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Call of the Wild

In March I gave a lecture for the Art Gallery Society of NSW as part of their lecture series in the lead-up to the opening of The Photograph and Australia, a new exhibition by curator Judy Annear at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is a summary of my talk.

‘Wilderness Photography’ today represents a sub-genre of photography in itself. Despite the term being relatively modern, its roots stretch back to early photographic experiments of the 1860s.

Wilderness photography is generally that branch of landscape or ‘nature photography’ that focusses on wild locations as places of beauty and spiritual renewal.

However, this attitude to ‘wilderness’ is a relatively new phenomenon. Wild land was traditionally seen as hostile and threatening. The term ‘Wilderness’ implied places that were actively hostile to humans, and early European colonists in Australia tended to regard un-tamed regions as a frightening waste land.

Changes in this attitude came from two directions. Growing scientific awareness in the 19th century encouraged many photographers to venture further afield and develop a love for the outdoors. The other important shift came with the growing influence of the Romantic Movement. Romanticism was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement which was at its most popular and influential during the first half of the 19th century. Romantics placed intense emotion at the heart of experience. In art and photography, romanticism was exhibited through a particular interest in nature. The natural world was seen both as a reflection in art of the human spirit and personality, and through action as a vehicle for this spirit.

This movement was reflected in photography through two main styles: the Picturesque (and its sister the Pastoral) and the Sublime. These represented two stylistic extremes, both of which were represented by photographers of wild landscapes. The Picturesque represents nature as friendly, sometimes otherworldy, but non-threatening. The Sublime expresses the power of nature and the experience of ‘awe’.

The composition of photographs to express these ideas has been a constant in the development of the ‘Wilderness Photography’ genre. Despite changes in technology, and movements in art, the romantic tropes of the picturesque and the sublime tend to remain in wilderness photography.

From the early 1900s, a growing awareness of conservation issues began to shape the attitudes of photographers. This led to the development of a new political dimension in the production of what was to become wilderness photography. I argue that it is the development of conservation activism as a primary driver that led to the inherent conservatism in style and retention of Romantic modes of composition amongst wilderness photographers. No longer was photography simply about the creation of beautiful images – there was a purpose. The tropes of Romantic composition which had remained in use were the ideal way of encouraging audiences to respond to images with strong emotion, and it was emotion that was and is still needed in any conservation campaign.

The QVMAG has in its collection works by a number of wilderness photographers including Spurling, Beattie, Perrin, Truchanas and Dombrovskis.

The Photograph and Australia:


Jon Addison, History Curator

Stephen Spurling III - On the DuCane Range, Tasmania 1913. QVMAG Collection QVM.1993.P.1607

Stephen Spurling III – On the DuCane Range, Tasmania 1913. QVMAG Collection QVM.1993.P.1607


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