Road photography deserves a category of its own, nestled in among established genres such as street photography and landscape. Also, it is a category in which Australian photographers demonstrably excel, expressing a remarkable affinity with the road and all its vistas, features, quirks, vehicles and people.
I know of no better illustration of the scope and variety within road photography than Behind the Wheel: Photographs from the Australian Road, an impressive new collection featuring contributions from many of Australia’s best photographers submitted in response to a public invitation issued by photographer and publisher Ian Kenins.
Australians on the whole have been more motivated to travel than people in comparable countries because of an abiding sense of isolation.
It has been said that distance rather than history defines us, and not just in terms of our geographical separation from the other nations of the world. Australia, which has more kilometres of road per head of population than any other country on Earth, is also remote from each part of itself.
While the popular phrase tyranny of distance has been taken as denoting negative factors in Australia’s economic and social development, it is possible to view distance as a challenge rather than a curse. A feature of distance in this country is that Australians on the whole have been more motivated to travel than people in other comparable countries because of an abiding sense of isolation.
The compulsion to overcome distance may help to explain why the Australian accent is remarkably uniform when compared with the much greater regional variation in accents heard throughout comparable countries like the UK and USA. And why, at any given time, there is a fleet of grey nomads as well as overseas backpackers in cheap vehicles, circulating throughout the nation’s road system and enjoying distance for its own sake.
It certainly seems to be the case that Australians are, or have been, willing to spend more time in the car in order to reach a destination than Europeans, or perhaps even North Americans. (I remember as a child being driven from Melbourne to Adelaide and back to see a couple of Shakespeare plays being performed exclusively there, a round trip of more than 1,400 kilometres just to go to the theatre.)
A feature of distance in this country is that Australians on the whole have been more motivated to travel than people in other comparable countries because of an abiding sense of isolation.
Viewed in terms of photographic potential, the Australian road-scape is uniquely vast and varied. Just being out on the road necessarily means engaging visually with the space through which we move. No matter how familiar the route, following where the road leads us invariably means forming new memories – from images of the mundane and scenic to moments of humour, romance and poignancy, and perhaps even a glimpse of tragedy.
Inevitably, we take with us reminiscences of previous trips, which might well have begun with long family holidays in childhood, and wherever we go we program our own soundtrack. The road stimulates our senses and stirs our emotions.
Even after more than a century of motoring, the mere sensation of moving has a powerful, even hypnotic effect, opening our minds to the patterns of the scenery accentuated by the rhythm of the journey.
The most sparsely populated permanently inhabited continent, Australia has always relied heavily on long distance transportation. Including Tasmania, the island state whose population is similarly dispersed and just as road dependent as the people living on the mainland, the total length of the Australian road network is approximately 900,000 kilometres and includes nearly 40,000 road bridges.
The road system represents a remarkable infrastructure achievement, especially when you consider that 200 years ago there were no modern roads at all and that progress in building them during the 19th century was painfully slow. It took until 1833 to complete something as basic as a stone arch bridge. Fast forward to the 1950s and the completion of National Highway 1, which linked the mainland state capitals and at 14,500 km remains among the longest national circuit highways in the world.
The arteries and capillaries of the nation, roads of every kind imaginable have been made in Australia from the smoothest multi-lane freeway to the narrowest one-way CBD thoroughfare to the steepest alpine pass to the most overgrown bush track. All of those lengths of bitumen, gravel and just bare ground mean that the landscape and built environment are uncommonly rich in subject matter for road photography.
Our roads are etched into the contours of the land or else seek to defy the topography completely, but always there is a sense of a connection with the surrounding land and climate. Roads exist to connect us to the places where we live and work as well those we discover.
In 1926, it took Francis Birtles around eight days to drive from Melbourne to Darwin, a journey that today lasts just over 40 hours.
Historically and culturally as well as in terms of essential infrastructure, the road plays a crucial role in defining who we are. Since the moment motor vehicles first began to move here, Australians have been impelled to explore all terrains, led by the gnarly, crazy-brave adventurer Francis Birtles, who by the late 1920s had completed more than 70 transcontinental crossings at a time when there were few roads of any sort established in Central Australia.
Later came the high speed specialists, such as the dapper daredevil Donald Campbell, who in 1964 set the world land speed record streaking 32 km across a dry salt plain located out in the middle of nowhere. Both Birtles and Campbell adapted to the natural wonder of the vast landscape in order to pursue their very different driving aims.
These days the average commuter regularly covers distances that the early road builders and motoring pioneers would not have believed feasible. In 1926, it took Francis Birtles around eight days to drive from Melbourne to Darwin, a journey that today lasts just over 40 hours.
The Australian imagination has always been excited by pushing the limits of what might be accomplished behind the wheel, especially when the feat is achieved in driving conditions we all share. It is no coincidence that the most celebrated drivers – among them Sir Jack Brabham, Florence Thomson, Peter Brock, “Gelignite Jack” Murray and Winifred Conway – proved themselves as competitors in races run on public roads rather than at purpose-built circuits.
The camera and the road were made for each other, enabling us to capture images of the people, animals, places and objects which we see on and from the road and which we would never have the time to recreate in more laborious forms of art such as drawing or painting. In Australia, motoring and photography have co-existed for over a century, the one complementing and facilitating the other.
Apart from admiring the sheer talent and skill on display in Behind the Wheel, there is so much emotional truth in the photographs of the sublime and ridiculous captured on and beside the Australian road.
The road, after all, is what we make of it.
Main image above: Old Melbourne Road, Ballan, Victoria. Simon O’Dwyer.
Behind the Wheel: Photographs from the Australian Road is published by The Worldwide Publishing Empire, $39.95.
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