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
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.
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
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.
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.
The most seductive time for my photography in the Tamani Desert was just as the sun dipped below the horizon. The magic hour. Except that the hour was more like 15 -20 minutes:
It was a world of gentle and subtle pastel colours. Even more so than just after dawn. I confess that I had the colour palette of Albert Namatjira in mind when I was photographing at twilight. His water colour landscapes of the desert country around Hermannsburg (Ntaria), particularly the Arrernte lands around the Western MacDonnell Ranges, were delicately coloured. His watercolours of ghost gums, desert flowers and rocky outcrops of the MacDonnell Ranges were often seen as both derivative ( he used an existing white man’s art form) and pretty in a chocolate-box kind of way. They were viewed as ultimately vacuous. Continue reading
Whilst I was at Lajamanu I would sleep in a swag on the verandah of the Learning Centre, rise before dawn, quickly dress, then walk around the township taking photos before the early morning light became too bright.
I usually ended up in the Hooker Creek area and wandering along the dry river bed as this gave me more time for photography. The township is on the eastern side of Hooker Creek. The creek is normally dry and a flooded Hooker Creek is a rare occurrence in the Wet season at Lajamanu.
tree, Hooker Creek
Lajamanu used to be known as Hooker Creek circa 1948 –1978 . That was when it was a government settlement which also included a Baptist mission from the 1960s. Government here means the Commonwealth government since 1 January 1911 marked the date in which the Northern Territory became the responsibility of the Commonwealth. At the time there was a belief that Aboriginal people were an inferior and doomed race.
Some held the view that full blood Aboriginal people would die out in within a few generations, and the best thing that government policy makers could do for them was to provide a comfortable existence until that happened. Settlement meant the Chief Protector was empowered to assume the care, custody or control of any Aboriginal or half-caste if, in his opinion, it was necessary or desirable in the interests of that person for this to be done. Continue reading
Late one afternoon whilst I was at Lajamanu I went on a brief phototrip with Helga Leunig to take photos of the Tanami Desert landscape. We travelled a short distance along the gravel road that provides access to the local cemetery and rubbish dump. This road north from Lajamanu, which connects Lajamanu to the Bunting Highway, Kalkarindji and Top Springs, and doesn’t feature on Google maps is the road that we would take to leave Lajamanu for Alice Springs via Top Springs.
Helga had briefly explored the area to the north of Lajamanu early in the day, and she was interested in returning to the rubbish dump to photograph a red car in the late afternoon light. We never got there. I suspected that we missed the turn off because we were rushing to catch the light. The Tanami landscape was very different to what I’d expected. I thought that it would be low and flat like the landscape of northern South Australia or featureless sand plains. I didn’t expect this bio-region to be as treed as it was:
dead tree, Lajamanu
Vegetation is predominantly spinifex hummock grassland with a tall-sparse shrub overstorey. Like most coastal Australians my imagination had constructed it as terrifyingly, inhospitable arid country–an undifferentiated, empty desert landscape with intense white light, termite mounds, and extreme temperatures. Unhomely. It was yet another version of the white settler’s “dead heart”–that long held popular conception of the Australian interior as a great and threatening unknown; one counterpoised to the mythical Inland Sea in the middle of Australia that was the preoccupation of the early white explorers, such as Charles Sturt, who took a whaleboat to the desert. I didn’t expect to see the clustered eucalypts.