When photographed right, the images transcend the geography.
While the great majority of Australians live close to the ocean, it is the daunting immensity of the hot dry centre of the island continent that lies – literally and metaphorically – at the heart of the country. Every year from 2003 to 2010, Murray Fredericks camped alone for five or more weeks in the vast bed of Lake Eyre. With a surface area approaching ten thousand square kilometres and dry for most of the year, the lake bed is encrusted with salt deposits left as the waters evaporate after the rainy season. These salt formations add a strange unearthly beauty to an already awe-inspiring expanse of trackless land.
Flat, featureless and seemingly infinite, the region provides a dramatic minimalist landscape of shifting colours and tones defined by one constant feature, the knife-edge of the horizon that slices the division between earth and sky. It is a place of great peace and significant danger; a place of meditation, of heightened sensual experience and of the immediacy of life; a place of profound possibility and of ever-present peril.
In 2010, in his search for other landscapes that share these powerful, if austere, qualities he began a new photographic project on the opposite side of the globe, camped on the desolate, windswept ice sheet of Greenland. And here he discovered more than just a magnificent natural landscape… It was to be a discovery that evolved his work into new expressions of his central concern, which is to better understand the nature of place beyond the familiar visual vocabulary of the picturesque.
Talking with Murray Fredericks, one soon comes to understand that his images are testament to more than just a highly sophisticated set of image-making skills. It is in his unquenchable desire to pursue a greater conceptual understanding of space as place and his willingness to open wide to the emotional rhythms as climate and geography create their ever-changing counterpoint that bring to his images that most elusive quality of transcendence.
You made your name photographing the landscapes of central Australia, but your latest project is set in Greenland. What took you north?
The link between both projects is the visual quality of the landscape. I was looking for a location that was flat and featureless, bounded by a perfectly sharp horizon in every direction. There are not many locations like that on the planet … the Greenland ice sheet is one of them.
Many landscape photographers seek out the picturesque, with the charming interplay of natural shapes and the relative perspectives of near and far? Why are you drawn to such empty environments?
The literal representation of the picturesque landscape is just too familiar and the cliché becomes a barrier to real engagement. The viewer simply recognises the scene and moves on. In contrast, these empty, flat locations resist easy quantification. They are, in many ways, already on the path to abstraction.
Thinking in terms of art movements: Minimalism encourages us to feel strong emotional responses to tiny fluctuations in harmony (in music) or line and hue (in visual art).
This is also very true … I align my approach and rationale more with the artists and the art history of Minimalism that any other. However, I do have a more subjective approach, working more emotionally than the artists of High Minimalism. Apparently, this would make me a Post-Minimalist … But yes, when you remove distraction (visual and emotional) the tiniest fluctuations become highly significant and powerful. Just a gradation through a simple hue can hold an image when done right: for example ‘Salt 129’.
[Left] © Murray Fredericks ‘Salt #129’ 2006
[Right] © Murray Fredericks ‘Ice Sheet #5133’ 2013
How do you prepare for projects like Lake Eyre in Australia and the ice sheet in Greenland – mentally and practically?
There is no mental preparation at all. In fact, there is such a crescendo leading up to the departure date that stress becomes the dominant experience. Getting on and off the ice sheet, however, always involves days waiting for weather to clear and for runways to be free of snow and ice. I usually look forward to those delays as a time to rest up, to check all the equipment and to think about the work. Driving to Lake Eyre was three days alone in the car, and this had a similar effect – slowing the mind.
Practical preparation is always intense. There is always a mountain of photographic equipment to purchase and test; power, computers, clothing, camping, food items to organise. All have to be packed in waterproof and condensation-proof systems. All have to work in the cold. I mostly pay for these trips myself and the Greenland ones are extremely expensive. So, I am also working very hard commercially (I shoot architecture professionally) to earn money for these trips and to make sure my family’s finances are under control while I am away…
Left] © Murray Fredericks ‘Salt #199’ 2007
[Right] © Murray Fredericks ‘Ice Sheet #5649’ 2013
What did you discover in Greenland?
I discovered that it is much harder to work in Greenland than in Central Australia! The quest for adventure has never been a driving force for my practice, yet working on the ice sheet was, at times, high adventure. That was a problem, because it is crucial to this work that I am able to relax into the space, and for the first half of the project this proved impossible.
Something else we found were DYE2 and DYE3. They were a great discovery!
What are DYE2 and DYE3?
They are nuclear missile detection stations from the Cold-War era; now abandoned. They were part of the Distant Early Warning Line (called the DEW line), which was part of the advanced missile detection systems operated by the USA at the time. By 1989, the function of monitoring the skies for nuclear attack was being performed by satellites, but there was a lack of political will to shut down the DEW Line. However, around that time it was found that DYE2 was structurally unsound and would require major engineering work to make it safe. The company insuring the workers inside that station said that because of those structural faults, it would no longer cover the workers. The personnel were ordered to evacuate the facility immediately.
What is it about these facilities that engaged you so strongly?
To me, each is a perfect intersection of humankind and landscape, of place and space. Apart from the architecture itself, the buildings act as a repository of political, cultural and personal memory and the men and women who inhabited them. The buildings were vacated suddenly and many personal items remain there twenty-five years later, decaying but effectively intact.
I was fascinated by how the people who had been working on these stations domesticated the space; made themselves comfortable. And now, the way in which the traces of those activities remains frozen in time, decaying… Perhaps the place is slowly returning to become a non-place again?
[Left] © Murray Fredericks ‘DYE2, Interior #1, Radome Control’ 2013 from the series ‘Topophilia’
[Right] © Murray Fredericks ‘DYE2, Interior #3 Bar’ 2013 from the series ‘Topophilia’
The shift from photographing featureless landscapes to documenting the technological and domestic facilities of the DYE seems like a change of direction.
I don’t consider it so. The fundamental subject of my work to date had been the impression of space, which is essentially cultural. The conceptual partner of space is place, and place is something that is made out of space through the actions of people – wherever human activity occurs and memory is created. For me, these radar stations are the perfect intersection of place and space. Conceptually, working with these stations seems to me a natural progression.
The motivation for human beings to create place out of undifferentiated space is known as topophilia (literally: love of place) and the title of this body of work is now ‘Topophilia’…
[Left] © Murray Fredericks ‘DYE2, Interior #4, Bedroom’ 2013 from the series ‘Topophilia’
[Right] © Murray Fredericks ‘DYE2, Interior #5, Bedroom’ 2013 from the series ‘Topophilia’
Your trips to Lake Eyre were made alone. Did you also travel solo in Greenland?
The initial visit was alone and it proved so physically and emotionally demanding that it was impossible to find the kind of calm reflective state I need to make the work. The whole trip was prolonged low-level panic and exhaustion. So, for all subsequent trips I brought along someone who could look after the camp, melt snow for water, do the cooking and someone who could be relied upon for direction if a big storm hit … This freed me up both physically and mentally for the photography. On trips four and five the director of the film crew also came along and on trip four we crossed the icecap by dogsled so there were also two dog drivers and forty dogs!
Did the new location change the way you made the pictures?
Firstly, I realised that what I was looking for only really happened in certain seasons; the transitional periods of spring and autumn. I also worked out that, unlike central Australia where it felt right to have the camera at about shoulder height from the ground, the ice sheet was better understood from about ten to twenty metres above the ground and this was only possible standing on the radar stations. So seasonal timing and exact location became essential … but it took five trips and an enormous investment of resources to discover this. On a technical level, I also learnt that film was too difficult to work with in the Greenland environment, so I opted for large format digital.
So, how did this begin? What drew you to the Australian desert in the first place?
The pursuit of an experience of space as a concept. I wanted to see if I could convey my emotional experience of emptiness in a photograph, using the landscape as medium. I felt that the traditional geographic elements of a landscape – mountains, rivers, glaciers, forests and so on – are too familiar to the viewer as symbols, they actually get in the way of the central idea. The abstract qualities of light, colour and the temporal effects of weather are great subjects to work with and I find these in their purest form in featureless locations. When photographed right, the images transcend the geography.
[Left] © Murray Fredericks ‘Salt #101’ 2006
[Right] © Murray Fredericks ‘Salt #110’ 2006
What is it like spending so long alone in such a flat and featureless place?
At Lake Eyre in Australia I was alone. The repetitive cycle of daily life out there, the boredom, slows the mind to a point where any change in the conditions becomes all-consuming. This was the state of mind I needed to start making the work. When free of distraction for long periods, the mind becomes super-sensitive; it affects my whole reality. Some may call this experience immersive, but you have to understand that I am talking about a long, long time over many visits, many years. In that context, immersive sounds almost temporary. The experience is also never just discovered in a particular visit – the time between visits spent digesting and considering these experiences also feeds importantly into each subsequent trip…
The need to employ expert arctic guides on the second and subsequent Greenland trips created a new challenge in that I found it harder to disappear into the landscape; to forget myself. And inevitably interpersonal challenges would present themselves from time to time.
These experiences in their extremity and stripped down emptiness seem similar to certain forms of meditation that seek to reach an inner core and peace by removing the distractions of living.
This is true. Being out there can be like a living meditation. I generally prefer not to use that term though, as it has become somewhat trivialised by the New Age movement. The distraction point is very important. Over long periods out there, the mind does slow down like in a meditation and the responses to change in the landscape become very clear and strong.
What advice would you give a young photographer starting out?
Learn to love your innate fear and sense of inadequacy as an artist and let the anxiety around that drive you forward.
Murray Fredericks was born in Sydney in 1970. He studied politics and economics at Sydney University. Following this, he spent five years traveling in the Middle East and in the Himalaya, an experience that was to shape his subsequent approach to photography. Initially self-taught, he had already established his exhibiting career before he undertook a Master of Fine Art at the University of New South Wales. He has exhibited widely, including a major Australian landscape survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (2012); two solo shows at the Australian Centre for Photography (2010 and 2015); four one-person exhibitions at Hamiltons Gallery, London (2007, 2009, 2012 and 2015), and one at Robert Mann Gallery, New York (2019).
His work is held in important public and private collections nationally and internationally including Artbank; Parliament House (Canberra); Macquarie Bank; the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne); the National Portrait Gallery (Canberra); and the Sir Elton John Collection. He has won numerous awards and is a regular finalist in Australia’s top photography prizes. In 2008, he made the multi-award-winning film ‘Salt’ for ABC TV, and in 2013 the film ‘Nothing on Earth’ (directed by Michael Angus for Dreamscape) documented Murray Fredericks’ challenging experiences making art in Greenland. He lives and works in Sydney.
This article was initially published in Chinese, in the December 2013 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.