The first essay in new series ‘The Haze: On Australian Photography’ explores the limits of bearing witness to the darkest pieces of our history.
A few rooms into the recent exhibition Sovereignty, expertly co-curated by Paola Balla and Max Delany, and held at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne, a number of photographs of trees appear by the First Nations artist Jim Berg. They are part of his 2005 series Silent Witness, with the striking subtitle ‘A Window to the Past’. The photographs are small and quiet, but they resonate loudly.
They are presented to the viewer on two scales. First, as a series of beautiful original photographic prints. But they are also maximised, blown up and turned into wallpaper for that particular room (there is a convergence here with the David Hockney exhibition, Current, showing around the corner at the NGV, where a large room is wallpapered with a large-scale work of a British landscape, spindly branches waving in the wind).
Berg’s photographs are literally hung on the very same photographs, creating a momentary discordance. While some could argue that this wallpapering is an overblown, overplayed curatorial touch, it increases the power of the small-scale works. They already possess a quiet power that resonates as deep as the roots of any tree will go.
In the remarkable exhibition catalogue – more than your usual attendant publication, it stands on its own merits, some of them literary – the highly respected First Nations novelist Tony Birch identifies Berg’s subject as Scar Trees. He writes:
Uncle Jim’s project is […] an act of collaboration, between Jim’s heart and eye and those who originally carved out a space on the trees that he photographed. The trees are scarred in a multitude of ways, both physical and metaphysical. The trees are also inscribed with the stories of autonomous Indigenous life and the legacies of colonization.
The editors of the catalogue pay their respect to their elder by giving Berg a space of his own, towards the back of the book, to allow his trees room to breathe. They are scarred, but they are still very much alive, even in photographic form.
I kept thinking about Berg’s trees for days after the exhibition and wondered what species they were, and what to call these hollowed-out scars, if indeed there is a word for them. I am practically illiterate when it comes to the nomenclature of native species of trees – I wouldn’t have won the hand of the female protagonist in Murray Bail’s wondrous novel Eucalyptus, in which the father asks his daughter’s many suitors to name every species of Eucalypt in order to win his approval for her hand in marriage (outdated, certainly, but central to the spectacle of its narrative).
So I emailed my godmother, who happens to be an arborist, to ask about the trees. She identified the trees as ‘Eucalyptus species (gums) without fruit buds or leaves’. She forwarded the email to a colleague – an expert in Scar Trees – who replied:
It is difficult to accurately assess causation without scale and a closer examination of each tree. However the first two, if they were up to 1m long, are likely Coolamon for carrying food or babies. The last picture appeared up to 3m long typical of a wound to produce a canoe. The bark on all three trees appeared of box type and across range of species was a commonly used bark type.
Why is it important to possess this additional information about Berg’s photographs? I may not have sought it, had I not been writing this essay – photographs, often, and perhaps should, tell their own story.
Photographs, often, and perhaps should, tell their own story.
But the ways that photographs create and cause deep curiosity is part of their power. They do not necessarily tell a full narrative, and the viewer is encouraged to fill in the gaps within the structure of the photograph’s story in their mind. Berg’s photographs, for instance, are not only the scar trees they depict. The viewer can see that they point to the deep history, and cultural practice, of our First Nations people. A window to the past.
The young Australian photographer Warwick Baker provides a darker view of trees in his debut photobook, Belanglo. The front cover of Belanglo isn’t a photograph; it is a sharp outline of the borders of the state forest from which the book takes its name.
The stark lines, floating on their own, divorced from the greater lands which they represent, and empty of any physical signifier of what is contained within, give the feeling of space cordoned off; somewhere to be entered with caution. It is an effective set-up for the ghostliness Baker wishes to evoke in his photographs and the precise limitations he set for himself: to shoot largely within the boundaries of Belanglo State Forest.
Belanglo is primarily known for being the site of the serial murders committed by Ivan Milat. On opening the book a friend of mine recoiled in horror. ‘This is not good,’ she said. By not good she did not mean the quality of the photography, she meant the ethics of the project. Why beautify a site of extreme trauma?
In interviews, Baker has frequently referenced Ross Gibson’s seminal Seven Versions of an Australian Badlands (2002), the author’s exploration of a notorious strip of Queensland highway known for its murders, robberies and other visited traumas. Gibson’s book is a classic of Australian cultural history and creative nonfiction, and to centre it so prominently indicates how Baker wants his work to be ‘read’.
There’s a washed-out quality that Baker is expert in capturing.
Baker’s treescape photography operates primarily in a mode of documentary realism that speaks truth to the way the Australian bush twists and turns in on itself, largely in ghostly greys and muted greens. There’s a washed-out quality that Baker is expert in capturing.
And here, in the haze, we find there is a scarred tree in Baker’s book, too – but a Westernised, destructive version of the ritual. The trunk of a felled tree, framed by low scrub, is incised with seven visible attempts to cut it down – or are these the marks of an act of aggression, or simply some wood-chopping practice? Trees and humans have both been brutalised here.
In visiting Belanglo, Baker is arguably participating in the concept known as Dark Tourism: to travel to an area because of its negative capacities. The most infamous expression of Dark Tourism is perhaps found in those who visit Chernobyl, carrying around with them gifted Geiger counters, bearing witness to the environmental destruction of land and getting deep into the groove of apocalyptic anxieties of nuclear holocaust. You can, in fact, take photographic tours there and sign up for photography workshops.
The trees in Chernobyl, it was recently revealed in a scientific study, have become living photographs: they are dead but not decaying; samples of leaves taken from the infamous Red Forest site showed 40 per cent less decay than those from uncontaminated sites.
I mention this particular study and scientific anomaly as it can be useful in thinking about non-radioactive contamination; how do our other forms of violence turn sites into areas of stasis (war memorials remain unchanged once built, with great furore if even slightly altered, lest we forget; visiting Port Arthur, the site of Martin Bryant’s horrific and infamous killing spree, there is nothing but unmoving stillness in the cool Tasmanian air and signs telling visitors not to ask staff about the massacre).
In Baker’s making, Belanglo risks becoming little more than a static visual translation of its murders and traumas – a landscape that can seem part-victim, part-accomplice. That feels like a contamination. How else to explain the uncanny, eerie and devastating echo contained with the breaking news of Milat’s nephew’s brutal murder of the teenager David Auchterlonie in the same forest? Belanglo has been forever marked and mythologised by the Milat family and it is difficult to imagine the actions of the younger Milat ever occurring without the precursor of his evil uncle.
Belanglo has been forever marked and mythologised by the Milat family.
An index towards back of Baker’s book, serving to catalogue his photographs, makes the work feel more like a crime-scene inventory than it perhaps should be. Indeed, Baker removes objects from the forest context, isolates them, and photographs them on sanitised, colourless backgrounds: an ancient rusty beer can; a collection of shotgun shells.
This part of the book, moving so far away from the landscape form, shifts into a cruel, calculated taxonomy of threatening objects – a lifeless catalogue trying too hard for deliberate dread, something far more than just nature morte – and this is where Baker gets himself into some philosophical trouble. There is scope for catharsis within all this, but it is hard to think who it would be for.
When the New York magazine film critic David Edelstein reviewed the violent Australian crime film Animal Kingdom, he delivered a line that has resonated with me:
Toward the end of the film there’s a heavily sexualized murder that I found too upsetting and disgusting for the movie to bear.
The idea of a work of art being unable to bear the weight of its own subject is an incredibly loaded concept. There are moments during Belanglo when I could not get Edelstein’s critical thinking out of my head – ‘upsetting and disgusting’ – and it came to me again when my friend rejected the book after my passing it to her.
Ultimately, Baker has gone deep into the woods – where ghosts surely roam, real or imagined – in order to open a philosophical enquiry, expressed through confident and challenging photography, and for that he should be credited. The question, however, is whether you want to follow him down that dark path and, indeed, whether you can bear to be a witness.
The works of Jim Berg and Warwick Baker do not converge in a manner that makes for an easy conclusion here. There is no greater point to be made, perhaps, other than that Baker’s book is about the evils men can perform in a country that does not belong to them, stolen country that very much does belong to elders like Jim Berg. So, instead, to take the approach of the remarkable editors of the Sovereignty catalogue, I will respectfully give Berg the final words, as quoted by Tony Birch:
Take the memory of these scarred Trees with you forever. Share their story with your Family. Take too this gift. Close your eyes and hug a Tree.
With thanks to my godmother, Glenyss Laws, and Danny Draper for their invaluable assistance in discussing the trees represented in Berg’s photographs. Half of my contributor fee will also be donated to SEED MOB, Australia’s first Indigenous young climate network, who are doing brilliant work for climate justice.
Belanglo is available for purchase here.