IT IS A HARD COUNTRY, even today. Times change, but the Australian heartland never does; despite all his tools and late twentieth-century aids, Man has scarcely scratched its surface.
Most of it lies as it has for countless millennia, sunk in a coma of ancient waterlessness. Millions of years have passed since it supported vast herds of animals at graze, if it ever did -though old-timers can remember days when kangaroos in their tens of thousands streamed leaping across the harsh hills. And I am old enough to remember kangaroos in thousands.
But the general impression is of an indifference to life, especially walking life. The birds are better equipped to reach infrequent water, and demand less of it; so too insects. As for plants, they have come to an understanding with the land by making all the concessions.
Color, and the quality of the light. An atmosphere either utterly invisible, or pulsating with haze and alluring blue mirages, or stuffed with dust thrown up by the long footsteps of the wind. A still whistling just beyond the human ear, a rhythmic boom-boom-boom of sheer heat, a huge sighing of leaf-blades, the rending bellow of thunder. Dust has a smell, appealing to the tuned nose, and after the first few minutes of a patiently awaited rain it gives forth the most exquisite perfume on this earth. Life in death smells not at all except at closest quarters, for there is too much air. The flowers in sheets mile upon mile sprung up after a winter shower mostly do not smell. Just the dust, and the sweetish ozone of a violent storm to remind one that the air is itself an entity.
To the eyes alone is offered a feast, and then only to those eyes which hunger after that particular kind of vision. Not everyone's vision by any means. Some eyes find it appalling, some depressing, some ugly, some too alien for love or liking while admitting to admiration. But for the hungry eyes, to rest upon the Australian heartland is literally a coming-home, a renewing of a self probably forged by it. Though some eyes love it instinctively in seeing it for the first time.
I like to take photographs, and for the sort of amateur who understands the basics but harbors no pretension to a battery of different lenses, filters and cameras, I fancy I take quite a good photograph. Almost inevitably as I leaf through the many books ofAustralian pictures to be found particularly in Australian bookshops I find myself thinking, "Huh! My own photograph of X or Y is every bit as good as this professional one!" Probably too strict a judgment, for such things as the quality of printing and reproduction affect any photographer's work. However, I do stoutly maintain that most books of the Australian scene contain pictorial matter of no great distinction and certainly no great individuality.
Several years ago one of the editors at my publishers offered to show me some photographs of Australia's interior. And from the moment I set eyes upon the first one in a large series, I was a Jo Daniell admirer. As I said then, this man is the first photographer of my experience with the technicil skill, the love, the understanding, and the soul to dig beneath the optical surface of Australia and show to eyes not there that truly Australia is a land so old it has become bald, wrinkled, desiccated, intractable, intolerant and incapable of looking any older. Time has ceased to tick for it, and his photographs reveal this.
They reveal much more, of course; they are works of art, a lenticular expansion of the eye inside the man's brain which sees more and comprehends more than his two eyes rigged only to perceive three-dimensional images. Vision is a most complex and tortuously evolved activity, dependent as much upon non-visual areas of the brain as upon the actual images transmitted by the eyes.
And that is where photographers usually fail. They point their cameras at an object their eyes see and allow their cameras no opportunity to depict more. So what appears on paper is something diminished rather than enhanced, for if it is a sweeping vista it is reduced to the size of a page instead of filling thegaze entirely, and if it is some tiny mite of a thing oozing a fluff of pollen its miniature beauty is lost by the size of the page.
Great photographs suggest more than the eye can see; they create a mood, they infect the imagination, they trigger emotions. And the viewer is left with permanent impressions far beyond mere sight; he becomes a part of the photographer's world, and understands those unseen parameters which give vision its profoundest impact.
I first looked at the photographs ofJo Daniell in an office through whose windows the crystalline explosion of Manhattan's glass towers stretched into the farthest distance. But there before my hungry eyes was a world I knew much better, to which my heart belonged. And yet in some ways I saw that world differently than I remembered it, so great was the photographer's art. The saurian eye in a ghost gum knot, looking out of a creamy integument with intelligence and a drowned, sad contemplation. Rank weeds sticking out of a field of snow in patent heat -but the snow was really salt. A stunning vulva in pink and grey rock. The odd square mirror of a spring leaping out of the shadows. What looked like the spent foam of a surfing beach was in reality the salt-encrusted bed of a dry creek. A tumbling red waterfall of rock. Mulga twigs dancing with the abandon of corybantes. New impressions of that most beautiful of all trees, the ghost gum.
I saw too how totally the land has rejected Man and how well it has succeeded in doing what few lands can do -make it impossible for Man to add his own brand of beauty. There, Man's scant imprints are downright ugly, his ability to create gorgeous gardens of delight thwarted. Nothing of his making belongs. The fences stutter away like stitches in a suppurating wound. The roads are earthen tracks fissured and convoluted by the runoff of rain. The buildings are shocks. The impedimenta cluttering these dwelling places are crude, dilapidated, awful. Even where Man has succeeded in tapping water from below, there blooms no oasis; the reluctant water seems slimy, theexternal signs ofit are stark, primitive and totemistic. If the man-element in this collection of pictures reveals anything, it is that Man gave up, that he comes and goes across the land as a nomad and a thief. And that the land cares nothing for him, not love nor hate, not so much as a transient spasm of excusable disgust.
Ah, but the land itself! There are only four moods. Cloudless, overcast, high noon, beginning or end of day. The magical changes rung by the sovereign sun. My most cherished personal memory of the Australian heartland is of cloudless high noon, a deep red dune contoured against a cobalt sky, and like spears a few tussocks of brilliant green plant matter; a natural war between the elements, so crammed with color and contrast that I have never forgotten, never ceased to wonder. See the same country under a vault of clouds and it is an outer planet, a living moon perhaps, bleak and sere and bled of all vividness. And when the sun is low in the sky, thin lustrous blue shadows infiltrate between impossible yellows and oranges, the light on the rocks is purple, and the remote mountains are dark.
There is a danger in verbal rhapsody, that if overdone the reaction of the reader will end in antipathy. And I don't want to destroy the impact of these marvellous glimpses of a world I myself know and love.
The photography of Jo Daniell has to be regarded in two different ways. The first, as one highly sensitive man's portrayal of an alien and daunting country. The second, as the only significant photographic contribution to that very strong school of Australian art which has immortalized the Outback.
It is not customary to incorporate photographers among the ranks of artists, for the brush comes from the brain and transforms the external world into something intensely personal and individual. But occasionally a man with a camera has the genius to do just this; he can paint with a lens. Jo Daniell is primarily an artist. I commend him to you as such.