tree, Waitpinga

This is another  local tree. It is  on the roadside of a country road in Waitpinga, South Australia that I often walk down.   

The  picture was made in 2016 whilst I was on an early  morning  poodlewalk.

I discovered last night that Sophie Cunningham  has a tree of the day Instagram account.  Mary Macpherson   has a book of trees in New Zealand called Bent.  I am sure that there are other photographers photographing tree apart from Beth Moon.   

emptying the landscape

Arboraphobia”, the fear of trees  makes sense given the massacre of trees that is our revenge on the choking bush. 

The pioneer settlers  possessed a “psychopathic fear of the gum or the wattle”. Then there is  the zeal with which bulldozers levelled the ground before  post-war suburbs were built; and  Tasmania’s continuing determination to churn up ancient forests and sift them into woodchip? 

Trees are associated with darkness and anxiety specific to the Australian colonial experience of  the Australian bush. The Australian landscape must be stripped of its trees--along with  the Aboriginal presence--- if room is to be made for its colonisers. This  was so even though settler Australia's  vision of the landscape as empty, unwelcoming bush or desert.

4 trees on Baum Rd

This blog has transformed into a photoblog  about trees including what happens to trees once they have been cut down.   

These photographs are not of  trees in the wilderness.  I live in a place where there are trees,  and I  frequently  photograph them a lot whilst I am on my poodle walks.  This  photographing of  trees  then extends  to  my road trips.  These are mostly trees in agricultural landscapes.  

A picture of four trees on local  country road--Baum Rd-- which were  photographed on a  late afternoon walk on an overcast day. The  rain was coming in from the south-west. 

Robin Boyd, a critic of suburban sprawl, coined the term "arboraphobia," or white Australia's fear of trees, that led to massive razing of land to create a paved suburban landscape.  A suburbia  that is a wasteland,  a dry, ugly cement landscape of the suburbs; mangy backyards with pathetic garden plots and dark, claustrophobic interiors with cracked walls and ceilings and, ironically, floral carpets. These images are linked to moral aridity, sexual dysfunction, the sterile suffocation of suburban living, and the dread of natural growth invading the house.   

re-reading the Australian landscape tradition

The traditional interpretation of the Australian landscape is one of majestic gums and sunlight plains--exemplified by Hans Heysen---  rather than the  sublime's darker twilight landscape that evokes a sense of eeriness and unease; or  the landscape as transformed by human beings through farming. 

This landscape has been carved up for family-style farming and it has become private property.  All that is left as a public space are  the roads between the boundaries of the private property.   A  dirt road, a fence,  and remnant roadside vegetation. 

the Australian landscape tradition

The subject matter of this  conceptual photographic project --pink gum and Xanthorrhoea---means that it is a particular representation of part of the Australian landscape. It works within the Australian landscape tradition that aimed to reveal to Australians the landscape of their country in their own place and time. 

This is a tradition in which the landscape is the dominant image of Australia--eg., Arthur Streeton's The Land of the Golden Fleece (1926)---and whose imagery has been reworked and undergone regeneration and redefinition. Examples include John Glover,  Eugene von Guerard, the  Heidleberg School, Hans Heysen, Albert Namatjira,  Russell Drysdale etc.  The imagery was usually interpreted  in terms of a concern for a national identity,  Australian dependency and isolation, and the creation of a national style.   

Modernism was defined both in terms of and against the hegemony  of this regional tradition in which artists were seen to do little more than represent nature. It was naturalism. Bernard Smith in Australian Painting argued that after 1945 modernist imagery gradually supplanted  traditional and conservative imagery of a regional naturalism.

The latter was deemed to be provincal and resistant to nonfiguration, whilst modernist abstraction  was deemed to be international, innovative and avant gardist.  International was actually New York as the dominant centre of modernist art,   American abstraction and Clement Greenberg.

The latter failed to see that  abstraction was a tradition whose imagery has been reworked and undergone regeneration and redefinition and that the images in both  the abstraction and naturalist traditions  emerge from, and are an expression of, the place in which we live. This gives rise to  a regional art in a global world.  

'deskilled’ photography

In  the 'Anti-Photography’ exhibition,  curated by Duncan Wooldridge at the Focal Point Gallery, we find an account of conceptual photography as ‘anti-aesthetic’ or ‘deskilled’ photography that refers back to, and reworks,  Nancy Foote’s 1976 Artforum text ‘The Anti-Photographers’.

This text  refers to an anti-aesthetic’ or ‘deskilled’ photography (ie., Ed Ruscha and the Bechers) that is  outside the orthodoxy of conventional photography, by which Foote means Stieglitz’s conception of modernist photography, namely the focus on ‘the unique photographic print’ and ‘abstract formal values’.    The anti-photographers set themselves 'apart from this so-called serious modernist photography through  a snapshot-like amateurism and nonchalance that would raise the hackles of any earnest professional.'

One of the defining features of the ‘anti-photographers’, argued Foote, was  the Duchampian underpinnings strip the photograph of its artistic pretensions.   Their utilitarian approach is a kind of anti-aesthetic that wrenches itself purposefully away from the glossy, good-looking gallery print, with the aim, in her words, of transforming the photograph from ‘a mirror to a window. What it reveals becomes important, not what it is.’

The Becher’s typologies are a window with  Duchampian underpinnings that have little photographic self-consciousness? The Duchampianlink is there as their  first monograph  Anonyme Skulpturen (Anonymous Sculptures),  made an implicit nod to the legacy of Duchamp’s readymade.   Surely, they are making photographic forms---typologies, series and grids-- that extend beyond documentation.  

They engaged  with the language of photography as  their work invoolved frontal views of industrial architectural forms seen from fixed vantage points against a cloudless sky and without expressive effects. this linked back to  the  German tradition  of  the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and  the photography of August Sander, Karl Blossfeldt, and Albert Renger-Patzsch. The Bechers work was initially dismissed as completely  inartistic.  

During this period debates around the photographic, and the relation of the history of photography to the history of art intersect with the dematerialisation of the art object.  The photograph was seen to be  a way to subvert the notion of an art object by operating in the margins of documentation.

That was then. Now we can have photographers  for whom ‘what it is’ is extremely important and who also create glossy, good-looking (conceptual) work. This suggests that contemporary art photography that could be called conceptual is unlike the conceptualist photography of the 60s and 70s.

Today conceptual art  is more  about images that are preconceived and explore a pre-existing idea or plan than snapshot-like amateurism

on Mount Hill Road

The cosmopolitan culture  of the global economy has challenged the Eurocentric focus of metropolitan modernism, revealing the parochial concerns of earlier debates on modernism. AS Terry Smith observes in Inside out, outside in: changing perspectives in Australian art historiography


When you are located at a cultural periphery, you become aware that the definitive interpretations of whatever is most valuable to you originate at centers some distance from where you live and work, and that they are subject to change, often radical change, for reasons that seem arbitrary. Yet you must learn to fathom them, and quickly, because they impact on your capacity to participate in the discourse as a whole.

An overemphasis on locality can lead to a provincialism that then edges into a conservative nationalism. It did in Australia,  in the sense that a conservative vision of art has ruled state galleries for a long time. 

The heritage of the 1960s and 1970s is a large one. That was the period when Australian's assumed that the centre of world art was  New York,  and it lead to the Australian preoccupation with nation, national identity and the position—and therefore the category—of Australian art.

This sought to locate Australian art (Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, John Brack, John Olsen and John Percevalin relation to international (largely American) art,  was concerned to build a  strong national culture and to identify a local avant garde by identifying a new style of painting.  

That was then.  Today modernism—no matter how often and subtly it is remodernized—is seen to be past its use-by date. “Postmodern” is an outmoded term, a temporary placeholder that is no longer adequate to describe conditions that have changed fundamentally. These conditions or currents are globalization and transnationality and giove rise to the emergence of   being a  part of a broader international contemporary art, no matter how apparently local the signifiers. 


turning back to the image

The reception of  the 1960s and early 1970s conceptual art  in Australia (eg., Art and Language, Ian Burn etc ) can be read as a dissent from, or a disdain for, the image as icon. This reception  can be interpreted as part of the  denigration of vision tradition  that Martin Jay maps in his Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought  text.

This dissent was  directed against the  view that  vision  has  a superior capacity to provide access to the world and  it often expressed a hostility to the hegemonic regime of Western visuality and its society of the spectacle.  Pop art, for instance, was anchored in the one-dimensional celebration of the society of the spectacle and the primacy of the image as commodity  that relied on the work of many commercial photographers in the advertising industry.  Conceptual art was a critique of the politics of visuality qua spectacle; a critique of the political economy of the sign premised on a fear of the  image's political impact--its seductive power.   

Conceptual art as an anti-aesthetic tradition  was an  anti-pictorial, anti-visual movement with undercurrents of iconophobia and scopophilia.Christinia Barton in her essay The Photographic Legacy of Post-Object in Image and Text puts it this way:

Although photography is a mode of (mechanical) representation it served as an alternative to those traditional [art] practices. There are I believe six qualities, conditions or potentialities of photography that post-object artists were drawn to in their specific critique of the historical meaning and function of art. In light of these, it could be claimed that the photograph and its derivatives provided a means to supplement without separating post-object art from the social environment that was its raw material, and to more seamlessly insert it into a discursive field. They are: the an-aesthetic dimension of photography; its ubiquity, its reproducibility; its heterogeneity; indexicality and finally its reflexivity or self-criticality.

Barton goes on to say that:

In the 1970s it was exactly photography's freedom from the baggage of fine art that was the draw for artists searching for an alternative to the aesthetic tyrannies of late modernism. While art photographers were arguing their case for a place for photography in the pantheon of high art, on the grounds of its intrinsic formal qualities, post-object artists were merely using the camera as a recording device in their moves away from that institutional framework. They were disinterested in the aesthetic qualities of photography or the technical aspects of its production as ends in themselves. Rather photography was undertaken largely without the requirement of skill or specialist technical knowledge, in the mode of the amateur snapshot or the scientific record, often not by the artist themselves, but rather by someone else, charged with the business of documenting the action. As well as distancing themselves from the craft of photography or any aspirations to photography as Art, artists were attracted to the medium on the grounds of its ubiquity.


Instead of ditiching or dismantlng the image photography can deconstruct it by reconsidering the art of image-making--to go back to the picture rather than turn away from it fully aware that our   lives and desires are mediated by images in the mass media.

recovering context

The anti-aesthetic position in photography forfeits originality, uniqueness and self-expression whilst preserving photography as an autonomous aesthetic object whilst reintroducing the context of the  photograph when produced. 

Critics like Rosalind Krauss use a positivist understanding of photography (passive, non artistic, copy) to move beyond the traditional notions of artist/author (creative genius), the formalist modernist conception of a medium, and the art historical categories of oeuvre.

However, the anti-aesthetic position reduces aesthetics to modernist formalism, when the latter is a particular kind of aesthetics based on Greenberg's reading of Kant. Thus Hal Foster, in the preface to The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture,  says that:

Anti-aesthetic"...signals that the very notion of the aesthetic, its network of ideas, is in question here: the ideas that aesthetic experience exists apart, without "purpose," all but beyond history, or that art can now effect a world at once (inter)subjective, concrete, and universal--a symbolic totality. Like "postmodernism," then, "anti-aesthetic" marks a cultural position on the present: are categories afforded by the aesthetic still valid? ..."Anti-aesthetic" also signals a practice, cross-disciplinary in nature, that is sensitive to cultural forms engaged in a politic (e.g., feminist art) or rooted in a vernacular--that is, to forms that deny the idea of a privileged aesthetic realm.(p.xv)

Foster sees "the aesthetic" as a single monolithic set of categories and he ignores the differences within the tradition of philosophical aesthetics.