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.