed rangefinders in the 1970s! 

The  M4-P  did not add much to the progress of the rangefinder camera. It  is a manual-focus camera and it  did not add automatic exposure metering with manual selection of either shutter speed or aperture that was very accurate. I still  had to use a hand held light meter or guess the exposure.  It was primitive technology compared to the Cannon and Nikon DSLR's that other photographers were using. Leica was a conservative company. 

travelling through time

The  picture below was made on  the A32 somewhere near Peterbourough. The landscape----the cliche is that of a desolate and austere country with an empty centre--- is seen through the window of the car travelling towards Adelaide.  In this part of the South Australian landscape the pastoral lands were becoming farmland. Wind farms in the mid-north of the state would soon appear.  

The word from Canberra was that mining iron ore was Australia's future and  that the mining boom was eternal. Cornucopia was Australia's destiny.  Big Mining ruled the country and it's rule represented the triumph of global neo-liberalism.  

Despite making  the shift  to digital technology to make snapshots  I decided to keep using  the rangefinder film Leica.  I was unsure of what photography was for; how it works to engage the viewer's interest and passion; what kind of work it performs upon the viewer; or how something in the image calls for a response. 

The reasons are primarily  technological ones.   Digital cameras are more unserviceable or to expensive to repair if and when the spare parts are available. The lifetime of a digital Leica camera has not yet been established, but my M4-P body and lens has a working life between 50 and 75 years with very modest service.  The reason is that spare parts are easy to find and any competent repair person can service this type of camera. Digital camera bodies are dumped as obsolete.   

snapshots on the A32

The A32 is the highway from Adelaide to Sydney via Broken Hill.  Travelling on it is stepping back into history and  away from tourist photographic activity.  

We were tourists in our own country.  We had a few days holiday  in Mildura and had gone onto  explore Broken Hill for a few more days.  We then returned  to Adelaide on  the A32,  or the Barrier Highway. Taking everyday pictures for tourists is associated with holidays and travel and then linked to memory.   

This picture was made near Olary 

By now I'd bought a digital camera--a Sony DSC R1,  Adobe Lightroom, and an Epson V700 scanner.  The Sony  became my main everyday  point and shoot camera,  and I started using the film Leica less.  The main film work was being done with medium format cameras. Going digital did not alter  the stereotypical character of snapshot photography---they continue an already existing practice but allow for a vastly greater quantity.  

a state of flux

Launceston is one of my favourite towns in Tasmania. We were staying with family at Evandale  for a couple of days and so it was easy to pop into Launceston for the day. There were pieces  of street art in the more industrial area that caught my eye.  

 I was still trying to find my feet as a photographer. I had no projects to work on. I was still taking snapshot photos as I moved through the world.  This style of snapshot often is predictable, conservative and repetitive. The  sense of banality and cliches of visual culture was reinforced by the  feeling  that I was in an in-between place. It was a state of flux between paid work and being a photographer.  An independent photographer. 

travelling around

Suzanne's mother's family  came from Tasmania and her sister and husband had  purchased  a property in Tunbridge, in the Midlands. So we decided to have a week's  holiday in Tasmania. I'd never bee, even though the tourist pictures that I'd seen reminded me of the South Island of New Zealand. Tasmania,  like the South Island, was an iconic wilderness destination in the global tourism market. 

This abstract  of the wall of a shed was made at Fingal on the Esk Highway   whilst we were on our way back to Launceston from St Helens. It's a cliche  of minimalism that avoids the art photography  tendency to use the "snapshot aesthetic" with a ironic wit  at loose in the phenomenal world to achieve the accidental effects of the unthinking snapped camera image (eg., the headless grandma, off lighting, poor focus, blurred images, awkward poses, harsh shadow etc ) made with a point and shoot camera. 

In contrast, Adelaide  in the era of the global market,  was becoming a city of empty shops, throw away food, angry posters and homeless people sleeping out in the parklands rather than a tourist Mecca.  

red + green

I lived in the city square mile of Adelaide in a newly built townhouse. I would  wander around the local neighbourhood--the Central Market precinct--- with my camera. For the moment, as  a city dweller,  I was happy wandering around the central business district photographing the street art, exploring the urban space  and being a part of  the snapshot  photographic culture.   

The decline in manufacturing meant that a rustbelt, depressed Adelaide was rebranding itself  to make the place where we live into a “destination” for tourists. This post-card Adelaide  was designed as a response to counter the industrial decline and fiscal stress of the 1970s and 1980s caused by the economic flows of  a globalizing spectacularized capitalism.  The self-promotion  used a public relations campaign to tap into the rapidly growing  worldwide tourism market marked by fashion.  

Tourist Adelaide was a  place that was unique and extraordinary--just like every other city that was busy creating it's own visual brand.  It had clean streets, low crime rates, a  sense of well-being that is exuded by pleasant public places, as well as  the tourist attractions of regional wineries in a liquid modernity.  Photography help create  the visual culture around postcard Adelaide. 

a set of dead classics

Traditionally photography does not have, as the saying goes, the ear of those in power in the art institution.  It  has been historically  viewed unfavorably by the art world, and advocates for a photography museum/gallery  did not receive a sympathetic hearing until the last quarter of the 20th century.   Art photography eschewed functional and directly commercial applications of photography (e.g. snapshots, advertising) and defined itself in opposition to this. Its conception of art’s autonomy was generally understood as the distance that art takes from the world and its gestures of rebellion and resistance were few and far between. 

Art photography’s achievements in the lat 20th century were  based largely on an aesthetic of the photographic – meaning that there are distinct inherent properties of the medium itself that give it value as an art-form, and the skilled practitioner can employ these properties in order to produce expressive work. 

 A core tenet of Szarkowski's New York modernist tradition's  outlook on photography is that it, as a specific medium,  is fundamentally different from other picture-making processes in that it is based on selection rather than synthesis: – the photographer takes elements of the real world for his picture, whereas the painter makes the elements of his picture from scratch.  Szarkowski's aesthetic reason  assumed  that the painter selects from their imagination, whereas the photographer must select from the real world.     

The notions of art, autonomy, and progress  in the contemporary art practices of the second half of the 20th century were divorced from the historical European avant-garde's commitment to the project of destroying the false autonomy of bourgeois art. The concern of the art institution and the academic discourses and institutions was to establish a  canon of Australian photography to highlight Australia's modernity. 

We experienced the shock of the new in a set of dead classics. This discourse  identified the avant-garde with a selective canon of modern art, whereby this exclusive canon valorized, furthermore, as an inevitable historical trajectory the move of advanced artistic practice from Europe to the United States then to Australia. 

signs in the desert

The promise of the avant grade in the  first third of the twentieth century (Dada and surrealism) was a rupture with the  art institution and art's autonomy in a world dominated by the means end rationality of capitalism's exchange value. The avant-garde's attack  focused on autonomous art represented by aestheticism as a necessary step in its project to overcome the separation between art and life. 

  Modernism, as it was usually presented in Australia, was a purely internal artistic phenomenon. Modernism's  claims to novelty, negation and non-trivial experimentation in the late 20th century had  finally diminished in their impact as they have become exhausted. The avant-garde’s attack on the art institution had failed. The art  institution had demonstrates its strength by embracing its attackers and assigning them a prominent place in the pantheon of great artists. Avant-garde categories such as rupture and shock gained admittance to the discourse of art, while at the same time concepts such as harmony and coherence  became suspected. The model of heroic transgression against repressive authority has lost its credibility. 

It is  the art  institution, rather than a work’s intrinsic qualities, that defines what counts as art. So artistic genius is not the source of aesthetic value. The art institution only allows a a few  photographers inside the gate it guards. 

We were driving back to a rust bucket Adelaide from Woomera and Andamooka when I saw this tree in the middle of nowhere. It was the Xmas decorations that caught my eye. The decorative signs humanise  the  empty landscape--what many see as the dead heart of Australia.  Hence the snapshot.

Australia's past: Andamooka

Things have meaning in part because of the way we see things, based on our own historical context.  An example is the conception of Australia as the Lucky Country  because it was the world's quarry.  Donald Horne, who coined the Lucky Country phrase,   used it in an  ironical mode. 

Horne was critiquing an Australia that did not think for itself; a country manacled to its past; and 'still in colonial blinkers'. It was meant as an indictment of an unimaginative nation, its cosy provincialism, its cultural cringe, its second rate politicians,  and its White Australia policy.  Horne's irony is usually  overlooked. 

Old resource based Australia  is  a particular  historical pattern of vision. A week in Andamooka, in northern South Australia indicated that  it was a strange place--a frontier land. The town was full of mine tailings  as was the surrounding landscape. This was a quarry economy. It  indicated  mining's "boom and bust" economics,  and  that  mining, by its nature, involves the environmental damage to  the land. This  often has serious consequences for the surrounding environment.