Ian Lobb + contemporary nature photography – Gary Sauer-Thompson

Ian Lobb + contemporary nature photography – Gary Sauer-Thompson

Photograph above: Ian Lobb. Untitled. From the Black Range series 1986-89. 36.9 x 36.7 cm silver gelatin print. National Gallery of Victoria collection.

Ian Lobb’s low key black and white landscape photographs of Casuarinas in Victoria’s Black Range State Park were made between 1986-1989. This was during the market bubble decade with its financial excesses and its image economy of a globalized field of culture, capital and spectacle. 1988 was also the bicentenary of Australia’s white settlement with its debate on Australian national identity, indigenous rights, historical interpretation and multiculturalism. The aesthetic background of both the styles, mediums and concerns in Australia during this modernist/postmodernist period, and the subsequent emergence of contemporary art, is succinctly outlined by Terry Smith in this interview.

Situating Lobb’s Black Range landscapes within the above economic, cultural and semiotic context matters, as it opens up the differences in their interpretation. In the 1980s Lobb’s small-scale and localized landscapes were interpreted  by Helen Ennis, the then Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Art, as metaphors for psychological and spiritual states. An alternative interpretation to this modernist one is that the significance of Lobb’s intimate Black Range landscapes lies in the way they open up a space for the possibilities for a contemporary landscape photography in Australia.  A space that is after both the demise of (Greenberg) modernism with its purity of the medium, and the decay of a reactive postmodernism that embraced the multiplicity of new artistic forms and the increasing use of photography.

In contrast to Ennis’ ghosting of nature my interpretation is that Lobb’s photographs in his Black Range series are explicitly of non-human nature – ie of stands of Casuarinas and their ecosystem. The photographs displace the modernist emphasis of photography being incorporated into the grand narrative of the avant-garde overthrowing tradition by breaking new ground in terms of art historical style. The Black Range series also displaces the critical postmodernist emphasis on pastiche, parody, appropriation with its free floating, simulacral world of signs disconnected from real physical objects.

This displacement opens up a clearing in which several diverse strands of contemporary art  can emerge. The small-scale and localized art making exemplified by Lobb’s modest Black Range photos was identified by Terry Smith in his What is Contemporary Art? as one of the three main currents of contemporary art in the early decades of the 21st century. 

My interpretation of the significance of Lobb’s contemporary Black Range landscapes is that this series highlights place (topos); place in the sense of Lobb being in an embedded locality that he understood and knew very well from his frequent visits.  Place is that within which we are at home or within which we dwell, and to dwell is to be located in a harmonious relationship with one’s surrounding environment. 

Lobb’s intimate landscapes show that he was at home in the Black Range bushland, and that his photography was a form of place making. Such a photography is of the present, but it is also one that newly mobilizes the past tradition of landscape photography. It is photography of the present that is not out of date, doesn’t have a backward looking orientation, and is not nostalgic. These landscapes of the Black Range bushland open up a pathway for other contemporary landscape photographers to walk along.

Many of Melbourne’s art photographers relate to Ian Lobb as the master fine printer with his worthy emphasis on the beautifully crafted print, the purity of the photographic medium and the continuity of the norms and conventions of the photographic tradition. My connection to his small-scale and modest landscape photos of the Black Range bushland’s eco-system, is that they gave me the confidence to step beyond my tentative landscape photos of the local Waitpinga bush on the southern Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia: the courage to go beyond my initial photographs through becoming attached to this place by being at home in the local Waitpinga bush.

Untitled: Waitpinga Bushland. Gary Sauer-Thompson.
Untitled: Waitpinga Bushland. Gary Sauer-Thompson.

In the context of this question of landscape photography and place Marcus Buyan’s interpretation of Lobb’s approach to his photography in the Black Range series is very relevant to landscape photographers in the early 21st century.  Buyan says that: 

“Ian Lobb was attuned to his surroundings like few people I have met for he was tremendously attentive, tremendously awake and sensitive to the environment and the vibrations of energy that emanated from the city, the land, the sky. Imagine travelling to a small patch of earth in the Black Ranges year after year to photograph in all seasons and in all weather something that he could see and feel in that land … something any other human would not even recognise, would walk past without a moments hesitation as though nothing was there, was of no import. But not Ian. He recognised and felt the energy of that place, space.”

This attunement interpretation is a being in place (with its gathering of different elements) that involves listening, with the art-making involving a state of openness towards the flux of the bush. This, in turn, suggests a situated photography as a questioning that has the form of being a mode of receptivity. A photography, which has an openness, receptivity and responsiveness to the happening (or gathering) of place, is one that is thoroughly attuned to place. Being attuned to the Black Range and the Waitpinga bush as a place or topos involves understanding that these places are both bounded and open and both singular and plural. Their question of time can be understood as a history of these specific places coming into being, undergoing change, and passing away. 

Buyan’s attunement interpretation opens up a clearing for a genuine, contemporary landscape photography as it highlights how Lobb’s photography had a different way of relating to non-human nature than that of a dominant instrumental reason, which views nature as a resource to be exploited for human benefit. Lobb’s Black Range photographs of nature were premised on being in, and of, nature; as opposed to standing outside nature gazing at it as an object. The latter is the default approach of image making in the cultural industries such as mass tourism.

Lobb’s poetic photographs of being in the ever-changing flow and presence of nature, with its sense of being there in a particular place (an embedded locality), relates to the ecological conditions of contemporaneity. This pathway of small-scale and modest nature photography is a poetics that embodies a sense of what is looming ahead, and what is already on its way. The now of these place-making photographs is not a moment of pure presence, since the now is what will be made present by the future and the past. It is a relational flux – of what is to come into what was (land not cleared by pastoralists) and of what was (terrain in its natural condition) into what is to come (being burnt in a heating world).

The pathway that was opened up by Lobb’s Black Range series offers a fruitful way to engage in small-scale and modest localized photography; and to do so in the conditions of the contemporary in the 21st century with its emerging connectivity of difference. For us living after globalization, which started to came apart with the financial crisis of 2008, it is a form of local grassroots art-making that lies outside of the major art museums/galleries and the international circuit of biennales. It also lies outside both the contemporary art market and the art museums/galleries spectacular blockbuster exhibitions that offer its audiences experiences rather than insight. 

 Interpreting Lobb’s Black Range series as a current of contemporary grassroots art-making means that it is not contemporary in the sense of being up-to-date or fashionable. It is not contemporary in the sense of being whatever the major museums, markets, magazines, publicity machines, and auction houses tell us what contemporary art is. It is also different to those views that insist contemporary art is like fashion, always changing, always refreshing itself, and so should be accepted in its ‘dazzling instanteity’, with its acceptance of whatever seems to be the most up to date. On the contrary, it is a current of contemporary art that emerges from the local art making based around artist run art places, the internet, photobooks, ‘zines, doing it yourself, collaborating with friends and colleagues and forming loose artistic associations.

Lobb’s photographs of the natural (non-human) world undercuts the 1980s cosmopolitan view that a preoccupation with the landscape was debilitating and destructive as it makes us rustic, provincial and regressive. You are not modern! So no more gum trees! By bringing nature and geography into the foreground Lobb challenges this recoil from the natural world and those views that reduce nature to just a construct. It questions the neo-liberal economic narrative about prosperity through the mastery of nature, which fails to properly value the natural world. The pathway that is opened leads to photography of nature that is not complicit with maintaining this silence about nature, with its patterns of indifference and evasions about the significance of the natural world. 

Lobb maybe just a photographer, but the significance of his Black Range series shows us that non-human nature is not solely a stage for the enactment of human history; not just a collection of natural resources separate from and subject to human industrial civilization in a fossil fuel economy; nor an exclusive playground of humans. The natural (non-human) world matters. The choices and juxtapositions of the Black Range images, their light tonality and emphases create a mood, evoke certain emotions, feelings, associations and sensuality that lie between the indexical signs of the Casuarinas. They evoke questions like: what do the increasingly drier conditions mean for the life of the Casuarinas and the embedded relations in their ecosystem? This, in turn, suggests a historical perspective on art history that foregrounds how the avant-garde both totally missed the boat on climate change and missed exploring and understanding a non-human ecosystem’s way of being from a different point of view to the traditional human one.

Untitled: Waitpinga Bushland. Gary Sauer-Thompson.

Lobb’s Black Range series informs my photographs of the local Waitpinga bushland, which are a part of the small-scale, current of contemporary art that engages with its  own historical conditions. These Waitpinga photos engage with the disappearing bushland from the extensive habitat destroying land clearing that has been undertaken for agriculture and for an ever expanding suburbia; both of which leave only small, precariousness pockets of bushland existing outside of the national or state parks. The remaining flora and biodiversity in these pockets can easily be lost. Engaging with its historical conditions provides a contemporary landscape photography with a critical distance from those denialists and profiteers in our fraught present who hide the causal connection between climate science and the mega fires in the Australian bush behind their myths, misinformation and magical thinking. 

 This small-scale current of contemporary art in turn, implies replacing the prevalent current writing on art as promotional chat that excludes vast tracts of contemporary artistic images from the sphere of the aesthetic and hence of genuine artistic value altogether.  It highlights that the fundamental challenge for a contemporary art criticism, aesthetics and art history is one that it entails recognising art’s specific engagement with an uncanny present; which in turn, requires a renewed attention to art’s place within a temporal matrix of a historical past and a future haunted by the spectre of global heating.

Untitled: Waitpinga Bushland. Gary Sauer-Thompson.
Untitled: Waitpinga Bushland. Gary Sauer-Thompson.
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This article was written by

Dr. Gary Sauer-Thompson is an author & photographer from Encounter Bay in South Australia.

There are 3 comments for this article
  1. Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:39 pm

    I neglected to add in the above article that around the time of Ian Lobb’s Black Range landscape series there was a fundamental shift in Anglo-American philosophical aesthetics. It was a shift away from the traditional Kantian emphasis on the autonomy of visual art, beauty, disinterestedness, subject-object duality and ocularcentrism (the privileging of vision over the other senses) towards an environmental aesthetics.

    The latter opened up an aesthetics of engagement that moved beyond art into the natural world and embraces the fundamental continuity of human bodies in the natural world, stresses the intimate perception of sensory qualities immediately encountered, and the ways in which embodied persons are always shaping and being shaped by the environment. This environmental aesthetics is very relevant to Ian Lobb’s Black range series.

    This shift or opening was not a simple rejection but a thorough rethinking of the foundations of traditional aesthetics. The relevant Anglo-American texts for this rethinking are Arnold Berleant’s, The Aesthetic Field: A Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (1970); The Aesthetics of Environment (1992); Living in the Landscape: Toward an Aesthetics of Environment (1997) .A Japanese perspective on this opening, which is informed by Japanese aesthetics, is Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics. (2007).

    • Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:51 pm

      Thanks Greg.

      I’m glad you found it useful. I appreciate the comments.

      I thought that Ian’s work deserved an attempt to pullout its conceptual significance as I found very little in the way of critical commentary on the Black Range series of landscapes. The work deserved more than being critically ignored because landscape photography is not currently seen as cutting edge.

      The tradition of critical writing on photography in Australia is definitely broken backed.

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