The writer Jack Kerouac wrote in the introduction to Robert Frank’s (1958) The Americans about sadness in the photographic image. For Kerouac, a main convention of photography is based on a sense of loss. Berenice Abbott, well known for her urban landscapes of New York in the 1930s, said “the photographer is the contemporary being par excellence; through his eyes now becomes past”. It is theories such as these that led Susan Sontag, in her celebrated critique (1977) On Photography, to suggest that photographs are intrinsically historical documents, and as such, they convey melancholy, through the transmission of that which is past or lost.
This is an exhibition of urban landscapes with a regional focus, but whilst the compositions are deliberate and aesthetically disciplined, the subject matter is inherently less elegant. The consequence, at least for me, elicits not the more customary mood of sentimentality, but rather intuits a sense of the melancholy.
The transience of the subject and the sense of perceived loss in the images are accentuated by the fact that many of the locations depicted in the photographs will have undergone considerable and permanent change by the time the exhibition is hung. A general definition of urban landscape attests to structures and processes rather than people, and this can indeed be said of Civic Melancholy. Nonetheless, even without people, only places, the urban landscape still alludes also to the transience of human life. Such images subsequently show more than just the literal, by kind of scrutinizing the point between what others want us to know about the subjects, and that which can’t be hidden, or as Diane Arbus put it, “the gap between intention and effect”.
Since its very early days, the aspirational Australian dream of suburban bliss on the quarter acre block has faced sporadic ridicule from both artists and writers, such as John Brack’s paintings of the 1950s, and Robin Boyd’s ferocious 1960 critique The Australian Ugliness. However, the days of more flagrant mockery of middle Australia are reaching their end, and it is assuredly not my intention to maintain this recurring ridicule.
There is a more urgent agenda now, less condescending and essentially more collective, one of unanswered questions and all too easily dispelled challenges.
Whilst possibly our “lifestyle choices” are severely limited by government regulations, and as much based on mythology than any rational or environmentally conscious idea, the Australian regional suburban dream, sprawling from regional towns and cities, is arguably no closer to a substitute for a true rural existence than its capital city counterparts.
But wherever there is birth there is also death, and from an urban landscape point of view, whilst by no means exclusive, this is often more prominent in the heart of a country town or city than on its fringes. Cities are in a constant state of change, repeatedly revealing new visual interconnections between the old and the new, redefining our “sense of place”.
Contrary to popular opinion, disrespect for our surroundings is not just limited to a few arbitrary acts of graffiti by a disenchanted youth. Could civic neglect and environmentally unfriendly developments be simply evoking a grown-up form of delinquent vandalism, and influencing an ensuing response? Is there that much difference between a giant fast-food chain logo looming over a city skyline like some kind of corporate graffiti, and the comparatively modest tag of the lone graffitist?
The large scale of the images in this exhibition reveals a blended assortment, a melange of details that seem to strip away the gloss that we tend to subconsciously apply over the environment that we all created and in which we live. This body of work is a subjective response to my surroundings. After a long period of passive observation, it represents an interchange with the region that I now call home.