“Fun? Ah yes, the employment of time in a profitless and non-practical way.”
– Arnold J Rimmer, The Last Day, Red Dwarf, Series 3
I absolutely adore photographing Tasmania. It is not just the gob smacking beauty of the natural environment, although that is a huge plus, it is also the quirky sense of fun that is often displayed in the everyday mundane things.Take traffic light control boxes for instance. In most places they are boring grey metal boxes about 1.5m tall, a metre wide and 0.5 metre deep that sit on pavements by intersections controlled by traffic lights. You’ve probably not noticed them, they just sit there being dull, boring, and virtually invisible. In the state capital of Tasmania, Hobart, they are individual works of art. Some are satirical political commentary, some just abstract designs, but the thing is someone made a decision to allow these boring items to be made into something fun. Does it make them more efficient? No. What it does do is allow the community to express its humanity on a bit of space that otherwise wouldn’t be doing anything other than being a grey metal box. Our present day prime minister ever on the drive to improve the efficiency and profitability of the nation would see them as a frivolous waste of time. Time that could have spent making multi-millionaires even richer. But then he sees people as mere economic units rather than as human beings, and economic units don’t express themselves creatively nor have fun.
On our last trip to Tassie just a few weeks ago we encountered another example of this expression of fun or “joie de vivre” as the French would say. We drove from Coles Bay on the north-east coast up to St Mary’s via Elephants Pass. It was a hair-raising drive with steep drops at the roads edge, warnings signs about rock falls and logging trucks, the switch back corners and narrowness of the road. Often our speed drop down to 25 Km per hour which on one particular corner seemed excessively fast. Our camper van certainly felt ponderously elephantine as it awkwardly worked its way to the top and to St Mary’s. St Mary’s is an attractive little town of just over 500 people and it sits beneath St Patrick’s Head, an impressive rocky outcrop standing at 694 metres or 2277 feet in the old money. We had the obligatory coffee stop at the Purple Possum and then took a stroll up and down the two main streets. It was in many ways nothing remarkable, just a small Australian country town. Then I noticed that one of the businesses had a small windmill attached to the facade that depicted what it did, and as I continued to walk my eye was now in so to speak and I noticed that virtually all the shop fronts had a small custom-built windmill. Apparently talking to one of the shop owners a local artist had been making them. They serve no function, they are just a small piece of gratuitous fun.
As an aside I like doing this type of dead pan photography, because it allows me to become a collector without actually buying or physically owning something. It allows me to group things together and organise them. In the field of archaeology this known as a typography which is where you group things according to their physical characteristics. Photography embraced the term in the early Twentieth Century when the German Photographer August Sander shot a series of portraits of people called “People of the 20th Century” a monumental work that looked to document every profession, trade and social start of the German people living in the Weimar Republic. Sander’s photographs however were shot in such a way as to express the individuality of each subject. Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typography of the industrial landscape looked to capture each subject in the same dead pan manner and the photos were often displayed in grids like scientific specimens. I’m not that anally retentive, but I do enjoy the process and have applied to things that take my fancy as I travel about – sign posts, mail boxes, shop fronts. I’d been doing this sort of stuff long before I’d heard of the term typography. I also like the work of Stephen Shore who combined this methodology with colour and road trips. Shore endlessly catalogues the things he sees. Both the Bechers and Shore were grouped together in an exhibition with some other photographers called “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” in 1975. Although no longer ‘new’, after all 1975 was a long time ago, the exhibition has had a far-reaching impact upon photography and as late as 2011 it was still being shown in venues. The resulting book from the exhibition was recently republished by Steidl and is definitely worth looking at if you are interested in landscape photography that falls outside the typical tree and rock photos most people think of when they hear the word landscape.