Why do so many urban Aboriginal photographers re-use old photographs in their work?
In the last decade there has been a flowering of Aboriginal photography, mostly by urban Aborigines. Before the eighties there were very few active Aboriginal photographers – Mervyn Bishop is virtually the only example. During the course of the eighties, as Bishop’s own career came to be recognised, a few other Aboriginal photographers also came to prominence: most spectacularly Tracey Moffatt, but also Michael Riley, Brenda Croft and Ricky Maynard. But in the nineties there has been a veritable explosion. As the recent National Gallery of Australia exhibition Re-take makes clear there has also been a general change in the style of Aboriginal art photography in the 90s: away from a relatively straightforward, but in no sense naive, documentary style – as was used by the Aboriginal contributors to the Bicentennial After Two Hundred Years book, and in the Aboriginal documentation of the Bicentennial protests – and towards a more postmodern, theoretically savvy, ‘art school’ style.
This explosion parallels similar explosions of urban Aboriginal creativity in painting, film and theatre. But more importantly it also parallels a growth in Aboriginal history telling, inaugurated by Marcia Langton’s ‘After the Tent Embassy’, much of which relied on archival photographs.1 As well this explosion accompanies a ratcheting up of the pitch of popular debate about Aboriginal issues and in particular our ethical responsibility to the history and memory of race relations in Australia. Those fateful few words – Mabo, Wik and The Stolen Children – not only resonate plangently in our historical consciousness, but have also planted a specific array of images in our collective visual consciousness: the bearded Mabo himself, barefooted kids in orphanages, etc.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that contemporary urban Aboriginal photography is characterised by two things: a wordiness, a play or struggle with the weight of words – both English and Aboriginal; and the re-use of old photographs – both historical documents and family snapshots.
Just a quick roll call of the Aboriginal photographers who have, at some time or other re-used old photographs: Leah King-Smith, Brook Andrew, Rea, Julie Gough, Fiona Foley and the painter Gordon Bennet have all directly copied and re-used archival museum and gallery photographs; Fiona Foley and the early Tracey Moffatt have renegotiated their relationship to these ‘received’ images by some kind of performative response in the present; Brenda Croft, Destiny Deacon and Gordon Bennet have directly re-used family snapshots in their work. Received styles or retro atmospheres are also evoked by late period Tracey Moffatt, Destiny Deacon and Brenda Croft.
This is not unique to Aboriginal photography. Old photographs, both personal and historic, and retro atmospheres, both oppressive and kitsch, haunt contemporary photography globally. In particular migrant artists, say for instance Elizabeth Gertsakis, have used old photographs to talk about their dislocation from the past and their, at least partial, alienation from a present which still marginalises their heritage. Many settled white artists, such as say Narelle Jubelin or Fiona MacDonald, also reuse old photographs to talk about general issues of post colonialism in Australia and elsewhere. But then, as Andreas Huysman’s points out, today everybody is dislocated from their past, it is part of our general millennial condition in which we have been cast adrift by the multitude of twentieth century geopolitical diasporas, and muffled by mediating technologies which make historical consciousness and collective memory vicarious experiences.2
The question is, is Aboriginal photography just one further instance of this? Is it a more politically intense instance? Or is it fundamentally different? Certainly few peoples have been so brutally dislocated from their past as Australian Aborigines. And they have long used photography both symbolically and forensically to find their past. Many personal narratives of historical discovery use family snapshots. And several Australian museums now take a proactive role in using their collections to re-forge individual historical connections. For instance the South Australian Museum’s Aboriginal Community and Family History Unit helps Aboriginal people learn more about their families and communities using photographs originally taken by Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdsell and held in the Museum’s Anthropology Archives. 3
However the irony is, that unlike a white person using family snaps as aide memoires at a family reunion or historical images as a forensic genealogical clues, Aboriginal seekers after their family history are often using anthropological photographs that were not made to document individuals, but to identify anthropological types; and not as systematic social records, but as fragmented scientific specimens. They were taken not to confirm historical presence, but to preserve a record in order to posthumously confirm the historical extinction of the original.
A current newspaper cliché is the photograph of an elderly mnemonist either mournfully cradling a photograph from the past, or holding it up in a grim parody of an institutional identity board. The aetiology of this image goes back to Daguerreotype mourning portraits, but I think the current craze in Australian newspapers probably began with images of Aborigines from the stolen generation. Now the visual cliché is used more generally to picture any kind of poignant memory particularly, for some reason, that of war widows. However the Aboriginal images remain the most effective, again because the photographs which are held up were instrumental, not incidental to history. It is perhaps this bitter irony that makes the symbolic use of old photos in urban Aboriginal art, and the forensic use of old photographs by Aboriginal people of the stolen generation, qualitatively different from migrant or mainstream uses of old photographs.
To Gordon Bennet perspective itself is politically implicated. In 1993 he said:
“perspective may be seen as symbolic of a certain kind of power structure relating to a particular European world view … Aborigines caught in this system of representation remain ‘frozen’ as objects within the mapped territory of a European perceptual grid.”4
Lately the anthropological portrait has been held up as not only the theoretical paradigm of colonial attempts at genocide, but also an act of violence technically akin to, and part of, of the very process of that attempted genocide.
Therefore the photographs used by urban Aboriginal photographers are not monuments, they do not commemorate an historical closure on the past. In a way they are anti-monuments, images of unquiet ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves. There is a feeling of active dialogue with the past, a two way corridor through time, almost a voodoo quality, or a sense of New Age channelling. Brenda Croft in her Barthesian meditation on nineteenth century colonial Aboriginal photographs “Laying Ghosts To Rest”, accompanying Portraits of Oceania, comes closest to articulating this feeling. She allows herself the indulgence of retroactively investing the agency of political resistance in the portraits when she says:
“Images like these have haunted me since I was a small child and … [and] were instrumental in guiding me to use the tools of photography in my work.” […] “The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest.” 5
Clare Williamson, in discussing Leah King-Smith’s exhibition Patterns of Connection in which archival photographs are superimposed on landscapes, describes how King-Smith pictorially, rather than rhetorically, invests the images with the same ability to project the past into the present. She says:
“It is instructive to examine King-Smith’s imagery alongside the historical images which are her sources. These small black and white photograph’s ‘contain’ their aboriginal subjects as objects which can be held in the hand, collected, stored and viewed at will. Their placement of the figure within a fabricated European (or a constructed ‘native’ one), and set well back from the picture plane, creates a gulf between viewer and subject, and an inequitable relationship in favour of the viewer. King-Smith reverses the order. Large colour saturated images ‘impress’ the viewer. The figures are brought right to the picture plane, seemingly extending beyond the frame and checking our gaze with theirs.”6
Brook Andrew invests the bodies of his nineteenth century subjects, released from the closet of the past, not only with a libidinous body image inscribed within the terms of contemporary media and contemporary ‘liberated’ masculinity, but also with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as “I Split Your Gaze”. Some of these works also attempt to reverse the relationship of subject and object in the nineteenth century colonial portrait along the trajectory of the gaze, and to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, ambiguous gaze returned from history.
Even when the contemporary Aboriginal artist’s body ritualistically and purgatorially takes on colonial subjugation, the historic photograph and, more significantly, the alignment of gazes, is still the vitalising channel of connection. In her reading of Fiona Foley’s reinactments of the colonial photographs of her Badtjala ancestors, Olu Oguibe describes how the trans-historical objectifying gaze is made to rebound off Foley’s obdurate, physical body:
“In Foley’s photographs the Other makes herself available, exposes herself, invites our gaze if only to re-enact the original gaze, the original violence perpetrated on her. She does not disrupt this gaze nor does she return it. She recognises that it is impossible to return the invasive gaze, that what purports to be a return gaze is only a mimicry. Instead Foley forces the gaze to blink, exposes it to itself.”7
In these contemporary uses of the colonial photograph the original intention and function of the photographer is evacuated. We find ourselves in his empty shoes, shuttling back and forth along a two way channel formed along the alignment of the two interlocking gazes of sitter and viewer, object and subject, past and present. This gives the Aboriginal use of old photographs a different valency to equivalent uses of old photographs by migrant or long-term settler photographers. Yet, nonetheless, a sense of this channelling pervades all the contemporary uses of old photographs, and is intensified in Aboriginal use.
At this point my narrative frays into loose ends. How to think this Aboriginal re-use of old photographs? And in particular, for my purposes, how to think it in terms of history and collective memory, and the photograph itself as a mnemonic artefact? Below I list some references which I have found suggestive, and which might provide a direction for further theoretical research.
One approach may be to explore the photograph’s magical qualities of mimesis. Michael Taussig, in Mimesis and Alterity, describes ‘primitive’ uses of mimetic magic among the Cuna Indians, which he suggestively refigures in a postcolonial context by equating it to Benjamin’s notion of an ‘optical unconscious’ which can from time to time produces flashes of a ‘profane illumination’. Taussig uses the two laws of sympathetic magic derived from George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: the law of similarity, in which like produces like; and the law of contagion, in which things which have once been in contact continue to act on each other. By ritualistically running back up these channels of sympathetic connection the magician is able to reverse the flow of fact to thought and thing to image, and produce effects in the real world by mimesis. In Taussig’s formulation photographs are ‘mimetically capacious’ technologies. Their indexicality gives sight the ‘bodily impact’ and the ‘phsiognomic effect’ of a ‘tactile vision’. He quotes Benjamin:
“Only when in technology body and image so interpenetrate that all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation, and all the bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge, has reality transcended itself to the extent demanded by the Communist Manifesto.’8
In a less utopian and more strategic way, perhaps contemporary Aboriginal photographers are using old photographs to innervate themselves with historical tension Using the mimetic indexicality of the photograph, and the interpenetration of the photograph with both historical and lived bodies, the shaman/photographer reverses the flow of time and answers the call of the dead.
All this talk of shamans and magic is not as whacky as it sounds. The metaphor of the photograph as a ghost image is commonplace, and used by both Kracauer and Benjamin in their influential discussions of photography. There is also general agreement that the images of Aborigines used by these photographs are ‘ghostly’, and haunt the contemporary viewer. Indeed the body politic of Australia as a whole has long been haunted by the ‘Spectre of Truganini’. In their book Uncanny Australia Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs use Australian ghost stories to describe the uncanniness of Australia’s relationship to Aboriginal spirituality. In postcolonial terms they see hauntings as a productive occurrence:
“‘Ghosts’ simply could not function in a climate of sameness, in a country which fantasises about itself as ‘one nation’ or which imagines a utopian future of ‘reconciliation’ in which … all the ghosts have been laid to rest. But neither can they function in a climate of nothing but difference, where the one can never resemble the other, as in a ‘divided’ nation. A structure in which sameness and difference solicit each other, spilling over each other’s boundaries only to return again to their respective places, moving back and forward in an unpredictable, even unruly manner … : this is where the ‘ghosts’ which may cause us to ‘smile’ or to ‘worry’ continue to flourish.”9
At the very least Aboriginal ghosts remind Australia that there is unfinished business. Raymond Williams makes a distinction between the archaic and the residual, the ‘residual’ for Raymond Williams is “still active in the political process”. These photographs cannot be monuments because they are still left over from the past, residual to history.10 The idea of ghosts soliciting the fickle memory of a too self-absorbed, too quickly forgetful later generation also scans across to the role of ANZAC ghosts in Australian collective memory. Examples are Will Dyson’s famous cartoon A Voice From Anzac of 1927 where two ghostly Anzacs, left on the beach at Gallipoli, receive solace from hearing, across the oceans, the marching feet of their returned comrades on Anzac day. Another example is Longstaff’s Menin Gates 1927. (More recent examples are the eerie freeze frame at the end of Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli, and the digital ghosting used in a video projection behind a Gallipoli landing boat in the Australian War Memorial’s new Orientation Gallery.)
There is a hint of this cross scan in a recent series of photographs by Darren Siwes. By ghosting himself standing to attention in a series of night photographs taken around Adelaide, he seems to be referring to an Aboriginal haunting, but he also evokes a feeling of an Anzac memorial statue.
The idea of the artist shaman also has contemporary currency in the New Age movement. New Agers have often appropriated Aboriginal spirituality, and at the same time contemporary Aboriginals and New Agers are occasionally fellow travellers.11 Leah King-Smith is explicitly New Age. She concludes her artist’s statement by asking that: “… people activate their inner sight to view Aboriginal people.”12 Her work animistically gives the museum photographs she re-uses a spiritualist function. Referring to Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Anne Marsh describes this as a ‘strategic essentialism’. She says:
“There is little doubt, in my mind, that Leah King-Smith is a kind of New Age evangelist and many serious critics will dismiss her work on these grounds. Others will point to the artist’s misplaced desire to represent Aboriginal Australia: to talk for the subaltern, as it were. But I am interested in why the images are so popular and how they tap into a kind of cultural imaginary and use the mythology of photography’s syntax … to conjure the ineffable. … Leah King-Smith’s figures resonate with a constructed aura: the skin which is shed onto the photographic plate is given an enhanced ethereal quality through the use of mirrors and projections. The ‘mirror with a memory’ comes alive as these ancestral ghosts, already simulacra in their Anglo costumes, seem to drift through the landscape as a seamless version of nineteenth century spirit photography.”13
The role of performance is also important to these photographs. In discussing the Bringing Them Home report on the Stolen Generation of 1997, John Frow comments that the report supplements the standard historiographic citation of the past with collaged-in fragments of first-person testimony. Frow uses De Certeau’s discription of historiographic citation which allows the past to lend an effect of reality that validates historical knowledge in the present. Through citation the present makes the past intelligible, but also separates past from present. Collage on the other hand gives the past direct effectively and answerability within the present. In the Stolen Generations inquiry the unmediated, cathartic, performed testimony of witnesses allows the past to report on the present, just as the present is supposedly meant to be soberly reporting on the past.14
Similarly, in their re-use of old photographs, Aboriginal photographers do not cite them, or ‘appropriate’ them, so much as collage them into the present, using them to demand an answer from the present. They are trying not to so much appropriate them across culture, as collage them across time. They ‘re-perform’ the old photograph in the present in order to generate this sense of temporal collage. It might be this need to re-perform which gives many of these photographs their overwrought feeling. They seem histrionic, melodramatic, and pictorially overproduced – as though urban aboriginal photographers have to try very hard to ritualistically get in touch with their ancestors. They use an excessive bricolage of special effects verging on the banal to generate a sense of connection. An important aspect of their success or failure is the supplementation of the viewer’s own politically strategic sense of shame, our desire as good (white) liberals to say ‘sorry’, which we bring to the image.
The question I am therefore left with is: just how strategic is this Aboriginal flirtation with the magic of old photographs. Are they, whilst being made politically active in the present, kept in a dialectical relationship to it? After all photographs of long dead Aborigines are, in fact, merely insubstantial ghosts, they are not the Aborigines themselves. Are contemporary Aboriginal photographers hijacking the past for their own politico/aesthetic ends? In their attempts to break through the historicist impasse that tragically freezes contemporary Australian political discourse, are they collapsing time itself into a banal fantasy of strategic presentness?
1. Catherine De Lorenzo, ‘Delayed Exposure: Contemporary Aboriginal Photography’, Art In Australia, 1997, 35, 1,
2. Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories: Marking time in a culture of amnesia, New York and London, Routledge, 1995, , Introduction pp3-9
3See also the Berndt Collection in the Western Australian Museum, and the exhibition Portraits of our Elders by the Queensland Museum. . Michael Aird, Portraits of our Elders, Brisbane, Queensland Museum, 1993,
4. Gordon Bennett, ‘Aesthetics and Iconography: an artist’s approach’, Aratjara: Art of the First Australians, Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 1993,
5. Brenda L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, Portraits of Oceania, Judy Annear, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997, p9, 14
6. Clare Williamson, ‘Leah King-Smith: Patterns of Connection’, Colonial Post Colonial, Melbourne, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, 1996, p46
7. Olu Oguibe, ‘Medium and Memory in the Art of Fiona Foley’, Third Text, 1995-96, Winter 1995-96, , pp58-59
8. Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, New York, Routledge, 1993, p58
9. Ken Gelder and Jane M.Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation, Melbourne University Press, 1998, p42
10 Raymond Williams “Dominant, Residual and Emergent”, Marxism and Literature, Oxford University Press, 1977. Quoted in . Ken Gelder and Jane M.Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation, Melbourne University Press, 1998, p18
11. L. R. Hiatt, ‘A New Age for an Old People’, Quadrant, 1997, 16, 337,
12. Leah King-Smith, ‘Statement’, Patterns of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992,
13. Anne Marsh, ‘Leah King-Smith and the Nineteenth century Archive’, History of Photography, 1999, 23, 2, p117
14. John Frow, ‘The Politics of Stolen Time’, Meanjin, 1998, 57, 2,