Ian North: the quality of sprawl

Ian North,  Canberra Suite no. 2  (1980),  type-c photograph, 37.0 x 45.7 cm. Courtesy the artist and Greenaway Gallery, Adelaide.

Ian North, Canberra Suite no. 2 (1980), type-c photograph, 37.0 x 45.7 cm. Courtesy the artist and Greenaway Gallery, Adelaide.

Ian North’s Canberra Suite (1980–1981) and Adelaide Suite (2008–2009), two distinct yet related photographic series, remind us that, as Charles Green put it in his revisionist contribution to What Is This Thing Called Photography? Australian Photography 19751985, an exhibition presented by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1999, ‘photographic history without non-photographers is massively incomplete and impoverished’. Non-photographers, in this sense, does not refer to those who don’t actually make pictures, but anyone who might be labelled with the loaded terms ‘amateur’ or ‘artist using photography’, or any number of types in between. Irrespective of the endless qualifications and jockeying for position so familiar with this territory, the story of the camera arts delights in the rediscovery of secret histories. When bodies of work prescient in vision, revelatory in symbolic content, yet hitherto underappreciated appear before us fully formed, we are reminded that history is contingent on happenstances of hindsight. More often than not it is personal modesty, professional compromise, or the indignant neglect of chance that blinds otherwise hungry eyes.

Like Green, today Ian North is a highly respected artist, curator, historian, scholar, teacher, critic, and writer, a variety of professional hats that a younger generation certainly takes for granted. But finding himself in Canberra in 1980 as the foundation Curator of Photography at the Australian National Gallery (now National Gallery of Australia), North grappled with a pervading ambivalence towards the proposition that a curator might create his own art. ‘There was an ethical concern from both myself and the Gallery’s senior staff at the time that discouraged curators from making art, much less exhibiting it,' says North. When not otherwise seeking to acquire photographs during work hours, North stalked the streets of suburbs like Narrabundah—fittingly named after a Ngunnawal word meaning ‘bird of prey'—returning home to edit and hand print his findings, a process that today must be recognised as most probably one of the first examples of large-scale colour photography in Australian art history. ‘The Canberra Suite arose free of preconceptions; one might go for a stroll to the shops for some milk and return with three of four exposed rolls of film, at other times I would just head out and walk, endlessly, feeling like I was entering some kind of mythical realm,' recalls North.

North fell for colour as early as c. 1975 when he acquired an example of William Eggelston’s fabled dye-transfer prints, Hunstville, Alabama (1971), from a gallery in Melbourne. North then travelled to the U.S. in 1976 where he was able to see the work of Stephen Shore and Nicholas Nixon. ‘By the time I arrived in Canberra I was conscious of the influence of the “New Topographic” work in the American scene,' recalls North, referring to the rich seam of photographic investigation of the man-altered landscape which still carries forceful influence today. Assessed against his Australian contemporaries, North’s streetscapes and industrial sites are purposefully more artless than the documentary surrealism of Ian Dodd, Gerrit Fokkema and Mark Johnson; lack the emphatic visual rigour of Grant Mudford and Steven Lojewski; much less the extroverted conceptualism of Robert Rooney and Geoff Kleem. Indeed, North’s eye is paradoxically formally informal and self-evidently reticent.

Lest the Canberra Suite be mistaken for being mechanically objective, however, North’s compositions and succinct editing recall the humour and poetic contrast of the clarity of a thing’s definition with its negative image in Les Murray’s The Quality of Sprawl, a masterful example of the poet’s playfulness in semantic appraisal. For Murray, ‘sprawl’ is the grasp that exceeds conventional reach, but never exceedingly so; ambition without harm, abundance without surplus, contest without spleen. ‘Sprawl lengthens the legs,' says Murray, as it must have North’s in pursuit of that which stirred him. Not for North the inadequate descriptive of the flâneur—never a convincing sensibility in antipodean cities—but instead a prosaically eerie stroll into the mythical realm: Voss in suburbia. It’s this conflation of striving with modesty that one recognises in both North’s landscapes and method. His recent Adelaide Suite presents panoramas of domiciles whose Colorbond fencing traces a contiguous line from image to image, interrupted by inadvertent public sculpture (courtesy Synergy Gas cylinders) and the beauty parlours of home improvement (the ubiquitous Bunnings). In North’s Adelaide we see the banality of suburban transition—the ‘make do’ giving way to the ‘aspirational’—under skies of cumulus with the compositional balance of Constable, and stratus whose isotopic glow could have been lit by Turner. Perhaps the things do have sprawl.

Published in Artist Profile, no. 14, February 2011, Glenn Barkley (guest editor), pp. 114-115.

© Pedro de Almeida 2011.