On Edge / Caroline Jordan

“and even if the other houses spoil the view, the fragment of horizon, the allotment of stars keep us in some sort of contact with Nature. All of this occurs without any enquiry, without any curiosity, as to what was sacrificed in order to create this place we inhabit, where we gather our dreams, our children.” [1]

Paul Carter

For the past two and a half years Dianna Wells has been driving out on the weekends to Melbourne’s city fringes to the north, south-east and west: Cranbourne, Epping, Wyndham Vale, Wollert. She returns over and over again to the same favourite sites, like Harvest Home Road, Epping, which begins at Darebin Creek, and Lollipop Creek at Wyndham Vale. She is fond of watercourses and also ancient gumtrees. Some of her misty images evoke the nostalgic, picturesque pastoral landscapes painted by Hans Heysen and Elioth Gruner in the 1920s, with the difference that Wells’ subject is the future that is just about to happen, rather than the past. Through strategies of juxtaposition, her pictures show how these straggily beautiful features of the natural landscape are rapidly receding into insignificance in the fact of the explosive growth of new suburban developments. The pace of the change she documents is breathtaking. 

Wells says she looks for the ‘tension point’ to stop and photograph: the casual spray-can cross on a tree ambiguously earmarked for either saving or removal, the discarded, crumpled remnant of synthetic grass outside a display home, the oddly festive coloured tags waving merrily on perimeter poles, the billboard’s cheesy promise of a better life. Her process is slow, considered, the opposite of a snapshot taken on a quick car-stop. Wells is a walker. She paces out the uneven, muddy, disturbed surfaces of the new road and the building site, and she uses a square format Hasselblad camera that demands a tripod to keep it steady and the lines straight. On her walks she has time to chat with farmers, developers, real estate agents and residents who uniformly take a cheerful interest in her business of recording.

‘Cashed-up bogans’ is the stereotype of the people who live and work out here, but the ubiquitous shiny new vehicle parked conspicuously up on the nature strip makes sense in areas where public transport is non-existent and recreational infrastructure will take years to be built. And not all the residents of the fringe can afford the expensive cars and landscaping. As suburbs expand, social tensions have flared between old and new residents in suburbs such as Epping. 

Wells, however, is interested in tracing a different locus of tension, between the old pastoral and new urban environments. She likes to keep her eyes focused on what is happening on the ground and prefers the telling detail to the sublime panorama. She points out a disused railway line in Cranbourne that is an important wildlife corridor and habitat link and a carpet of tufty native grasses at Lollipop Creek. These are landscapes made suddenly remnant: in transition, ‘on the edge’, delicately hung in the balance, likely soon to collapse and be replaced with something else. The railway line, is likely to be re-commissioned with increased development. On her last visit to the creek, someone had mowed down the grass, the stubborn tussocks still just visible. 

Wells draws inspiration from the work of American photographers Dan Graham and Lewis Baltz, who photographed suburban tract housing developments and industrial parks in the 1960s and 70s. Graham’s Homes for America (1966–67), a photographic magazine piece, employs a sixties minimalist aesthetic in its monotonous seriality and bold style and colour. Graham’s work contains an environmental and social critique of suburbia, but there is also poetry in his monumental streetscapes. Wells is similarly ambivalent about the changes she documents. She says she didn’t set out to make a political or didactic statement. Her photographs don’t come with a petition about ‘green wedges’ attached, or a judgement one way or another about ‘development’. Yet she finds that people spontaneously start arguing in front of them. The fringe is our frontier, and we are possessive, anxious and opinionated about it. With this work, Wells reminds us of the fragility that exists there and leaves it up to us to decide what losses we can bear. 

 Dr Caroline Jordan


[1]  Paul Carter The Lie of the Land. London: Faber and Faber, 1996, p.1

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First published for the exhibition: On Edge, Edmund Pearce, 5 – 22 September 2012

Untitled (Epping),  2012, pigment prison cotton rag

Untitled (Epping), 2012, pigment prison cotton rag