Grounded: Christopher Houghton

Christopher Houghton’s recent exhibition entitled Grounded (June, 2021) at the SASA Gallery at the University of South Australia in Adelaide is part of his recently completed practice-based PhD research. This research continued his ongoing slow photographic exploration of the regional landscape of South Australia to bring the non-urban nature as country into the foreground of contemporary photography in Australia. The body of work in Grounded show us why photography matters for us now in a post-colonial South Australia, through breaking away from the traditional approach to the representation of the Australian landscape that is premised on ‘freezing a moment’ or ‘capturing a scene.’ We are not viewing land perceived as landscape and encountered as a picture. Nor are we viewing a landscape photograph that renders the scenery as spectacle. This is a different approach.

It is the difference which gives us pause and encourages us to look more closely. The slow approach is film-based using a large format camera, the prints (both colour and black and white) are large-scale, the objects are devoid of shadows, whilst the photos are meticulously planned and carefully constructed. Sean Williams‘ earthy soundscape enhances the sense of us ‘being there’ in this country and it carries the story. These various elements encourage us to view or behold the prints as if they had nothing to do with us or our particular points of view, even though we know that we are in a gallery looking at works of art. Therein lies a difference.

C. Houghton, Tranimal #1, Barndioota, Adnyamathanha Country, 2021

This slow photography is premised on walking both the arid country in the Ikara-Flinders Ranges in creek beds near Hawker (Barndioota) and Blinman (Oratunga Station) on the traditional land of the Adnyamathanha people;  and the rocky granite coastal environment of Deep Creek Conservation Park on the traditional land of the Ngarrindjeri people in the southern Fleurieu Peninsula; traditional lands that are now badly damaged from colonial occupation and practices. This is also slow photography in the sense of developing a relationship to the country through being ‘in place’, and becoming aware of the presence of the different elements and layers of the history of the earth in constant movement.

This relationship approach to country is a long way from the 19th century photographic practice of using an axe to fell gum trees in places they valued so they could be celebrated by art. Eccleston Du Faur and Joseph Bishoff employed this clearing approach when photographing in the Grose Valley near Govett’s leap in the Blue Mountains in the 1870s. They did so in order to capture a beautiful scenic landscape to rival Carleton Watkins’ photos of Yosemite Valley. The axe to refashion the landscape was the colonial photographer’s (and painter’s) view-making friend.

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