How landscape photographers reinvented the colonial project in Australia

Beautiful, Available, and Empty: How Landscape Photographers Reinvented the Colonial Project in Australia

In the vast and diverse landscape of Australia, the intersection of photography and colonialism has played a significant role in shaping perceptions, narratives, and power dynamics. Landscape photography, with its ability to capture and disseminate images of land, has been instrumental in perpetuating the myth of Australia as a “terra nullius” – a land that was supposedly empty and available for colonial expansion. This essay explores how landscape photographers contributed to the reinvention of the colonial project in Australia, shaping attitudes towards the land and its Indigenous inhabitants.

The notion of Australia as a “land of opportunity” was heavily promoted by colonial powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Landscape photography played a crucial role in this narrative by presenting images of seemingly untouched landscapes, emphasizing their beauty and potential for exploitation. Photographers often focused on capturing grand vistas, majestic mountains, and pristine coastlines, portraying an idealized version of the Australian landscape that aligned with colonial aspirations.

One of the most renowned landscape photographers of this period was Francis J. Mortimer. Mortimer’s images, characterized by their sublime landscapes and meticulous composition, epitomized the romanticized view of Australia as a land of endless possibilities. His photographs, widely circulated in colonial publications and exhibitions, helped to cement the image of Australia as a “new Eden” – a fertile land waiting to be tamed and developed by European settlers.

However, behind the aesthetic allure of these images lay a darker reality – the erasure of Indigenous presence and the violent dispossession of Aboriginal lands. By portraying Australia as “empty” and “available,” landscape photographers effectively erased thousands of years of Indigenous stewardship and connection to the land. This erasure not only justified colonial expansion but also perpetuated harmful stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as “primitive” and “backward.”

One of the key techniques employed by landscape photographers to reinforce the narrative of emptiness was the strategic framing and cropping of their images. By carefully excluding any signs of Indigenous habitation or cultivation, photographers created an illusion of pristine wilderness untouched by human hands. This deliberate manipulation of the visual landscape helped to reinforce the colonial myth of terra nullius, legitimizing the seizure of Indigenous lands without acknowledgment or compensation.

Furthermore, the romanticization of the Australian landscape in photography served to exoticize and commodify Indigenous culture for the consumption of colonial audiences. Images of Aboriginal people were often staged and curated to fit preconceived notions of the “noble savage” or the “vanishing race,” reinforcing the idea of Indigenous people as relics of a bygone era rather than living, vibrant communities with ongoing connections to the land.

Despite the pervasive influence of colonial ideology in landscape photography, there were also photographers who sought to challenge and subvert dominant narratives. One such figure was Olive Cotton, whose hauntingly beautiful images of the Australian outback captured the stark beauty of the landscape while also acknowledging its complex history and Indigenous heritage. Through her work, Cotton aimed to disrupt the colonial gaze and highlight the resilience and strength of Indigenous cultures in the face of ongoing marginalization and dispossession.

In conclusion, landscape photography played a pivotal role in reinventing the colonial project in Australia by perpetuating the myth of terra nullius and erasing Indigenous presence from the visual landscape. By presenting images of Australia as beautiful, available, and empty, photographers contributed to the normalization of colonial expansion and the dispossession of Indigenous lands. However, despite its complicity in colonialism, landscape photography also has the potential to challenge dominant narratives and amplify Indigenous voices, offering new ways of seeing and understanding the Australian landscape.

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