Sunday, February 12, 2017

Reading Tracks and Musing about it all

I am reading a book, on Milnor's recommendation. It's about this woman walking across a big chunk of Australia with some camels. There are many things that can be said about it, but one of the salient bits she writes of is her experience of the Australian Outback. She'd spent enough time with the native peoples there to kind of bootstrap a more intimate relationship with the land. She describes how she began to see it in a new way, to recognize the network of relationships that is implied by every rock, every leaf, every dead twig. She notices, instantly, a strict boundary between land which is in its natural state and land "ruined" by cattle, a distinction that is she realizes is literally invisible to the other white people around.

This is related to my mild obsession with Natural Navigation and my other mild obsession with Things Vaguely Buddhist.

The point is that in the natural world there is a wildly complex mesh of relationships between phenomena, organisms, and objects. Such and such a plant may tend to grow on ground that is shaded a little longer during the day. Just a tendency. At sea, the swell may be at this moment coming from one direction, the waves from another, and the wind from yet a third. Even an experienced white sailor is only likely to really note the last one. A fully capable Islander would know all three, and also have made a set of deductions about what is likely the happen in the next 24 hours and perhaps where the nearest land is.

In my reading it has become clear to me that these sorts of meshes of relationship, these networks, exist everywhere, and nomadic peoples tend to be intimately aware of them. It has also become clear to me that developing a degree of awareness is relatively easy. White people can learn to pick up on the cues, and develop an awareness of this formerly invisible "system" in a matter of months, perhaps a year or two. What is harder is learning to do something pragmatic with is.

Robyn Davidson, the author of Tracks claims perception of the world in roughly the way that the native people of Australia perceive it. However, where a native might use that perception to say "water over there, little bit long way" she seems to not have that facility. So, she perceives it, but that is the end of it.

For our purposes, though, I don't think it's necessary to be able to locate water, or land, using this perception. From the artist's point of view the relatively easy white man's perception is probably sufficient. We're trying to make art, not locate water, after all.

Hold those thoughts for the moment. Another branch of thought here:

While it is usual in these sorts of writings to hand-wring over what has been lost in these degenerate modern times, the fact is that nothing has been lost. The urban dweller has no perception of the Australian Outback, it's just a bunch of dry weeds and kangaroo shit. However, drop that dweller in New York City, and they perceive vast networks. They know that the person ahead is about to hesitate, look in a shop window. They can tell that the car is going to stop, and the other car is going to blow the red light. They know that this person can be approached to ask for directions and that one cannot. The tourists are obvious.

This knowledge is imprecise, error ridden, in fact. In the same way that knowledge of the sea or the land is. Individual guesses may or may not be correct, because they are after all guesses. The overall picture, though, is correct. Humans and their works exist in a vast network of relationship to one another, and those of us who have spent a few years or more in urban settings can in fact do the equivalent of finding water, of finding land. We can do things like jaywalk without being killed.

Consider now, the idea of these vast and subtle networks of relationship in both nature, and in the world of humanity, in our cities, in our towns, in our rural landscapes.

These networks are in the first place real things. Robyn Davidson makes the remarkably astute point that we tend to fall in to the language of mysticism, or magic, when talking about them, but that is only because we lack better vocabulary. These networks of relationship are real things. They are also wonderfully subtle, deep, and complex. One who is fully connected with their environment (cue discussion of Buddhism, I guess) is only consciously aware of part of it. At the end of the day, the Aborigine knows there is water that way because he knows it, the Islander knows that land is over there because he knows it, and you and I know that the car ahead of us is going to turn right at the next intersection, because we know it. There are cues and hints we could point to, but they're not the whole picture. We just know.

This makes photography uniquely suited as a medium for portraying these things. A painting, an essay, a drawing, can only describe what we consciously know. We can only talk about the way the car slowed down, and the way the driver's silhouetted head appeared. I cannot paint, draw, or write about the other, unconscious, cues.

A photograph, and better yet a photo essay, captures in its limited way the whole of what is there. Conscious and unconscious have nothing to do with what the camera records, it records what it is pointed at.

I think perhaps that this is what photography ought to be doing, and what much of the best of photography does.

Perhaps a great landscape photograph derives its greatness from the way it records some part of the network of relationship that defines the land and they way it is able to imply more of it. Perhaps Cartier-Bresson's best work can be considered to have recorded not a moment, not an event, but the mesh of relationships that defined the moment, that defined the event. Perhaps Winogrand's genius was to illuminate in each frame a single gleaming, unexpected, strand in the mesh of relations that makes up the city.

I think there's some strong relationship with trame here, but I am damned if I can articulate it. Also, I am unwilling to make categorical statements like "all photographs must elucidate the network" or whatever. It just seems like a thing that photos are well suited to do, and something that it strikes me that many of the best pictures do.


  1. I have, because of my dog, been walking most mornings at Creamer's Field Alaska, usually for an hour or two. One thing that amazes me is that day to day, month to month, and season to season nothing repeats. Not just my experience, but the reality is that nothing repeats. I do take and share many photos over the years and I am always amazed again that I see new photos every day. I think I see new things because I am not looking for or expecting anything, the photos just appear. The key to these experiences is returning day to day and year to year, without the length of experience I would not have noticed the changes that are happening.

  2. Just in case you have NOT read "East Is A Big Bird" here is a link to it on amazon:

  3. Lovely post. I'm not sure I quite understand *fully* the connection to photography here, but I'm equally sure there is one, just as there is a connection to lots of (most?) other things. Well said. Sorry if this is an incoherent post, but it grabbed me.

    1. Not to worry, I don't think I understand it either! I'm trying to, though, and I feel like the journey will be profitable, whether I end up "making sense of it all" or not.

  4. Thank heavens! And congratulations on making through such a book. Personally, I quit reading personal accounts of things once they hit that "Oh! Now I understand the general failings associated with my provenance." Such pedantic BS turns my stomach. It begs the question: Does the aboriginal person understand the connection between the altered land, and having enough food to feed everybody without need for ongoing territorial wars, and the associated carnage?

    OBTW, if you want to read a really, really good book that will give you some insight to another culter- and one of the biggest problems facing the world today- "In Defense of Hatred" by Khaled Khalifa. It is a novel giving the perspective of a young Muslim woman embroiled in the troubles that plague Syria. It is great.


    1. To be fair, the Aborigines of Australia seem to have somehow muddled along for 65,000 years or so without collapsing their environment, while Modern Green Revolution Style agriculture hasn't. While it's done wonderfully at feeding an exploding population for 100 years, the longer term costs are starting to look a little pricier than we thought, and people are starting to get a trifle worried about just how big this bill is going to get.

      Davidson made her observation at the edge of a cattle ranch which had failed and been abandoned, as a specific case in point.

  5. I would like to emphasize again what Stephen Cysewski already mentioned: These networks, the non-verbal stories of the land can be found everywhere, one doesn't have to travel to the Australian outback. A similarly interesting place is probably just around your corner. All it takes is to visit it repeatedly and pay attention - the stories will reveal themselves over time. This is what makes for interesing landscape photography! In addition, it's a great way to be 10 years old again ;^)

    A practitioner of this kind of landscape photography whose work I like a lot is Jem Southam (be aware that his out-of-print books are obscenely expensive, though). As for literature, I can recommend "Common Ground" by Rob Cowen. It's the story of a piece of edgeland near Harrogate, UK, told from a highly subjective first-person perspective. This kind of land is probably more familiar to us urban westerners.

    Best, Thomas