Mercury (Hobart) - Magazine - - COVER STORY -

“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.

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