Reusing historic photographs in contemporary Australian photography

‘Reusing Historic Photographs in Contemporary Australian Photography’, The Power to Move, exhibition forum, Queensland Art Gallery, February, 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. It might seem a strange image with which to begin a talk on contemporary Australian photography, but I’ve had this photograph in my mind recently as a kind of visual metaphor for the present state of photography. Taken a few decades after photography’s invention, 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 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, when the huge subterranean presence of the subsequently accumulated 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 his Meat Queue has recently been computer collaged to advertise jeans in a fashion magazine. There is the creation of non-specific, but nonetheless precisley 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. This reuse ranges from cheeky quotational parodies to historical excavations at the implacable centre of the image. I also include in this tendency the recreation of past visual styles to give an authentic mnemonic charge to contemporary image making.

For example Anne Zahalka’s appropriational work from the mid to late 1980s takes a straight Postmodern pastiche approach, where the authority of the original is deliberately deflated in order to be inserted into a semiotic process of citation and comment. When we look at her works we apply them in our minds back to the originals. They are glosses on the received visual texts of the past—gently critiquing their patriarchal or ethnocentric assumptions, or through humorous juxtaposition asking us if these well worn Australian classics might not need to be updated in the light of subsequent history.

I want to characterise this as a ‘reading’ process, where through either a process of cut and paste collage, or recreated dress-up tableaus, images are metonymically and metaphorically juxtaposed in order to be compared and judged by a complicit and knowing audience.

The 1979 collages of Peter Lyssiotis, Industrial Woman, also require a similar ‘reading’ process of visual semiotics. While Zahalka targets particular famous images or easily recognised periods and genres, the images Lyssiotis collages tend to be anonymous—drawn, I would guess, from the thousands of photographs produced every month for annual reports, publicity brochures, magazines and so forth. Only occasionally, and perhaps accidentally, are the images recognisable. Both artists, however, rely on a pre-existent photographic archive: in Zahalka’s case the valorised museum collection, and in Lyssiotis’s case a kind of virtual archive of ubiquitous mass imagery. The images Lyssiotis uses are not nagged into a state of autocritique, as in Zahalka’s work; instead, through the collaged juxtaposition, and through our prior knowledge of the conventional political blandishments which the image fragments would have originally signified, we read a critique of the current state of Australian politics. The nefarious nature of photographs is assumed, and through semiotic reconfiguration the true state of things which they once masked is revealed.

For my purposes I would like to characterise both these processes of reading as ‘horizontal’, because the viewer makes meaning by scanning across the photograph’s content—the past is cited, removed from its original context, and inserted into a new visual text.

In contrast we have another set of images, mainly from the later 1980s and into the 1990s, which I think have a stronger ‘vertical’ axis. By which I mean that we seem to look down into the depths of the image. Leah King-Smith, for instance, 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. So, even though the prison wall of the archive may have been burst assunder, 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 collapse into one another.

Although not as deeply pitched as Leah King-Smith, Jeff Gibson’s Skin Deep, Amoré and Delusions of Grandeur series have a similar elegiac mood. Gibson found and rephotgraphed images of 1950s matinee idol pin-ups, which were once the Platonic models of the ideal form of masculine beauty and the objects of socially sanctioned female sexual desire. He shows them as subject to the corrosive forces of time. But this temporal corrosion has not romantically patinated them: because their potency was always only skin deep anyway, it has eaten away at their essence. Gibson’s elegy for a redundant masculine ideal is suffused with irony: the original images were produced for the female spectatorial gaze, and within the libidinal visual economy of the 1950s the requisite thick make-up, glamour lighting and passive poses entailed a kind of ‘feminisation’ of the male. They were therefore always problematic within Australian masculinity. Gibson’s own relationship to them as a man from at least one generation later is doublely problematic: they loom too large in the visual archive of masculinity for him to simply dismiss them as his gender’s kitsch, but neither are they really viable (except in a suffocatingly nostalgic way) as a historical referent for contemporary men. But that irony aside, his faces have a similar mutely morbid quality to Leah King-Smith, and Gibson similarly uses a process of montaged superimposition which gives a vertical depth to the image.

If the semiotic metonymy and metaphor of collage describes the citational uses of historic photographs in the work of artists like Anne Zahalka or Peter Lyssiotis, perhaps a suitable metaphor for the reuse of archival photographs with all their mnemonic powers intact, which occurs in the work of Leah King-Smith or Jeff Gibson, may be stratigraphy—the archaeological examination of layers of rock. 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.

All of these photographers recognise that photgraphy is generating a new ‘power to move’. The most powerful quality of the medium has always been its notorious verisimiltude—its intoxicating intimacy with fragments of the real and with particular 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. Roland Barthes, in the book Camera Lucida, described the essence of photography as an equisite, individual moment of personal remembrance, such as he experienced when he held in his hand a snapshot of his dead mother taken of her as a child. Those individuated moments have become collectivised. The private spaces of photographs have joined together through communal use to become shared, almost public spaces. The pricks and pangs of the photographic image have almost become environmental.

This communal power 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. Scarred for Life evokes the printing quality and layout of picture magazines like Life or Post, but they also have a kind of Kodak Instamatic flavour to them. Something More evokes the saturated colours of cheap books, cheap movies or cheap bedroom wall posters. These atmospheres give us a shiver of the uncanny—they are simultaneously from the past and in the present. They are hyper-real and strange, but yet somehow still intimately of us. What charges Moffatt’s melodrama with authentic psychological trauma is the strong mnemonic force of her various photographic styles.

But 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 defies language and takes the viewer beyond the image itself, beyond its mere historical referentiality, and into associated mnemonic, phenomenological and psychological states. The function of these images seems to be to destabilise us, to cast us adrift across the chromogenic currents of personal association.

It is tempting to see these different uses of historic photographs, from horizontal semiotic juxtaposition to vertical stratigraphic layering, as part of a shift in Australian art generally. You could say that they are indicative of the general ‘flight from the sign’ that characterises the shift from the eighties to the nineties—from the classic postmodern concern with textuality to the more recent interest in material and spatial qualities and associations. But I would like to draw an even longer bow, I think that we can also perhaps see here the symptoms of a kind of epochal event within the medium of photography as a whole. 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. The medium’s residue, its huge archive, now casts its shadow over every new photograph taken. There are no new prospects for photography, just various new forms of retrospective curatorship.

I think this curatorship may become an important part of the next phase of art photography. We can see it happening in the work of some of the artists in this exhibtion which I have discussed. We can see it 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 (and painters such as Gordon Bennett) who are only able to think the past through the photographic misé en scene—who have no other way of accessing, evoking and imaging pastness itself except through photography. A Kodak slogan from a few years ago, used to market a new, high tech product, seems to capture the current mood of photography pefectly—’the future of memories’.

Martyn Jolly

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