“Lake King William was probably the first photograph I made, the first year I was here,” Stephenson says. “We both have quite a deep personal history with the catchment and that place in particular. Our project is the outcome of quite a long-term engagement, even beyond the six years we’ve been working together on the project.
“In America, I was photographing industrial structures in the environment and their relationship to some notion of wildness, or wilderness. One of the reasons I decided to come here was there was a lot of environmental controversy starting around the Franklin, and I was really interested in those value debates around so-called progress or development and how we retain values of wildness and natural environments. For me, Tasmania was a really interesting place to come in the early 1980s.” For Stephenson and Walch, the exhibition is the expression of a jointly shared, decades-long interest in the Derwent and Lake King William, which was created in 1950 when a 70m dam was built across the river.
“People take the Derwent for granted. We were interested in trying to show its dynamism and the variety of environments,” Walch says. “People tend to think the Derwent is whatever their personal connection is to it. So for some people it’s catching flatties in the estuary, for some it’s the upper headwaters where they go trout fishing, and for others it’s the hydro impoundments.”
Though The Derwent reveals the artists’ “deep attachment and affection” for Lake King William in particular, some of the most intriguing works are of the Derwent in Hobart and the ways it is used as a working port and for leisure. One of 12 fixed time-lapse cameras positioned at different parts of the river has captured the ebb and flow of life dockside in Hobart’s Hunter St precinct. We see the city’s birdlife, sailing boats and construction workers come and go.
“There are some really curious things,” Dr Knights says. “There are a few weeks when there are some birds that come every night and perch on top of the shed and then leave. You begin to see some of the seasonal changes. At different times of the year there are more sailing boats on the river. There are the everyday things like cars parking in car parks and sometimes festivals, lights in a shed and occasionally you see people. You see buildings being constructed and magnificent sunrises. Then you see quirky things, like the Mona ferry, which is often there ready to pick people up at midday. You will see repetitions in the way people live day by day in Hobart.”
Both men photographed Lake King William independently before collaborating on The Derwent. This monumental project began in 2010 as a small research project documenting the environment at Lake King William, at UTAS, where Walch and Stephenson have teaching positions. However, it morphed into something much more ambitious and complex when the pair won a $210,000 Australia Research Council grant, leveraging off the work they’d done together.
They aimed to use the Derwent as a study site to create immersive representations that dealt with change to the environment, which could be applied to other sites nationally and internationally. “Martin had done a lot of work in the Lake King William area, which is also a place I’d photographed quite a bit when I first moved to Tasmania in the 1980s,” Stephenson says. “We’d both spent a lot of time in the Lake St Clair and Central Highlands area and, in 2010, we just started talking and thought we should do a field trip up there and see if we could do something together that might not be possible for us to do individually.”
The research council Discovery Project grant upped the ante. The challenge became how to document and show the effects of time and change across an entire river system. This meant experimenting with new photographic and audiovisual equipment and techniques.
“Ours was the only visual-arts application successful in about four years in the whole of Australia,” Walch says. “We thought we’d bitten off a lot and we’ve got to chew it and produce something really worthy of it. The pressure was on. We had to deliver.” What began as a plan to capture panoramic video footage of a special place, shot with four cameras from a small watercraft, took on a life of its own, infiltrating all aspects of the artists’ lives. The bush and boat expeditions would mostly start before sunrise with a cup of coffee after the pair camped overnight in the bush.
“We’d often be on the water before the sun came up,” Stephenson says. “We needed to stay really still on an unstable boat so we could get really smooth footage and so my memories are of these 15-minute video takes where we are both sitting there breathing really calmly, not speaking, just meditating basically and trying not to move the boat at all.”
Walch has fond memories of the boat trips. “There would be a rush of activity where we’d set the levels and work out where our bodies should be in relation to the boat’s centre line,” he says. “We’d get all the cameras ready to go, press the buttons for on and then there’d just be intense quiet, and just absorbing what was going on around us. We’d be drifting and spinning, just letting the boat go wherever it was being pushed.”
The resulting videos, shown on a 70-minute loop at TMAG, are breathtaking. Viewers experience the serenity, birdsong and beauty of the Derwent’s upper reaches as though they’re on the water with Walch and Stephenson. The loop is in the third of three galleries, which contain the multifarious elements of their work.
The other two galleries highlight innovative techniques the pair developed to represent environmental changes over an entire waterway. Gallery One contains video footage of parts of the Derwent, created by splicing together photographs taken by the fixed time-lapse cameras over two years. The second gallery presents the same photographs in a matrix-like grid form, which shows seasonal and environmental changes to the Derwent over time.
“We began by shooting panoramic video with four cameras in small watercraft and moving through the environment, and we realised we needed a counterpoint to that structure, so we set up about 12 fixed time-lapse cameras all across the watershed, from the headwaters to the estuary,” Walch says.