The Darkroom by Anne Marsh

‘The Darkroom by Anne Marsh’,  review in Photofile 71, p79, 2004

The Darkroom: Photography and the Theatre of Desire, Anne Marsh, Macmillan, Melbourne, 2003.

There is a slow but seismic change going on in the world of photographic theory. When the idea of a ‘theory of photography’ first took off in the 1970s it was built around a model of the camera as an instrument for surveillance and objectification. Recently a range of theorists and historians have been re-evaluating and re-interpreting the original texts which have underpinned photographic theory, and have started to turn over the ground in previously neglected areas of photographic history. Anne Marsh’s book is an important contribution to this wider movement. She writes an account of photography which sees photographs as not only capturing reality, but also providing transactional spaces for both photographer and subject to perform their own desires and embody their own memories. The photograph is still a veridical, ideological document, but it is also a phantasmogoric space of fantasy and corporeal resistance.

This is a history of photography in which the central technology is not the cold glass eye and the guillotining shutter blade, but the dark room — be it a camera obscura, photographer’s studio, séance room, or ritualistic performance space. This is a history of photography where it matters, for example, that the camera obscura was initially a room-sized space in which people moved about, within the introjected image; or where it matters that to many people it felt as though photographs were able to preserve the diaphanous ‘skins’ which seemed to be perpetually emanating from bodies. This is a history in which photography is not only the paradigm of modern technological verisimilitude, but also a ‘virus’ infecting Modernity’s authority with its fleshy fantasias.

Marsh ranges across photographic history, from its technological pre-history to the present, and from well-worn global figures to little-known local ones. Surrealist photography is discussed, again, but so is spirit photography, which is only now beginning to receive critical attention. Famous nineteenth century photographers such as Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron are discussed, again, but so are contemporary queer photographers. The book could have been even more engaging if it had relied even less on stock examples from the European and American avant-garde, and gone even further into alternative, vernacular or local photographies.

Marsh spends most of her time using Lacanian psychoanalysis to develop her theoretical position out of the last twenty-five years or so of structuralist and post-structuralist theory (Foucault, Barthes and so on). Even though these sections are leavened with the occasional new and unexpected example (such as the media self-performance of the 1920s celebrity-crim Squizzy Taylor) she never seems quite able to make the multifarious secondary-sources she uses her own, and she jumps around a fair bit between them. The reader waits with anticipation for a pay-off in the final section where she deals with contemporary queer performance and photography, as well as some current Australian photographers. There is no doubt that her take on Gordon Bennett, Tracey Moffatt, Linda Sproul, Deborah Paauwe, Anne Ferran and Polixeni Papapetrou will be a crucial contribution to discussions of the way racial, sexual and maternal subjectivities, inherited from the ‘optical unconscious’ of the photo archive, are being re-written in Australia. Yet at this point her analysis becomes slightly selective and equivocal, she never seems quite willing to grapple with the work of these photographers in all of its disparate physical complexity, perhaps ultimately having reached the extent of her psychoanalytic methodology.

Martyn Jolly

Martyn Jolly is an artist and a writer. He is head of Photomedia at the ANU School of Art. He has a Phd in Visual Arts.

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