This week I read two articles that really made me stop and think not only about the looming climate crisis but my photography and what purpose it serves.
Whether you believe in climate change or not, as Bob Dylan once sang “The Times Are A Changin’”. The first article I’ll reference was by the celebrated Australian author Richard Flanagan and he speaks of the joy he receives from observing birds around his home on Brunny Island in Tasmania. He also expresses the sorrow that the birds bring because of their diminishing numbers. For one reason or another bird populations are declining rapidlyand it’s not just in Tasmania, it is a global phenomena. In Perth, the capital of the state in which I live, the Swan Estuary is a highly important nesting and breeding site for migratory birds such as plovers, sandpipers, knots, stints, and curlews that travel from Siberia and North Asia. In the 1980’s it was estimated that 36 species and more than two million birds came to Australia each summer. The number of migrating waders on the Swan Estuary was around the ten thousand mark, but, by 2000 there were fewer than five hundred. The causes for this alarming decline are many and include feral foxes and cats preying on the birds, domestic dogs being walked through nesting sites, prawning parties , people digging on the mudflats for fishing bait. Here in York we had a sizeable colony of Rainbow Bee Eaters that migrate here from New Guinea and the tropical north of Australia to avoid the wet season there. They dig their burrows in banks above the Avon River and breed. Last summer the Shire of York Council put in gravel roads along the riverside to allow access for emergency vehicles. In the process of doing that they bulldozed the nesting sites killing the adults and the young they were rearing and then permanently destroyed the site by covering the area with rocks to make a retaining wall. It wasn’t malicious, it was pure ignorance as the council has no environmental protection policy and had not done any form of survey into the wildlife along the river. They were very apologetic when informed but the damage has been done. There should be a thriving colony of Rainbow Bee Eaters digging burrows and and rearing young at this time of year – I’ve just seen one solitary bird.
The second article was also about Australia’s declining bird population and it talked about the phenomenaof ‘extinction of experience’ which is a phrase first coined by Robert M Pyle. Extinction experience has negative implications for people’s health and well being. The article referenced a research paper that basically says that if people are having less and less opportunities to interact with nature that will create an antipathy towards the natural world and consequently they will cease to care about it. So to get people to be more aware of environmental issues they must be encouraged to reconnect with nature. One of the reasons why I wrote my walking guide, and I articulate this in the introduction, is that I hope that the people who use it will develop a love for and an understanding of the environment.
So what’s all this got to do with photography? Simple really. One of the main ways that I interact with the environment is through photography. It doesn’t matter whether it is close ups of plants, photos of birds or other wild animals or landscapes. It all equates to being out in the environment and experiencing it in a first hand way. Bushwalking, cycling, dog walking all do this as well and I feel so much better for it.
I started this post referencing Bob Dylan and I’d like to end with Cat Stevens or Yusuf Islam as he is now known. In his hit song “Morning Has Broken” the lyricist Eleanor Farjeon talks of the joy of walking through the Sussex village of Alfriston on a fresh morning. She talks of the joys of seeing the dawn, hearing blackbirds singing and experiencing the dew on the grass. Yesterday as I walked the dog along the river we were greeted by a territorial goshawk sitting on the branch of a dead tree. As we passed it swooped us while making plaintive calls. It was a totally sublime experience. Go out. Take pictures, walk, cycle, play. Enjoy the environment and revel in its beauty.
Being originally from England I automatically associate Christmas with cold weather, and by association Robins as they are part of iconography of the festive season. So when walking along the Avon River on a 40º C day seeing these Red-capped Robins seems a little incongruous. For such a small bird they are as bold as brass and will let you approach quite closely. The other confusing thing about Australian robins is that they don’t just come in red.
When we were in Tasmania we had proper winters with snow, and that meant we had robins in their proper setting, but not at Christmas. Oh it’s all very confusing!
“Few things are as exciting as the idea of travelling somewhere else. But the reality of travel seldom matches our daydreams.”
Alain de Botton
I’ve never been a fan of mass tourism, but over the last few weeks I’ve been reading a lot about the negative aspects of it and in particular with what is happening to Venice. Apparently as many as 44,000 cruise ship passengers pour into Venice a day during the high season. That’s roughly 5 cruise liners worth. When we lived in Tasmania we’d get the boats pull into Hobart Harbour, thankfully just one at a time, and the passengers would be like a tsunami as they headed for Salamanca. I hate to think what 5 times that number would be like. Along with the negative impact that has on the local population and the environment there is also the fact would you really want to visit somewhere with another 44,000 people? It’s hardly getting away from it all is it? Then there is the whole thing of “Right you’ve got six hours in port and then we’re off to the next location”. Six hours following several other thousand people all traipsing round the same location, looking at the same few things only to herded up at the end of the day and taken somewhere else to do exactly the same thing the next day. It’s a gross version of the 1969 film “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium”. It’s worthy of Dante’s vision of hell. So why do people do it and pay a fortune for the privilege? Essentially people do it because they are bored with the ordinariness of their life and want something out of the ordinary with a touch of luxury.
When I lectured in photography one of the most common complaints from students was that there was nothing to photograph in Perth or Western Australia. They wanted something new, something exciting something that they’d never seen before. The problem was photography’s history encourages that kind of thinking – we only have to look at the photographic tradition of the road trip established by the likes of Robert Frank and his eponymous book The Americans with its hip introduction by Jack Kerouac. Stephen Shore and Alec Soth amongst others have popularised it to the extent that it has almost become a photographic rite of passage. Indeed at a portfolio review at FotoFreo my reviewer actually said I should go on a road trip as a means of finding myself. But the thing is booking a package holiday to Bali or Vietnam is not going to work as all you will see are the usual tourist attractions and maybe you’ll take some photos of poor third world people. Invariably you return home and the photos get ignored and languish in a dark recess on your computer hard drive as they look the same as everyone else’s. They are not out of the ordinary. The British philosopher and writer Alain de Botton in his book The Art of Travel said “Then I realised that the problem with going away is that you take yourself with you.”
I would suggest that if you want to produce interesting work look to the ordinary and easily accessible. Many photographers have taken this path. Robert Adams documents the changing American landscape and in particular the spread of suburbia. Chris Killip,Sally Mann, and Larry Towell are all photographers who have done projects about ordinary things on their door steps and have produced extraordinary images. The American photographer Minor White once said “…all photographs are self-portraits.” so thereis no need to travel to find your self just keep exploring with your camera. The frequent retort from my students was that everything around them had been photographed before well White also had an answer for that “Everything has been photographed. Accept this. Photograph things better.”.
So what have I been doing photographically for the last week? Well I’ve been out to some local nature reserves, I’ve visited them many times over the last 14 years and it never ceases to amaze me that I always find something new. So I was delighted to find these two flowers.
My last post from Tasmania. On Saturday we move back to York in Western Australia. According to my dictionary recycle can mean “return to a previous stage in a cyclic process “. So heading back to York is indeed returning to a previous stage. Can’t wait!
There’s no doubt about it the OLYMPUS M.45mm F1.8 lens renders images beautifully. It’s not razor-sharp in that clinical digital way most modern lenses are thank goodness, but it is sharp enough with a pleasing fall off at the edges. This lens is for taking pictures of complex 3 dimensional subjects not flat test charts and brick walls. The bokeh is very pleasing – it renders the transition between areas of sharpness to blur in a very smooth manner. As I have said before I don’t consider myself a bokeh slut by any means but there is something about this lens that just makes you want to shoot at wide apertures. Anyway enough of my wibbling lets just look at some pictures.
The Great Divide in Tasmania on the Lyell Highway marks the point where the geology of the Tasmania changes from the quartzite in the west to the dolerite of the east. It also marks where the weather systems of Tasmania change from the Roaring 40’s of the west to the moisture laden winds from the Southern Ocean. Sounds a bit boring when you describe it like that, but when you see the King William Ranges rising out of the button grass moorlands and bogs it all takes on a majestic splendour. As you drive along the Lyell Highway there is a lay-by which is quite popular, next to it is an information sign explain what the Great Divide is. Hardly anyone reads the sign, they are all too busy looking at and photographing the scenery.
There’s no doubt about it Australians love a dam. Build one and the accompanying recreation area will be full of happy Aussies burning sausages while commenting sagely on rainfall and water levels. On our recent jaunt around the Tasmanian North West we stopped at Tarraleah to admire the hydro and the Art Deco cottages that were built to house the workers when being constructed. They are now part of a swank resort where you can admire massive pipes and electricity pylons as they cross the valley.
The building of the dams polarised the community and gave birth to Australian green politics and the conservation of the Tasmanian Wilderness. Sounds odd doesn’t it? Renewable energy is supposed to be good for the environment, but not when you destroy the wilderness and make entire species extinct in the process. The Hydro Electric Commission (HEC) was set up in 1914 to capitalise on Tasmania’s topography and high rainfall which made it eminently suitable for the generation of hydro-electricity. The whole thing progressed smoothly until the HEC wanted to build three dams on the Upper Gordon River with the aim of attracting industry to the State with the incentive of cheap energy. In December 1982, the Franklin River dam site was occupied by protesters, leading to widespread arrests and world-wide dismay and condemnation. The Hydro and the Tassie government were dismissive of any criticism and saw it as outsiders meddling in Tasmanian affairs. As happened in 1930’s America where the photographs of the High Sierras by Ansel Adams were paramount in changing public opinion and convincing politicians to do more to conserve the natural environment, the photographs of Peter Dombrovskis brought the spectacular Tassie wilderness to the attention of the wider public and they were used in a media campaign that helped bring down the government of Malcolm Fraser at the 1983 election. The new government, under Bob Hawke, had promised to stop the dam from being built. The resulting stoush between the Tasmanian State government and the Australian Federal government ended up going all the way to the High Court which ended up as landmark decision in favour of the federal government. The building of the dams gave birth to Australian green politics and the conservation of the the Tasmanian Wilderness.
Cradle Mountain is without doubt the most iconic wilderness areas in Tasmania. Situated in the Cradle Mountain – Lake St. Clair National Park, which is in the Tasmanian World Heritage Area, which covers approximately 1,584,000 hectares and represents about 1/5 of the area of the island state of Tasmania. Cradle Mountain is located in the Central Highlands and is 165 Km north-west of Hobart the state’s capital city. The park is world-famous for the Overland Track which runs for 65 km from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair and attracts some 6000 walkers per year. That figure pails into insignificance when you consider that 170,000 people visit the park annually and the majority of them just to see one thing – the rugged majesty of crescent-shaped peaks of Cradle Mountain and its neighbour Little Horn reflected perfectly in the waters of Dove Lake which lies at their feet. There is a slight snag to this, the weather conditions at Cradle Mountain are fickle – this is Tasmania after all – and the conditions that provide such imagery only happen on average about fifty days per year. Season doesn’t guarantee and success as snow and low-lying cloud can occur in summer so basically you have an approximately one in seven chance. At the southern end of the park is Lake St Clair (which Tasmania’s indigenous people called Leeawuleena which translates as “sleeping water”) and the southern terminus of the Overland Track. The lake was formed in the last ice age and is the deepest in Australia. Despite the rugged beauty this part of the park does not receive as many visitors as Cradle Mountain, probably because it takes a little more effort to see things and also because it just doesn’t have that certain je ne sais quoi its northern neighbour does.
On our arrival at Cradle Mountain there was low-lying cloud and constant drizzle – what the Irish would call a soft day. Wet enough to soak you through to the skin despite a Gore-tex within 2 or 3 hours, but not enough to stop you having an enjoyable hours walk, so we did two of the short walks – Enchanted Forest and the King Billy Pine walk. The Enchanted forest walk was as you expect from the name enchanting, walking along side a small stream through the rain forest. The King Billy Pine walk takes you to look at an amazing tree, it is over 40 metres tall and the gnarly buttressed roots and shaggy moss covering made it look like one of the Ents from Lord of The Rings and is estimated to be 1500 years old. It was mind-boggling to think that when the cathedral in my home town of Chichester was founded in 1075 AD that this tree was already 600 years old.. The park is a veritable biosphere, the list of native species is truly spectacular, both flora and fauna wise. In fact most visitors to the park don’t realise that it is a fabulous wildlife watching destination. Most of Tasmania’s large marsupials can be found here including wombats, Bennett’s Wallabies, pademelons, Tasmanian Devils and platypuses. Despite the ground being thick with wombat droppings there was no other sign of them, but we did see a Bennett’s Wallaby and her joey on our way back to the car.
On our second day we decided just to walk around Dove Lake which is supposed to be just 6km long, flat and only take two hours. This would hopefully give me chance to get a photo of the iconic view and experience some more of the alpine environment. The classic view is the one from the boat shed, which is quite near the car park, which means most visitors don’t do the walk but just head straight to it. As it turned out the track was not flat, this is Tasmania after all, and as well as the broad walk over sensitive areas there was a lot of climbing up and down scree covered slopes which was hard on the hips and knees. Although listed as easy we were both quite pooped when we got to the boat shed and me phaffing about taking photos gave us a welcome rest before the last leg back to the car. So did I get the perfect shot? No. The peaks were shrouded in cloud and the wind was creating waves on the lake so there were no reflections. But having said that with the equipment I had, the conditions and the time available I’m happy with the shots I got. For me they represent something of the day-to-day experience of Cradle Mountain.