Roadtrips: Review of Smalltown

Smalltown reminds me of  Walker Evans American Photographs, Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces and Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects, which are rightly held be classics. I only stumbled upon Smalltown by chance, and I found very few reviews of, or critical engagements with, the book online.

Martin Mischkulnig, Great Barrier Highway, NSW

Tim Winton’s text is about the visual ugliness of the small towns in regional Australia. He says:

“Along with meagre social options, regional folk face diminishing services in health and education, narrower employment prospects, and they live and work immersed in an implacable ugliness that cannot be blamed on the natural environment. This last handicap fascinates me, because for all the talk of hostility and harshness there is nothing so bleak and forbidding in country Australia as the places humans have built there.” (Introduction, Smalltown, p. 2.

Although the ‘road trip’ has been marketed as a consumerist experience about discovering Australia almost from the beginning of the automobile Smalltown (text and images)  are quite critical of Australian consumerist culture and materialism. 

Martin Mischkulnig, Port Hedland, Western Australia

Yet the road trip has been and remains a central part of Australia life for Australians ranging from young people traveling around, nomads sleeping in their cars, and the retirees or the grey nomads on the road with their caravans.

The scope of the 2014 exhibition The Road: Photographers on the Move 1970-85 at the Monash Gallery of Art was narrow. Its concern was to show the strong relationship between photography and the road in Australian culture and that photography helped to make sense of the particular experience of movement made possible by faster cars and better roads. In looking back to 30-40 years ago it was concerned with photographic innovation and experimentation informed by conceptual art.

Martin Mischkulnig, Katherine, Northern Territory

Smalltown broadens this tradition of the photographic roadtrip through representing the the roughness of the shambolic regional towns and the austere open spaces in the first decade of the 21st century that have been constructed as service centres for the agriculture and mining industries in modernity. The capacity of large-format photography is able to represent the intricate details, the subtle patterns, and the everyday or vernacular aesthetic of particular places in regional Australia.  

The images are typically simple in construction, are composed with minimal information and  the composition of each frame has been carefully constructed. Only the necessary detail is included.

Martin Mischkulnig, Lynchford, Tasmania

Mischkulnig has a topographic eye that highlights both the human altered landscape and the relationship between the human and natural worlds. In the above image of Lynchford near Queenstown in western Tasmania, we have railway tracks, a pine plantation, forested misty hills, a rundown weatherboard house and a beercan sculpture in an unkempt yard.

Text and images in Smalltown are in tension. As mentioned above Winton’s text concentrates on the the ugliness of the regional towns, with ugliness operating as the negative of beauty. On Winton’s account of the ugly is the traditional one, which is understood in aesthetics as deviation from the norms or practices that set the standards for beauty. Mischkulnig’s images reverses this ordering in that beauty emerges from the ugly in the sense that beauty can be seen the bleak ugly and deformed towns that Winton writes about.

Martin Mischkulnig, Meekatharra, WA

The ugly does not have primacy over the beauty nor visa versa. There is a tension between the two in these photos.

Some of the regional landscapes are desolate and ugly and these are more than being defined in negative terms, or merely reduced to an absence of beauty. Ugliness is a thing unto itself; it has an independent status. A critical status in relation to the polished and beautiful documentaries and books about Australia or the tourist images of ‘the outback’.

If we come back to the photographic canon we understand that history of photography has been written by art institutions and organizations and the canon has been defined by the outstanding work of a few. The art institution /museum was anxious to defend its realm against that mundane, daily activity of photography and to present the work of highly professionalized “artists”  as constituting the canon.