Australian tableau photography in the 1980s

‘Australian tableau photography in the 1980s’, National Gallery of Australia photography symposium, 21 May, 2011.

1980s Australian Art Photography

Three formal techniques characterize 1980s Australian art photography: hand colouring, collage and tableau. I want to argue that these three things were determined by one underpinning factor: that the new art photographers of the 1980s were very aware that they were a new generation, succeeding preceding generations. I will also argue that these three techniques were infuenced by several key theoretical ideas which were widely influential at the time.

GENERATIONS

Let’s pick a date at random: 1984. The Australian Centre for Photography was one decade old. It is now almost four decades old. Specialist magazines like Photofile were widely read, and other magazines like Art Network regularly discussed photography; museums like the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery of Australia regularly exhibited photography; and corporations like Phillip Morris, CSR and Polaroid all had Australian photography collections.

A previous generation of photographers, lets call them the ‘1970s’, had succeeded in establishing this infrastructure of art photography. In the decades before the 1970s — the 1960s — Australian art schools didn’t teach art photography much, commercial galleries didn’t sell art photography much, museums and collectors didn’t buy it much, and art magazines didn’t review it much. But in the 1980s they did.

The decade of change — the 1970s — was a decade dominated by the 35mm black and white snapshot. Of course there are some exceptions. Some conceptual and performance artists such are Robert Rooney, Tim Johnson [Johnson SLIDE] or Robert Owen did use photographs as a kind of ‘neutral’ recording tool for their performances or for their conceptual stratagems. And some photographers did work in colour or alternative techniques during the 1970s. Nonetheless the dominant paradigm was the snapshot. [Jerrems SLIDE]The snapshot was the way the 1970s generation defined themselves against the previous generation or primarily commercial and journalistic photographers. In 1978 the Australian’s reviewer Sandra McGrath took up the cause of the 1960s generation of commercial photographers who had been disenfranchised by what she termed ‘the great camera art explosion’.

‘’He’s a commercial photographer’ has overtones of — well he’s not that creative, or his work isn’t personal, or maybe it isn’t arty enough. It all seems a bit unfair. The usual photographic exhibitions in recent years have been obsessed on the “snapshot” generation, who in turn have been obsessed with photographing their pregnant girlfriends, party antics, bed-sitters, friends making love, shooting up or drinking beer. Everything has been photographed very casually, very intimately and very informally. It may be more appropriate to call this younger generation the Narcissus generation.’

If that was the 1970s, look how it had changed by the 1980s. The title of a project show curated by Gael Newton in 1981 summed it up. She called it: Reconstructed Vision: Contemporary Work with Photography. [Install SLIDE]The titles of other key books and exhibitions from the period continue this them, such as Kurt Brereton’s Photodiscourse from 1981 or the Virginia Coventry edited book, The Critical Distance, from 1985.The automatic vision of the snapshot was under interrogation, it needed to be broken down, rebuilt, and deliberately worked with. This new generation were not narcissists casually inhabited the medium, but self-conscious camera workers breaking their vision down from the outside.

IDEAS

What tools were used to reconstruct vision? Several potent ideas were circulating in Australia at the time, which were distilled from a much wider body of writing collectively called ‘theory’. In the art world of the 1980s these ideas, which were often quite simple, and extracted from larger and more complex, circumspect and philosophically embedded texts, gained an almost autonomous status as free-floating short-hand ideas, charged with contemporaneity and ready to be appropriated and applied to a wide variety of creative circumstances.

The Gaze

Laura Mulvey’s 1975 article Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema, which was widely anthologised at the time, took the scopic structures of classical Hollywood cinema as the paradigm for the more general act of looking within patriarchal culture at large. Hollywood cinema gave pleasure to both men and women, but the pleasure it gave through the filming of its beautiful stars actually had encoded within it patriarchal ideology itself.

‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly.’

Cameras therefore bore a gendered gaze, a look which turned women from active subjects to passive objects. This power was insidiously built into the very structure of camera vision. To resist patriarchy you must also resist the gendering power of the camera’s look. [Rrap SLIDE]At the opening of the decade Julie Rrap’s installation Disclosures: A Photographic Construct brought her own performed body directly in the line of fire of the camera’s gaze to provoke, ricochet, expose and deconstruct it’s role. As George Alexander said: Julie Brown-Rrap’s work is both a physical ordeal as well as a visual experience. As she acts out objectification, she displaces it.

[Hewson/Waker SLIDE]

Semiotics:

The semiotician Roland Barthes’ two key articles The Photographic Message and The Rhetoric of the Image from the early 1960s were translated into English and published in 1977, and were widely influential. Barthes mapped the science of signification from the linguistic realm onto the visual realm. Photographs became texts that could be interpreted and analysed, but only with a set of tools available to the cognoscenti. They now had two layers, the layer of denotation, still attached to the real, but on top of that, another layer, a layer of connotation, which was attached not to the real, but to culture and politics. A photograph of somebody was no longer just a photograph of somebody. It was a piece of that actual person transferred onto the paper, on top of which the rhetorical language of their pose, their clothing, their gesture, their background, their lighting, and the angle with which they’d been shot were all added. Moreover, the bottom layer of denotation worked to make innocent (Barthes’ potent word) the top layer of connotation. The cultural and political messages of various powerful interests were thus surreptitiously slipped into photographs that, if we weren’t careful, might appear to be reality itself! Luckily ordinary people had art photographers to protect them from the pernicious influence of these messages.

Precession of the Simulacra

This hyperbolic reading of the power of images was ramped up further by Jean Baudrillard. In 1983 one of his articles was translated by the Australians Paul Foss and Paul Patton and received its first global publication in English in Art & Text  magazine. In Baudrillard’s formulation the simulacra was not an inferior copy of an original and unique real, rather it is part of an infinite chain of simulation which the real itself had now become part of. The real was not the beginning point off this chain of simulation, it was now produced by simulation — the ‘precession of the simulacra’ of the article’s title. In this millenarian fantasy the real itself was so corroded by images that it had become, in Baudrillard’s words, a desert! Baudrillard said:

‘It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself, that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short circuits all its vicissitudes.’

What is produced by these significatory operations is hyperreality — a physical reality sheltered from any distinction between the real and the imaginary. The following year Baudrillard himself visited Sydney to a celebrity’s reception. At about the same time the Italian theorist Umberto Eco also visited Australia to a hero’s reception. His book Travels in Hyperreality was published in English 1986. It was a collection of old newspaper essays which took a playful anthropological look at various ‘hyperreal’ phenomena, particularly in America, like wax works and Disneyland.

The simulation machines of the 1980s were not only the wax works, theme parks and automata which Eco loved, but also: glossy magazines; movies; television (particularly live television broadcast via satellite); xerox machines and billboards. This media landscape was not dissimilar to the media landscape which had been the background of pop art in the 1960s. However forms of electronic and live media were becoming increasingly important, and the age of the personal computer was just on the horizon. The photograph was a cheap, efficient way to evoke and engage with all of these industrialized forms of simulation at the domestic scale of the photo artist.

Heady, apocalyptic theories such as these had a big effect on young impressionable photographers. In 1985 one of them overdosed on Baudrillard, and gave himself Marinetti-like delusions. He wrote:

We no longer feel any joy in camera vision. We no longer delight in the eye. Photographers were once ever alert to the new, the revealing, the penetrating. Not any more. No more vertiginous camera angles, no more witty compositions, no more frozen moments, no more timeless landscapes… Now our photographer’s eyes are numbed. The stroboscopic ‘shocks of recognition’, provoked by ‘decisive moments’ in time, have reached the frequency of a TV’s pulsation. … The photograph was once the function of a vertical thrust – a probing lens, a straining eye. Print clarity, lens resolution and artistic perception were all indices of this depth. …. All the photographs in the world have congealed to form a global, gelatinous skin. Photography is now not so much a window on the world as an oily film which coats it. …Current photographic practice has ceased to be defined by the vertical thrust entailed in the act of taking a photograph. It is no longer a series of individualistic probes. Now it is defined by the horizontal slide of the photograph’s infinite displacement and endless proliferation through reproduction. (A reproduction in which the mechanical and electronic exponentially multiply the photograph’s inherent reproducibility.) Now we blindly feel our way across the global, mobius surface of photography with the expectation of revealing nothing new. … We abandon vision in favour of the surface, penetration in favour of the survey. We invite the quotational, parodic and ironic to play across the photographic field.

Who wrote that? I think it might have been me. I wrote it for a sheet that accompanied a show called Killing Time at Mori Gallery which was curated by Bruce Searle and included Jacky Redgate, Anne Zahalka and Kendal Heyes, amongst others.

Aura

Another key philosophic term which was dislodged from it’s original context and made available for re-use in the 1980s was Walter Benjamin’ concept of aura. In 1936 Benjamin had argued that the magical value of the old fashioned authentically hand-made, original and unique work of art, it’s aura, which had worked away over centuries to kept the masses enthralled to the cult of art, was being stripped away in the modern epoch by mass-consumed and mechanically-reproduced photographs and films. Yet photographers in the 1980s remained enthralled by the aura. Supposedly a redundant bourgeois value, it nonetheless remained fascinating and seductive, particularly for those working in mechanical mediums. Could an aura be remanufactured, or at least simulated, within the very medium that was supposed to destroy it?

Despite the power of these ideas of the gaze, the simulacra, hyperreality, the aura and visual rhetoric, the photographers of the 1980s continued to be very interested in the Real. Not the real directly — the personal narcissism of the 1970s snapshooters in their bedrooms and at their parties — but the overarching narratives of reality. I will show that the narratives which most concerned them were identity narratives, particularly Australian identity, subcultural identity, and gender identity.

TOOLS

Three techniques were used in response to these ideas: handcolouring, collage and tableau. Each was reconstructive, each signalled a generational break with the snapshooters of the seventies, while also signalling an allegiance to both longer histories of critical resistance and to larger bodies of ‘authentic’ art production.

Collage

Collage bore the most explicit allegiance to social and cultural critique. We had all been taught about John Heartfield’s anti-Nazi montages at art school, and the German collage artist Klaus Staeck, a second generation Heartfield, was exhibited at the first WOPOP conference in Melbourne1980. [Staeck SLIDE]

Collage directly intervened in the smooth media flows of books and magazines. All you needed were scissors and glue and a retouching brush. Significantly, these were the first tools to be the most frequently used from the Photoshop palette when it finally came along ten years later in the early nineties.

In 1980 Anne Zahalka played with kitsch images of Australiana in her series Beautiful Australia, [SLIDE] as did Midnight Oil four years later when they used an apocalyptic collage by the Japanese artist Tsunehisa Kimura for their album Red Sails in the Sunset. [SLIDE] Zahalka also used collage to reinscribe received Australian historical narratives. [SLIDE] In The Immigrants she used family snapshots to write the post-war migrant history of her family into McCubbin’s anglo-colonial painting The Pioneer. In collaging iconic imagery, works such as these appropriated some of that iconic imagery’s residual political and cultural power.

Handcolouring

Less explicit, I think, were the historical links that handcolouring had to women’s practice in the industrial photo studios of the earlier part of the twentieth century. But in Robyn Stacey’s hands handcolouring went from a feminizing, hand crafted application of nurturing care directly onto the surface of the print as object, [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] towards a more hyperreal mediatised space, as she used punkish flouro colours [SLIDE] [SLIDE], or reshot her handcoloured images and reprinted them on glossy Cibachrome paper. [SLIDE] [SLIDE] The handcolouring was therefore shifted from the personal register, where it had been in the 1970s, to the mediated register. From the physical to the virtual.

This technique introduced another element into the mix, historical genre. Historical genres were amateurised and domesticated, taken from the control of industrialized media production and overarching historical narratives and given idiosyncratic and personal meanings. Other photographers, such as Fiona Macdonald, also produced series, without hand colouring, which nonetheless recreated familiar media genres in a deliberately lo-fi way. [SLIDE] [SLIDE] To a certain extent there was an element of retro-hipsterism in this play with genre, but also a recognition that genre meant power and that there was a politics in you controlling genre rather than it controlling you. Robyn Stacey’s retro handcolouring looked great on the covers of Died Pretty records, [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] but it could also construct historical allegories when, for instance, it was reproduced during 1988 the Bicentennial year in the book Island in the Stream in a work called Modified Myths. [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE]

The Cibachrome print with its hard metallic duco was the perfect print-medium for the period. It was as far as possible as you could get from the Kodak tri-x film D76-developer print of the 1970s, and as close as you could get to glamour and spectacle and artefactual ‘aura’ on a tight budget. It did, however, restrict the scale of the print; and scale, how to get as much of it as possible, was something which all photographers at this time struggled with. Sometimes the need for scale drove photographers back to black and white to get the size they wanted, for example in Jacky Redgate’s magnificent cornucopia image, which seemed monumental at the time. [SLIDE] When the Polaroid corporation brought out their massive Polaroid camera that took 50 x 60 cm unique polaroids, photographers such as Fiona Hall, Anne Zahalka, Robyn Stacey and Debra Phillips got the opportunity to make giant polaroids. [SLIDE]

Tableaus

But of course the leitmotif of the period was the tableau. [Zahalka SLIDE] No other visual tactic sums up the period as succinctly as the tableau. At the time I think the tableau artist were largely unaware of the long history of tableaus in photography and lantern-slides, except for the famous examples of Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson. Their tableaus leapfrogged these more immediate histories and gave them access to visual rhetorics drawn from the history of western painting that had been absorbed as a kind of collective unconscious into mass media imagery.

Tableaus and techniques like handcolouring could be used to manufacture a kind of photographic aura. As Catriona Moore wrote in the catalogue Pure Invention, a show of women photographers, including Robyn Stacey and Jacky Redgate that travelled to Japan, faking aura could be a form of feminist empowerment:

Our feelings are prompted by the attention these photographs give to technique, stage-craft, masquerade. This work has an almost tactile, artisanal or sculptural quality, built through an association with cinematic, painterly or theatrical forms. Mechanical reproduction here paradoxically invests an almost carnal aura of hitherto denigrated or low-life popular cultural signs. The complicitous spectator appreciates this ‘faked’ auratic quality. We too take centre-stage to feign a [past] connoisseurial glory, an immersion and abandonment to the seduction of palpable surface effects and stylish mise-en-scene. We recognise well-known codes and gambits of glamour, and appreciate our own informed sensibility.

[Ferran SLIDE] Tableaus referred both to the weight of western visual patrimony via the prestige of painting, as well as to the dominant media for the twentieth century imaginary, cinema. As Adrian Martin wrote in an article about Scenes on the Death of Nature in a 1986 Photofile, tableaus could slow down the heady onrush of media imagery:

Tableau based work is curious and paradoxical: we witness films slowing down to, desiring to emulate the still photograph, and literally trembling with the tension required: and we gaze at photos in a perpetually frozen moment of torsion as if trying to animate themselves in order to take their place as simply passing frames in some unknown, imaginary film.

As well they could evoke supposedly timeless myths:

the question today is… what can you know with the movable (not immutable or originary) structures of myth? Modern culture is full of strategic ‘drifts’, from the rewritings of mythic fiction…that choose not to adopt the regressive mode of ‘return’ to a before-and-beyond. Myths told in the present are (whether they know it or not) of and for the present.

Anne Ferran herself agreed. She said:

The idea was not to claim any power of resistance for these images but to go the other way, to make them overtly passive and unresistant to see what effect that would have. One of the problems to be dealt with is whether these pictures are literally passive and compliant or whether they are (instead/also) somehow about passivity and compliance. Whether they are exactly what the pretend to be or something else as well.

Not all tableaus of the period relied on a manufactured aura, or shifted questions of desire into a rhetorical space. Some, such as Judith Ahern’s magnificent Cowboygirl were, while being allegorical, also just as immediate and painfully autobiographical as well. [Ahern SLIDE]

Other tableaus more explicitly referred to film. In 1985 Kendal Heyes, Anne Zahalka, and two others (Joy Stevens and David James) held an exhibition of Cibachromes at Artspace. To our eyes now these Cibachromes look quite small. They were shot in a studio with a rear projected 35mm slide, with the figures in the foreground also being lit by slide projectors. In a period before the self-equalizing digital image the projector’s hotspot gives each image a wonderfully groggy, gluggy, overheated feel.

Anne Zahlka’s Tourist as Theorist (Theory Takes a Holiday) [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE]  used the artificiality of the tableau and it’s seqentiality to visually ‘theorize’ the hyperrerality of tourism —where the simulacrum of the glossy colour brochure precedes the real experience of jostling crass crowds. Zahalka wrote: ‘In an attempt to possess, to appropriate, the tourist photographed the sight, was photographed with the sight, brought souvenirs and postcards, but was never able to fully accede to its pure presence’.

Kendal Heyes’s series From a Shipwreck [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] was made up of: ‘philosophical fragments, metaphorical figure by some of my favourite authors, brought together in ‘set pieces’ from a hypothetically completed text, a movie.’

As I concluded in my catalogue essay to the show:

‘Photodramas’ does not attack photography or film. It is not avant-garde, nor revolutionary. Rather it seeks to both loosen and rupture traditional cinematic and photographic modes of reading. The viewer is invited to inhabit the fissures and travel the faultlines of these ruptures, to read the stories without being their subject, to view the photographs without being the camera’s eye. In fact, to be the worst possible audience — interested but obstreperous.

COMPARISON BETWEEN NOW AND THEN

[Mental as Anything SLIDE] How are we different to those strange creatures from long ago, back last century in the 1980s, those ancient photographers with their crazy ideas and theories of everything. I would like to conclude by making some extremely broad and sweeping generalizations, to which you will all be able to immediately think of exceptions I know. But I will make them anyway.

They were historically conscious. We aren’t.
They were concerned with the past as a presence and a force in the present. We aren’t.
They were interested in photography as a discipline and a medium. We aren’t.
They read books that seemed to be of the moment and attempted to put what they read into action. We don’t.
They thought of themselves as a new generation, not necessarily avant-garde or radical, but definitely a new generation succeeding the previous ones. Our young photographers no longer do.
They thought of themselves as Australian, not in a parochial or nationalistic sense, but in the sense that they were concerned with the problem of Australian identity, or with the problem gendered, racial and sexual identities within an Australian context as much as a global context. We no longer worry about ‘Australianness’ in that way.
They were more suspicious than we are.
They were suspicious of pictures of the body. There are very few bodies in this period. With the obvious exception of Bill Henson few photographers photographed bodies. The body was generally displaced during this period. [Fereday SLIDE] It is often evoked through metonymic substitutes for it, folds of red drapery being a favourite. [MacDonald SLIDE] When bodies did appear, such as in the work of Julie Rrap, it was in a clinical laboratory of the gaze for the purposes of auto-critique. [Rrap SLIDE]
They were suspicious of public spaces. They didn’t go out much with their cameras. Public spaces and landscapes were often displaced into the studio. [Zahalka SLIDE] The kept to their studios and handled a lot of the issues of the day not directly, but by proxy.

Thank You

Martyn Jolly

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