It has recently come to my attention that (along with most Tasmanian things) a recent rise in the popularity of our bushwalking is linked to Instagram. There are more and more young adults venturing into our reserves, and taking pictures of a suitably impressive landscape seems to be part of their incentive to do so.
I’m not the first to notice this; actually, I’m probably near to the last. Instagram is not a part of my life – I maintain an old Nokia telephone that doesn’t connect to the internet. I am somewhat circumspect and curmudgeonly about the whole affair with technology, but of course, it’s present everywhere and I am not yet such a crank that I’d make myself wilfully ignorant of it all.
As with most things I’m ambivalent about it. Certainly if people go bushwalking, they’ll be more likely to fall in love with Tasmanian country, and that can only be a good thing. On the other hand, I don’t see much charm in going for a walk mostly to take a photo, with an audience in mind. I’ve had to do it once or twice on journalistic ventures; for me it wrecks the whole rhythmic experience of the walk.
It’s also misleading: in Tassie’s high country, there are very many days in which it’s difficult to take photographs that will win the approval of peers on social media. Mountaintops are frequently misted over, giving a panorama of precisely nothing. I wonder if it’s not dangerous too – I’ve heard a few stories now of novice walkers going up to the mountains expecting the glistening sunshine of a brochure or digital photo album and instead getting belted by wild weather (which is rarely photographed or shared).
I’m also suspicious that the aesthetics of Instagram have instilled a global and mostly mediocre standard of photography. This photograph of the Pedder dam, taken from a moving car on a blustery autumn afternoon, is not “instagram-worthy”. (This sort of language is another yucky bit of mediocrity – but I’m aware of sounding like some miserable Walden neo-primitivist when I mention these things.)
But some of the most beautiful photographs I’ve ever seen were taken in Pedder country. Olegas Truchanas was born in Lithuania, displaced by World War II, and came to Tassie to took work with the Hydro-Electric Commission. In his leisure time, he became familiar with Tasmania’s remote districts, particularly in the south-west. Truchanas quickly came to love both the solitude and the experience of ecological communion that some of us find, sometimes, in the bush.
And he took exquisite photographs. This was the 1960s: he didn’t publish them immediately. He couldn’t even see them until he was well and truly back in his studio in Hobart. You can feel Olegas’s slowness and attentiveness in these pictures. You can tell there is no audience in his mind. He is aware of texture and form, and plays with both affinities and juxtapositions of colour, in a way that is so much more impressive than almost all of the millions of photographs we see every day.
Almost anyone can talk a half-decent photograph. Even I, who have produced this grim composition of a beautiful landscape, can be occasionally handy with a camera. But few people are able to discipline their way of seeing, draw imagination from within themselves and apply it to the visible elements before them, and create a whole new way of envisioning a place. That is what Olegas Truchanas did.
What also comes through in Olegas’s photography was his awareness that these landscapes had a time limit. “This vanishing world is beautiful beyond our dreams,” he once said in a lecture, as Lake Pedder was being drowned under a hydro-electric impoundment. That we still have much of the beauty of the south-west landscapes protected is partly thanks to Olegas Truchanas. His photographs connected many people to a foreign corner of this island, most of whom would never see it in person.
Perhaps the photographers of Instagram do the same and it is only the prematurely old crackpot writing these words who has missed the boat. But for me the art of Olegas Truchanas does something that fleeting smart-phone snaps do not. Through his images, I am touched with a hint of the ephemeral and ethereal force of being in a bush landscape – whatever that is. Sometimes it is almost like I am running my fingers along the frost crystals on the dead conifer trunk, or breathing in a heady brew of boronia and pepperberry, or enjoying a long twilight on a bright olive-coloured moorland. There is a slow release of warm joy in my chest.
Most of all I want everyone to know how lucky they are to be in these places. I can’t quell my gratitude, to live here and now; perhaps Olegas Truchanas had the same feeling, perhaps multiplied by his experience as a migrant. The places in which we walk are deep maps of stories. If we photograph it, let us not do so frivolously. And beware: bushwalking offers few instantaneous rewards. But what we find when we make habitual passages into that vanishing world is something that is far more enduring. There, somehow, is meaning and belonging.
Most importantly, we must not turn country into a commodity. It warps the whole experience, spins it against us.