subtler paths still

subtler paths still

Not every punctum fits neatly into my taxonomy. Some moments stand alone. But as I continue to play, this taxonomy continues to grow. New entities awaken gradually as patterns of awareness become evident: once I begin to notice that I am noticing a certain thing, I look back through my albums and see that I have been seeing it for longer than I knew. Mirrors. Basketball hoops. Orphaned shoes. Sociable clusters of beer bottles; the often-unintentional tableaux of domestic windowsills.

As each new entity emerges the subtle city becomes more visible; more real. I walk through different streets than I did a year ago. Even when I am not playing; when I leave my cameras and my installation equipment at home — even then, I am still playing.

The photographer Dorothea Lange once remarked: ‘The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera’ (Lange in Meltzer 1979, p. vii). I remember, years ago, naming a Facebook photo album that I had created for one of my meditative walks I take my camera with me because we see things differently. The phrase had come to me unbidden, much like the words in Tim Ingold’s dream, and likewise stayed with me in their poetic almost-articulation of an idea. In Lange’s remark I see this idea fully articulated: my camera has shown me how to see differently. T1

T1:This journey toward a photographic way of looking, and in particular the urban typologies that it has unearthed, can be framed within a larger history of landscape photography. More specifically, although unintentionally, it references the New Topographics movement of the 1970s — albeit with some fundamental differences in both philosophy and style.

“New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” was a 1975 exhibition of American landscape photography, curated by William Jenkins and held at the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York. The show signalled a major shift in the genre: away from pristine wilderness landscapes as captured by such masters of the form as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, and toward the landscapes of America’s rapidly expanding industrial and suburban sprawl — and its concomitant urban decay (O’Hagan 2010). In stark contrast to the awe-inspiring vistas of Adams and Weston, these images instead seemed to offer ‘an aesthetic of the banal’ (ibid. para. 1). Tract houses, empty streets, trailer parks, warehouses: these were the “new topographics” that reflected a swiftly changing country back onto itself.

The show would come to influence an entire generation of photographers, but it was also inspired by pioneering work that came before. During the previous decade the American artist Ed Ruscha self-published a number of small photo books that challenged prevailing notions of what made a worthy photographic subject: 26 Gasoline Stations (1962), Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965), Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), 34 Parking Lots (1967). The books are exactly as they sound: meticulous, dispassionate catalogs of their titular subject matter. It is in this serial eye for the mundane that Ruscha’s photographic legacy is most pronounced, both in the New Topographics exhibition and in the work of other artists from the 1970s and onward. Roger Mertin with his trees of Poultneyville, New York (1977), his basketball hoops (1978), his Christmas trees (1983); Judy Fiskin with her detailed survey of California architecture in 31 Views of San Bernardino (1974) and Dingbat (1982-3); Wendy Burton with her abandoned structures in Empty Houses (2001-2003) and Empty Houses: Interiors (2003-2006). Indeed, the persistent interrogation of interrelated visual motifs has become such an established approach to urban and suburban landscape photography that it is hard to say whether I became aware of its ubiquity before or after I began to work more consciously with this method myself.

I can say, however, that I was working purely from instinct when I designed the exhibition for The Parallaxis. Here the gallery walls were given over to a series of variously patterned image grids, each documenting a particular urban typology. Variations on a theme. And so I felt a surprised sense of recognition when I learned that this manner of presentation was also used by several of the original New Topographers, notably Lewis Baltz. A Californian like Ruscha, Balz most frequently turned his lens toward industrial sites and disused buildings, returning to the same locations repeatedly to document their precarious states of flux. (Like Balz I also found myself documenting certain places as they changed over time, albeit with less intentionality.)

‘Often displayed in a grid format, it is important to Baltz that his pictures be seen collectively as a group or series. The series format suits his desire that no one image be taken as more true or significant than another,’ notes the artist’s biography on the Museum of Contemporary Photography website. This sentiment is echoed by Marc Freidus, curator of the 1991 exhibition “Typologies: Nine Contemporary Photographers”  — which in many ways was a reprisal of the original New Topographics exhibition. Freidus notes that ‘any single picture has a limited truth value’ and that serial repetition offers ‘a comparative truth, a certain kind of access to the subject matter’ (Freidus in Curtis 1991, para. 5). Speaking of the same exhibition, photographer Rod Slemmons invokes the music of composer Philip Glass: ‘You hear the same tones over and over, but what’s visually exciting are the overtones set up between things’ (ibid. para. 6).

Indeed, as I progressed through the designing of my own grids, I began to detect leitmotifs arising within each arrangement. Unexpected relationships; patterns within patterns; secrets on the verge of being spilled. The hypnotic powers of the typological are made apparent in the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the only European photographers to be featured in the 1975 New Topographics exhibition: ‘Like Victorian collectors with their cabinets of eggs or insects, this photographer couple collected and catalogued industrial buildings. In the early Seventies, their attention turned to cooling towers, and they printed the images like sheets from an inventory, nine or ten towers to a page. The effect of this repeated pattern was very powerful. A single cooling tower may look beautiful, but nine cooling towers on one sheet looks like a series of ancient monoliths, or temples, or plinths for statues of long-forgotten gods’ (Farley & Roberts 2012, p. 194).

It is telling that the Bechers, whose work evokes such mythic resonance, were the only non-Americans to be included in Jenkins’ show. Balz has said of his own work that he was ‘looking for the things that were most typical, the things that were the most quotidian, everyday, unremarkable, and trying to represent them in the way that was the most quotidian, everyday and unremarkable’ (Balz in O’Hagan 2014, para. 3). Balz’s work (and the New Topographics movement as a whole) can be seen as a lament in the form of mimicry, ‘making visible this new homogenised America in a way that echoed – and criticised – the soullessness of urban planning and the corporate rationale that lay behind it’ (ibid. para. 7). This hostility toward the landscape — or more accurately, toward the degradation of the landscape — manifests as an aesthetic that has been called ‘austere … minimalist, detached, dispassionate’ (ibid. para. 1), and ‘mechanical’ (Alexander 2015, p. 128).

While I too have felt anguish, often acutely, in the face of similar assaults on the urban and suburban landscapes of Melbourne, The Parallaxis has emerged from entirely different sentiments than those of the New Topographics movement. Here I hearken back to the wonderment expressed by landscape historian John Stilgoe (1998) and artist-cartographer Denis Wood (2010), and the playful mischief of Surrealist Max Cafard (2008) — all of whom bring a warm-heartedness to their engagement with place. This generosity of spirit is shared by at least one photographer previously mentioned, who has been historically associated with the New Topographics movement but in fact seems to be only superficially aligned: Roger Mertin (fellow typologer of basketball hoops).

‘He was interested in local environments wherever they happened to be,’ notes photographer Carl Chiarenza(University of Rochester 2001), a close friend of Mertin’s. Curator James Borcoman (1991) teases out this element of curiosity in Mertin’s work, making clear its significance: ‘Mertin is out to give us the whole truth — great cornucopias of irrelevant things,’ he writes. ‘These photographs are not of trees only, but of spaces. Spaces dense with information, a kind of information to which the eye is often inured.’ I take my camera with me because we see things differently. Borcoman (ibid.) concludes: ‘The photographs tell us about the act of looking. In a sense, they are also Mertin’s gift to us, above all a gift of discovery. For Mertin has shown us that the things of this world hold magic and mystery in greater abundance than we have imagined.’

But the game now is about more than seeing, more than sight; more than mere perception with any or all of the senses. It is about participating in a conversation with a city that is fully animate. This evolution from inner to outer, from personal to universal, can be traced using the theoretical references that I have drawn upon throughout the project.


Winnicott’s (1971) model of play allows us to revisit the magical omnipotence of infancy, in which the world is made of objects that answer to our bidding. Of course when we play as adults (and even as older children) we recognise the artifice of the activity: the cardboard box is not really a spaceship. But what we gain of the rational we lose of the material: these objects could not possibly answer us, because they are not animate. No longer are we Baudelaire’s frustrated children, who ‘turn about their playthings and shake them, hurl them to the ground, and often break them in their bafflement and even rage at their stubborn refusal to awaken into life’ (Warner 2009, p. 4). We understand that we must awaken these playthings ourselves, through the alchemy of imagination. In fact it is the assumed compliance of our lifeless props that makes this alchemy possible. ‘The thing about playing is always the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects,’ writes Winnicott. ‘This is the precariousness of magic itself, magic that arises in intimacy, in a relationship that is being found to be reliable’ (1971, p. 47).

The play of Winnicott’s transitional space may conjure a magic that is more reliable than it is real, but my experience of making this game has led me to believe that all magic is out of reach without a capacity for this essential form of play. To make a game that’s real, I have to be real too. Winnicott’s central preoccupation was with the experience of feeling real, which he placed in a reciprocal relationship with creative expression and play. ‘In creative living you or I find that everything we do strengthens the feeling that we are alive, that we are ourselves,’ he writes (1990, p. 43), elsewhere noting that ‘[o]nly the true self can be creative and only the true self can feel real’ (1965, p. 148).

My tumultuous beginning in Australia had left me so shell-shocked by the unknown that I had lost the ability to live creatively; to ‘allow continued transitional space and play via suspension of knowledge, certainty and conviction’ (Coburn 2013, p. 43). Anything that was uncertain was a threat. The early phases of this project helped me to find that open space again; to experience the reflexivity between performer and performed in which play creates player creates play.

Yet this reflexivity is not just a simple loop; it seems to act more like a spiral. For my experience has shown me that the repeated invocation of transitional space makes this space easier to hold, and also continually expands the circumference of its magic circle (Huizinga 1955). The Parallaxis has indeed become a game that locates doors where none seem readily apparent, suggesting the possibility of a creative response to uncertainties that grow ever more indeterminate and unstable.

Finding my way back to this reliable magic was an apprenticeship of sorts; a process of becoming real enough to go deeper into the game.


Crucially, this sense of realness allowed me to finally see the place I now called home. In fact it allowed me to do more than see — for as previously noted, this game has never been primarily about visual perception.

I could make sense of it; I could move through it and with it; I could begin to communicate with its more subtle frequencies.

These subtle frequencies were the materiality of place communicating directly with my senses, in that moment before perception gives way to conception. The game became a playful challenge: stay in this moment for as long as you can. Rather than attempting to animate the world by force of imagination, allow the possibility that it is already animated by other forces.

This possibility is hinted at in the ‘deep play’ of Cafard’s Surrealist endoticism, a materialist philosophy that is concerned with ‘the interpenetrating world of things themselves’ (2008, para. 31) and exhorts that ‘[w]e must be ready to discover that they all lead beyond themselves into other worlds, other regions of being and experiencing’ (ibid para. 54).

And yet the things-themselves of endoticism seem somehow to remain inert, lacking voice or agency. Perhaps it is the emphasis on thing, which implies an object, which brings us back to Winnicott. Once I turned the witchy corner into the shadows of Fitzroy I began to seek a theory that better represented my experience; my perception of a material world that was actively communicating.

Eventually I found this theory in a book that I have owned for more than a decade; that has inhabited three continents with me; and that I have yet to finish reading. Each time I pick up David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous (1997) I quickly put it down again and reach for a notebook and pen, for it is a book that consistently makes me think new thoughts — thoughts which seem important enough to capture before they are replaced by the next thought. It is a book that I have referenced repeatedly throughout this work; that prefigures and informs non-representational theory, in which ‘[m]aterial objects are no mere props for performance but parts and parcel of hybrid assemblages endowed with diffused personhood and relational agency’ (Vannini 2015, p. 3). But it is a book that, in truth, I had not picked up for several years until I pulled it from the shelf one day about eights months after my shadow walk through Fitzroy.

I started again at the beginning, which was fortunate as Abram builds from one key idea to a second. The first idea is the foundation of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, which is that all perception is inherently reciprocal.

‘In the act of perception,’ Abram writes, ‘I enter into a sympathetic relation with the perceived, which is possible only because neither my body nor the sensible exists outside the flux of time, and so each has its own dynamism, its own pulsation and style. Perception, in this sense, is an attunement or synchronization between my own rhythms and the rhythms of the things themselves, their own tones and textures’ (1997, p. 54).

Here the things themselves begin to stir, already hinting at Abram’s next proposal. They also recall the city of Lefebvre’s rhythmanalysis, in which the ‘characteristic features are really temporal and rhythmical, not visual’ (1996, p. 223). Lefebvre hints as well at the attuning nature of perception when he observes that ‘[t]o extricate the rhythms requires attentiveness and a certain amount of time’ (ibid.).

Rhythmanalysis does not necessarily imply a material world that is fully animate, but the theory of perception that Abram draws from Merleau-Ponty’s work most certainly does. This is Abram’s next key idea, which underpins his ‘ecology of magic’ (1997, p. 3).

‘The landscape as I directly experience it is hardly a determinate object,’ Abram writes, ‘it is an ambiguous realm that responds to my emotions and calls forth feelings from me in turn’ (ibid. p. 33). In this ambiguous realm, Abram observes, ‘[m]y senses connect up with each other in the things I perceive, or rather each perceived thing gathers my senses together in a coherent way, and it is this that enables me to experience the thing itself as a center of forces, as another nexus of experience, as an Other’ (ibid. p. 62).

In Abram’s Other I recognise the forces that animate the frequencies of my game; that call me to participate. And in his emphasis on ambiguity, emotion and response I am able to identify the reason for my frustrated protest against contemplative models of perception such as the Miksang approach to photography. My witchy turn was a rejection of the detachment inherent in such methods; the privileging of observation and awareness over the vulnerability of participation. What if I allowed this to be real?

The Parallaxis is a game, but this query is more than just playful speculation. As Abram indicates, there is something real at stake.

‘When the animate powers that surround us are suddenly construed as having less significance than ourselves,’ he writes, ‘when the generative earth is abruptly defined as a determinate object devoid of its own sensations and feelings, then the sense of a wild and multiplicitous otherness (in relation to which human existence has always oriented itself) must migrate, either into a supersensory heaven beyond the natural world, or else into the human skull itself — the only allowable refuge, in this world, for what is ineffable and unfathomable’ (ibid. p. 10). This migration, Abram asserts, has implications for all inhabitants of the material world: ‘To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human’ (ibid. p. 22).

Abram’s ecological concerns do not engage much with the city; The Spell of the Sensuous is the result of a research project that Abram undertook in rural Asia. The closest he comes to discussing the built environment is a lament on the disconnect that he experienced upon returning to the suburbs of North America when his research trip concluded. ‘As the expressive and sentient landscape slowly faded behind my more exclusively human concerns, threatening to become little more than an illusion or fantasy, I began to feel — particularly in my chest and abdomen — as though I were being cut off from vital sources of nourishment,’ Abram writes. ‘I was indeed reacclimating to my own culture, becoming more attuned to its styles of discourse and interaction, yet my bodily senses seemed to be losing their acuteness, becoming less awake to subtle changes and patterns’ (ibid. pp. 25-26).

I experienced a similar sense of reverse culture shock several years ago, on my return to Melbourne after five weeks spent camping in remote areas of Australia. I longed for the endless horizon; for the sky, the silence, the red dirt, the heat. A pair of brolgas magnificent in sudden flight. And yet I wonder if there might be hope yet for us city dwellers; a nourishment that we can find in these shadowy streets.

Abram concludes that ‘[p]rior to all our verbal reflections, at the level of our spontaneous, sensorial engagement with the world around us, we are all animists’ (ibid. p. 57). What if the subtle city is a world in which we can all be urban animists?

What if?