Save Australia’s precious kitsch heritage before it is too late!

The Rolfoclasts with their attempts at Rolfoclasm are at it again!

Somebody stop them!

In 1986 Rolf Harris painted for Warrnambool’s Lighthouse Theatre a lovely mural in vivid tones of ‘outback red’ and ‘charcoal black’, presumably supplied by  British Paints. The mural, with its artful paint drips and edge-of-the-brush paradiddles, has roots reaching deep down through Pro Hart and Eric Jolliffe, picking up some hints of panel van on the way.

Yet through a primitive idolatorous thinking that comes from the dark ages, some equate the  painting of a  landscape by a pedophile with the act of pedophilia itself. Purely to expiate their own unresolved anxiety over the epidemic they equate a painting with the man, and want to erase both. They are putting pressure on the Warrnambool City Council, who have already voted to cover the mural up. That was never going to work. “Hiding the mural behind perspex is exactly what’s been happening with sexual abuse,” Warrnambool City Councillor Peter Hulin said. “We’re covering it up and pretending it’s not there.” But the iconography of  bush hut and blasted sapling seems innocent, is there something secretly encoded in the onanistic brushwork?

Of course covering the mural does nothing to address the issues that cause pedophilia. I’m sure I’ve gone to restaurants where paedophiles have worked, driven on roads they have built, and so on and so on. And covering a mural is one thing, erasing Rolf from my psyche is quite another. You only have to whisper ‘Caractacus’ in my ear and Rolf’s interminable version of Court of King Caractacus starts up all over again in my head. Once seen, Jake the Peg cannot be unseen. Will everybody who, like me, was a television addict in the 1970s have to submit to neurological erasure?

Rolf painting the mural in 1986

The mural before its cover up, now threatened with total destruction

 

What can the magic lantern teach us about today’s ‘right-click culture’

My paper for the panel, The Mobility of Images in the Digital Age, convened by Professor Sue Best and Dr Jess Berry, Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference, University of Westrn Australia, December 2017.

I have a very untidy computer desktop. It’s littered with PDFs, word files and jpegs. If I right-click on a jpeg, I can choose to open it with one of fifteen different applications, or I can share it on one of eight different online platforms. If I move from my desktop to the internet and right-click on an image, I can perform twelve different operations on it, one of which is saving it back to my desktop.

We are all familiar with the latest statistics, with their proliferating number of zeroes at the end, telling us how many photographs are taken and shared every minute. Much ink has been spilled, some even by me, on the implications of all of this for photography. Usually the talk is of rupture. Even if it is recognized that photography was always a medium of reproducibility, the contemporary theorist usually puts the word ‘exponential’ in his or her sentence to signify some fundamental rupture.

But, guess when the evocatively exponential number of ‘a billion’ was first deployed in relation to photography? It was way back in 1859, when Oliver Wendell Holmes mused that the Coliseum and the Pantheon had, just by existing, been ‘shedding’ their own images, their visual forms, ever since they had first been built. With the invention of photography this ‘image shedding’ could be conceptualized as billions of lost photographs.

 

There is only one Coliseum or Pantheon; but how many millions of potential negatives have they shed,—representatives of billions of pictures,—since they were erected!

Holmes also realized that these captured image-forms were less substantial than the real thing, but the trade off for this decrease in substantiality was an increase in transportability.

Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. [soon] [m]en will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave the carcasses as of little worth. … The consequence of this will soon be such an enormous collection of forms that they will have to be classified and arranged in vast libraries, as books are now.

153 years later Hito Steyerl was making pretty much the same point in her discussion of ‘the wretched of the screen’, those digital ‘poor images’ that are low-resolution derivatives of the original first-level images which Holmes had originally discussed as derivatives of matter itself:

The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates it deteriorates. It is the ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.

Both Holmes and Steyerl saw a technological trade off of decreased materiality for increased motion: for Holmes from matter to image, for Steyerl from high-res image to low-res image. Both also concluded that this trade off of substance for distribution was, in fact, ultimately constituting a new ‘reality’.

I evoke these historical bookends — Oliver Wendell Holmes, the plump nineteenth century Boston doctor, and Hito Steyerl, the glamorous twenty-first century German video artist — because they both squared up to and embraced the realities of reproduction, and I want to argue about ‘the digital’ not from the point of view of its rupture, but its continuity. I don’t want to perform a teleology, but an archaeology

In an essay from the mid 1990s, Foucault described the period of 1860 to 1880 as a ‘frenzy for images’, when all of the emerging reproduction technologies such as chromolithography and photography began to interact with traditional painting.

… there came a new freedom of transposition, displacement, and transformation, of resemblance and dissimulation, of reproduction, duplication and trickery of effect. It engendered a wholesale theft of images, an appropriation still utterly novel, but already dexterous, amused and unscrupulous. …. There emerged a vast field of play where technicians and amateurs, artists and illusionists, unworried about identity, took pleasure in disporting themselves. Perhaps they were less in love with paintings or photographic plates than with the images themselves, with their migration and perversion, their transvestism, their disguised difference. … To them there was nothing more hateful than to remain captive, self-identical, in one painting, one photograph, one engraving, under the aegis of one author. No medium, no language, no stable syntax could contain them; from birth to last resting place, they could always escape through new techniques of transposition.

Foucault’s description could also apply to the practice of the magic lantern, which was blossoming and becoming culturally pervasive during exactly the same period. The apparatus of the magic lantern began in the Netherlands in the mid 1660s and it ends up there, on the ceiling of this seminar room. Traveling entertainers carried magic lanterns on their backs around Europe for over century before the technology became incorporated into a theatrical illusion designed for metropolitan audiences called The Phantasmagoria. Later in the nineteenth century this technology began to be industrially manufactured and marketed directly to the middle classes and the intelligentsia. Photographic magic lantern slides began to be produced after 1850 and by the end of the century audiences around the world were laughing at ingeniously animated hand painted slides, and at hand coloured photographic slides that told moral stories or illustrated sentimental songs. The ARC project I lead, Heritage in the Limelight, has already assembled a database of five and half thousand of these slides.

At this time, at the height of modernity, the strange couplet ‘magic’ and ‘lantern’ was at its most compelling, the word ‘lantern’ projected the rational illumination of knowledge, whereas the word ‘magic’ harked back to the psychological affects of deception, illusion and diabolical darkness. The strange couplet was still in use well into the twentieth century when, after bequeathing its grammar of narrative syntax and visual effects to film, it stayed on as part of the cinematic apparatus showing theatre advertisements and illustrating songs. It also entered the home, the school-room, the church hall and the university, slowly transforming into the 35mm slide and eventually the Powerpoint slide.

The magic lantern was an apparatus of reproduction, distribution and recombination. There was no such thing as an ‘original’ slide, they were copies of illustrations, paintings, prints or other photographs. There is no such thing as a single slide, each slide was produced as part of a set, and stored, distributed and exhibited as multimedia sequences. There are thousands of amateur slides, but millions of mass-produced ones which were retailed in shops around the world. But the consumers at the end of the production chain were also producers. Lantern slides have to be projected to be realized, and it was up to the lanternist to decide which combination the slides were projected in, and with what musical or spoken accompaniment.

The magic lantern was a ubiquitous visual presence, yet the silos of scholarship have all but ignored it. For art historians there are no genius artists to biography, no rare objects to analyse, no conceptual innovations to name, no radical styles to track. For the art market there is nothing to sell, nothing to buy, nothing to appreciate. For film historians the magic lantern is just ‘pre-cinema’, an imperfect version of ‘the movies’, waiting to be superseded. For the photo historian the glass slide disappears behind the primacy of the paper print with its physical relationship to the traditional work of art.

However, even as the traditional historical disciplines were doing their best to to ignore the magic lantern, the lantern itself was at work, secretly transforming them from within. Because of the lantern, the immediate object of art history became not the art-work itself, but the photograph of the art work. After the lantern, all of art history became merely a subcategory of photography. Disguised, but nonetheless crucial dates in the development of the discipline of art history are: 1854, when the British Museum appointed Roger Fenton as their first Official Photographer; 1884 when John Ruskin borrowed a magic lantern from a London theatre to project his watercolours at a lecture (Fawcett 453); and 1909 when the South Kensington Museum started to catalogue its fast-growing glass slide collection (Fawcett 456).

In Berlin, the Professor of Art History, Hermann Grimm, began to use the magic lantern scientifically, like a microscope in reverse, isolating and enlarging the art work so the viewer could apprehend it in its essential totality. In keeping with other scientific demonstration of the period, the lecture room became a kind of laboratory stage, or an experimental theatre. (Karlholm p208).

Grimm’s successor, Heinrich Wölfflin, elaborated on this theatre. A student recalled that Wölfflin removed himself from the lectern to the side of the audience. When a new image appeared on the screen, he would resist the temptation to speak for a while, building audience expectation within a tangible silence. Then, as if listening to the work itself, be would begin to slowly put words and sentences to the image, to converse with it, creating the impression that the art work, literally, spoke to him. (Karlholm 209-210)

Wölfflin further developed his use of the magic lantern by using two lanterns to project two images side-by-side. One projector showed the ‘key note’ throughout a sequence, while the other showed variations, details or exceptions. Other German art historians in the same period, such as Adolph Goldschmidt, were also using double projections to make it easier for students to compare two different art works, both flattened to a equivalent black and white monochrome, without having to retain one in their memory. These magic lantern lectures were thus a side-by-side comparison as well as a one-after-the-other progression. Thus, the students mesmerized in the dark beheld art history manifested not in the museum, but in their imaginations. (Nelson 430).

In 1912, at the Tenth International Congress of Art History, Aby Warburg performed his famous iconographical analysis of a renaissance fresco in a lantern-slide lecture, which he referred to as a ‘cinematographic spotlight’. (Michaud 38). Warburg’s ‘iconology of intervals’ which paid attention to the montaging of multiple images, and his discovery of what he called a ‘pathos formula’ of poses that travelled across history, geography and cultural difference, was entirely dependent on an archive of photographic reproductions, and an apparatus of both narrative and comparative conjunction, provided by the magic lantern.

Recently Georges Didi-Huberman has revived interest in Warburg, and interdisciplinary scholars like Philippe-Alain Michaud have seen Warburg’s famous Mnemosyne Atlas, produced in the late 1920s, as part of an emerging ‘cinematic mode of thought’ (Michaud 278). But they too have forgotten the power of the magic lantern to structure thought. More than just being a proto-film, Warburg’s panels were really a physical materialization of the two-lantern magic lantern lecture. The ideal space of the darkened auditorium is reproduced in the black cloth with which he covered the sixty-three panels to which he stapled his reproductions, and the transport of the lecture is reproduced in their sequential installation. Like the lectures, the pictures on the panels are both side-by-side and one-after-another, both paradigmatic and syntagmatic.

Contrary to the claims of Michaud, the media form which Warburg’s unfinished masterwork prefigured was not only the movies, but also today’s Google Image Search or Pinterest Board. So I would like to conclude with some other examples, not only from the magic lantern’s impact on the exhausted discipline of art history, but from the vernacular practice of the magic lantern itself, to make the archaeological connection between magic lantern practice and the ‘right-click’ culture of contemporary media.

Enter the words ‘Ned Kelly’ into Google image search and you’ll be met with an array of images: nineteenth century photographs of the bearded man himself, woodcut illustrations from 1880 newspapers of Ned in his armour, images of Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger acting in their respective Kelly films, and kitsch souvenirs. If you visit the National Museum of Australia’s online catalogue and enter the same words you will return a not dissimilar grid of images — 77 Ned Kelly magic lantern slides which were purchased as a set in the early 2000s. You won’t find Mick or Heath, but you will find film stills from Australia’s first Ned Kelly film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, as well as images copied from books about Kelly.

The images in the slides themselves aren’t rare, most of them were frequently reproduced as the Kelly myth grew and grew. But what is of interest is the unknown person who assembled them in the 1940s. Whoever they were, this amateur iconologist was obviously a bushranger buff preparing a show, perhaps for a public lecture at an historical society, or perhaps just for their family of friends. They have made the lantern-slides by copying the huge array of bushranger imagery already circulating through contemporary sources. Each slide has been extensively labelled and relabelled, and each has been placed into its own sleeve improvised out of old bank deposit envelopes. Perhaps our lanternist had a personal interest in Kelly’s crimes, perhaps he was a bank teller by day and a bushranger buff by night? In the spidery handwriting of an aged person captions and prompting words for a live commentary have been added to the envelopes, such as RED BLAZE FLAMES, for a slide of Glenrowan pub on fire. This slide has also been hand coloured, so the burning of the Glenrowan pub, tinted red in Australia’s first feature film, is tinted red again in this lantern slide. Other images come straight from the siege. For instance the set contains the famous image by J W Lindt of the body of Joe Byrne strung up an a door. However, this image was copied out of a book, perhaps Julian Ashton’s autobiography published in the 1941.

This obscure collection is significant because it prefigures today’s casual ‘right click culture’. Magic lantern slides were a way of ‘saving as’ existing images, duplicating them, reformatting them, shifting them and recontextualising them. The Museum has preserved here not just a comprehensive databank of bushranger iconography, but a complete individual practice, a new way that had been emerging for decades for everyday people to use popular images to say new things about their history.

Another example is Nothing To Do, a set in the Heritage in the Limelight collection. We are pretty sure this set was assembled in Australia. The slides illustrate a poem written by the Reverend Walter John Mathams who visited Australia between 1879 and 1882, when he was a minister at the South Yarra Baptist Church. The poem warns that those who turn a blind eye to poverty, drunkenness or violence because ‘there is nothing to do’, will be condemned in the afterlife. Nothing To Do was published in Mathams’ book Bristles for Brooms, as well as various Australian newspapers after 1888. In 1943, sixty years after it was written, the socialist writer Mary Gilmore republished it yet again in her column ‘For Worker Women’ in the union newspaper The Australian Worker. This set of slides would have been assembled around the 1890s, and may have been performed in protestant churches or at union events. (Gordon Bull does an excellent performance of the poem on the Heritage in the Limelight website.) The ‘life model’ slides which make up most of the images in Nothing to Do were manufactured overseas by companies who posed models against painted backdrops, photographed them, hand coloured them, and then distributed them, as a multimedia packages along with a printed reading, throughout the Anglophone world. But this set has been bricolaged from other sets. Images that were originally made for other sentimental songs, pious poems, or melodramatic stories have been repurposed. These have been mixed with conventional travel slides to illustrate some of the poem’s more trenchant points.

How do we know that the bricoleur was Australian? Because another set from the same period, which uses the same printed labels, attempts re-territorialize a set of America ‘song slides’ for the Australian market. The song is called He Carved His Mother’s Name Upon the Tree, and the slides were made to ‘illustrate’ a live performance of the song in theatres, therefore increasing sales of the sheet music which is how musical content was distributed before the mass production of gramophone records.

However in the set shown in Australia, tiny rectangles of black tape has been used to modify the opening slide, which is a photographic reproduction of the cover of the sheet music. The identity of the American song illustrators has been erased, and the original Tin Pan Alley music publisher has been replaced with a Melbourne sheet music retailer. In addition, tape has been used to cover the words “A sympathetic song from life” at the top edge of the slide. We see in this example physical evidence of competition between emerging global territories for technologized content, which is so much part of our contemporary media environment.

These three examples may appear minor, but they are just the tip of a very big iceberg. Once the last art historian has been strangled with the entrails of the last film historian, who has been strangled with the entrails of the last photo historian, media archaeologists can begin to look at the totality of our visual culture, including its technological substrata, and gain a richer understanding of the new reality being constituted by the ‘picture forms’ which the things in our lives are continually shedding.

Martyn Jolly

‘Developing the Picture: Wölfflin’s Performance Art’, Dan Karlholm, Photography and Culture, 2010, 3:2 207-215

‘The Slide Lecture, or the Work of Art ‘History’ in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Robert S. Nelson, Critical Enquiry, vol 26, no 3 Spring 300 414-434

‘The Stereograph and the Stereoscope’, Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Atlantic Monthly 1859, June

‘Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion’, Philippe-Alain Michaud, Zone Books, New York, 2004.

‘Visual Facts and the Nineteenth Century Art Lecture, Trevor Fawcett’, Art History, Vol 6, Issue 4, pp442-460

Hito Steyerl, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, The Wretched of the Screen

Michel Foucault, Photogenic Painting, 1994

Tintype of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

What a magnificent concoction of hocus pocus was mixed in today’s piece about a newly discovered tintype which may be, perhaps, of Billy the Kid. All the tropes are there: bought at a flea market for ten dollars; photographic experts supposedly dating the object to just a two year window of 1879 to 1880 (how so precise, exactly? one of these experts is a friend of my friend Craig Tuffin, and he doesn’t know either); then, from material connoisseurship, we swing to contemporary facial recognition software which supposedly picks Pat Garret and Billy the Kid’s faces out from the algorithmic line-up; finally the handwriting experts chime in with their confirmation. The ten dollar tintype may now be worth five million. The proud owner said what the narrative inevitably demanded he say: ‘One day it may end up at an auction house somewhere. We’ll see what happens.’ Meanwhile the smudge of the supposed Billy the Kid’s face, with it’s  doll-like splodges of pink hand-colouring on his cheeks, stare out at me from the iPad. And I feel like David Hemmings from Blow Up, staring back at the clump through my ridiculously ostentatious magnifying glass, wanting, just wanting.

Billy the Kid?

Charge! And Charge again! And again! And again!

No other Australian battle has been reenacted as often as the Battle of Beersheba. Although the America Civil War is the most reenacted war in history, something about the 1917 charge of the Light Horse on the Turkish foothold in Palestine has the same elements of attraction for Australian reenactors. It’s probably the comforting links back to preindustrial warfare and to an ‘Outback’ national mythos that makes this ANZAC Melbourne Cup so attractive for those who want to feel what it felt like a hundred years ago.

But, reenactment was at the battle’s very origin. For decades a photograph of distant horsemen against a parched horizon was taken to be an authentic document grabbed by a frightened Turk as the 800 hoses thundered down on him. It wasn’t, it was taken by Frank Hurley more than three months after the battle in early 1918. Hurley characteristically exaggerated the number of men put at his disposal for the reenactment to 1000, but the men themselves resented being conscripted for such a ‘rehearsal’ so soon after the trauma of the actual event, and refused to push  their horses to a full gallop.

A supplied image obtained Wednesday, October 11, 2017 of “‘Thunder of a light horse charge’. This photograph has been described as one of the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba on the 31st October 1917. It’s now believed to have been taken by photographer Frank Hurley in February 1918. (AAP Image/ Australian War Memorial) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Forty Thousand Horsemen

Hurley filmed the charge again twenty years later in 1938, this time as a teaser for the financial backers of Charles Chauvel’s patriotic blockbuster Forty Thousand Horsmen, eventually released right on cue for World War Two in 1940. They borrowed some cavalry horses from Sydney’s sesquicentenary celebrations and got them thunder over the sand hills at Cronulla as Hurley filmed them from a trench dug into the sand. (The future famous war photographer Damien Parer, who also occasionally included reenactments in his subsequent newsreels, was also there filming amongst the horses)

Beersheba Reenactment, Winton Queensland, September 2017

In September this year a hundred horses reenacted the charge at Winton in Queensland, and on the hundredth anniversary of the Battle a couple of days ago Australian enthusiasts reenacted the charge in front of the prime minister and opposition leader back at Beersheba, now in Israel, on  horses borrowed from an Israeli pony club.

Beersheba Reenactment, Israel, October 2017

Beersheba Reenactment, Israel, October 2017

The first assault on the dignitaries was at a slow trot, but later  thirty horses suddenly returned for a charge at full gallop.

Beersheba reenactment, Israel, October 2017

Happy Birthday Cyanotype

OK, the big two oh oh is usually the one you pop the champagne and light the fire crackers for but, you’ve got to admit, a one hundred and seventy-fifth birthday isn’t too bad either. It is one hundred and seventy five years ago that Sir John Herschel discovered the process we are celebrating in this exhibition. All you needed was ammonium ferric citrate, potassium ferricyanide, and light. That was it! It was so simple, but oh, look at that blue. Blue, the most sublime the most pure of all the colours — the colour of the sky, the colour of the ocean when it was smiling, maybe the colour of Heaven, certainly, in its lighter version, the colour of the Virgin’s cloak. A colour so pure and airy, but laid down in that chemical reaction with a ferric fist of iron. Herschel’s amazing discovery of what, on 16 August 1842 he called, chemist that he was, the cyanotype (I would have called it the skyograph, but that may not have caught on) endured and endured. In the twentieth century it became the blueprint. Every steel-girded skyscraper, every streamlined jetliner, started out as cyanotyped lines on an engineer’s diagram. The technical blueprint gave three-dimensional form, through physical construction, to our modernist aspirations. But earlier artists had already discovered that through the magic of light modulation the cyanotype also gave three-dimensional form to physical objects that were laid on the sensitive paper out under the sky. When Anna Atkins laid two specimens of dictyota dichotoma, one in its young state the other in fruit, on cyanotype paper for her book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions she was the first of thousands to discover that the seaweed recorded itself in a magically volumetric way — floating in a virtual space of blueness. One hundred and seventy four years later the seaweed is still suspended there as though not a second has ticked past. How do I know it is dictyota dichotoma? Because Anna Atkins wrote a label, using all of her knowledge of biology, and placed that on the sensitive paper as well. Herschel’s implacable reaction photogrammed Atkins’ Linnaean knowledge and the seaweed’s objective existence together into the same stuff of knowing.

So cut the cake. In a hundred and seventy five years’ time people will still be knowing the world by making cyanotypes. Of that I have no doubt.

My words for ‘Out of the Blue’, curated by Ursula Frederick and Kerry Martin, opening tonight  at Photospace in the ANU School of Art & Design. Featuring work from 1981 by Mazie Karen Turner, Bronwyn Rennex, and others

Justine Varga ‘Maternal Line’

Look I don’t want to add to the beat up, but jeez some ridiculous things are being said about Justine Varga’s winning photograph for the Olive Cotton Portrait prize. Now a professor of Law at the University of Sydney is saying the chemical and light produced image of Justine Varga’s grandmother’s pen marks and spittle isn’t authored by Varga but by her Grandmother. Does she know nothing of the history of, say, conceptual art (Lewitt: ‘The idea becomes the machine that makes the art’) or participatory art? This completely out of touch law professor thinks that ‘expression’ must lie in the perfunctory hand made mark (presumably because Shakespeare wrote his plays by hand?), not in the photographer’s highly developed and thought through photographic process of indexical translation. Somebody else (responsible for the nausea we feel when we are landing in QANTAS planes) reckons it’s not a photograph, even though at its core it is driven by light and chemistry and touch, the things that have been celebrated as the core of photography by photographic theorist since, oh, I don’t know, 1839? Somebody else reckons its not a portrait of Varga’s grandmother, even though all anybody has been talking about is — her grandmother! And even though, to return to our Sydney Law professor’s valorisation of the hand in her misunderstanding of art authorship, we have all long  been valorising and fetishising the hand made mark as a signature of the person.

Celebrating Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis’s book ‘Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross

For Vivid Ideas, Vivid Festival, Sydney. ‘Kings Bloody Cross, Surface Glitter and Underground Guts’, at The World Bar, Saturday 3 June, 2017 (I’ve stuck the power point slides in amongst the text)

Today I want to sing the praises of a small and obscure photography book published in 1971. Australia doesn’t have a particularly big tradition of photobooks, perhaps our population has always been too small to sustain local publishers who specialise in photobooks. So it’s pretty hard to call to mind any important Australian photobooks, whereas European ones like Brassai’s Paris by Night, or American ones like Robert Frank’s The Americans, spring readily to mind. Nonetheless there are a few Australian photobooks that, in their own way, are significant and integral works of art as well as being important cultural documents. And it pains me that they are not remembered, particularly by today’s young Australian photographers who all profess to be into photobooks, but only it seems if they are imported from Europe or the US. Of course Mathew Sleeth’s Tour of Duty from 2004 is a classic, and there are a few others which are celebrated perhaps. But remembering Australian photobooks from their heyday, the period from the mid 1960s until the early 1970s, when they were part of mainstream culture as well as being sites for experimentation, is particularly important.

In the history of Australian photography it is not the 1960s, but the 1970s that is commonly celebrated as the watershed decade where, following the 1972 election of a socially enlightened Labor government, there was a creative flowering entailing both a renaissance in the Australian film industry, and a ‘photography boom’ consisting of new photography galleries, new photography collections, new funding opportunities, and a new role for a younger generation of art-school trained photographers.[1] However, if attention is paid to the many photobooks that were produced, distributed, bought and read in large numbers before the magical date of 1972, the picture we can form of not only Australian photography, but also of Australian culture as a whole, deepens considerably.

There were two absolutely cracker books published in that period, one was Southern Exposure published by David Beal and Donald Horne in 1967, and the other was Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross published by Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey in 1971. And today I want to celebrate the latter.

 

Southern Exposure, 1967

Kings Cross Sydney, 1971

During this period Australian photobooks tended to be coffee table tourist souvenirs. They were the kind of book an aunt you never saw during the year might give you for Christmas; or you would send back to your grandparents in the UK or Greece; or you would put in you bag after a few weeks of R&R ion case you needed a souvenir for someone. But during this period some photobooks began to be published which attempted to go beyond the standard Australiana tourist genre. They began to be timely, about Australian society as it was at the time, rather than timeless, about a generic Australia; and they were quite explicitly about the new Australian identity that was emerging in the post war period. Driving this change was unprecedented wealth flowing from a mining boom, continuing mass migration from Southern Europe, and a geopolitical realignment towards the US, evidenced by an escalating commitment to the Vietnam War from 1966 onwards and, in the case of Kings Cross, the presence of a quarter of a million American servicemen in Australia, who spent seventy million dollars on their R&R leave between 1967 and 1971.

 Significantly, the Australian film industry did not undergo its renaissance until the 1970s. There were only a handful of feature films made in Australia during the sixties, and most of those were made by overseas directors. A good example of this is They’re a Weird Mob. Featuring Kings Cross, it was based on an extraordinarily popular Australian novel, and starred some of Australia’s best-loved actors, but it was made by an English director. [2] However, although Australian feature films were few in number in the 1960s, at least sixty significant Australiana picture books were published during the same period.

The sixties also saw a radical increase in the number of independent, start-up publishers, historically analogous to the internet startups of today. The value of Australian publishing increased eight fold between 1961 and 1979; and from 1961 to 1971 membership of the Australian Book Publishers Association increased from thirty-seven to sixty-seven, of which nearly forty were Australian owned.[3] Many of these publishers, such as Rigby, Lansdowne, Nelson and Jacaranda were substantial, while others were more like today’s internet start-ups and were literally kitchen table operations. Horwitz, whose books sold for less than a dollar, catered to the lurid pulp fiction market. However not all of Horwitz’s books were pulp fiction. Some, such as the gritty Vietnam: The Cruel War by Anthony Syme, which sold for 65 cents, engaged with the politics of the period.

Other start-up publishers who also focussed on the cheaper end of the market, such as Sun Books, explicitly addressed the burgeoning of intellectual interest in issues of Australian history identity.

In many ways these book publishers formed a continuum with the magazine publishers, who published middle class travel magazines like Walkabout, domestically oriented magazines such as the dominant Women’s Weekly, and barbershop magazines such as Australasian Post, People or Pix. From 1965 this suburban newsagent’s range was joined by a burgeoning of inner city street magazines which focussed on satire, sex and radical politics. These included Oz, which reached a circulation of 30,000, but also magazines like Kings Cross Whisper, which reached a circulation of 100,000, and the quickly banned sex magazines like Sexy, Searchlight, Obscenity, Ribald and Censor, as well as student magazines that dealt with radical politics like Honi Soit and Tharunka.[4]

Jozel Vissel, Paper Seller, Kings Cross, From Life In Australia, edited by David Beal and Craig McGregor, 1968, p228

Kings Cross was already featuring in this explosion of Australian publishing. It already had, since at least the 1920s, become a media trope within Australia. It was a locus of a powerful kind of ‘aspirational anxiety’ within Australia. Louis Nowra has described Kings Cross as:

a piece of urban DNA where the two spirals interweave the safe and the dangerous, the Australian and the foreign, the old-fashioned glamour and trashy sexual exploitation, the underworld and city professionals, the seedy and glamorous, the hetero and gay, sexual freedom and commercial sex, the underclass and the rich, the beautiful and tawdry.[5]

And, as an emerging  popular media spectacle, Kings Cross was similarly a place of Bohemian artiness and Parisian boulevards, at the same time as it was a place of crime, drinking and sex. It was where airy aspirational fantasies of Australia finally graduating as a cosmopolitan country were mixed with deep atavistic fears of rampant sexuality and lawlessness.

Max Dupain, Soul of a City, published by Oswald Ziegler

The popular iconography of the Cross had been developing in the 1940s and 50s. Max Dupain contributed photographs of women in pretty print dresses strolling under the plane trees of Macleay Street to many Sydney books during those decades. But it really took off in the 1960s — on a broad visual front. The Cross not only featured in the film They’re a Weird Mob, it also became the staple location for Horwitz pulp fiction novels, and in 1965 was the subject of a Channel Nine TV documentary called The Glittering Mile.

The Glittering Mile in many ways sets a template for subsequent Cross iconography. It starts with a bit of history: the convict windmills and colonial villas on the ridge above the town reached by an aboriginal track through the scrub which eventually became William Street, and so on. It interviews what had already become a familiar cast of characters: the 1920s flapper Dulcie Deamer, the witch Rosalee Norton, the manager of the Pink Pussycat Last Card Louie, and so on. But it also adds a new character, a stunning looking Carlotta barely out of her teens, and before her sex change, who was interviewed backstage at The Jewel Box, a predecessor to Les Girls. And, like many other documentaries it takes us through a twenty-four hour period in the life of the Cross: from the the day when we surveil the same pretty print dresses we had seen in Max Dupain, to the night where we track strippers rushing between jobs. We are shown, on our TV screens in 1965, strippers performing inside strip clubs, and men soliciting prostitutes. It might have been these brief glimpses which led to calls for the TV documentary to be banned.

The Glittering Mile, Channel Nine, 1965

In 1965 the first book to be devoted entirely to the Cross was also published. Life at the Cross featured an anodyne text by Kenneth Slessor. Slessor had popularised ‘Bohemian Sydney’ in 1933 with his book of poems Darlinghurst Nights, and in the post war period had become the go-to laureate for poetical musings on Sydney. He was 64 by this time, and phoned in a text which is yawningly behaved. The book had an introduction by the Lord Mayor, so there is no imagery of prostitution, as there had been in The Glittering Mile, but nonetheless Robert Walker’s by now familiar imagery of ‘Parisian’ streets is spiced up with some tasteful strip club imagery, and even some drag act imagery. But all the stripper photographs are printed very small, and visually recuperated into images of suburbanites having a touristic fun night out, which are printed larger and dominate the pages.

Life at the Cross, Kenneth Slessor and Robert Walker, 1965

There is an obligatory excursion to the Cross in my other pick for best-Australian-photobook-ever, an acerbic take down of Australian complacency called Southern Exposure published in 1967 by Donald Horne, author of the excoriating book The Lucky Country, and the photographer David Beal. Their book which, as we can see from the cover, is dedicated to inverting Australian complacencies, also breaks down the unspoken wall between day and night which all previous visual representations of the Cross had adhered to in order to sustain the aspirational anxiety it represented — to keep separated the Cross’s twin helixes of cosmopolitanism and sleaze. In previous Cross representations the daytime is for Parisian boulevardiering, the night-time for frenetic excess. However in the double page spread of Beal’s obligatory Cross photos a fashionable young coffee drinker suspiciously glowers at the camera through narrowed eyes, wordlessly telling us to f… off, and we get a portrait of the Pink Panther’s garbage bin primly sunning itself in the bright morning.

Southern Exposure

As the sixties progressed the idea of youth — young people as a distinctive cultural category — began to occupy inner city iconography. Some young people began to bring a kind of hallucinogenic approach to inner city Sydney. For instance in 1968 the thirty-five year old left-wing writer and social analyst Craig MacGregor had got the job of writing the text for the tourist souvenir book To Sydney With Love. McGregor attempted a very personal beat-poetry howl on Sydney. He opened his text, meant to be read by ordinary Australians, with a cosmic experience of Sydney he had late at night standing on the roof of a block of flats in Potts Point looking into Woolloomooloo:

I know this city, I comprehend it utterly, my guts and mind embrace it in its entirety, it’s mine. It was a moment of exhilaration, of exquisite and loving perception, my soul stretched tight like Elliot’s across this city which lay sleeping and partly sleeping around me and spread like some giant Rorschach inkblot to a wild disordered fringe of mountains, and gasping sandstone, and hallucinogenic gums.

While the Cross sprouted these ecstatic visions, middle class Australia continued its fascination with it from a distance. For instance the tourist magazine Walkabout did a Cross story in 1969, adding yet another member to the cast of characters: Ted Noffs from the Wayside Chapel, which had been established in 1964 and had become a Cross institution. The following year Walkabout did yet another Cross story, this one by Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis and called ‘Wild Night in Big Bad Sydney’. Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey also contributed Kings Cross photographs to The Bulletin and The Sydney Telegraph.

Walkabout, 1969

Walkabout, 1970

Their contributions to these magazines were to become part of a larger project, a whole book aimed at a new market made up of the traditional market for Australiana, R&R servicemen, and the emerging hipster class. When the book Ellis and Stacey had been shooting finally came out in 1971, published by Nelson, it was badged as Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross. It was going to be their vision of the cross in photography. The blurb on the dust jacket capitalizes on the edginess of the project:

Over a period of six months the authors made frequent forays in the Cross armed with their cameras and a tape recorder. It was only by becoming known to the locals that they were able to record some of the remarkable scenes in this book. Nevertheless, there is much that they learned about the Cross which can only be hinted at. The laws of libel and the threats of bashing ensure a diplomatic silence. As one of the authors put it: ‘When a guy pulls a pistol on you and says that he’s going to shoot you, you know that it’s time to put away your camera and retire gracefully.

The young photographers, in their early thirties, took the reader right into the strip clubs and hippy pads of the area, using graphically dynamic and tight picture groupings and pungently personal text.[6] Their book had a decidedly hallucinogenic feel to it. Most significantly, the focal length of their lenses changed, while Robert Walker had been shooting with a something like a telephoto 135mm lens, Stacey and Ellis were shooting wide angle at 35mm. Walker’s strippers are seen from the back of the room, Stacey and Ellis take us into their dressing rooms

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

Ellis’s text for the book begins with a picaresque personal memory from 1958, when he came to the Cross after leaving a Melbourne grammar school. There he and his mates meet Babs. She is ‘training to be a strip-tease artiste’ and gives the boys a show they will never forget. From this mnemonic deflowering Ellis takes us back to the obligatory history of colonial windmills and villas, before plunging us into the present day, 1970. Like a Beat poet he introduces us to the people themselves:

Hippies and heads and spades; dog-walkers and cat-feeders; witches, warlocks, painters; poets, philosophers, pensioners, painters, prostitutes, perves; soldiers and sailors; strippers; gamblers and gunmen; camps and conmen; craftsmen, chefs, shopkeepers, foreigners, bikies, jewellers, junkies, nuns, schoolkids, tourists; princes and paupers and chicks on the make, cops on the take and even an Irish Jew or two. p6

For me this exhilarating list has echoes of a similar list Carol Jerrems made three years later in her Book About Australian Women, where she said she had photographed:

“…….artists – painters, sculptors, writers, poets, filmmakers, photographers, designers, dancers, musicians, actresses and strippers. Others included women’s liberationists, Aboriginal spokeswomen, activists, revolutionaries, teachers, students, drop-outs, mothers, prostitutes, lesbians and friends.”.[7]

Carol Jerrems, Virginnia Fraser, A Book About Australian Women, 1974

Although we meet the same cast of characters introduced in previous Cross publications, including the aging flapper Dulcie Deamer, and the aging witch Rosalee Norton, Ellis’s text take us down onto the street where his own libidinal gaze is roused:

The streets are busy with shoppers, especially determined little old ladies with straw hats and gloves and, in summertime, perhaps a parasol, and itinerant kids brushing from one to another killing time or maybe stretching it out. The girls are extraordinary nymphets—cascades of hair, bare feet, and erect nipples denting T-Shirts over faded Levis or perhaps they wear long tie-died dresses or Indian gear. For most, the bra is passé. They amble along the street, breasts jiggling like delicious jellies, features open to the world. The boys are hairy and hip. They look like ancient warriors and act like troubadours. p8

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

On pages like this we see the ambition of the book, but also its graphic naivety. Unlike all previous Australian photobooks, Ellis’s text is linked closely to his images of the same experiences, which are often printed on the same page as the text. The book’s design attempts to break out of the staid stolid design of the previous decades, so occasionally it creates centrifugal layouts of small images across double page spreads. These small images are also run along the top of the pages which carry his text, but they are a bit too small to be seen properly by the reader.

On other pages Ellis indulges in long Beat-style riffs that encapsulates not so much a visually captured scene, as a personally experienced moment:

Keep your eyes and your mind wide open and you’ll see it all— the passing parade, a perennial Mardi Gras with no threat of Lent to follow. Across the road—hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare hare—there are eight of them, the men with shaven heads, except for a tuft on the crown, the girls pretty and gentle with long plaits over their shoulders, all in flowing robes, their foreheads symbolically marked in white. Together they sway from foot to foot, a devoted chorus line of the Hare Krishna movement chanting their mantra to a drum beat and a hand clap— hare krishna hare krishna—it’s an infectious rhythm and people stop to stare, and wait for something to happen, while others join in and chant. Some hurry past as if it wasn’t really happening at all. Several Japanese businessmen leave a restaurant and climb into a long chauffeur driven car. They glance momentarily at a curvy girl in a Superman T-shirt—rama hare rama rama—while another with a gold-lettered satin sash across her shoulder walks past, handing out Whisky a Go Go invitation cards: ‘$2 includes food and drink for the sock-it-to-me happy hour and quarter and admittance all night until 3 a.m.’. People accept them indifferently. The hairy ones in their Levis are floating past, stalking shadows and followed by chunky-nippled girls in two and threes and solo, oblivious, I think, to the heads they turn. One girl in a crocheted top actually has her brown nub poking through the open knit like it’s coming up for air. You try not to look too hard and glance at the Back to Godhead magazine which you have been given—hare krishna, hare krishna—and before you’ve recovered another nymphet comes into view, beautiful and blonde, her stomach bare, her friend a willowy black soul brother bebopping along just like he was on 125th Street. Then, revving big Trummpies, a couple of Very Heavy bikies glide past, their leathered and crash-hatted ladies hunched on the back, defying the world. There are tourists in bermuda shorts with sunglasses and Instamatics and snappy little hats and next to me this jet-set guy with film star good looks and tinted hair, and his girl chain-smoking her unbelievable mauve cigarettes, and back in the street the ubiquitous little old Cross ladies tottering along all dressed up under ritzy white summer hats. And there goes Caddy, that white haired leprechaun with the side levers who carries the strippers’ bags and knows all their little secrets. Girls for a private show? Go see Caddy—hare hare rama hare—Hey man! Leonie, Jill of all trades, master of the quick con and sweet, sweet lady, mouths greetings, her snakey tatoo showing an inch above the neckline of her black satin shirt. Kerry the dog girl is shopping, and the Black Prince, with lovely young Veronica, is off downtown to flog his silver roach clips. Pilly the Dill and Fearless Fred the Drug Squad stalwarts cruise past, eyes piercing the crowded streets; Michael and Roger—Mimi and Ruth— triss by on their way to their favourite camping spot, and a thousand other people go about their daily shopping. On Thursday afternoon the scene will be the same but different, if you know what I mean. p30

It is no wonder that the following year Ellis said:

Much of my pleasure in photography is not in looking at the photographs, which I find boring, but my involvement in the actual situation of taking the shots, of preventing the moment from escaping forever.[8]

On other pages Ellis gives us extraordinary intimate vignettes:

At her home in Victoria Street, Michele, one of the strippers, talks about her job. She is English, very likeable and in her own style intelligent and articulate. She sits in her bra and pants on the couch under an Uncle Sam Wants You for The US Army poster and plays with her kitten. ‘Well actually I arrived in Australia with only $6 so I caught a cab, told the driver I danced, he told me he knew where I could get a job and took me to the Paradise Club and I started the next day waitressing and stripping. I used to do tables, jump up, get my gear off, then back on the tables. It was quite hard work really. But I liked it in the Cross. Compared with places like Soho and the Reeper-bahn in Hamburg it’s much more friendlier, not so vicious. It’s closer knit. Everyone knows everyone. And the bosses, the big guys, are more approachable here, you know, more like people. ‘Quite a lot of women come in to the shows. Sometimes they’re in long dresses after some fancy ball and they giggle and hide their faces. It’s funny to go up and shake your fanny around and embarrass them. And we have lots of middle-aged married couples up from Melbourne. Then there’s these downright perves who just sit there having wanks. It’s awful. They come in and sit in the front row, they’ve got glassy eyes, and they just pull it out and away they go. It’s so embarrassing. I look at them as I dance past and say “put it away you filthy bastard” and they just look at you blankly. They’re miles away in a sexual fantasy of their own. Mostly they’re young guys. Then there are the old regulars of course, great characters who think it’s great if the girls talk to them.’

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

At other times Ellis reports from within his own experience, like a gonzo school boy.

The Whisky a Go Go claims to be the Biggest Night Spot in the Southern Hemisphere. … You walk in under an explosion of neon in William Street, past a couple of tuxedoed and handsome dandies who scrutinise each and everybody. The last thing the Whisky wants is trouble, buddy. You pay your $2 and then, like jumping through the looking glass, you’re plunged into a maelstrom—a total environment that impinges on the senses like an electrical storm. Partly it’s manufactured by the management—light balls whirling in the dark, incredibly sexy go-go girls performing in chained and mirrored cages, forty near-nude waitresses, and the thundering amplified sounds of a rock group— and partly by the people themselves, shaking and shimmying on the dance floor as if they’re caught up in the electronic vibrations that burst out in waves from the huge speakers. The Whisky has been a big favorite with R & R boys, especially the Negroes. And black girls too. And they form their own turned-on little clique, dancing like mad with their big lit up spade smiles, flowing limbs and a knowing sensuality that stirs the loins. In contrast the rest of the Whisky oozes with a sort of contrived, but nonetheless effective, sexuality. The waitresses in a kind of bikini-sarong outfit, bend over your table and their boobs just about fall out all over you. The go-go dancers in their cages, reflected all angles several times over, are curvy ladies too, and they know how to make the curves work. In g-strings and bras they writhe away for ten minutes then take a twenty minute break. Six nights a week, six hours a night they work like convulsed marionettes.

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

Race is one issue that the book is completely uninhibited about displaying. The other issue is the changing role of women in Australia. Although Ellis’s libidinal gaze is never far away from the book, and although we see him developing this pervey gaze in the 1980s in the extraordinarily popular books Life’s a Beach and Life’s a Parade, in fact the experience of women becomes a focus for the Kings Cross book in a way which is totally unprecedented in other published Australian photobooks of the time. It is there in Ellis’s text. But also there in some of the striper shots, where they are pictured a adrift in a lonely void.

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

A stripper hurries across the road from one club to another. Her red panties are three inches lower than her mini skirt and as she walks they seem to flicker like a danger signal. Under her arm she carries the inevitable record that will set her in motion once she hits the stage. As she enters the door, Freddy the midget wrestler comes out and they exchange a nodded hullo. Freddy pushes his way through a knot of people who are staring across the road at a young woman and her baby. She is barefoot and in short shorts and carries her little boy on her hip. He is naked, save for a singlet that just covers his navel. Suddenly she places a square of newspaper on the ground and sits him on it while she stares into a shop window, resting her forehead on the glass. Then she’s off again. She stops and starts, stares at windows and a weighing machine, places her baby on the ground and picks him up again. Those who know drugs know she is tripping. Her shorts are very short and you can see the cheeks of her bottom grind together as her impatient steps take her from one manhole cover to the next. Each time she reaches her goal she stands stock still, staring and seemingly unaware of the impression she’s making on the crowd. Some are watching her because of the naked curve of her bottom. Others show genuine concern for her condition and for her baby, especially when she walks out into the traffic. But no one tries to help.

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

Like every account of the Cross, ever, Stacey and Ellis’s book ends on a Requiem for a lost Cross of the past, a Cross they experienced, but we can’t, we were too late.

Requiem: And so it goes on. Everywhere there are signs — Summit, Westfield, Mainline, Bank of NSW, Palisades, Home Units — proudly announcing the new projects. Many others are on the planning boards and in a few years time the Cross we know today will be unrecognizable. In place of the village will be a new satellite city. And much of the atmosphere that suggested this book will have vanished with the brick dust.

Kings Cross Sydney didn’t sell. It was an experiment that failed. In many ways it is a transitional publication, halfway between the tourist photography of the 1950s and 60s and the personally inflected photography of the 1970s. In 1974, just three years later, Morry Schwartz’s Outback Press published Carol Jerrem’s A Book About Australian Women with text by Virginnia Fraser, and Robert Ashton’s Into the Hollow Mountain, about Melbourne’s Fitzroy which combined text and poetry. The next Australian photobook to feature Kings Cross was thoroughly embedded in radical politics, it was Marion Marrison and Peter Manning’s Green Bans, which covered the fight to save Victoria Street, and was published by the Australian Conservation Foundation in 1975. Ellis submitted some more junkie pictures to an Ilford Photographic competition called Concern, and then opened up a photography gallery in Melbourne, and further honed his libidinal gaze to produce the extraordinarily popular books Life’s a Beach and Life’s a Parade in the 1980s.

Marion Marison and Peter Manning, Green Bans, 1975

Concern, 1972

Kings Cross Sydney is certainly is a flawed book. The layout seems extraordinarily amateurish to us now, but at least we can begin to see the photographers wrestling with the problem of deploying images across a page, although they can never seem to make up their minds what to do design-wise from page to page. We also see Ellis himself trying to work his photographs and his writing together. The book has disappeared to history almost completely, and though it is great that Ellis’s individual photographs are coming back to us through the work of the Rennie Ellis Archive, I think that Stacey and Ellis’s book project also is very important for the history of Australian photography. This is becasue, in the book Stacey and Ellis:

identified a market that might straddle both existing mainstream genres as well as newly emerging beat/hippy/gonzo modes;

shot the project in an unprecedented embedded process over a defined period of six months;

tried (and failed) to produce a designed book package integrating text and image;

all at the crucial historical juncture of 1970 as the R&R days of the late sixties were rolling over into the counterculture of the 1970s.

So I think it’s good.

 

[1] Gael Newton, Shades of Light : Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Canberra: Australian National Gallery: Collins Australia, 1988. Helen Ennis, Photography and Australia, London: Reaktion Books, 2007. Anne-Marie Willis, Picturing Australia: A History of Photography, North Ryde, N.S.W.: Angus & Robertson, 1988.

 

[2] Examples include: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Leslie Norman, 1959; They’re a Weird Mob, Michael Powell, 1966; Age of Consent, Michael Powell, 1969; Walkabout, Nicolas Roeg, 1971; Wake in Fright, Ted Kotcheff, 1971

 

[3] Frank Thompson, ‘Sixties Larrikins’, Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia 1946-2005. Ed. Craig Munro, and Robyn Sheahan-Bright. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2001.

 

[4] Dominic Bowes, Exposing Indecency, BA (Hons) thesis, University of Sydney, 2012

[5] Louis Nowra, Kings Cross: A Biography, 2013)

[6] Rennie Ellis and Wes Stacey, Kings Cross Sydney; a Personal Look at the Cross, Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1971

 

[7] Virginnia Fraser and Carol Jerrems, A Book About Australian Women. Outback Press. 1974 Outback Press was founded by Morry Schwartz, amongst others. Morry Schwartz is currently owner of the Black Imprint.

[8] Concern, edited by Harry Marks, Nelson, p48

Surface Glitter and Underground Guts

 

I’m enjoying preparing for a discussion I’m having about Rennie Ellis with Mandy Sayer and Manuela Furci at Surface Glitter and Underground Guts as part of the Kings Bloody Cross weekend. I was till going to primary school in Brisbane when Rennie (along with Wes Stacey) was cruising Macleay Street. But I loved finding these Horwitz book covers on line. It’s good to know that Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette’s book Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980 can be pre-ordered. Our discussion of Rennie Ellis will be on at The World Bar, 24 Bayswater Road, Kings Cross at 12.45 pm on Saturday 3 June.

Imagine my surprise when they told me he was a she

Take a look at this carte de visite.

Dr Henry Slade

Looks pretty ordinary doesn’t it. This carte of of the spirit medium Dr Henry Slade is from an album of spiritualist photographs compiled in Melbourne in the 1870s and acquired by the National Gallery of Australia about ten years ago. To my knowledge the NGA has never exhibited any of the 36 cartes from this fascinating album.  I used some of its pages in my book Faces of the Living Dead, and wrote about the whole album a while ago. Me and Craig Tuffin and Lisa Clunie even had a crack at reproducing one of its most interesting images, of Dr Richardson (on whom  Henry Handel Richardson’s  The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is based) with a spirt in London.

I thought I knew about Slade, who appears in the album. I thought I knew he  was an American slate writer who placed a piece of chalk between two slates sealed together. As they were held on the underside of the séance table spirits supposedly wrote messages on the slate. He visited London in 1876 when he was exposed by Professor Lankester who paid the usual pound fee for the séance but grabbed the slates from the medium’s hands before the spirits had supposedly commenced writing. Opening the slates he found the writing already there. Slade was sentenced to three months hard labour for obtaining money under false pretences. There was an appeal, the conviction was quashed on a technicality, and Slade fled for the continent and then Australia. In Australia he did slate writing but also levitated his sitters clear off the ground. But Dr Samuel Knaggs from Sydney secreted a mirror into the séance and held it between his knees. He saw Slade remove his foot from his kid slippers and rap on the table and write on the slate with his toes, while his body remained still.

Imagine my surprise when the historian David Waldron from Federation University told me that his student Dr Greg Young had discovered that Slade was a woman! As the Australian newspapers gleefully reported in 1879, after his successful mediumship in the Australian colonies Slade was returning home on a mail steamer to San Francisco. Half way across he was stricken with paralysis and the ships’s doctor was called. As the doctor loosed Slade’s necktie, vest and shirt to restore his circulation he made the discovery that Slade was a woman. When this was reported back in Australia many newspapers gleefully conjectured on what they called ‘The Slade Sensation’, while Australian spiritualists, such as W H Terry, whose carte is also in the NGA album, leapt to his defence.

W H Terry

Looking at the carte again after this revelation it’s easy to see a woman behind the moustache, but where does the moustache come from? According to the Australian newspapers Slade confessed that she had been shaving since she was a girl, and that had induced the facial hair to grow. Sydney’s Evening News of 1 October 1879 countered that scientific men had declared this to be impossible. But all images of Slade sport a magnificent moustache, so if it’s stuck on, she must have done it every day, religiously. But the advantages, in terms of her independence, must have been great, as all the other nineteenth century ‘passers’ attest. Ah the nineteenth century, the century that just keeps on giving! It would be lovely if the NGA could show these cartes some day.

Portraits of Survival at the Sydney Jewish Museum

 

My catalogue essay Portraits of Survival about Katherine Griffiths for the Sydney Jewish Museum’s exhibition ‘Closer’

Touch and vision are closely intertwined in photographs. The super-sensitive surface at the tip of each finger is intimately linked, perceptually if not physically, to the sensitive retina at the back of each eye. Just look at Katherine Griffiths’ photographs, as you look your fingertips will begin to almost tingle at the touch of the objects the survivors are holding. Recently this interest in ‘haptic vision’ has burgeoned amongst artists. In his widely influential book The Eyes of the Skin, Juhani Pallasmaa argues for the primacy of touch over all the other senses. ‘Touch’, he says, ‘is the sensory mode that integrates our experience of the world with that of ourselves.’ But not only does touch filter the outside world into our bodies, it also connects us directly to other humans, and to history:

The skin reads the texture, weight, density and temperature of matter. The surface of an old object, polished to perfection by the tool of the craftsman and the assiduous hands of its users, seduces the stroking of the hand. … The tactile sense connects us with time and tradition: through impressions of touch we shake the hands of countless generations.

Touch and the act of holding have long been integral to the history of photography. In early photographic studio portraits sitters were given leather-bound books or other items of social or religious significance to hold. These objects held symbolic power, but they also enabled the sitter to ‘perform’ their hands, their firm grip expressed the solidity of their place in the world. If touch connects us to identity, it also directly connects us to memory. In the nineteenth century bereaved mothers were frequently photographed holding photographs of their deceased children. Part of the emotional impact of these strange images is the paradoxical multiplication of time. The time of the child and the mother were split apart by death, but they are brought together again in the frozen instant of the photograph, which we, as viewers from the future, look mournfully back into. But their power also comes from the tragedy of touch. Instead of cradling the soft warm flesh of her child the bereaved mother can only grip a cold hard frame propped on her knee. In our contemporary mass media it is commonplace to see all types of victims gripping photographs of the dead, the missing, or the imprisoned in public acts of commemoration, mourning, or defiance. Some clutch their photographs protectively to their chests, others hold them up high and proud. Even in these press images it is the act of touching which again becomes the fulcrum of the image, pivoting between inner personal experience and outer public declaration.

It is therefore a rich tradition Katherine Griffiths has entered. But her photographs are not mournful, not defiant, and not ‘heavy’. Instead they are warm and even friendly. The survivors are photographed against an ordinary portrait studio backdrop, with ordinary portrait studio lighting. These are not stark mug shots of monumentalized faces, nor are they gritty evidence of the pathos of elderly people. Instead we see a rapport and collaboration between photographer and subject, all of whom look comfortable, neatly dressed, and … well … nice. They have been through a famously unrepresentable period in history, and hold objects freighted with an unbearable weight of pain, yet they look … well … ordinary. But it is a marvelous, rich, wonderful ordinariness.

Eddie Jaku delicately uncurls a thin, crumbling leather belt — the belt he wore through four prison camps — as though it was a timorous animal curled up in his hands. The viewer’s sense of the texture of the belt’s splitting tongue against his fingers, and the weight of its buckle on his palm, powerfully reconstitute the experiences he endured and the now absent trousers the belt once held up. Egon Sonnenschein looks directly into our eyes as he holds out to us a postcard whose surface is covered with the coloured marks and inscriptions of its ricocheting around Europe. The wings of this ephemeral butterfly appear to have been delicately caught in mid-flight by the tips of his fingers.

When they are held in the birdlike hands of survivors, the yellowing passports, certificates, and identity papers from the past — the slips of paper that enabled the wheels of historical fate to turn — take on a higher charge. This is especially so when a photograph is found amidst the bureaucratic hieroglyphs. Helena Goldstein, aged 97, looks straight down the camera at us as she presents her identity card. Amongst the inky stamps and smudged signatures we find her ID photograph where, aged 24, she once again looks straight at us with a clear-eyed smile. The same looks travel to us in close parallel, though separated by oceans of time. In a reversal of the normal roles of mother and daughter Ilse Charny cradles a tiny image of her mother in the form of an identity photograph within a Shanghai Jewish refugee document. She holds more than just banal data but a direct, even fleshy, connection to history as we recognize family resemblances in both faces.

George Gronjowski holds up his concentration camp tunic for us to see, but his red-rimmed eyes are looking off into the past. This faraway look is also in the eyes of John Gruschka as he fans out, between the parchment-like skin of his fingers, the desiccated pages of the letters his mother wrote to him from Prague, as he sheltered in England, before her murder in Auschwitz. Joe Symon stares frankly ahead as he confidently flips up for us a photograph of his fifteen year old self, while Lotte Weiss, wearing her hair done elegantly in a salon, freshly applied lipstick, golden earrings, pearls, and a warm, open expression, holds her shaven-headed mug shots from Auschwitz across her chest while matter-of-factly displaying the identification number tattooed on her arm.

Peter Rossler gazes into our eyes as he shows us his Aunt’s Jewish star, clasped by its topmost point. It’s a badge, now a tentative emblem of pride, which perfectly plays off the school-crests stitched across his neatly tied neck-tie. In a similar way, Jaqueline Dale holds a model of a wooden ship, an incongruously bulky internment camp souvenir, against her pink top and pearls.

Although they are all humble, not all these precious objects come from the dark days of the Holocaust. Some contribute to other narratives, such as the broader history of migration to Australia. For instance Yvonne Engel ‘brings a plate’ to the exhibition, it was brought from Woolworths in 1949 as a humble wedding gift for the first marriage of child survivors on Australian soil. The weight of the decoratively cut glass Yvonne’s holds out to us makes us think of all the savouries and sweets this plate has carried to social functions over the subsequent decades as the couple put down their roots in Australian society.

The touch and feel of the domestic is a powerful thread throughout these survivors’ lives. Paul Drexler cradles the blanket which comforted him during the war over his knees as he looks off to one side in quiet, inner contemplation. Olga Horak also holds a blanket, this one made of human hair. Here we once again experience the transforming power of touch. Typically, human hair is beautiful on the head, but abjectly disgusting when detached from the head. But under the transformative power of Olga’s soft touch and equally soft eyes the blanket is no longer just a curious museum object, or historical evidence of cruelty and suffering, it becomes a beautiful warm, comforting, familiar thing.

In these portraits a photographer has collaborated with her subjects in the safe, respectful space of the studio. The photographs, although dealing with memories of historical cataclysm, approach the subject through touch — the most ordinary, the most intimate, and the most marvellous of all the senses.

Martyn Jolly

Katherine Griffiths, George Gronjowski, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Gerty Jellinek, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Ilse Charny, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Jack Meister, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Lena Goldstein, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Lotte Weiss, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Olga Horak, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Peter Rossler, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’