Yesterday I took a walk through the city and chanced upon a small laneway that I’d never seen before. This is a little unusual because it seems that over the course of my photographic wanders through town I thought I’d pretty much seen every alleyway there was.
This little stack of oddments was lying in wait at the end. I have an interest in stackables – the Victoria Park Racecourse comes alive with late night metallic abstraction over several months of the year as the city readies itself for the annual Clipsal 500 motor race. There are always great accidental installations of stacked scaffold, fences and the like there during that time.
This reminded me a little of that.
Another piece of writing from earlier this year. A very memorable (late) evening in Robe, South Australia.
“The Robe Obelisk”
It was a mad scramble, a race to beat the dying light still aglow from behind the thickening rumble of cloud. The path lined by jagged rock and scrub was much longer than I thought. Tantalizingly, I could see its striped form appear on the horizon as I turned the first bend but before I had taken a few more steps, it was gone again, secreted away, a teasing glimpse along the way.
I first heard about the Robe Obelisk from Adelaide-based artists Jim Thalassoudis and Dianne Gall. They travelled to Robe during the full moon to photograph it a few months ago. Jim’s work focusses on skies and relics, often at once and the monolith was something that clearly interested him. I was initially quite taken with the blunt modernism of it, a Jeffrey Smart prop placed on the rugged Cape Dombey in Robe, a perfect barbers pole totem in a spiky and rugged rock-scape. Except of course the Obelisk was not a modernist conception, it was built in 1852 to navigate sailors to the entrance to Guichen Bay. A large structure of approximately twelve metres in height, it can be seen from miles away at sea. For many years it served this purpose as well as for the storing of rocket-based lifesaving equipment but over time, the Cape Jaffa lighthouse was constructed and then in 1973 the nearby Robe lighthouse rendered it well and truly obsolete.
A trip to Robe was planned for some time but the opportunity to visit and photograph the Obelisk was not something I had given much thought to until just after I arrived. As the idea took hold, the sense of mysticism that the Obelisk held for me welled up to a feeling I was not quite prepared for.
The night I arrived was dramatically cold and windy as most coastal escarpments tend to be, a slow-mo photographer’s wet dream ; crashing water on rocks and plunging wide angle vistas. I parked the car as I had caught a glimpse of it from the top of a crest and appearances suggested that it was only a short walk away. This first sighting set my heart in pace – the stormy evening and the salt spray only magnified the anticipation I was feeling.
After a few quick photographs of rockfaces and crashing waves, I started to walk across the cliff track but soon realised that the Obelisk was quite a bit further away than I had assumed. Ahead of me was a Jurassic landscape of rocks – sharp glinted edges like volcanic magma snap frozen and preserved and banks of rugged saltbush flanking a crude and basic path, winding up and across the cliff faces.
As I trekked onward, the sense of anticipation grew, the darkening sky causing me to pace quickly. I wanted to capture this monument with the warm light of sunset and it was passing all too quickly.
As I approached, the Obelisk would appear over a ridge, as if it was carefully placed to reveal itself slowly, in measured and fleeting doses. As I neared, I began to sense something almost magical, even primal. I began to almost fear the Obelisk as if the power it possessed was too much for me to take in. I was reminded of the perfect monolith in 2001 – A Space Odyssey, a message from another place and time. As I raced across the rocks, closer and closer, I could almost hear a droning Ligeti soundscape, building to a crescendo.
Some years ago, I visited Le Corbusier’s iconic Chapel above the French town of Ronchamp and the excitement of marching up a long hot hill with a heavy backpack was palpable. At some turns, a glimpse of its curvaceous white form was afforded, slowly building a sense of place and purpose. This experience felt similar, however now there was no backpack , there was only a camera bag and a tripod and it wasn’t a scorching French summer – it was a cold night in deepest Robe. Yet in so many ways, the experience was no less revelatory or reverential.
When the light reached a peak of its beauty, I arrived down a last rocky path onto a roadside which led to the throat of Cape Dombey, a truly windswept and rugged place.
The Obelisk was suitably fenced off – clearly it’s located on a dangerous point but this was of little consequence. The fact that I couldn’t go to it, touch it, was of some small relief to me. I was not the inquisitive and courageous ape of Kubrick’s film who touched the monolith and learnt something; who gained the knowledge to kill. It was simply enough to stand back and take in this beautiful, lonely object on this faraway point on one of the sharper edges of the world.
I photographed it for about an hour from several angles. It soon became dark and the sky extinguished from ripples of pinkish grey to the deep solemn blue that transitions to the blanket of night.
By then I had to leave as the idea of trekking back across the rocky overpass was not something I was looking forward to doing in complete darkness. It was clear, in retrospect that I could have driven directly to the road that leads to the Cape but the experience of crossing the cliffs to reach the Obelisk was profound. It is a magical walk, of suspense and even a bit of peril, especially in sub-par light but a completely engrossing and worthwhile experience.
Some may not appreciate the Obelisk and the trip to the point in the way I did. My imagination took a firm hold and transported me to a unique and shimmering place for that evening.
The rock structure of Cape Dombey as I understand it, is in danger of deterioration or collapse from erosion and it seems clear that in the current economic and political climate, no government or council funding is readily available to meaningfully assist in the Obelisk’s preservation. Seeing and feeling what I did that evening, the possibility of its loss saddens me.
Certainly my memory of visiting it will stay with me. It is a significant and beautiful piece of heritage and I’m convinced that there’s a magic in place around the site.
May it live forever out on that lonely Cape.
Last year I spent some time in Bowden and Brompton exploring. Recently I excised a few of the RAW files and revisited some of this work. This image is taken looking east; the Fontanelle Gallery to the right with it’s distinctive facade pattern.
To kick off this blog, a piece of writing I put together last year.
Firstly let me start by declaring a certain degree of irony with regard to my authorship of this piece on ‘seeing’ – I am legally blind. Mated for life to heavy duty spectacles, I’m relieved of the hardships experienced by those less fortunate than me however I am all too aware of what it means not to be able to see. Life without my specs is a blurry landscape – foggy in the extreme, no faces, no details, only bad photographic bokeh.
That said, this is not a rumination on the eyeball and what follows will probably raise more questions than resolutions. I am interested in the exploration of what and how we see through photography and how photography shapes us and our environment. Our eyes are more complex than our cameras and can distinguish colours and dynamic range in a way that can make those technically impressive boxes of mirror and metal seem quite antiquated. Yet whilst our eyes are capable of technically impressive things, they can also deceive and in reality they are just a conduit to a more complex appreciation of seeing.
Trained as an architect, I take for granted a way of thinking and seeing in three dimensions that I know is not gifted to everyone. For me it took a few years of study for my mind to adapt and unlock. Now, I see and think not in some flat dimensional rendering but in all three technicolour dimensions. My brain can tunnel in under doors and around corridors, into small roof spaces and around the tight gaps between roof and rafters and generally pretty much keep up with only the occasional stop for breath.
As I design things for a living, and it’s the intent that those things have an appropriate and hopefully beautiful form, I have also developed a few sound principles of balance and composition. Good buildings aren’t designed without at least some grasp of these fundamentals either.
I’m not unique by any stretch. Anyone working in similar fields has experienced this transformative shift in thinking, and that no doubt includes photographers.
I say ‘no doubt’ because I cannot speak from an experience of many years work as a photographer.
Apart from selling images and the occasional job, I am not a professional photographer nor do I set my dreams on it. For me, designing buildings is a more personally satisfying field of endeavour (and despite the under-appreciation of design throughout the community, probably better paid as a general rule). That said, I also have a profound appreciation of photography and am acutely aware of what it’s slowly doing to my brain. I haven’t spent over twenty years studying and working in photography as I have architecture but I have come to the conclusion that it affects ‘ways of seeing’ in a similar and also slightly more dramatic manner. I have been taking photos for many years but only in earnest for the last two of them. Over that time, I have come to realise a marked shift in my way of seeing.
I no longer just see a fleshed out three dimensional landscape as I did when I left university; I now see one of visual possibilities and shifting processes. Scenes become compositions, like photos that are not yet shuttered to a still. The view down the busy street ahead of me is a photographic image. The ray of light cast across the empty mug on that table is a photographic image. The long stretching view down that alleyway is a photographic image. With compositional appreciation, these everyday scenes are also framed and structured in ‘real time’ with golden means and vanishing points, with balanced colours, with foregrounds not detracting from backgrounds and with a pleasing juxtaposition or a perspectival dynamism that’s just… about… right. A shift of the eyeball will correct a scene, ready for a shot, despite the fact there’s no camera anywhere to be seen. This is not to be taken too literally. These thoughts are usually momentary and vaguely instinctive however they are there and despite their subtlety, they assume a dominant role in my ‘way of seeing’.
Interconnected with the dimensionality of my trained architectural thinking, these two approaches to ‘seeing’ are wholly compatible. They fittingly support and converse with each other. My architecturally learnt thinking provides a solid foundation upon which the everyday drama of these constant virtual photographs plays out.
There seems to be a synergy between architects/designers and photographers and many of them dabble in both. I work with several excellent architects who are also excellent photographers. There are also lots of graphic designers who are skilled and inspiring photographers; I know personally of one and there are thousands of similar examples on the interwebs of this creative interplay between the fields of design and photography. This is obviously not a surprise as the synergy between the two fields is tangible in terms of both pragmatic output and the more cerebral appreciation of the ‘design ether’ and an enhanced way of seeing the world.
Designers (and particularly architects) think in three dimensions and know a thing or two about composition whilst photographers also acquire a sense of that dimensionality and, from my experience at least, see images wherever they go.
Personally I started photography as an extension of my ‘fine art’ work and by that I mean illustration and painting. Those that know me well would probably understand that my illustrative work is an unambiguous expression of my anxiety and energy. My illustrative work tends towards the manic and highly expressive at the expense of subtlety. It is a regularly cleared path through the thorny undergrowth in my head and what I ‘see’ is played out on paper or canvas.
What photography does is open up a new road through my brain, one that delivers more immediacy than my other work and also takes a superhighway shortcut directly through the mental landscape of my profession. In urban photography, I am able to connect with and make use of my architectural interests and drive directly to the numerous facets of that ‘way of seeing’.
In working on my photography largely at night, I am afforded crucial time to ‘remove myself’ from the world whilst ironically making every effort to capture it.
What has always intrigued me about night photography is the capacity for the camera to systematically unlock and allow us to ‘see’ the layers of hidden detail and colour within a scene. Vibrant purples in an otherwise grey sky, the rich yellow and ochre glows buried within starburst lights and the vivid hardening of shadows and textures on brickwork. The photographic process, as simple as it is, unlocks that hidden world in an almost alchemic fashion. Night scenes of otherwise mundane streets can become beautiful and cinematic within just a minute’s exposure time. The world around us is full of colour and concealed detail, tucked away within the great span of conventional dimensionality and through a long exposure, we are granted a glimpse into this mystery-place. Is it just a fudge-trick of photography or is the long exposure an invitation to that other sub-world of shimmers, rich colours and sodium glows?
Yet this capacity to delve beyond the surface is not owned solely by night photographers.
I believe that photography on a whole can be seen as a window onto a more complete way of seeing. In the hands of a skilled (or lucky) photographer, an image can evoke a sense of the ‘other’, a connection into a world of tension and drama. We see it all the time in ‘good photos’. This is not just the colourful dark-light of the more conventional of night photographs, but a greater and more profound environment, a way of ‘seeing’ beyond the surface. The lights and the colour of night photography are just a welcoming invitation to go further in. The very best night photography and by extension, the very best photography achieves something more thought provoking and experiential.
Most ‘day-to-day’ commissioned photography, a lot of photojournalism and of course a lot of night photography as well, is for me, often straightforward and fit-for-purpose. That’s not to say that there’s not great skill and beauty in that work, it is usually only skin deep in the greater scheme of things. Don’t misinterpret the seeming absolutes of this argument, however: the world is awash with grey areas and the point I make is subjective and not intended to appear harsh. Like architecture, there is run-of-the-mill work and there is profound work. Most of us would love to be doing more of the latter but that combination of skill, luck and whatever other kismetic elements are necessary doesn’t happen often for most mortals; or for me at least.
Amidst all this, there are those other photographs that for social, emotional, creative, political or possibly technical reasons are like golden tickets to that under-world of drama and tension, that simmering stream running through the sub-surfaces of our everyday lives. We know and recognise these images; there are many and they are constant, and we usually take note and appreciate the ripple they form in our thoughts. It is a common but often enlightening ‘way of seeing’.
Of course, photography is not the only way into this place. I am referring to only one piece of the much broader world of ‘art’, that despite the recognised vagaries of its definition, to me represents anything that (subjectively) opens that door, even slightly, to this ‘other’ place.
In turn, this photography, as a subset of art, plays a role in building a new creative narrative in our day-to-day world. As images, they act as emotional or imaginative building blocks, or perhaps enveloping strands in our lives’ fabric. Bit by bit, they add meaning and enrichment to our lives.
I aspire to the profound (it would be wrong of me not to) and I know I regularly miss the mark. But I love the vast majority of my photographs and they provide another layer of creative meaning to my already crowded life. My images, like my artwork have become an extension of me.
The very thing that drives me to see the world contributes in an increasing way to the way I, myself am seen. I am passionate about urban design and architecture. Equally, I am passionate about providing the world with my personal view of the city and the country in which I live. I see it as almost a duty to open up and ‘narrate’ the environment around me: the shadows and twinkle of suburbia, the inner city laneways and alleys, the old and the new buildings, quiet parking lots and sprawled out industrial ampitheatres. I enjoy sharing these places with the people who are kind enough to view and take interest in my photographs. There is a beauty and interest in everything in the urban landscape and I very often prefer to find it and express it in these ‘not so beautiful’ places.
Night photography is an attractive conduit to that end and it enables an expression beyond the ‘ordinary’ but it is only one way. I think every urban photographer has it in their heart to present their world around them in some fashion; to be driven to continually unveil street after street, building after building in an almost obsessively methodical approach.
German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once declared that “architecture is frozen music” and in a way I believe photography can be aptly summarised similarly. Just as photographs are being increasingly added to the milieu, with ‘social media’ as a primary carrier, I see photography as a series of frozen moments in time. These are moments that never melt but continue to define their creators as well as to add to the great processing mass of humanity. If photography is frozen music too, then each photo is a note on a scale, all forming a greater and complex song cycle. With DSLRs, cameras, point-and-shoots, Instagram, Facebook and the like, we are all now ongoing co-authors to this great, rousing ditty.
We are cataloguing our world like never before. We have so many ‘ways of seeing’ now, into the increasingly distant past and our photographs are a rapidly growing catalogue of our social and environmental history. We are putting future historians out of a job with every click of the shutter.
All around us we’re visually informed of the world in a way we have never been in history. We have a way of seeing that’s a mere mouse-click away. I find the rush of it all astonishing. Anyone who’s spent any time on Flickr will understand the enormity and breadth of imagery being uploaded by the second. In so many ways, it’s miraculous.
Yet are we too busy taking photographs to stop and understand what it is we’re seeing?
|Linda Drayton on The Rawhide Matrix|
|The Rawhide Matrix |… on The Rawhide Matrix|
|sedge808 on Pic of the week|
|sedge808 on Stackings III|
|wayneg72 on Ways of Remembering|