Frames of Reference: photographing Hill End

Alison Bennett

Hill End

Hill End is a massive work of fiction, a story-telling project spanning generations. It is more than a place; it is a dense web of images, narrative, mythology; a site of contested meaning.

Stiched photograph by Alison Bennett

A rich past

Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss of the American & Australasian Photographic Company documented the town between 1872 and 1873 at the height of the gold mining boom. At that time, Hill End boasted a population of around 8 000 (and 28 pubs). Their remarkable collection of several hundred glass-plate negatives was re-discovered in 1951 in a Sydney backyard shed. Like story-telling traditions in which the past and the present co-exist, these images now literally float before the physical fabric of the town in the form of interpretive panels before the spaces they once occupied.

Hill End gained a formidable place in Australian art history as the subject of paintings such as Drysdale’s The Cricketers. Drysdale came upon the town during a motoring holiday with Donald Friend in 1947. Friend was a resident of Hill End for much of the 1950s and they drew their Sydney circle to the village.

Hill End is listed on the register of the National Estate as a relatively intact gold-boom townscape and has been a managed cultural asset since 1967 when it was declared an historic site of national significance.

A complex present

Today, Hill End has a spirited community of around one hundred and twenty people. It is an intense blend of the descendants of original gold mining families and practising professional artists. Its powerful aesthetics and passionate oral traditions continue to attract visual artists, facilitated in part by the Hill End Artists in Residence Program coordinated by Bathurst Regional Art Gallery.

Hill End means different things to different people. For tourists, Hill End manifests as a fantasy of an archetypal Australian country town. Conservation architects only see the buildings; artists resonate with images by Drysdale and Friend. Long-term residents see the flying fox where they played as a child and the school their grandparents attended. The town is haunted by the layering of images and memories. The ghosts are literally as real as your neighbours. The townscape, remnant gardens, mature European trees and vernacular working class cottages are overwhelmingly visually stunning and aesthetically compelling. It seems that intangible conceptual frameworks or pre-existing expectations have a profound impact on people’s experience of this place.

Photographing Hill End

Just as Hill End is constructed by a complex set of intangible factors, photography is a potent, permeable medium that walks an ambiguous line between documentation and manipulation. In many regards the medium itself, the photographic frame, is invisible. Like the diversity of perceptions and versions of Hill End, photographs are not simply documentation of an authentic place but an interpretation and response to a complex cultural site.

Like yeast, images of Hill End appear to feed upon each other and grow more rich and resonant. Perhaps an example of this inter-textual process is Russell Drysdale’s photograph of a man in period costume for the Hill End Jubilee and Gold Centenary Celebrations in 1951. Capturing the sense of theatre still present in the Hill End community, the historic character of Bernard Holtermann stands next to a poster painted by Donald Friend of a photograph by the A&A Photographic Company. Like much of the interesting work coming out of Hill End, this image sits within a web of references to other images and stories.

Contemporary artists working in photography have brought new and intelligent interpretations. Three of the artists represented in this exhibition have been long-term residents with an opportunity to dig deep into the psychology of the town. The remaining eight have participated in the Hill End Artist in Residence Program between 2001 and 2005, bringing their individual interpretations to this fantastic subject.

Frames of Reference

Focusing on a single medium and a single subject, this exhibition is an opportunity to consider the diversity of photographers’ approaches to this rich and complex place and gain insight into the ways in which their work has participated in the ongoing creation that is Hill End.