Photography’s past and its future

‘Photography’s past and its future’, Like Life or Life Like forum, Art Gallery of New South Wales, May, 1996 

One of the most famous and evocative images from photography’s history is Nadar’s photograph of neatly stacked bones and skulls in the Paris catacombs. I’ve had this photograph on my mind recently as a kind of visual metaphor for the present state of photography. Taken in the 1860s, the image is still compelling because it comes from photography’s prelapsarian period—when the medium seemed new born amidst an Edenic profusion of fresh new things to see, and photographers relished the innocent discovery and capture of all the wonders of the visible. (Nadar was able to photograph underground for the first time because of his daring use of portable electric lights and posed mannequins.) But for me this image has now come to represent the medium’s state at the end of its history. Since Nadar’s photograph was taken an incalculable number of photographs have become accumulated in millions of archives around the world—ranging from museum collections and government records to private photo albums. The huge subterranean presence of what I call the Total Photographic Archive seems to be defining photography’s current lugubriously retrospective mood.

Certainly this ‘presence of our past’ within photography is well established in Australian visual culture. Examples are numerous. For instance there is the deliberate reuse, parodic or otherwise, of well-known classics of Australian photography, such as Max Dupain’s Sunbaker and Meat Queue. There is the creation of non-specific, but nonetheless precisely authentic photographic atmospheres from the past, produced for numerous fashion, real estate, or breakfast cereal ads. And photographs are now regularly used in Australia when the highest spiritual values of the nation need to be ritually embodied, as in the Vietnam War Memorial, the 1995 Australia Remembers Celebrations, and the Winfield Cup.

These tactics for evoking the past which occur in our broad visual culture are reflected in miniature in the visual strategies of that small part of it called art photography. Over the past fifteen years or so many Australian photographers have reused historic photographs in their work. However lately this reuse has tended to change in its character. In the eighties photographers such as Anne Zahalka raided the archive to appropriate and pastiche well known cultural icons. The authority of the original was deliberately deflated in order to be inserted into a semiotic process of citation and comment. These images were glosses on the received visual texts of the past, gently critiquing their patriarchal or ethnocentric assumptions, or through humorous juxtaposition asking us if those well worn Australian classics might not have needed to be updated in the light of subsequent history. This was a process of historical ‘reading’, where through either cut and paste collage, or recreated dress-up tableaus, images were metonymically and metaphorically juxtaposed in order to be compared and judged by a complicit and knowing audience.

In the 1990s, however, references to the past in Australian art photography are less likely to be cheeky quotational parodies and more likely to be historical excavations into the implacable depths of the image. For instance Leah King-Smith also went to the archive to find images, not to chastise them for their political errors, but to liberate them. There is a painful and inconsolable paradox at the heart of her project. Thousands of photographs were taken of Aboriginal people during the nineteenth century—putatively in the name of positivist anthropological taxonomy, but also as part of a process of colonisation, displacement and genocide. As a Koori artist in residence at the State Library of Victoria, King-Smith rephotographed some of these images, thereby removing the Aborigines from their scientific classifications, and then montaged them over fish-eye shots of the land they once inhabited. They return as frozen ghosts to haunt a land which has irrevocably changed beneath them. Even though the prison wall of the archive may have been burst asunder, there has been no real liberation, all that is found are ephemeral spectres. Although the Aborigines in the photographs still have strong individual facial expressions, evidence of a former personality (and perhaps of silent resistance  to the camera), in King-Smith’s work they remain doomed. They look up at us through the depths of history, silent and drowned. The only function of these images is mourning. There is nothing to be read, nothing to be said. The superimposition, hand colouring and fish eye effects give a sense of spatial depth to the images—a vertical dimension back into the ineffable depths of time, history and photography, which in this work all merge into one another.

If the semiotic metonymy and metaphor of collage describes the citational uses of historic photographs in the work of artists in the 1980s, perhaps a suitable metaphor for the reuse of archival photographs with all their temporal associations intact, which occurs in the work of artists in the 1990s such as Leah King-Smith, may be stratigraphy—the archaeological examination of layers of rock. In contrast to a horizontal citational reading of the past, here we have a vertical stratigraphic excavation of the image. The crucial difference is that the photographs reused by the latter artists remain embedded in history and memory, they are not levered out to be processed, reordered and redeployed in the present.

The residual mnemonic power of photographs is exploited by Tracey Moffatt. Her work sets melodramatic misé en scenes within pungent atmospheres which seem to rise up and envelop us like a repressed memory. Something More evokes the saturated colours of cheap books, cheap movies or cheap bedroom wall posters. The colour off-set pages of Scarred for Life evoke the printing quality and layout of picture magazines like Life, but they also have a kind of Kodak Instamatic flavour to them. The strong mnemonic force of her various photographic styles charges Moffatt’s melodramas with authentic psychological trauma. There seems to be more at stake here than in the knowing stylistic citations of, say, Robyn Stacey, where the artist remains a distanced virtuoso, coolly orchestrating her battery of special effects. Moffatt’s tactic, which certainly in the end is just as knowing, is to allow herself to be enveloped, and to succumb with an almost masochistic delight to the collective memories she unleashes. All of this takes the viewer beyond the image itself, beyond its mere historical referentiality, and into associated mnemonic, phenomenological and psychological states. These images cast us adrift across the chromogenic currents of personal association.

It is a familiar complaint about the twentieth century that the past has become increasingly ruptured from the present. Under the reign of Modernity’s technological progress we experience the past less as a supporting, nurturing tradition which is perpetually engendering the present, and more as a commodified series of retinal scenarios which we access retrospectively from a distance. For us now History is a series of stories with causes and outcomes, told within dramatic structures with the aid of pictures. History is technologically produced in the present—encoded for us into books, novels, films, TV shows, re-enactments, historical restorations, and anniversaries—in order to serve the present’s social objectives. This change in history from the environmental to the scenographic has produced a similar change in our collective memory. It is no longer passed hand to hand and mouth to mouth, within a unifying sense of time and place. It too has become retinal and commodified, embodied in photographs, songs, slogans, and fragments of film and TV footage. These images don’t constitute a complete mnemonic environment (as myth and ritual do in tribal societies), but instead prompt individual memories which are then collectivised into popular memory.

Photography therefore has a special relationship with both history and memory. Photographs allow us a ‘window’ on the past, and are therefore the principal showcases of technologically transmitted history. But at the same time photographs act as sharp mnemonic probes into the soft, cerebral matter of personal memory. Sometimes the two functions of the photograph collide, as in the filmed image of the “Dancing Man”, used as an iconic centrepiece to the historical celebrations of the end of WW11, which brought forward separate, mutually exclusive, personal memories from at least four different men, each of whom was absolutely convinced that he was the one and only true “Dancing Man”

The most powerful aspect of photography’s intoxicating verisimilitude is its semiotic indexicality— its optical and chemical adherance to fragments of the real moments of time. But now, after one hundred and fifty years of the accumulation of these billions of isolated physical and temporal fragments, photography is producing an intoxicating intimacy with communal history and popular memory. Now those individuated moments have become collectivised. The private spaces of photographs have joined together through communal use to become almost a social landscape, such that we can now, for instance, almost talk of the one ‘national’ box brownie shot taken in the suburban backyard with the paling fence in the background. The pricks and pangs of the photographic image have become shared, tradeable commodities. Photographs are increasingly becoming negotiable processes for re-establishing broken connections with our forebears, for re-affirming the continuity of fragmented temporalities, and for giving us a reassuring sense of long duration beyond what is an increasingly isolated sense of ‘now’.

For example Fiona Foley uses historic photographs and the genetic continuity and materiality of her own body to re-establish ancestral connections with her dispossessed People of Fraser Island. She poses in the pose to which one of her ancestors was subjected over a century earlier. But she does not simply mourn, or glibly heroicise herself by defiantly returning our gaze. Rather she re-enacts the exchange of gazes which once took place in a nineteenth century photographic studio. By reincarnating the libidinal visual economy of nineteenth century anthropological photography in a twentieth century art gallery she keeps the processes of memory and history alive. One critic has identified here a different kind of response to the end of the millennium: a “custodial aesthetics rather than the prevailing pseudo-existentialist obsession with death and nothingness” (Olu Oguibe, Medium and Memory in the Art of Fiona Foley, Third Text, Winter 1995-96, p60)

Perhaps we are all a bit like that replicant in Blade Runner who, tragically doomed to live in an eternal present with no future and no past, comes to rely on a few photographs to verify her artificial memory implant. Photographs have become our prosthesis memories, simulacra of our past. But now these various memory prosthetics are becoming collectivised and communally transacted. We can see inklings of this in projects such as the Library of Congress’s National Digital Library Program accessed through their Web page American Memory Collection where photographs and other records are available on line, an idea being emulated on a smaller scale by our own Australian Archives.

The past for us is becoming a consensual memory hallucination created by a collectively and simultaneously jacking in to the Total Photographic Archive. I have deliberately recast William Gibson’s famous formulation of cyberspace because if photography is now increasingly identified with the past, the question is raised, what will its role be in the future?

Since I have invoked Blade Runner and Neuromancer, please bear with me while I indulge in a millenarian fantasy of my own. Try to imagine the past. It is relatively easy—the past is made up of photographs and films, real and fictional. Now try to imagine the future. That is much harder. For me, no conventional images readily come to mind, although I suspect that if the same question had been asked in the 1950s it would be easy to imagine, and believe in, conventional SF imagery of a techno-utopia, or alternatively a techno-distopia—depending on taste. Now, however, the futuristic is just another retro style. The past remains photographic or filmic: it is scenographic, perspectival, and prosceniumed. The future, however, has become liquescent: it is fractaled, phenomenological, and vertiginous. (Perhaps some of the hostility to the Museum of Sydney is that it has refused the conventional stability of the photographic or filmic tableau in its displays about the past, and instead has deliberately created a hysterical polyphony of ghosts and virtual presences—a style generally reserved these days for imagining the future.)

In the future there will be no ground on which to plant your feet, and no walls to put your back against. Even the indexical image will be perpetually morphing and fracturing, opening up spatially to admit us into its VRML interior, or denoting something quite different than the photograph’s conventional anterior reality, as in the digitally composite Time cover “The Face of America”, where a national census is both statistically and indexically denoted.

But of course there will still be conventional photographs in the future. Without doubt the private function of the photograph as personal memento will continue. And newspapers are busily trying to establish protocols to contain and stabilise the new liquidity of the image. When they are caught egregiously darkening the only lightly negroid skin of O. J. Simpson, or giving demonic eyes to Martin Bryant, they immediately apologise and dissemble profusely. So it is possible to imagine a time when the photograph, as we conventionally think of it, becomes just one category within a larger set of liquescent, though still indexical, images. It will be protected and valorised, carefully quarantined against digital infection by strict contextual protocols. Rather than being the current representational norm against which visual deviance is measured, it will become a ‘limit case’, with special functions and powers.

Like all millenarian fantasies mine is probably wildly overstated. Certainly photography has always been potentially liquescent right from the start, think for example of the huge enthusiasm for ‘spirit photography’ in the late nineteenth century, or the avant-garde experiments with collage, ostranenie, and visual immersion amongst the Russian Constructivists. But, at the very least, my millenial fantasy of a photography caught between a residual past and a phantasmagoric future casts a useful light on contemporary photographic phenomena. For instance the State Library of NSW’s current exhibition, Photo Documentary: Recent images of everyday life, has a strong sense of its greater eventual importance to an imagined future audience rather than its present day one. The catalogue introduction states: “few personal photographs have significance to anyone other than their owner. But some photographs are much more important. These are documentary photographs which are more public images, showing us aspects of society or our environment that need to be recorded for the future. In addition to the […] ability of the photograph to simply record, they strive to reveal images of enduring interest from everyday life and ordinary spectacle.” The audience is encouraged to project itself into the future and to look back on the present with a historian’s eye. For instance the caption to a Peter Elliston photograph performs a extraordinarily complex hermeneutic forensics on the image (similar to the forensic enhancement and narrativization of a photograph performed by Harrison Ford in Blade Runner) deducing in fetishistic detail the time, date and personal relationships in the image.

It is significant I think that the artists I have mentioned so far, who excavate the implacable heart of the photograph, combine it with another term: the land once inhabited by a dispossessed people as in Leah King Smith, the body of the historical subject genetically persisting, as in Fiona Foley, or pungent memories of adolescent trauma as in Tracey Moffatt. (Nor is it any accident, of course, that they are all Aboriginal. Memory is a much more acutely political and emotional term when history weighs heavily.) I think we have here an indication that in its new protected and cosseted state the photograph will become increasingly a custodial keeping place for a sense of ordered time. I predict that it will grow in ontological status more towards the nameless materiality of the body, land, and organic memory, and away from aesthetics, citational intertextuality and semiotic connotation. There will truly be a corpus of photographs, no longer a conventional document archive to be read, but a monumental virtual catacomb to be exhumed.

Unlike the medium in which Nadar was a pioneer, which was orientated to the future and scientifically and phenomenologically explorative, photography now is fundamentally retrospective, interiorising and densely accretive. There are no new prospects for photography as a medium, just various new forms of retrospective curatorship. We can see evidence of this in the slew of new coffee table books published very year, such as the Joel Peter Witkin selected Masterpieces of Medical Photography, which excavate and aesthetically valorise ever more arcane pockets of the Total Photographic Archive. We can see it in the ever more sophisticated mannerism of many photographers (and filmmakers) who tweak, embellish and distil past styles. We see it in the work of many photographers such as Fiona MacDonald, Alan Cruikshank, Destiny Deacon, John F. Williams and Elizabeth Gertsakis and artists such as Gordon Bennett and Narelle Jubelin who think the past through the photographic misé en scene—who use the photograph to be pastness itself.

A Kodak slogan from a few years ago, used to market their Photo-CD seems to capture the current mood of photography perfectly—’the future of memories’.

Martyn Jolly

May 1996

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