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Ian North



Works chronology  
1971 felicia canberra earlierwork haven adelaidesuite southernocean antarctica fleurieu  

A few years ago I found a little yellow Kodak box with ten 35mm Ektachrome slides in it. Their cardboard mounts were carefully inscribed with their date, 1971, the year I emigrated to Australia. The photographs were about discovering a new country, and a new city, Adelaide.

Most of the slides show telegraph poles reaching above suburban roofs into big, cloudy skies, while others suggest their wider context. Telegraph poles had featured in my photography since the early 1960s, when they book-ended visual relationships forming and reforming around me as I urged my motorbike on between the grey skies and streets of Wellington. Poles, clouds and suburban streets also appeared frequently in my work in the 1970s, for example in those photographs collected as the Felicia Portfolio 1973-1978.

The latter work was in black and white, the norm for serious photography until well into the 1970s. I was to adopt colour negative film as my principal medium in 1979. Be that as it may, not long after arriving in Australia, I recall saying to a friend, the painter Christian Clare Robertson, that I wished someone would load my camera with colour film without telling me. I imagined that this would allow me to photograph in colour unselfconsciously, as part of a cultural shift to nominate more and more of the world­ for art. I had long forgotten about this little cache, which came to light in an overdue cleanup. It was as if someone had carried out my wish. 

- Ian North, 12 March 2016

East Antarctica, 2015

Ian North, East Antarctica 1915

‘There are twelve images in this show, each about 55 x 150 cm. They are inkjet prints of East Antarctica, the remotest part. I took them in 2012, on a voyage commemorating the centenary of Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctica Expedition (AAE). I used film, the negatives of which were digitally printed. I drew on the prints with the simplest and most basic of media, charcoal (unforgiving though, on the soft art paper I used). One work is left pristine, paused as it were.

You might be able to tell me what they are all about. Clearly they play fast and loose with scale, and hence meaning. Sure, the heroic age of Antarctic exploration and World War One overlapped, if not as literally as depicted here. Then of course there is melting, gravity, entropy and the operations of nature. Someone I showed these works to spoke of an over-riding sense of crisis. Maybe that is to say enough.’

– Ian North: extract from a letter to a friend, 17 February 2015

Southern Ocean off Snares Island, 2012

Artist statement

Allan Sekula asserted some years ago that the sea was no longer available as a metaphor for the sublime, a view itself that now seems out of date. We may be trashing the oceans and asserting our power in undermining pre-modern or romantic conceptions of the sea, but, setting irony aside, never before has awe before nature been such an important stimulus to strategies for our survival. On the high seas one may experience the ocean as primordial—hence Conrad:

If you would know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a storm. The grayness of the whole immense surface, the wind furrows upon the faces of the waves, the great masses of foam, tossed about and waving, like matted white locks, give to the sea in a gale an appearance of hoary age …

Most of the world’s trade is conducted by container ships, blunt instruments of globalism. These vessels are seemingly facing worse storms than hitherto, while island nations like Kiribati—a source of cheap labour for the container trade— contend with inundation. Meanwhile our culture jitters with what David Denby terms the Western Disease: the need to keep moving for fear of seduction by lotus-eaters, a weather eye out, increasingly, for typhoons
Haven, 2001

I propose this clutch of photographs as a celebration of pastoral beauty and as a provocation. They are produced, for authenticity, by entirely analogue means (film, chemicals, hand printing). I took the images in 2001 while on a mid-winter residency at Bundanon, the rural estate on the Shoalhaven River, New South Wales, which Arthur Boyd left to the nation. In 1968 Stanley Kubrick visualised an astronaut traversing a so-called stargate in his movie 2001. The latter year that also saw, a month or two after my residency, the most horrifically audacious terror attacks in history. Against such imaginative feats, virtual and real, Bundanon’s enclave of farm, bush and river seems a haven indeed.

When living there I found myself, willy-nilly, channelling the photographic likes of John B. Eaton, a farmer-pictorialist of the 1930s. Postcolonial anomalies were, not surprisingly, everywhere present in the flora and fauna, emblems of a world ever threatening the Bundanon bubble. There is no way back to the garden unscathed. I met on Bundanon’s staff a refugee from naval service during the first Gulf War. He had been shocked by the spectacle of American missile barrages directed against Iraq. My one excursion to the outer world during my residency took me to the University of Sydney to hear Slavoj Žižek, palpably agitated in his search for future free of capitalism’s depredations.

Such things are circumstantial and coincidental—every age has its attendant dramas and disasters, every artefact its shifting, modifying context. I adventitiously experienced intensities of beauty at Bundanon that were (of course) tied to the particularities of the place as well as wider cultural traditions of sanctuary and transcendence. What price the resultant propositions? Among other things I see them as teasing the edge of convention, a fine line to walk. As Stephen Bann once observed (about the sculptural gardens of the Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay), a retreat can also be an attack.

Ian North 2013

Canberra Suite, 1980-81

Ian North recently showed me some photographs he’d taken as a young man while he was still living in Wellington, New Zealand. They are streetscapes shot from a motorbike in 1963, before he emigrated to Australia in 1971 – simple images, black and white snapshots with little white borders, the kind that used to be returned by the local chemist. These photographs, now dog-eared and marked by the patina of age, were taken as an aid for his painting. Several of the images are sellotaped together to form crude panoramas, others include diagrammatic lines or indicate the colours of the buildings. They are record shots, descriptive and artless. Nevertheless, they reveal North’s nascent interest – aged only eighteen – in landscape, and photography’s potential role as a medium to encounter and understand it.

In the 1970s, North produced a private body of 35mm black and white streetscapes while working as Curator of Paintings at the Art Gallery of South Australia. His landscape explorations seemed to peak, however, in the mid-1980s, ultimately leading to the series of ‘pseudo-panorama’ photo-paintings for which he became well known. In between, while working in Canberra, he produced a major body of colour photographs, The Canberra Suite (1980-1). They are images of houses, roads, trees, fences, telephone wires, construction sites, grassy fields viewed from the highway, nearly all with an expanse of light blue skies. Hardly the ‘ideal city’ of Walter Burley Griffin’s orderly design, but images of apparently harmonic human intervention nonetheless. These are eloquent pictures, which for a variety of reasons did not see the light of day at the time (the principal one being the artist’s decision not to exhibit while he working as the first Curator of Photography at the Australian National Gallery, then poised to open. ) To non-residents of Canberra, they could almost have been taken today; only the occasional parked car instantly reveals their temporal otherness.

In the evenings, after work at the Gallery, and especially on the weekends, North felt impelled to wander around the suburbs of Canberra with his camera. But the Canberra he shows us is strangely absent of life. This is one of the first things we notice about these photographs, their loneliness. There are no people, just houses, roads, fences and all the other signs of human habitation in the landscape. It is almost eerie, even post-apocalyptic in its depopulated calm. An image with an overflown drain, where water has spilled out across the road, suddenly takes on a kind of forensic drama. North was clearly attempting to respond directly to the details of the Canberra landscape through the lens. Subsequently, a further point about the images is just how banal most of them are. They are not ‘interesting’ or ‘well-composed’ pictures in the ordinary sense of the term. There are no obvious decisive moments or significant details. Rather, they initially resemble the photographs that might have been taken for local real estate firms, or for official land use surveying.

Isolated from the series, these photographs don’t seem to make much sense. They are plainly meant to be viewed as a set. The term ‘suite’ suggests as much: a suite is a set of things belonging together, whether a sofa and chairs of the same design or a group of instrumental compositions to be played in succession. North’s aspirations toward a set of photographs embodies both the encyclopaedic ambitions of photography, inherited from the nineteenth century, as well as formal desires for repetition and its effects of multiplication, difference and similarity. As the curator Kate Rhodes has written, viewed en masse, as a series, “North’s images begin to look like a map”. I am reminded of Roland Barthes’ aphorism that “a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot brings one back to it.”

In many respects, North’s images are highly prescient of much photography produced by artists in Australia today. His exploration of the nature/culture interface and attention to the human use of ordinary space – not to mention the work’s serial, accumulative character, and emotional ambivalence – feels decidedly contemporary. Contemporary photography, where it’s not literally performative, often evokes a similarly aestheticised quasi-anthropological methodology. However, three of The Canberra Suite’s striking formal qualities – the attraction to the vernacular, the apparent ‘objectivity’ or knowing restraint of the author function, and the use of colour – have a complex genesis in international and Australian photography of the 1960s and 1970s.

Consider North’s apparent repression of the artists’ subjectivity. In the wake of the revival of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), as practised by the Bechers and their students Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer and others, this trait is closely associated with German photography. But the American photographer Walker Evans was its most articulate artist-theorist; from the 1930s he aspired to Gustave Flaubert’s literary style, which he described as “the non-appearance of the author”. Another important figure here is Ed Ruscha, whose 1960s’ photobooks, beginning with Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), presented exactly what their titles indicated. Rhodes also observes that North’s images resemble “a series of mediated ‘postcards’ from the capital”. Indeed, postcards are an exemplary form of objective photography, seemingly without an authorial voice (it is no accident that Evans was one of the first photographers to systematically collect them and admire their style).

North’s use and command of colour in 1980 is significant. At this time, colour was still marginal to serious Australian photography, which was dominated by fine art black and white. Few art photographers used colour, because it was considered too commercial and hence vulgar, not to mention unstable and difficult. Colour photography did not become commonplace in Australia until postmodernism became the privileged style, with figures like Julie Rrap and Anne Zahalka, around 1984. The exceptions to this are significant, however. Robert Rooney and Wes Stacey both experimented with colour snapshots in the 1970s, which they used as part of conceptual projects, in which an idea or system would generate a body of images. Rooney’s Holden Park: 1 & 2 May, 1970 (1970) is the classic example (and he was directly influenced by Ruscha). Although not finally printed until c.1984, North's images are certainly among the first instances of larger format colour art photography in Australia, if they were not indeed the first. North used colour not because it is vulgar – he slavishly handprinted them – but because it is more descriptive: colour photography is more literal and less nostalgic than black and white. And it is also, of course, closer to landscape painting.

Once again, there is an international context for the use of colour photography. The founding instance of this was William Eggleston’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, the first one-person show of colour photography at that powerful institution. Together with the accompanying catalogue, William Eggleston’s Guide, it represented the apotheosis and rupture of curator John Szarkowski’s popular brand of photographic modernism – his interest in the everyday and the anecdotal, the expressive possibilities of the detail, of visual experience ordered by the camera. Other North American photographers, notably Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz, engaged in similar ideas on a grander scale, as part of the ‘New Topographic’ tradition epitomised by the black and white work of Robert Adams, Joe Deal and Lewis Baltz. In the catalogue for the influential 1975 exhibition New Topographics, curator William Jenkins explains that his use of the word ‘topography’ refers to its original meaning: “The detailed and accurate description of a particular place, city, town, district, state, parish, or tract of land.” Such exhibitions were crucial in the formation of the contemporary German aesthetic, not least because the Bechers were included among them. Indeed, recent years have witnessed a quite staggering resurgence of interest in 1970s American photography, and especially ‘the color tradition’, as it has become known.

As a curator, North would have been aware of much of this work when he was producing the Canberra Suite. But none of this photographic literacy is to suggest that his work is simply derivative. In fact, on the contrary, North’s work is quite singular. Its most direct origins lie in his Wellington snapshots and black and white streetscapes of the 1970s. Despite its ambiguous and cold exterior, his topography is emotionally felt. His attention to Canberra’s particular spaces, and flora in particular, evokes a form of transcendent experience associated with the wilderness photography of Ansel Adams. This stems largely, I think, from a focus on the particularities of place, the brilliance of the clear sunshine on foliage and the condensation of the natural and the artificial in suburbia. But Robert Adams is the more pertinent link, who inspired North “for his realisation of radiant light overarching both nature and human banality alike”.

Whether intentionally or not, the photographs of grasslands – which contrast with the otherwise European-looking landscapes – also evoke the vegetation in Canberra prior to white settlement. As the author of a 1962 study Trees in Canberra points out (which I stumbled across but almost suspect North might have read) the great bulk of the Canberra plains, including the city centre, was naturally tree-less grassland. This formed an area very suitable for grazing, which commenced with the introduction of sheep in the 1820s. Indeed, European settlement in Australia has always been associated with tree planting; thus, the planting of non-native trees and shrubs was accepted as one of the “necessities of the design” of the national capital, and several million have been planted in the city area. North’s photographs illustrate Canberra’s great variety of deciduous trees and conifers compared to warmer Australian cities. In this way, a quarter of a century since they were originally conceived, his austerely romantic images can also be read as an ambivalent archaeology of colonialism.

Isolation and absence have long been national Australian myths, extending from the ‘empty interior’ to the modern cities. For evidence, we need look no further than cinema; to the deserted boulevards of Melbourne at the finale of Stanley Kramer’s doomsday film, On the Beach (1959), or the brilliantly estranging streets of suburban Sydney in Clara Law’s Floating Life (1996). Canberra, perhaps more than any other city, is ripe for North’s manifestly surrealist investigation of such emptiness. His images exaggerate a sense of ‘out of placeness’ coexisting with the city’s ordinariness. Canberra, in these photographs, is a solitary and even forlorn place. But more than this, the photographs are artefacts of North’s private wanderings and his concentrated and systematic looking. His camera, that most mechanical recording instrument, has traced something quite ineffable, an affective encounter – something that the prints, in their apparent artlessness, simultaneously reveal and conceal for contemporary viewers.

Dr Daniel Palmer is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Art & Design at Monash University.

Felicia, 1973

Felicia, 1973 [exhibited in Heartland at Art Gallery of South Australia 2014]

In using the word ‘felicia’ (happiness) for this portfolio I am taking after the reforming premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan, who employed it as the title of his memoirs. His principal period in government, the much-fêted ‘Dunstan decade’, spanned the years in which I took these photographs. Dunstan had in turn adopted the term from the English moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who proposed it as a name for an ideal colony to early-nineteenth-century promoters of a planned settlement in South Australia.

—Ian North, 2011

I have heard a very particular sound here (which I have similarly heard in Perth and in various other far-flung locations around Australia) which might be deciphered as the sound of isolation, manifesting in a strange melancholy beauty which at times envelops everything here in the great south … art is and can be made here [in Adelaide] from endless layers of inexplicable low humming anxiety. Perhaps those that feel this anxiety most deeply are the ones that have made their way here from elsewhere. Outsiders (but is not that all of us?) redemptively mark time by making a space (perhaps a negative space; perhaps even a void) in which the ever-present Adelaide silence may be heard rising from the micro-grids of suburban streets, trapped between the twin macro-expanses of southern ocean and inland desert.

—Domenico de Clario, 2011

[essays should not be reproduced without permission from the authors]









Born Aotearoa / New Zealand
Arrived in Australia
  Art museum director/curator to academic to independent artist
Currently Adjunct Professor, University of Adelaide
2015 East Antarctica 1915, GAGPROJECTS, Adelaide
2013 Haven 2001, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
Felicia, South Australia 1973 - 78, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney
2010 Adelaide Suite, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
Ian North Photographs 1974 - 2009, Art Gallery of South Australia
2009 Sail Away, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
2006 Symptoms, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
2005 Canberra Suite & Canberra Coda (1980-81), Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
2004 Sail Away, Apartment, Melbourne
1998 Vault (with Helen Fuller), Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide
1997 Correlations, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
1992 Home & Away, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
1990 Manifest Destiny, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
1988 Pseudo Panoramas, Cazneaux series, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
1987 Seasons, Pseudo Panoramas, Australia, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney
1986 Seasons, Pseudo Panoramas, Contemporary Art Centre, Adelaide
2016 Anything at all, Adelaide Central School of Art Gallery
Great Southern Land, Adelaide Airport
Public Image, Private Lives: Family, Friends and Self in Photography, Art Gallery of South Australia
2016 Fleurieu Art Prize, Anne and Gordon Samstag Museum, UniSA, Adelaide
2015 CACSA Contemporary 2015, Contemporary Art Centre of SA, Adelaide
Urban Suburban, Canberra Museum and Gallery, Canberra
2014 The Extreme Climate of Nicholas Folland, Art Gallery of South Australia
The Road. Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne
Panorama. Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth
2013 Heartland, Art Gallery of South Australia
2012 CACSA @ 70: Member's Exhibitions 1 & 2, Contemporary Art Centre, Adelaide
Daya / Kindness, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi; RMIT Gallery, Melbourne
2011 Photography & Place: approaches to Auatralian Landscape Photography 1970s until now, Art Gallery of New South Wales
2010 The New New. CACSA Contemporary 2010, SASA Gallery, Adelaide
Painthing, Australian Experimental Art Foundation
2009 Dystopia: portraits of the urban landscape, Adelaide Central Gallery
2007 True Portraits, Adelaide Central Gallery
2006 Fleurieu Penninsula Biennale, Finalists' exhibition
The Ability to Lie, Horsham Regional Art Gallery
2005 Archibald Prize, Finalists' exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales
2004 Good Looking, National Gallery of Victoria
2002 Arid Arcadia, Art Gallery of South Australia
2001 Seeing Through Landscape, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney
2000 Chemistry, Art Gallery of South Australia
1998 The Painted Coast, Art Gallery of South Australia
1997 Painted Realities: hand-coloured photographs from 1839 to the present, University of Wyoming & US tour
1996 Colonial/Postcolonial, Museum of Modern Art, Heide
1992 Location, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, and Asia tour
Southern Crossings / Empty Land, Camerawork Gallery, London and tour
1991 Fertile Ground, Artworks Gallery, Griffith University
1988 Stories of Australian Art, Commonwealth Institute, London
South Australia Rephotographed, Collage Gallery, Adelaide
2005 The World is All that is Not the Case, Department of Philosophy, University of Melbourne
2000 The Intelligence of Blood. Department of Surgery, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Adelaide
1996 The Olive Plantation. Art Gallery of South Australia
Bolton, Ken, ‘“Maintain the Buzz”¬– Lenin’. FORMGUIDE, Australian Experimental Art Foundation
Bullock, Natasha, ‘Time–Memory–Place’, in Judy Annear (ed.), Photography: Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection, Sydney: Art Gallery of NSW, 2007
pp. 290, 300
De-Almeida, Pedro, Ian North: Felicia: South Australia 1973-1978. Sydney: Australian Centre for Photography, 2013 (includes Pedro de Almeida, ‘ “Just allowing it to be” ’, a conversation with Ian North’, pp. 7–18).
Galstyan, Vigan, ‘Ian North’, in Judy Annear. Photography & Place: approaches to Australian Landscape Photography 1970s until Now. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2011, n.p.
Geczy, Adam, ‘Ian North and the Anti-Picturesque’, Eyeline #71 (2011), pp. 36–40
Geczy, Adam, ‘Sail Away: Ian North’, Artlink vol 29 #3, 2009, p. 92
Marsh, Anne, Look: Contemporary Australian Photography since 1980. Melbourne: MacMillan, 2010, pp. 202-203, 267, 337
Palmer, Daniel, ‘Ian North: Canberra Suite (with Coda)’ in Ian North: Canberra Suite and Coda, 1980–81 (Adelaide: Greenaway Art Gallery, 2005)
Thomas, Sarah. Chemistry: Art in South Australia 1990-2000: The Faulding Exhibition, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2000
Zagala, Maria. ‘Truth in restraint: the art of Ian North’, Art & Australia, Vol. 50 no.1 (Spring, 2012). pp. 138-145.
Adelaide Festival Centre; Artbank, Sydney; Art Gallery of New South Wales; Art Gallery of South Australia; Canberra Museum and Gallery; Flinders University of South Australia Art Museum; Griffith University, Brisbane; Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Victoria; Parliament House, Canberra; Canberra Museum and Gallery; Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Adelaide; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston; Riddoch Gallery, Mount Gambier