Nineteen Sixty-Three: News and Information
This project is a development on my recent photographic installations in which I examined my relationship to Australia’s past by copying small sections out of reproduced photographs. In Wonderful Pictures, for instance, I photographed the upward curving pages of opened Australiana picture books to capture poignant details in thin slices of focus emerging out of blur. That work was exhibited in whole or in part from 1994 to 1996, and a selection of images was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia.
I see ‘Nineteen Sixty-Three’ as an idiosyncratic visual archaeology of Australia’s recent past. I have worked in the Australian Archives amongst a series of some 100,000 photographs which came from the Australian News and Information Bureau. From this vast visual loam I have taken a ‘core sample’ from the period around 1963.1 have chosen this date because it marks the time when my personal organic memory began to intermingle with my mediatised historical memory.
I have sifted through these several thousand images looking for sharp visual shards from the past. I have then used a high resolution scanner to isolate and enlarge the selected details from these photographs, which have been visually enhanced in a computer and outputted by a high resolution ink jet printer. I have concentrated on gesture, unconscious body language, the folds and creases of clothing, the juxtaposition of patterns and surfaces, the orientation of objects within architectural space, and so on.
I have produced one hundred images each of 200mm by 250mm. They are printed onto smooth rag paper and mounted, trimmed to the edge, onto fibrous blocks of rag board several centimetres thick. They will be installed in a loose grid in order to create subtle visual relationships between the images.
The Australian News and Information Bureau existed, in various forms, from the Second World War until very recently. It promoted Australia overseas and employed photographers and journalists to document aspects of ordinary Australian life, diplomatic receptions, and examples of Australia’s economic and cultural development. The photographs taken by Bureau photographers have been sorted, indexed and stored chronologically by the Australian Archives. Of the hundred thousand or so in the entire collection, several thousand cover 1963, the year in which I turned four years old, and the year from which my first personal memories—of kindergarten— come. Of course I can ‘remember’ back to a time before 1963, but before that date I must share in the collective memory of all Australians which is technologically retained in photographs and film. And after that date I am never quite sure where my own ‘organic’ memory of Australia ends and where my ‘prosthetic’ memory, which comes from the endless photographs, films and TV I have seen about the sixties, seventies and eighties, begins.
We are increasingly relying on photographs to give us a sense of our past. At one extreme they are turning up, monu-menially enlarged and etched into marble, on public monuments. At the other extreme the style of old Box Brownie snapshots or 8mm home movies is being used to advertise more and more products, from home loans to Vegemite. The humble snapshot is becoming increasingly valued within this collective mnemonic process at the expense of the ‘official’ portrait or view. Snapshots seem to be a more authentic, a more direct route to the heart of the past, with less chance for distortion by the power of public institutions. Ironically it is now public institutions, in the form of museums, corporations and advertising agencies, which are trading on the enduring and mesmerising fascination of the snapshot.
And that is what has prompted my fascination with ‘official’ photographs. The ones carefully preserved by their thousands in Canberra, stored in row upon row of acid-free boxes, are boring in the extreme. Although they are professionally composed and exposed on large format film, they have none of the immediate compulsion to look possessed by even the blurriest snapshot. They were taken not for love, but at the behest of a government policy to promote an ideological view of Australia which has long since fallen into disrepair. The people in them are slightly embarrassed, they have combed their hair and straightened their ties. They just want the photographer to finish his job and leave. But such is the power of the photograph that despite the awkwardness of the encounter some trace element of their personality and their time can still be distilled from the emulsion. The people photographed by Australian News and Information Bureau photographers were caught not ‘just being themselves’, as in the snapshot, but ‘being themselves vainly attempting to be a national cipher’. They are awkwardly suspended between the two and it is along this seam that I have attempted to mine for small nuggets of the past.
I do not want to correct ‘wrong’ images, rather, I wish to find evidence of bodily materiality within the overt message of the photograph, and to find fibres of memory in the skeins of history. I am driven by a kind of prurient fascination with these accidentally preserved, yet enigmatic fragments of time, space and bodily presence. To me these fragments are like stolen glances away from the official object of attention, furtive whisperings at the back of the class room. Or else they are like eccentric cinematic cut-away shots from the main drama of history.
Random notes on my practice:
My technique is a very particular one, I am not creating new images. I am not even modifying or manipulating existing images, or ironically recasting them and re-investing them with new meaning like a post modern appropriationist. My practice is a kind of hyper-curating. I am simply identifying and ‘framing’ fragments that 1 like, or which affect me. The task of the viewer is to join with me in mutual recognition.
The viewer needs to deploy particular skills in looking at the pictures in order to ‘get’ them by recognising what 1 have seen, because there are no obvious signs of beauty, crafted facture or compositional skill. In this sense I feel more allied to the picture editor of a newspaper than to the traditional artist. The picture editor regularly calls on the newspaper’s readers to deploy similar semiotic skills of discernment and pick up on the editorial spin given to news photographs by incidental details.
I have been guided in my hyper-curatorship by the twin pole-stars of scopophilia and prurience. I have tried to cultivate an almost libidinal desire to penetrate the emulsion and touch the flesh of the past. I feel allied in this libidinal quest, and in it being ultimately doomed to failure, to two movie characters: David Hemmings in Airtonioni’s Blow Up, who penetrated the photograph only to find the ultimate unknowability of chaotic film grain; and Harrison Ford in Blade Runner who was able to use digital enhancement to overcome the analogical resolution problems of film grain, but alas still did not find real memories, but artificially simulated ones. Like David Hemmings and Harrison Ford I, too, ultimately encountered the intractable resistance of the photographic surface. I too was left frustrated and unsatiated.
In all of my work I have always needed to avoid the twin demons of nostalgia and kitsch. Both haunt my work and need to be eradicated. 1 have used Photoshop to evacuate the images of any atmosphere. They become grainless ink images on paper—non-pannated and non-auratic. I am not interested in a nostalgic chumminess with the past, or an awe filled distance, I want a respectful familiarity.
The Photoshop cleansing has given them a surgical quality. This allows me to present these images as isolated shards or punctums from tlie past. In most cases I have deliberated decapitated figures to exclude the most mesmerising part of the image, the face and the eyes, this redirects attention to the incidental details. In one sense my work is not dissimilar to the American documentary film maker Ken Burns who, in his TV series The Civil War and The West, diegetically animated photographs by putting them on a moving rostrum under an animation camera an tracking and zooming over them to open them out into mini movies. However my details remain mute and enigmatic—like an archaeological fragment.
1 have also extinguished the native title of the original photographers. I know their names, but I have suppressed their auteurial claims. The normal explanatory caption, which
also anchors meaning, has also been expunged. The images have been winkled out of any exegetic carapace.
There are a few themes which run through the collection. One is the bodies of men. 1 think that the bodies of men are actually central to our visual culture- The business pages of any newspapers are filled with large scale pictures of blokes in suits. In part this show is an archaeology of blokeness. I believe that I have discovered that blokes occupied space differently in 1963.
Another thread is the traumatised toddler. Toddlerdom is where the individual is inducted into the collective. But in addition the toddler images are where the autobiographical significance of 1963 conies in, it is just possible that one of those toddlers could be me.
There are also images of a certain kind of sensuality and eroticism, which I have tried to find in unlikely places. The past is erotic.
MARTYN JOLLY is an artist and Head of Photomedia Workshop, Canberra School of Art.
All images, details Nineteen Sixty-Three: News and Information, 1997.
Nineteen Sixty-Three: News and Information was produced with the assistance of the Australia Council. A selection of the work was exhibited at the Australian Archives Gallery in Old Parliament House, Canberra, as a part of the Canberra Contemporary Art Space project. Archives ei the Everyday. Nineteen Sixty-Three:
News and Information will be presented at the RMTT Gallery Melbourne in March 1998 &attheACP, Sydney August 1998.