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Posts from the ‘Photography’ Category


Inspired by the work of Dutch designer Pieke Bergmans, filmmaker David Parker set out to make a film about the ways we waste energy, but somewhere along the way it grew into Light, a haunting, poetic meditation not just on human wastefulness, but on the eerie, even spectral textures of the urban landscape.

There’s a short interview with Parker at The Atlantic.

The Alien Within

Somewhere in my second novel, The Deep Field, there’s a description of an alien fossil found on Mars, and the instinctual revulsion it provokes from humans. When I wrote it I was interested in evoking something of the feeling of visceral wrongness we tend to feel confronted by images of insect life enlarged.

The winners of this year’s Olympus Bioscapes Award, which celebrates the best of microscopic photography, are things of beauty, not horror, but that sense of alienness is still there, shot through this time with both wonder and something like the unnatural vividity and fleshiness of orchids. The image above, which took sixth place, is by Haris Antonopoulos, and shows stink bug eggs, but you can check out a gallery of the winners and honourable mentions, together with videos and more information on the competition website.

Water, Southern Skies and Electronica

I’m in the throes of finally finishing my edits (more on that soon), but in the meantime, here are two amazing pieces of time lapse photography. The first comes via NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, and is by amateur astronomer and photographer Alex Cherney, who compiled twelve months of footage of the movement of stars and clouds across the southern coast of Australia into one very beautiful, and very haunting video. I have a personal affection for this video because I’ve actually been using one of Cherney’s images as the background on my computer for the last six months, but in a way what’s most striking is the way the video serves as a reminder of how different southern skies and landscapes are to those in the Northern Hemisphere. Be sure to embiggen for the full effect.

The second comes via io9, and features images of water in slow motion (set to music by electronica act, Team Ghost). It’s a thing of strange, almost alien beauty.

I’ll be back online properly next week. Catch you all then.


Some more Wayne Levin (and Manta Rays!)

After I published my post about Wayne Levin’s new book, Akule, the other day I came across this rather terrific little video featuring Wayne talking about his experience photographing Manta Rays and his work more generally. Having dived with Mantas myself I’m keenly aware of the feelings of awe Wayne describes, and of the other-worldly presence of them in the water.

Anyway, if you’d like to see more of the shots discussed in the video they’re available on his website, otherwise enjoy!

A Murmuration of Fish: Wayne Levin’s Akule

Wayne Levin, ‘Circling Akule’, © Wayne Levin (click to embiggen)

Of the many editorial decisions I made while putting together The Penguin Book of the Ocean, the one I’m proudest of was to include a series of Wayne Levin’s photographs. Anybody who’s seen the book will know how much they add to it, not just because they offer a stunning visual counterpoint to the written selections, but because they so eloquently distill the sense of the ocean’s mystery and beauty I wanted the book to evoke as a whole. I think – I hope – that the book is put together in such a way that every piece adds something essential, but I think there’s little doubt that if there was one selection the removal of which would drastically impoverish the whole, it’s Wayne’s photographs.

I assume some readers will already be familiar with Wayne’s work. Although he’s less well-known in Australia than he is in the United States, his iconic images of swimmers and bodysurfers are both justly celebrated and immediately recognisable (and, I suspect, were at least partly responsible for inspiring Narelle Autio and Trent Parke’s equally iconic celebration of the Australian beach, The Seventh Wave).

For my part, I first encountered Wayne’s work in 2005. I was working on a book about the Pacific (a project which, sadly, I later shelved) and as part of my background research had been reading Thomas Farber’s brilliant essays about water and the ocean, On Water (one of which also appears in The Penguin Book of the Ocean). Keen to read more of Tom’s work I went searching online, and in so doing stumbled on Wayne’s breathtaking 1997 book, Through a Liquid Mirror, which features an introduction by Tom.

Wayne Levin, ‘Body Surfers’

When my copy arrived I sat staring at it for hours. I quickly realised I’d seen some of the images of surfers before, but as I read on I found the real marvels were not those strange, perspectiveless images of humans in flight underwater, but the images of marine creatures: sharks, dolphins, fish, turtles, gliding weightlessly through the deep.

In the weeks after that I bought and read Wayne’s similarly beautiful and deeply haunting collection of photographs of aquariums, Other Oceans, and found my way to his website, which collects many of the images from the books, both of which only added to my admiration for his work.

One of the things I found most striking about Wayne’s images was his decision to work not in colour but in black and white. There’s no doubt one of the great revelations of the last decade or so has been the rapid advances in the documentation of marine environments, in particular the work of the BBC’s Natural History unit, whose efforts have led to the creation of documentaries such as The Blue Planet and Planet Earth. While these works have done much to change the way we see the oceans and their inhabitants, perhaps one of the most profound is the way they’ve taught us to see the marine environment as a place filled with colour, not just the reds and oranges of coral and tropical fish, but the deep, saturated blues and greens of the water, and the dazzling silvers and metallic glints of fish and light.

By contrast, by working in black and white, Wayne’s photos cleave to a more denuded palette, one comprised only of silvery greys and blacks, a decision that serves not just to sever their connection to more documentary forms of photography, but to demand the viewer see the subjects again, not as fish or swimmers or sea spume, but as things in themselves, wrapped in their own mystery and moving outside the bounds of language. Breaking waves become thunder clouds, suggesting how close swimming is to flight, sharks become sculptural objects, whales and dolphins loom out of the dark towards the light.

Wayne Levin, ‘Blue Trevally surrounded by Akule’

At its most effective, in images such as  ‘Blue Trevally surrounded by Akule’, this transformation grants the subjects – and by extension the photographs themselves – a sacral quality, imbuing the scenes they depict with a mute power that conveys something essential about both the immensity and indifference of the ocean.

Yet in many ways the best of Wayne’s images are those focussing on schooling Bigeye Scad, or Akule, as they are known in Hawaii. In these images the schools of fish become not just schools but living things in their own right, drifting and swirling like patterns of smoke or the Aurora, many minds in one body.

Most of Wayne’s Akule photographs were taken across a three year period last decade, during which schools of Akule gathered in Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii’s Big Island (and the site of the fatal attack on Captain Cook), and Wayne took to swimming out in pursuit of them, oxygenating his lungs as he went in order to freedive ten, twelve, even eighteen metres down, to the edge of the light to capture the fish moving below.

The best of these images, together with a selection of other images such as ‘Body Surfers, Makapu’u O’ahu 1983’ are collected together in Wayne’s new book, Akule, which was published late last year.

Perhaps interestingly, it’s a smaller book than either Through a Liquid Mirror or Other Oceans, not just slimmer but more closely cropped. Yet somehow this reduction in size gives it an intimacy and simplicity many larger books lack.

But its size also belies the wonder of many of the images it contains. Here, again and again, schools of fish take on the wonder they possess in reality, becoming shifting things of light and silver, darting and turning, many minds in one body.

Wayne Levin, ‘Akule Tornado’

As Frank Stewart points out in his introduction to the book (the book also features a Foreword by Tom Farber), the seemingly purposeful of fish schools are relatively simple, and can, like many complex phenomena, be reproduced by the application of several simple rules, the same rules that create the unity of purpose exhibited by bird flocks (they also, suggestively, bear more than a passing resemblance to the Aboriginal artist, Gloria Petyarre’s Medicine Leaves paintings, which evoke the movement of grass and leaves in the wind).

Stewart is wary of reading too much into the capacity of simple rules to generate complex behaviour, cautioning against the desire of some to see in it something essential we have previously only associated with living things.

I share some of that wariness, though I’m perhaps less inclined than Stewart to dismiss the discoveries of those working in this area as simply the application of “our currently fashionable metaphor to explain the mystery of life”. Yet he’s right to point to the way many of the photographs in Akule ask us to reconsider our ideas about the boundaries of agency. It is impossible to look at photographs like ‘Column of Akule, Kealakekua Bay, Hawai’i 2000’ or ‘Flock of Akule, Keauhou Bay, Hawai’i 2006’ and not be aware of the way these twisting columns of bodies seem to have purpose and meaning of their own, or the manner in which their sense of order and movement seems to imply the presence of some kind of collective organism.

Wayne Levin, ‘Pattern of Akule’

This desire to expand the definition of life to include biological systems is central to much contemporary biological and environmental thinking. Yet it also demands we rethink our own relationship to the environment we inhabit, and the interconnected web of life that sustains it. Given the urgency of the environmental challenges we face, there is something both salutary and humbling in being confronted by work which, like Wayne’s photographs, demands we do precisely this. Because in the end that is what the photographs in Akule do. They ask us to look at the twisting, shifting, leaping columns of fish and see them as what they are: things pulsing with life, mysterious and Other, but living all the same. And, perhaps just as importantly, they demand we re-examine many of our assumptions about the creatures that surround us, by reminding us of how irrelevant we are to them, caught as they are in the business of their lives, and of how our knowledge of them will always be partial, fragmentary, constrained by the limitations of our imaginations and senses.

Akule, Through a Liquid Mirror and Other Oceans are all available from Amazon. If you’d like to see more of Wayne’s work you can visit his website or download a preview of Akule. The Penguin Book of the Ocean is available in Australian bookstores or you can check prices at Booko. At some point I may talk more about my unfinished book about the Pacific but that’s very definitely a story for another day.

Manhattan in motion

Because I’m deep in the land of edits it’s likely to be another slow week around here, but in the meantime you might want to take a minute or two to watch this amazing time-lapse video created by New York photographer Josh Owens: it really is a thing of beauty.

If you like what you see you can check out more of Josh’s videos on Vimeo, follow him on Twitter or visit his website. Thanks to The New Yorker for the original link. You might also want to take a moment to watch Tor Even Mathisen’s similarly breathtaking timelapse video of the Aurora Borealis.


Summer and the myths of Australianness

Narelle Autio, 'The Climb', © Narelle Autio 2001

Some of you may have noticed my piece in The Weekend Australian about summer and the myths of Australianness a couple of weeks back. It was an interesting piece to write, not least because the process of putting it together was, in an odd way, very similar to the processes of remembering and reliving the past that seem to me to so essential to the experience of summer. Certainly while writing it I was reminded very powerfully of my childhood and adolescence in Adelaide, and of the silent, empty streets and wakeful nights.

As a writer you have next to no control over the illustrations that appear with your pieces(I think I’ve been asked for a suggestion once and offered them unsolicited twice in all the years I’ve been writing for newspapers). But in the case of this piece I’m not sure I could have chosen something more appropriate, because Review’s Editor, Deborah Jones, chose to use not just an image by Narelle Autio, but her photo ‘The Climb’, which was taken on Brighton Jetty, only a kilometre or so from where I grew up.

I’ve been an admirer of Autio’s photos for a long time, and my partner and I actually own several of them. While the early black and white images of swimmers and surfers bear a passing resemblance to Wayne Levin’s images of bodysurfers, they have an informality and sense of play that’s very much their own, a celebratory aspect that seems to capture something not just of the joy and spontaneity of their subject, but of the odd way that joy and spontaneity seems to exist suspended on the edge of memory.

But the series ‘The Climb’ is a part of has always been my favourite. Partly that’s because the images that comprise it are so vivid and immediate, in particular photos such as ‘Black Marlin’. But it’s also because they capture that oddly informal and shapeless communality that summer holidays often involve, the groups of people and sudden pleasures of caravan parks and camping grounds.

Part of what makes them so beautiful is the sheer saturation of colour, not just the blues of the water but its greenness, the yellow of the sand, even the brooding, impossible purple of late afternoon cloud. I suspect to many it’s a saturation that will seem immediately tropical, but oddly enough I remember standing in front of these pictures in the gallery and being immediately, unshakeably certain that Autio was from South Australia like me. It wasn’t the subjects of the photos – indeed I’m reasonably certain the photo that made me so sure she and I grew up near each other, ‘Orange Car’, is actually of somewhere in New South Wales – rather it was something about the quality of the light and its intensity, the degraded nature of the yellows.

As it turned out I was right: Autio grew up two beaches away from me in Adelaide. But that certainty was a reminder of somethign I’ve long thought about the nature of the Australian experience fo the beach. I keenly remember reading Robert Drewe’s brilliant memoir, The Shark Net, for the first time and being struck by the way it spoke to the summer landscape I knew as a child. Partly that was about it being set amidst the emptiness of sandhills and marram grass of the west coast rather than the cliffs and broken bays one finds on Australia’s east coast, but it was also about the way it made the landscape so palpable, not just the heat and the wind, but the denuded palette of sand and sea and sky, the intense, almost unbearable light.

One of my enduring regrets about The Penguin Book of the Ocean is the fact I couldn’t find a way to include something of Rob’s, not just because he was one of the first two or three writers I thought of when I was planning the book, but because he’s a writer I’ve admired enormously for many years, and whose writing played an important part in inspiring me to become a writer in the first place. I’ve been meaning for some time to write something about the process of putting the anthology together, and the way my desire for it to work as a whole, rather than as a collection of pieces made a lot the decisions for me. But in the end I just couldn’t find a piece by him that spoke to the ocean in the way I needed it to (for a writer whose public image is so indelibly associated with the beach Drewe’s books are usually only interested in landscape in a fairly passing sense, and tend to focus much more on the illusions and betrayals of middle class life).

But I do wonder whether that sense of the differences between the bays and beaches of the east coast and the more denuded landscapes of the south and west coast isn’t one of the reasons Penguin decided to use Autio’s photos to illustrate their recent rerelease of Tim Winton’s coastal memoir, Land’s Edge.

Originally published in 1993, with photographs by Trish Ainslie and Roger Garwood, Land’s Edge is at one level an account of Winton’s enduring love of the ocean, and of the part it played in shaping him. But it’s also a sort of manifesto, a mapping out of the emotional and philosophical territory Winton’s fiction has explored over the years.

To my mind it’s an interesting, if slightly unsatisfying book. I’ve read it twice now, and both times I kept wanting Winton to go further, push harder, dig deeper. But that’s not to say it’s without its pleasures. Certainly it’s fascinating to see the way Winton’s experiences have been woven into the larger fabric of the work, and to be made aware of echoes and allusions between the books and the life which would not otherwise be apparent. It’s also interesting to be reminded how much deeper and darker Winton’s work has grown in the last two decades, and of the manner in which his command of language has kept pace with that deepening: word by word, sentence by sentence I’m not sure there’s any writer working in Australia  at the moment (except maybe Delia Falconer) who can match the raw power of Winton’s prose. Even its rough-hewn textures are deceptive, intimations of the steel beneath (in this context you might want to check out my review of Breath from a couple of years back) .

But in a way the real pleasure of this new edition is the book itself, and the use it makes of Autio’s photographs. Penguin have clearly gone to considerable expense to use excellent paper, and it shows, lending both the text and the images a richness and a clarity they might otherwise lack. It’s also convinced Winton to speak publicly, something he doesn’t often do (if you’re interested there’s a long interview with him by Stephen Romei in yesterday’s Australian, complemented by an audio recording of Winton reading from Land’s Edge). If you’d like a taste of the book I’ve reproduced several of the images in it below, and there’s an extract available on Penguin’s website. Likewise if you’d like to see more of Autio’s images you should visit Stills Gallery. Otherwise you can read my piece on summer at The Australian.

Narelle Autio, 'Black Marlin', © Narelle Autio 2001

Narelle Autio, 'Before School', © Narelle Autio 2001

Narelle Autio, 'Orange Car', © Narelle Autio 2001


A little bit of linkage

I tend to do most of my linking on Twitter these days (and I’m a heartbeat away from setting up a Tumblr page for things that seem too long for Twitter but not really worthy of full-scale blogposts) but I’d be remiss if I didn’t direct people to this amazing series of photographs of London in the early 1880s. All photography is, as Sontag and Barthes remind us, necessarily a record of loss, but in these images of London that sense of loss is (as the author recognises) given added power by the strange absence of people from the streets and buildings depicted, an absence which recasts the city itself as a sort of memento mori.

On a rather different note, you might want to check out Sci-Fi-O-Rama, a site dedicated to SF and Fantasy-themed art. There’s usually something good going, but recent features on French SF illustrations, British SF artist Jim Burns (whose work graced the covers of any number of the SF books I read as a teenager in the 1980s) and Australian artist Dan McPharlin are particularly worth checking out.

Elsewhere I can heartily recommend both the excerpt from n+1’s What was the Hipster? in the New York Magazine, a piece which has some very intelligent things to say about the hollowing out of the counter-culture. And if you’ve not seen it before, it’s worth revisiting n+1’s terrific 2005 editorial about the novel and its place in contemporary culture.

And finally, please read the summary of an extraordinary year in climate science that appeared this week on Climate Progress. A lot of what’s there will be familiar to anybody with an interest in the subject, but it’s a piece that should be required reading not just for anybody who doesn’t think climate change is the single biggest issue facing the human race, but for every politician and policy-maker around the world.

And if you haven’t seen it, perhaps you could cap off the Climate Progress piece with Elizabeth Kolbert’s trenchant analysis of the Republican Party’s war against climate science and climate scientists in this week’s New Yorker. As Kolbert remarked in her chilling 2006 study of climate change, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, “[i]t may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” (I’d also recommend Kolbert’s excellent piece on the links between declines in zooplankton populations triggered by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the oceans and large-scale change in the ocean’s chemistry, ‘The Darkening Sea’, a piece I came within a hair’s breadth of including in The Penguin Book of the Ocean).

Best Underwater Photography 2010

Alexander Safonov, 'Hitting sailfish'

I’m excited to say I’ve just received a copy of Wayne Levin’s new book, Akule, which I’m planning to write something about next week (Wayne’s photos appear in The Penguin Book of the Ocean and I’ve written about his work previously) but in the meantime you might like to take a look at this stunning collection of photographs chosen by the judges of Our World Under Water and Deep International Underwater Competition. The Safonov image above is probably my pick, but it’s only one of a pretty fabulous collection.

Paul Nicklen’s Polar Obsessions

A while back I linked to an amazing series of images of sailfish rounding up baitfish by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen. To commemorate the publication of Nicklen’s new book, Polar Obsession, National Geographic have now released an amazing video montage of his encounter with a leopard seal, an encounter that begins with the seal taking the camera and Nicklen’s hand in its mouth. It’s an amazing sequence, and the images are just breathtaking. If you’d like to see more of Nicklen’s work you can check out his website, which has a beautiful array of images (though it must be said the fact that they’re all watermarked to within an inch of their life does detract a bit from the viewing experience) or you can check out a selection of images from Polar Obsession on The Huffington Post (and vote for your favourite).

And while we’re on the subject of nature photography, the wonderful Wayne Levin (who I’ve also mentioned before) has just added a lot of new work to his website as part of the lead up to the release of not just one, but two new books next year. Most of the images are black and white underwater shots of the subjects he’s long been fascinated with (bodysurfers, marine animals) but a number were taken on a recent trip to the remote Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument as part of a scientific expedition by staff of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and represent a bit of a departure for Levin, not least because some of them aren’t only above water, they’re actually in colour.

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23 years after Chernobyl (or the nuclear fool cycle)


Pripyat Funfair, © Ben Fairless

One of the more bizarre side-effects of the climate change debate is the fact that it’s given new life to the nuclear power lobby. Indeed it sometimes seems that every time I turn on the ABC or open a newspaper there’s some talking head doing his utmost to convince us that not only is nuclear power now safe, it’s also the only technology capable of offering emission-free alternative to fossil fuels. Never mind that we still have no way of dealing with the waste (at least until Generation IV technology becomes a reality), never mind that the emissions generated by extracting and processing uranium far outstrip the emissions generated by coal-fired stations, never mind the possibility of accidents or sabotage, nuclear power is the way to go. (I suppose the one point in their favour is that nuclear technology actually exists, unlike the ludicrous fantasy of “clean” coal).

Of course nuclear power is precisely the sort of boysy technology that appeals to a particular kind of smart man, not least because it allows them to do their “I’m the sort of man who’s prepared to take hard decisions without being fazed by silly, sentimental anxieties about the environment,” routine, but you’d think even they’d be able to hear themselves when they declare that the technology is now foolproof (like that unsinkable ship, the Titanic, I suppose).

Anyway – I thought in the context of that debate it might be worth linking to this remarkable series of photographs of Chernobyl. Gathering together work by a number of photographers, some born in the area, others not, they speak not just to the destructive force of the accident, and the scars it left on the place and its inhabitants, but in their haunting reminder of the way the forest is reclaiming the Exclusion Zone, to the hubris of presuming human society and its creations are anything more than a hiccough in the larger cycle of life and time.

(via io9).

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Photography in Australian Fiction

X-Ray image of hand, Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen

Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen, X-Ray image of hand

Last year I met an Italian student called Giorgia Tolfo from Bologna University, who was in Australia to research her thesis, The Photographic Act in Contemporary Australian Fiction. As part of her research she interviewed me and a number of other Australian writers (Delia Falconer and Gail Jones amongst others) who have used photographic motifs in their work.

She’s not the first person to write on this subject. Paul Genoni published a paper in Antipodes in 2002 exploring the use of photography in novels such as my second novel, The Deep Field, Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, Liam Davison’s Soundings, and Thea Astley’s Reaching Tin River (you can access the paper via the Curtin University Library site, though you’ll need to click the pdf symbol in the top right corner to actually read it). But it was interesting to find an Italian student struck by the same resonances between the various works she was writing about (she’s also incredibly bright and very charming, which never hurts either).

Anyway – I just received an email from Giorgia, telling me not only has she passed, but she’s received the highest mark, which is fantastic news. And, since I suspect her thesis isn’t likely to find its way into print in English in a hurry, I thought I might reproduce some extracts from the written interview I did for her after we spoke.

1. What is it that interests you about photography and what was it about photography you set out to investigate in your novel? Was there a particular influence or reference that urged you to write about photography?

I initially became interested in using photography as an element in the novel after looking at a book of photos of museum exhibits by Rosamund Purcell. The images were largely of objects from 18th century cabinets of curiosity, but there were images of fossilized ammonites amongst them, something about those images of ancient stone shells struck a chord with me..

Over time this idea of photographing fossils merged with the ideas I was also interested in exploring, about endings, and continuance, and deep time, and the idea that our own presence in the world might be part of a larger cycle, and a larger order. I remember reading Sontag, and Barthes, and being struck by their insistence that photography must be a representation of death. That seemed right to me, but also wrong – photos are also, necessarily, a form of connection to the past, a kind of persistence through time, in the same way a fossil is, and they connect us to the past, even as they remind us it is gone, and in so doing suggest something about the way loss is always with us, but part of us, and the capacity of things to go on, and endure.

2. In your novel, The Deep Field, Anna begins taking pictures of ammonites and fossils, but only after a scene in which the shells are explored by the blind character with his hands. Was this an attempt to link the idea of tactile memory to the idea of fossils as tactile memories of now vanished organic organisms? What do you see as the best form of memory – visual, tactile, emotional?

I was interested in different ways of being in the world, and particularly by the idea that the blind inhabit a non-spatial world made up of tactile and auditory experience connected in time, rather than spatially. Like virtual reality and cyberspace, that seemed ot me to suggest a very different way of being in the world, and one it might be useful to understand better as technology continues to alter the contours of our identity and the world we inhabit. But I also wanted to connect this idea of the new, and the futuristic to the very ancient, hence the shell on Mars, and the high tech photos of fossils. By doing that, and by playing on the way the blind inhabit their temporal and experiential world I thought it might be possible to suggest something of the way we exist within memory, and experience, rather than the other way around.

3. What do you think about the relationship between fiction and photography? Do you think that the former can help people to better understand the social, emotional and private value of the latter? Do you agree on the fact that fiction is more powerful than theory in exploring the possibilities of photography, being able to create new and not necessarily real situation?

Fiction and photography are necessarily very different. Fiction is narrative-based, and is therefore connected to change. Photography is something sliced free of time we must project a narrative, or meaning into. One explains us to ourselves, the other denies explanation (a process you can see at work in Sebald). But at the same time, both work by opening up imaginative possibility.

That said, I’m always a little wary of the use of photography in fiction. Photography is necessarily documentary and ambiguous, and there seems something dishonest, or sentimental about the impulse to invent stories which displace that ambiguity and fill it in with invented meaning.

As for the question of whether theory or fiction is more useful for exploring the possibilities of photography, I’m not sure either is particularly useful in that context – it’s photography that will explore its own possibilities most usefully. Theory may help us understand it better, criticism may help us understand particular works and practitioners, but I’m really not sure fiction has much of a role to play at all – its interest in photography is almost always for its own, imaginary ends.

4. Do you think there is a peculiarly Australian way of thinking about photography evident in Australian fiction, or do you think the use of photography in fiction is more universal?

I do wonder whether there is a a peculiarly Australian way of thinking about photography you see coming through in writers as diverse as Gail Jones, Delia Falconer, Liam Davison and myself. All of us are interested in exploring a photography as a way of making sense of loss, and transience, rather than as a simplistic memento mori. If this differs from its use in fiction from overseas (and I’m a bit short on ideas for examples to be sure it does) I wonder whether it has something to do with the fact that if you’re in Europe, particularly, or connected by the Jewish diaspora to that European experience, photography might well offer rather starker reminders of the past. Australians are, at some level, interested in finding a way to make sense of their past, and to find reconciliation with it in the present; it’s possible that for Europeans and others the past is something that needs to be put behind them.

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Sony World Photography Awards

'Bait Ball Symphony #1', Alexander Safanov

'Bait Ball Symphony #1', Alexander Safanov

If you’ve got a few moments you might want to check out the images shortlisted for this year’s Sony World Photography awards. There are shortlists for Professionals and Amateurs, as well as a separate selection of images chosen as part of the Prince’s Rainforest Project.

While many of the shortlisted images are striking, the Natural History images are particularly impressive, and include a remarkable pair of baitball images by Alexander Safanov in the Amateur category and sequences by two Australian photographers, Steve Merenos and Lisa Marie Williams in the Professional category.

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Phantom Shanghai

Phantom Shanghai

In 2005 I spent three months attached to the East China Normal University in Shanghai as an Asialink resident. Perhaps fortuitously, we didn’t end up living in one of the newer parts of the city, but in an apartment at the top of an alley house not far from the corner of Huaihai Lu and Shanxi Nanlu in the old French Concession.

The dodgy wiring and rats aside, it was a fascinating place to stay, not least because it gave me the opportunity to get to know some of the last remnants of Old Shanghai. For all its well-deserved reputation for criminality and vice, Old Shanghai was also the site of an incredibly fertile collision between European and Chinese modernity. This collision gave birth to writers such as Shi Zhecun, and Liu Na’ou (I’d probably also lump Eileen Chang in there as well, since although her work concentrates on the years of the Occupation, and was published in the 1940s, it exists in the shadow of the Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s she grew up in), nurtured political radicals such as Mao and his wife, and most visibly these days, resulted in the peculiarly Shanghainese fusion of European and Chinese architecture that can be seen in the remaining pieces of the pre-1989 city.

'Alley (Yangshuo Lu, looking north), 2006', © Greg Girard, 2006

'Alley (Yangshuo Lu, looking north), 2006', © Greg Girard, 2006

Even in 2005, when I was there, these remnants of the old city were vanishing fast. The pace of change in China is (or was, until recently) dizzying, and the Chinese have little interest in preserving what they see as the European city (Shanghai may have been the site of the most potent encounter between Europe and China, but it is also, for that very reason, seen by many Chinese as a symbol of the West’s exploitation of China: not for nothing were the towering buildings of Pudong built straing back across the river at the symbols of European power and wealth that dominate the Bund).

The process has created a city which is very much in flux. Buildings, streets, even whole neighbourhoods seem to vanish overnight, swept away without trace. The results can be startling, shocking, and just plain disconcerting: my partner and I often ate in a restaurant a few blocks from our home; a few weeks after we left a friend who’d eaten there with us was back in Shanghai, and he discovered that not only the restaurant was gone, but everything within a radius of a few hundred metres had also been demolished, apartment blocks already rising on the site.

'Fuzhou Lu Mailboxes, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

'Fuzhou Lu Mailboxes, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

One of the ironies of this process is that it is largely undocumented. Images of Shanghai tend to fall into one of two categories, seeking to capture either the gleaming modernity of the new China, or the elegance and mystery of Old Shanghai.

In a very real sense this is a reflection of a more profound double-vision that afflicts most Western interest in Shanghai. Whether in guidebooks or literature, Western eyes seem unable to see that there are other Shanghais lurking beneath the surface of the city, histories and realities laid down during the Occupation and the Cultural Revolution which exist alongside the more comfortable images of Old Shanghai’s glitter and decadence and New Shanghai’s shining skyscrapers and designer boutiques.

'600 Things, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

'600 Things, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

These questions are on my mind because I’ve been working on a non-fiction piece about the city, but they’ve also reminded me about the one book I’ve ever seen that seems to me to catch something of the accretive nature of Shanghai as a city, its sense of layered history, which is Greg Girard’s splendid Phantom Shanghai. The images in Greg’s book show a city in flux, a place where the past is being gradually wiped away, yet they also show the many, often enigmatic, traces its past has left. Somewhere – and it may be in Denton Welch’s marvelously strange Maiden Voyage, but I can’t find the reference – there’s a wonderful description of the way Chinese cities and towns often seem to be constructed out of detritus, repaired and repurposed, yet still resembling nothing so much as a conglomeration of offcasts and broken things, and there’s something of this in the images in Phantom Shanghai, as well as a sense of the almost surreal light of the city at night, the reflected glow of the pollution and the neon. But there’s also a sense of the ghostliness of the city, of the way its seems haunted by its past, and by the simultaneous closeness and irretrievability of that past.

With Greg Girard’s permission I’ve reproduced several images from the book in this post, and you can see more by visiting the Monte Clark Gallery website, or Greg Girard’s website (where you can also read William Gibson’s introduction) but I really do urge anyone with an interest in Shanghai to buy the book, – it’s a remarkable document of a city in transition, and of a world which is vanishing even as we speak.

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Beyond the break: On Surfing and Writing


Bondi Waiting, ©, 2008

Bondi Waiting, ©, 2008

While digging through my hard drive yesterday I came across the piece below. It’s a few years old now, and I think a rather different version of the same piece ran in Good Reading in 2004, but it seemed worth giving it an airing, not least because I so rarely find time to surf anymore, and I miss it so much.

Two or three times a week, twelve months of the year, I make my way to the beach with my brother and a small group of friends. Although the purpose of the trip is what we call “ocean time”, which is code for surfing, it is also about a sort of escape, not just from our work and from our day to day lives, but from the more controlled aspects of the selves we need to be to live those lives.

The result is a little like playing hooky: slightly overcharged and somehow suspended out of normality. It’s also almost exclusively male, and curiously, for something that is about escape, is itself highly ritualised. From the time-coded pick-ups to the arguments about which beaches we will check out to the perving on chicks these excursions conform to a script which varies only in its detail.

Explosion duckdive, Bondi  (courtesy

Explosion duckdive, Bondi, ©, 2008

How much the sense of escape is connected to the actual surfing I’m not sure. It may be that the surfing is merely a pretext for this behaviour, as shopping or golf or fishing clearly are for other people, at least in part. But although we all spend time together for other purposes, much of it also involving physical activity – running, gym, occasionally snorkelling or diving – none of these other expeditions have the same sense of excitement and freedom, either for me or the others.

I suspect most people conceive of writing – and people who write, with a few notable exceptions – as confined to a sphere which not just excludes the physical, but which actually exists in some sort of opposition to it. In fact the processes of writing, and of entering a space where it is possible to write, seem to me to be about a way of being which is almost seamlessly continuous with the life of the body.

Writing, at least the sort I’m interested in, is about communicating the nature of being. Despite its medium, it is a conversation between minds about aspects of existence – psychological, spiritual, emotional – which exist independent of language, and which are for the most part irreducible to mere words. It’s about making the apprehended but inexpressible communicable, about taking the pre-verbal and ineffable experience of emotion and passing that experience on to another. That mere words have this ability to transcend their own meanings, to offer us a glimpse of the mirrors that lie in the inner worlds of others is something we have all felt in that moment of recognition that comes when something we read or hear strikes us as somehow right or true, that sense a chord has been struck somewhere within us, its meanings neither simple nor easily explained.

Like music, any piece of writing has a shape and cadence of its own. It is about rhythms, in language, in character, in story. It is these rhythms that you seek when you write, for they are the contours you try and bring forth. What guides you is not the intellect, or at least not the conscious part of it, but something more intuitive. It is the sense that you are following a shape which somehow already exists, something not so much invented as implicit in the thing itself. Just as sculptors claim to see a shape within the uncarved stone, so the story seems to be already there, like a name half-forgotten which lingers on the tip of the tongue.

Understood like this the process of writing is more a kind of listening than anything, a quiet attendance to the thing. Like the shaping of objects with the hands, the turn of a pot upon a wheel or a lathe upon wood, it is a process in which the intrusion of the conscious mind is often a hindrance, for the important thing in trying to find these rhythms is not to try too hard, not to force it. To hear the rhythms in a thing, to let it happen, you must learn to let go of your intentions, to forget the self and just be.

Learning to do this is one of the hardest things about writing. When a book is near its end it usually has a kind of momentum, an effortlessness, as if some apex has been passed and now the run is downhill, but before that point it can be difficult to find the rhythms you are seeking. Forgetting the self and entering that state of flow is not something that can be just picked up and put down: it requires large spaces of time, room to think and tinker, or just to be.

But it’s not just a question of time. What is needed is a way of escaping the life you are immersed within, of connecting with those things which ground you and your work. Different people find this in different ways, but increasingly I have found it through the stolen time of surfing.

Surfers often talk about their sport in almost religious terms, and although I don’t have a lot of sympathy for much of the culture that surrounds surfing, this sense of the act as a kind of spiritual journey is one I understand very well. To leave the shore and swim out, through the break and over the back, is to feel yourself slip free of your moorings and give yourself to the elements. Although your conscious mind still matters, you enter a world where it is your physical existence that matters first and foremost, the movement of your body in the water, with the water.

Rays of Light, Bondi, ©, 2008

Rays of Light, Bondi, ©, 2008

Sometimes the rewards for this are no more than the joy of playing in the ocean, a simple pleasure in the act itself. But there are other times, most often in the last hour or so of dusk, when the beach is quiet and the sky has begun to fade, when it is far more. Then, as the ocean moves beneath you and the long feed of the clouds passes overhead it  possible to sense the presence of a meaning which lingers just out of reach. It is to do with time, and its depth, with the rhythm of the sky and the waves, the cry of the birds as they pass overhead. Apprehended not consciously but somewhere deeper, this meaning beats like the pulse of a heart, something always there but of which we are only occasionally aware; deep and ceaseless, it fills the fabric of the world until it trembles with its weight.

This sense of the world’s presence in its pieces, of its divinity is one which runs deep in my writing. But the knowledge of its existence grounds me in a more mundane way, binding me to the act of surfing, to the escape it offers. For in the loss of self that surfing demands, the submission of the conscious mind to the rhythms of the ocean, I find a sort of peace, a capacity to move and think freely, and ultimately, to attain the sort of equilibrium I need to write.

(The images on this page are provided courtesy of Eugene Tan at, whose daily email chronicle of the changing moods of Sydney’s beaches has been a bright point in my day for more years than I care to remember).

© James Bradley, 2009

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