Keeping Our Distance
Everyone loves a list – especially when there are winners and losers. Lists give us something to fight about, evoking passions we hardly knew we had; they give a sense of purpose to the anonymous blogger and bring a therapeutic dose of indignation to the chat-room babble.
To have a list you need a scale of measure. You need numbers. As every politician knows, while rhetoric and name-calling are useful political tools, you can’t beat a good statistic. It doesn’t matter how you got it or even if it’s accurate – the mere fact it is a number gives it authority that can trump a philosophical thesis any day.
There is comfort in lists and numbers. How else would we know that Vincent Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet is the world’s best painting or Tracey Moffatt is the pre-eminent Australian photomedia artist if we did not have the sale-room records to prove the point? Incontrovertibly.
So, what is the most important Australian landscape photograph? After all, in its red centre the island-continent cradles one of the most dramatic and extreme terrains in the world. Find the most expensive price paid and we have undoubtedly found the most significant photograph.
After a string of inconclusive phone calls, I begin to wonder. It’s not just that no one knows but that no one seems to care. In the world of art as commerce, Australian landscape photography doesn’t seem to rate a mention or a memory. For some it would appear ‘best selling Australian landscape photograph’ is an oxymoron; for others the only way to address my enquiry is to presume they misheard the question and give the answer they think I should be requiring. But, no, I don’t think Something More is a classic example of landscape photography…
I need help, a sherpa to guide me up the mountain of indifference. I turn to Gael Newton, senior curator of photography at the National Gallery of Australia and a one-woman walking encyclopaedia. Her response is tinged with melancholy:
In general the pathetic interest in Australian landscapes shown by the photo-art market is just a mystery to me … I think we have some great landscape photographers, but classic landscape work is so modestly priced. Very recently there has been a new critical awareness of the work of the late Peter Dombrovskis, Wesley Stacey and in particular contemporary aerial work by Richard Woldendorp. But you would expect landscape photography to be BIG BIG BIG à la Australian painting or American-West landscape and New Topographics, but, quite the reverse is true.
I do think Rosemary Laing is a landscapist, though she is addressing much more besides, so her work would probably be the highest priced. If Dombrovskis had done a mural-size dye transfer of the iconic Franklin River campaign image Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend (c1980) that would certainly be very desirable… But all things considered Australian landscape photography is the market’s least loved area
Perhaps I am going about this the wrong way – looking in the wrong place. Perhaps in a country proud of its cultivation of poppies of medium stature, it would be more appropriate to explore a wider demographic and a more popular form of culture.
Photolibrary.com,Australia’s largest on-line photo-image resource, reports that the highest selling image of Australian landscape is in fact a satellite shot taken from so far up that it includes much of Southeast Asia. It’s a dramatic image, but what does it say about our desire to come to grips with the Australian terrain on a human scale? Such an omniscient perspective could seem a tad disengaged. It’s a phenomenon that is only reinforced by a quick gander at the Amazon top-ten for landscape books, which, when I checked it out, showed the best-selling publications to be a book of aerial photography and, at the other extreme, another of ultra-close-ups of nature. Still no sign of human-scale engagement.
Nearer home, Nielsen BookScan – the Australian arm of a Dutch corporation that tracks and measures consumer spending on everything from groceries to radio audiences – identifies the two top-retailing landscape photography books in Australia as engaging on a more personal level. One, a Lonely Planet world pictorial does so in the form of pre-packaged exotica for the back-packing tourist. The other, Australia – Image of a Timeless Land, is a lush coffee-table book by Peter Lik.
Lik is one of a handful of commercial photographers who have carved an international reputation and a good living from photographing the Australian landscape. They satisfy a need for tourist souvenirs that crystallise the memory of place as a perfected and hermetic. Aesthetically pleasing and spiritually non-threatening. It’s a formula that clearly works: Lik won the Cairns region Export Award in 2003 and recently expanded his chain of galleries in Sydney, Noosa, Cairns and Port Douglas to include Hawaii and Las Vegas.
Steve Parish is another photographer who has founded a successful publishing business on images for tourists. His company is one of the largest publishers of topographic and nature postcards in the country, with its most popular card being a shot of the Twelve Apostles, a group of rock stacks beside the Great Ocean Road in Victoria gradually succumbing to the erosion of the sea.
Parish’s top-seller illustrates another of those truisms about the non-Indigenous Australian psyche – that we cling to the water’s edge, our backs turned metaphorically against the vast interior. While Lik and Parish do include in their ranges photographs of inland Australia, it is another currently successful commercial landscape photographer, Ken Duncan, who has produced a record-breaker.
There is a certain charm to Duncan’s website. Along with the limited edition photographs, neatly catalogued by scenic genre (wilderness, waterfalls, rainforest, outback and so on), the site includes a ‘sanctuary’ – a meditative space complete with tranquil images, New Age music, poetry and biblical quotations. The site also promotes the world’s largest photographic print, an immersive 30-metre panorama of – at last – the landscapes of central Australia. In the foreground, at regular intervals, are smiling Aboriginal children who, aside from the way they usefully cover the joins between images, forge a relationship between humanity and environment, albeit a little reminiscent of a Qantas commercial. They remind us that our relationship to the natural world is a cultural construct. (The print is a snip at $9,000 including GST and the profits go to World Vision.)
While it is easy to dismiss such ingenuous sentiment as simple kitsch, it is less easy to see what alternatives out there are having an effect. Racking up the numbers. If we are honest, is it not just the context of Art that stays the judgment of sentimentality on such celebrated Australian photographs as Rosemary Laing’s desert strewn with prosthetic heads, Tracey Moffatt’s sexy outback wrestlers or Michael Riley’s boomerang suspended in a cloudless azure sky.
While it is easy to scoff at the current obsession with quantification it is much harder to find a common ground of qualitative assessment and all too often such judgments reflect vested interests no less suspect that that of the numbers game.
Perhaps our obsession with numbers is a reflection of the speed of urban life. We no longer have the time to stop and think. We need a quick answer. And, equally, it is the images that deliver their punch efficiently that make the contemporary grade. Perhaps landscapes just take too much time to absorb and consider and, if one does, their message is too overwhelming and scary.
Perhaps, in the final analysis, the only real measure is that of future hindsight. By which time the things that mattered may well be passed repair…
…Meanwhile we find solace in the satellite images of Australia, reassured in the knowledge that nature conforms to our man-made maps.
First published in issue 76 Photofile magazine. You can purchase a copy here.