Though we might seek to dam up time with our photographs, let’s not forget, in our earnestness, that they, like our species, are ephemeral.
As I walked into Castlemaine Art Museum, the walls were studded with nuggets; not those of our district, the golden, but jet black, a very different mineral, from far in the Australian Alps.
Aware that electricity and water are a lethal mix, we accept hydropower as the exception, but about that, with Electrical Ecologies, Felix Wilson (*1981) prompts a rethink. I imagine him in 2019 preparing at home in Vaughan near Castlemaine for his residency at the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture, charging his camera battery and flash unit from the mains and knowing that his destination was also that of the current he was tapping into; the Kiewa Hydroelectric Scheme.
Kiewa is the largest hydro-electric generator in Victoria and the second-largest in mainland Australia after the Snowy Mountains Scheme, and during my childhood it was a source of national pride; I remember making a school project, a 3D map in cardboard, drinking-straws and papier-maché of the pipelines, power stations and the mountainous terrain across which much later, in my teenage years, I hiked.
Constructed between 1938 and 1961 by the State Electricity Commission of Victoria and privatised in the 1990s, it is wholly owned by AGL Energy against which a month ago this Thursday, Environment Victoria launched legal action. The country’s largest carbon emitter, AGL Energy also owns Loy Yang A, a brown coal-fired thermal power station located 170km from Melbourne and casting a pall over Traralgon. AGL stands accused of air pollution and of adding to the climate crisis. This case is the first to test Victoria’s climate change laws.
Wilson’s book Nocturnal Ecologies, released in 2019, discovers the connection — electrical and ecological — between the artificially-lit urban habitat of Melbourne and the generation of the power that illuminates the nocturnal world of the birds, possums, bats and insects in suburban streets and gardens.
Concerned with visualising interrelations across ecologies and geological time with the present global environmental crisis, rather than make a bald political protest, Wilson invites, through a figurative drawing together of imagery industrial and organic, a personal realisation by his audience; brown coal, formed from vegetation that grew more than 25 million years ago, is what actually lights our city. Wilson relates the fossils of creatures found during the mining process with those now living under the stress of pervasive artificial illumination that extends daylight through through the ‘night’.
Electrical Ecologies develops on this interest. He photographed before the 2020-21 lockdowns during his residency at Bogong Centre for Sound Culture, sited in the mountain village constructed for the hydro workers. He brought back with him not only his camera cards but also samples of the rubble of tunnelling works at West Kiewa Power station. These coal-black stones now serve as shelf brackets for his small digital prints in this exhibition in the skylit Sinclair Gallery of Castlemaine Art Museum.
The power of this combination is that it sets the fragile, momentary products of his photography — prints that warp and curve as they rest against the wall — on geological fragments from the deep past that will outlive this purpose, and us, by eons. Accenting this temporal disparity each image is flash-lit. The effect is to render the night environment in which Wilson worked an inky black, and ink it is, since these are digitally printed; this is a blackness that is a matt, light-absorbent accumulation of pigment. It is a surface effect cannot be rendered in the embedded and darkened silver of a chemical bromide print emulsion; it does not look photographic to an eye trained in the older technology. Like the curling prints however, this super-saturated black, so close in density to the adamantine stone, proves instrumentally and eloquently appropriate to the photographer’s intention.
In addition, harsh on-camera flash projects the industrial objects; pipes, valves, cables and insulators, pylons, concrete abutments and pillars, stopcocks, dynamos, chain-link and barbed-wire fences from this blank abyss so that they seem to stand proud on their stone supports. Alternatively, the caverns drilled through mountains to channel water are rendered fathomless as their furthest depths are unreached by the brief zap of the strobe.
Turned on the driving force of power production that courses through, under and over the mountain steeps, the brief blitz of fulminating flash turns the water to stone. The effect is concreted by this means of display on metamorphic rock with its inclusions of quartz, picked from amongst the granite, basalt, dolerite, andesite, diorite, rhyolite and porphyry rubbles of the excavations. Furthermore, the relativity of electrically-generated light to dark rock mined from sunless depths makes one’s apprehension of human time, within universal, profound.
An impression of what would be, but for the intrusion of this feat of geological engineering, a rare wilderness, is reinforced in Wilson’s own words:
“Exploring the rivers around Bogong Village I’ve been paying attention to the stones, especially some of the enormous boulders. Their weight draws attention to them, a gravitation-like summoning in the landscape. Within the linear structure of the river, they pull attention one after the other, shifting for viewing at multiple angles as they reveal themselves in changing light and weather. Glistening like the supple pelts of seals in rain and with a soft grey skin interspersed with haphazard lichens in the afternoon sunlight. The shadows of harsh full sun shift their appearance again, cracks and overhangs are sharp and their forms harden. At night they are great dark forms, silent above the tumbling chatter of the water.
“…Over geological time scales their hardness adds to the pressures wearing down into the softer bedrock and shifting the course of water around them, leading to the steep sides of many river canyons with very large boulders. Over very long timescales they will continue this process. Virginia Woolf wrote “the very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare”, but these great inscrutable objects will continue on a longer timescale, they will eventually erode down into smaller stones, and then pebbles but the timescale of their existence is hard to fathom.”
As a volunteer gallery guide I look forward to the conversations with visitors that Wilson’s interconnected image-complex invites.
120 years ago to the day Austrian photographer and chemist Josef Székely died. I raise the coincidence for comparison because he represents the documentary tradition of geographical photography which so contrasts with Felix Wilson’s. Székely graduated from the University of Vienna in 1860 with a masters degree in pharmacy and in 1862 received his doctorate in chemistry.
Leaving that institution where he had taught for a time, he opened a studio in Heinrichshof near the Viennese Opera, and became a professional photographer, The following year he was the photographer on the Austro-Hungarian expedition to northern Albania, Kosova and Macedonia, led by Johann Georg von Hahn, and there made some of the earliest photographs taken in the Balkans.
On the coastal plain to Shkodra on 31 August 1863, with marine lieutenant Hermann von Spaun (1833-1919) Székely met up with von Hahn’s party; his family doctor and friend, Dr. Auerbach, and the Franciscan priest, Angelo Bardhi. Székely took what were the first ever pictures of Shkodra and its imposing fortress before the expedition set out in two boats up the Drin river, passing Deja, Vjerdha, Shurdhah, Koman (where he made two photographs) and Dukagjin, but the river grew narrower and they could sail no further. Székely with his heavy equipment was obliged to take his boat back to Shkodra while the rest of the members of the expedition continued their journey up the valley on foot.
Reunited with the group in Prizren in early September 1863, Székely took five photographs, then the expedition returned to the Black Drin and advanced southwards to Dibra (Debar). Unexplored by western Europeans its reputation was “just as unknown as the lower Drin river… the valley of the Black Drin between the town of Dibra and the point where the two tributaries of the river flow together…is alleged to be a den of thieves and is thus avoided by its neighbours.”
Without incident, they arrived in Dibra on 21 September 1863, where Székely took two photographs. Hahn was impressed by the time-consuming effort required to make the photographs; encumbered by the “photographic machine” and the wagon of plates Székely had brought with him, he needed a full two and a half hours to take one picture of a massive and romantic cliff; “Photography is not something you can do on the side, you can either travel or take photographs,” concluded von Hahn before they continued on to Struga on Lake Ohrid. There his party spent ten days, giving Székely ample time to take eleven photographs, including his picture of Sveti Naum which is the only photograph of the monastery before it was largely destroyed by fire in 1875.
Via Lake Prespa eastwards to Monastir (Bitola) by October, then Prilep, they travelled on to Veles on the Vardar river, where they found boats and were able to sail southwards to the Demir Kapi (‘Iron Gate’). Before sailing through, Székely made this series of three that together might form a spectacular panorama of the ‘gate’ but for the time taken to make them which can be determined from shadows passing on the cliffs and his changes in camera position (note the distant mountains).Josef Székely (October 1863) Demir Kapi – gorge of the Vardar seen from the north.
Dwarfed in the foreground of the central image above is one of the party with a donkey guarding a bulky camera and boxes of plates for the laborious wet collodion process. The ‘Iron Gate’ behind him is now bridged by a motorway that tunnels through its ramparts, and there are plans to dam the Vardar in several places downstream for a hydroelectric scheme.
The group continued to the mouth of the Vardar at Salonica on the Aegean where five further photographs were taken, and Hahn and Székely continued eastwards to Troy in Asia Minor.
Though his photographs from 1863 are the earliest known photographs of Macedonia, publication was to be too expensive for the Viennese Academy of Sciences and they were omitted from Hahn’s reports and were forgotten, disappearing for over a century, but were rediscovered in the Austrian National Library in 2000 by American photographer and photo-historian Mark Cohen, author of Wonders Seen in Forsaken Places. The Székely Collection was first published in the album Writing in Light: Early Photography of Albania and the Southwestern Balkans, Prishtina 2007 and is now archived in the Bildarchiv of the Austrian National Library in Vienna.