John Gitsham’s Ambient: A review

Ambient is John Gitsham’s second photobook. It was published in 2022 by Moonglow Publishing, who are based in Macclesfield on the Fleurieu Peninsula of South Australia. Gitsham’s first photobook was Dream Theatre (2021), which is currently out of print and not available in the SA Public Library Network. Dream Theatre and Ambient are part of a series consisting of three art photography books. The third one is forthcoming and provisionally entitled The Image Collector.

Art photographing is not currently faring well in Adelaide with the return of cultural conservatism in the second decade of the 21st century. We have the decentering of photography at the School of Art at the University of South Australia, the lack of vitality and energy in local art photography, and the Art Gallery of South Australia ‘s indifference towards supporting local art photographers. There is the possibility that the Art School itself will probably disappear in the forthcoming amalgamation of the University of South Australia and Adelaide University. Given this economic context art photographers work on their own and by default the photographic culture has become a fragmented do-it-yourself ( DIY) one.

This situation is such a marked contrast to the vitality of art photography in Adelaide during the 1980s. Gitsham’s series of photobooks carve out a pathway in these difficult conditions for other art photographers to follow. It is great to see a South Australian art photographer turning to photobooks to publish his work, as this medium gives us a chance to look at the images and to see them within an expressionist language that is dynamic and historical, a holistically structured web; thereby allowing us to attend to language from a receptive and listening stance. This attentive receptivity is central to both the making and the viewing of the photos.

John Gitsham, Tree and clouds, 2021

Ambient is an art photography book of black and white photos. It is both minimalist eg., a two page spread consists of a blank white page and a photo on the opposite page; and also modernist in form as there is usually a simple caption underneath the image with a generic name — eg., The Jetty 2021– without the location of the photograph being mentioned. The desire here is to universalize the particular, to step beyond the local and to reflexively transcend the limitations of its own medium.

In this review of Gitsham’s Ambient I will concentrate on the photographic explorations of place, as this opens up how we understand and to photograph the landscape beyond the way the Fleurieu Peninsula has traditionally been represented by painting in The Painted Coast.

John Gitsham, Road and Kite 2021

Historically art historians have emphasized how the development of landscape painting was closely tied to the evolution of the nation state and the execution of imperial power. In Australia, for instance, landscape traditionally articulates national character and identity. But what nation and whose nation, given that Aboriginal Australians have a conception of human life, and indeed, of all life, as inextricably bound up with the land?

In the traditional visual representations of landscapes, authority executes its power  through aestheticization, which allows for the concealment of exclusions and injustices, as well as apparent objectivization of vantage point. Here, power operates  through the act of framing, the process of cutting out seemingly alternative and different views. In Australia this was was the view of country by our First Nations people.