Review of ‘At Home in Australia’ and ‘In a New Light’

Review of ‘At Home in Australia’, National Gallery of Australia publication by Peter Conrad, and ‘In a New Light’, National Library of Australia exhibition, Art Monthly Australia, December, 2003, pp 5  — 10

At Home in Australia, written by Peter Conrad, Canberra and London, National Gallery of Australia and Thames & Hudson, 2003

In a New Light: Australian Photography 1850s – 1930s, curated by Helen Ennis, National Library of Australia, until January 16, 2004.

Gael Newton has conducted perhaps the boldest and most extraordinary experiment in Australian photography for a long time. Rather than writing her own sober and authoritative account of the Australian photographs in her collection at the National Gallery of Australia, or mounting a blockbuster exhibition showcasing their diverse styles and qualities, she instead invited confirmed expatriate Peter Conrad to make a two week excursion to Australia to look at all the photographs and write a 256 page 70,000 word book about Australia through them.

Conrad is the youngest and last in the line of Australia’s celebrity expatriate writers — Clive James, Peter Porter, Germaine Greer, et al — who have made it in the UK, but have still retained a fraught relationship with the country of their origin, making re-appearances from time to time, as if to deal with unfinished business, and then disappearing again.

Conrad’s text begins with the primal origin du monde which has been the elusive font for so many recent accounts of photography: the box of snapshots his parents kept on the family mantelpiece. Conrad left that maternal hearth, and Australia, for good in 1968, escaping conscription on a Rhodes Scholarship. He left home for what he regarded as a return to his cultural centre in England in an adolescent high dudgeon at the banality, boredom and brutalisation Australia had subjected him to. And when his parents eventually died, their box of photographs was one of the few objects which he transferred to his own mantelpiece in England. But, inevitably, these few images, which went back only one or two generations, weren’t up to the task of reconciling the doubly-deracinated Conrad to his natal home. He therefore adopts the National Gallery collection as a surrogate family album, and declares an intention to write about them as if the were our collective family album since, after all, “remembering, which involves making mental photographs, is a collusive, contagious activity, because our memory is interchangable.” And indeed Conrad has been fearless in weaving much of himself and a lot of his own memories through the photographs. The reader is encouraged to empathise with Conrad’s homesickness and dislocation through the mnemonic vignettes he extrapolates out of the photographs. And he has such a facility with the language that this is not hard to do, even when the occasional spleen he vents on those who were obviously his main childhood tormenters — young ocker men and their girlfriends — has tipped his writing over into petulant displays of colonialist disdain. For instance he describes Peter Elliston’s, admittedly complacent and smug, sunbathing Couple on Platform at Giles Baths, Coogee, as ‘cave dwellers’ who have ‘not yet learnt to walk upright’, at home amongst a sprawl of non-biodegradable filth and pollution

Conrad built his reputation on expansive, encyclopaedic books such as his account of the twentieth century, Modern Times, Modern Places, which like many other popular history books at the moment paints a larger picture through piling up telling anecdote upon telling anecdote, significant detail upon significant detail. And in looking at the photographs in the National Gallery’s collection it is the details in the images, the unnoticed ‘punctums’ from which he can spin a felicitous turn of phrase or an intriguing speculation, that he homes in on again and again. His eye for the detail is acute. So acute that often the incidental details his hungry eye had grasped as he was going through the original prints barely survive their reproduction at much smaller scale in the book. For instance most people wouldn’t have even noticed the front wheel and fender of a car reflected in the window of one of the run-down buildings which the fashion photographer Henry Talbot had used to recreate colonial Australia for a Wool Board Fashion shoot.  But Conrad did, and in his fantasy the 1970s fashion models will leap into this reflection and use it to propel themselves back to the future. 

The hundreds of details such as this from which Conrad likes to launch his writing are primarily literary ones, visual puns and rhymes, disjunctions of scale, and eccentricities of pose. Hence photographers who hitherto have been relatively minor members of the canon, like Eric Thake who loved discovering linguistic tropes in the real world, figure prominently in Conrad’s book, whereas well and truly canonised Australian art photographers, such as Bill Henson and Carol Jerrems, with their self-enclosed theatres of private desire, don’t appear at all.

There is no doubt that Conrad is a virtuoso writer, his technique in this book is to riff off each photograph he has selected — the two hundred that are reproduced and as many more that are not reproduced — and to run these riffs together into improvised passages that move roughly chronologically through several different nation-defining themes, such as ‘Tree People’, ‘National Characters’ and ‘Remaking the Map’. Occasionally, experiencing the dexterity with which he works these riffs together is exhilarating and refreshing, particularly towards the beginning of each theme. For instance the 1970s Henry Talbot Wool Board fashion image occurs in the middle of a progression of extrapolations on Australian’s attitude towards ‘display’, which Conrad had introduced with what had previously been a thoroughly inconsequential Pictorialist image from 1928 of a white egret preening itself, for which the photographer had chosen the anthropomorphic title Mannequin.

But the longer he continues his verbal glissades, the more the connections between the images tend to become attenuated and the prose indulgent. Conrad’s reputation is as a polymath, his books and his haute journalism cover an enormous amount of territory with ease. Inevitably a certain necessary glibness goes with the job for all polymaths. Nonetheless, there are many extraordinarily glib statements in this book that quickly begin to rankle with the Australian reader. For instance, spinning out from a 1973 Eric Thake photograph of a poster advertising the Guru Maharaj-ji peeling off a building site hoarding he says, “new countries are touchingly innocent, and vulnerable to such confidence trickters”. Oh yeah, and old countries aren’t? Trying telling that to the high-placed Brits like Fergie and Cherie Blair who got involved with our own home-grown slimming-tea conman Peter Foster.  Further on he talks of the “happy-go-lucky recruits who volunteered to be slaughtered at Gallipoli”. Well being slaughtered at Gallipoli wasn’t exactly in the job description when the Australians responded to recruitment campaigns to join the AIF and defend the empire. In reading the book the cumulative effect of these throw-away lines — the feeling that one is being patronised — is mitigated somewhat by the fascinating historical tit-bits Conrad has also salted into his text, often supplied by the research of Gael Newton. For instance he mentions what must have been a fascinating exchange of letters, larded with classical allusions, between Norman Lindsay and the young Max Dupain in 1935. I’d also like to know more about the contribution Axel Poignant’s photographs of Arnhem Land Aboriginal ceremonies made to the London choreography of The Rite of Spring in 1962. But there are no references for these facts, and not even a bibliography for the work of other writers who Conrad has quoted. For a major publication by a major institution this is bordering on insulting, and doesn’t dispose the reader kindly to the tone of Conrad’s text as it continues its nimble pirouetting from photograph to photograph across the pages.

If At Home in Australia is the nation’s family album then the story Conrad wants it to tell is that of a settler nation, attempting and failing, attempting and failing again, and finally attempting and succeeding, to make a home for itself in an alien land. And it is essentially the limitations of that story which leads to the book’s central problem. Conrad’s colonialist narrative seems to have been developmentally arrested in the 1960s, when he left Australia. He completed his growing-up in England, and the historical frameworks and preconceptions about Australia he has brought back with him seem to still belong to the conflicted adolescent rather than the mature man. His main protagonists are settlers and the land, battling it out in a kind of Old Testament agony to engender the nation. But throughout his narrative the settlers largely remain cast as pioneers, and the land remains distant and obstinate. Certainly, a lot of attention is paid to Aboriginal perceptions of the land, but they are used as the mystical counterpoint to this struggle. Speaking of the nature shown in the 1958 Hal Missingham photograph Child’s grave, Broome, WA, Conrad says in another one of his perhaps too glib lines: “White Australians die into it, whereas Aboriginal people are born from it.” Notions like this might be serviceable when used with the nineteenth century and early twentieth century photographs in the book, which are what Conrad is best at working from, but they can’t carry him into the present. What about urban Aborigines, or those from the stolen generation, or the spiritual belonging white Australians now instinctively feel for their land?

The writers he likes quoting the most are people like Patrick White. Recent writers who we might have thought had taken us well beyond such dichotomies —Paul Carter, Ken Inglis, Greg Denning, Inga Glendinnen, Peter Read and so on — aren’t mentioned at all. Even old faithfuls like David Malouf, who launched the book, are used surprisingly sparingly, and his 1998 Boyer lectures about the Australian character, A Spirit of Play, are mentioned only in order to re-use the title. Of course Conrad liberally uses plenty of other contemporary references, but they are often events like the opening ceremony from the 2000 Olympics or the film Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which attract Conrad precisely because they recast Australia’s familiar colonialist imagery

When it comes to describing contemporary Australia, Conrad is less assured, hesitating to describe anything more than the potentiality for the country to finally become reconciled to its geography, its history and its land. In attempting to update the Australian colonial characteristics which he has previously described with such facility, he is reduced to identifying things like our hedonism as being somehow our replacement twenty-first century national characteristic. He asks: “Is Australia, which began as Britain’s cloaca, now the pudenda of the envious earth?” Surely Australia has come further in a century and a half of photography than a short swing on a perineal pendulum down under?

To illustrate Australia’s supposed national hedonism he had described, but hadn’t illustrated, some William Yang photographs of Sydney parties and the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. But if he had gone further into Yang’s work, for instance into the images from some of his famous slide performances, he would have discovered an important south/north trajectory, from Sydney, through the Queensland cane fields, to China, which counteracts the east/west trajectory of the settler explorers.

To be fair to Conrad his text was necessarily constrained by the images in the National Gallery collection. Numbering eight thousand or so, the photographs in the collection he has adopted as a surrogate ‘family album’ have all been carefully and self-consciously scrutinised and vetted before acquisition. The collection dates from the 1970s, when it began with James Mollison purchasing large quantities of the newly hot medium of art photography with sponsorship from the tobacco company Phillip Morris. Since then a succession of art-museum curators have diligently purchased a good representation of work from the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, but have purchased contemporary work from the eighties, nineties and now more sparingly and erratically. These strengths and weaknesses undoubtedly had their effect on each of the book’s thematic chapters, which become less assured the closer they get to the present moment in our nation.

The National Library of Australia’s collection, on the other hand, numbers over 600,000 photographs, and is still growing apace. They have been collected in a much more wholesale manner for over fifty years, not for arts sake, but to illustrate the life and development of the country. The experienced curator Helen Ennis has selected the first of two major exhibitions from this democratic depository. Ironically it is the Library exhibition, called In a New Light: Australian Photography 1850s – 1930s, with its teeming and complex display of photographs of different sizes and techniques as well as albums, panoramas and stereographs, which foregrounds the auratic material qualities of the images themselves; while the Gallery project has not exhibited the original images at all, but has instead conscripted them to be homogenously embedded in a fast flowing text.

Like Conrad’s book, this is also an exhibition to pore over, straining to reach into the images, to find and grasp the elusive detail. Conrad searched for recognition, empathy, familiarity, and personal reconciliation in the photographs he chose. The National Library exhibition, however,  is not so demanding of its photographs. It lets them be obdurate, obstinate, and disruptive. Ennis has thought of the photographs as nodes of residual historical energy, working both backward and forwards in time. This approach suits a collection that is already so vast that it is a humanly unknowable terrain. It is only when cutated from a collection this big that an exhibition can let a viewer stumble upon a small image that almost takes the breath away in its otherworldy strangeness. For instance a tiny snap taken by James P Campbell at Gallipoli of three diggers looking like the trapped citizens of Pompeii as they sheltered from bursting shells, lies waiting to surprise the viewer like a piece of twisted shrapnel.

Other photographs are also included to deliberately confound the present and the past. Several medical photographs taken by Dr Gabriel at the Gundagai Hospital in the early 1900s are included in the exhibition. The Library had previously published Gabriel’s Gundagai photographs in a handsome volume of 1976. But that book, it now turns out, was a sanitised reflection of the original collection of glass plates. Because it saw itself as a social history of the townspeople, and an account of Dr Gabriel as an auteurial photographer, it hadn’t included many of the photographs he had taken purely for medical reasons. But now in this exhibition we see an aboriginal child with distended belly held up like a puppet for the camera by a starched nurse. We are affronted by the jagged angularity of the ratcheted bed-frame the child is propped on, and the pincer grip of the nurse. But this was originally a thoroughly benign photograph taken, presumably, for the best of reasons of an Aboriginal child receiving the very latest in scientific medical care. Why does it now disturb us so shockingly? Other photographs of Aborigines in the exhibition, say the formal heads of the ‘last’ Tasmanian Aborigines, Truganini and William Lanney, were far crueller at the time because they sarcastically produced their subjects as celebrities in order to be a public valedictory for the dying race. Yet now these images have shrugged off the photographer’s original sarcasm to preserve an enduring nobility. What had happened before, and what has happened since, to invert the values in these photographs?

Ennis’s approach to photographs is an affective one. Rather than forensically plumbing a photograph for clues, she lets its totality as an object work an affect on her, which she then attempts to know. Sometimes this technique makes the text in the exhibition seem over-determined, but it does work when it leads to the assemblage of clusters of images: aboriginal portraits and pioneer portraits, war reconnaissance photographs and soldier’s scrapbooks, for instance, which work off each other in a mute counterpoint.

At a photography forum a few months back a lad got up and told us all in an slightly aggrieved tone that even after doing a course in photography he still didn’t know very much about the development of Australian photography, why hadn’t anybody ever written a history of Australian photography? A panel member helpfully explained that in fact there had been several attempts, one published in 1955 by Jack Cato, and two still serviceable histories published in 1988 by Gael Newton and Anne Marie Willis, which should be in any college library. But, I silently calculated to myself, these books were last available in the shops fifteen years ago, when this enthusiastic young photographer was still probably a toddler.

Since then our major collecting institutions have produced several exhibitions and catalogues cutting a broad historical slice through some aspect or other of Australian photography. For instance, last year the National Gallery of Victoria published a survey of their collection of Australian photography, called 2nd Sight. Those institutions have also managed to squeeze out a trickle of monographs on contemporary and historical Australian photographers. But there has been nothing like the slew of heroic histories that continue to come out of the United States, and nothing giving readers a sense of the full historical scope or national sweep of Australia’s photography collections. But at the same time, never has the scholarship of photography been more lively, albeit dispersed across many disciplines. People right across the country, in cultural studies, anthropology, English, and history, as well as the fine arts, are working in a variety of archives — big and small, public and private — and are amazed by what they are turning up. Some Australian scholars are also writing with élan and vigour on the biggies of photo-history globally — Catherine Rogers on Fox Talbot and Catherine de Lorenzo on Nadar for instance.  Last year the Edinburgh-based editor of the dour academic journal History of Photography asked me why he kept getting so many manuscripts from Australians. Where else can they send them? I answered.

We need some histories of Australian photography to update the existing ones. But it is now clear that they can’t be a procession of the names of photographic auteurs and their styles, and they can’t be a social or political history simply told with the aid of photographs. Our photographic heritage is not simply the work of those who self-consciously defined themselves as photographers, and it is not simply those photographs that belong to recognisable styles, nor is it simply those images that happen to verify other historical narratives. Our photographic heritage has its own ontology, it is deposited in archives big and small across the nation: collecting institutions like the State and National Libraries and Galleries, middens of specialist photographs tucked away in filing cabinets everywhere, the negative-files of individual photographers and, yes, also all those shoe-boxes on mantelpieces. We are well used to the idea of ‘accessing’ these archives, delving into them to find the images we want for whatever our purpose is. Now we now also need to find ways of writing these archives, writing them in their own obduracy and specificity. Both the National Library and the National Gallery have made bold moves in this direction.

Martyn Jolly

 Martyn Jolly is a photographer and a writer about photography. He is head of Photomedia at the ANU School of Art.

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