Passion for Research

In order to respond to the two words in Gael’s title for today, ‘passion’ and ‘research’, I have decided on an experiment: to discuss a series of photographs which I have encountered in various archives. Most of these photographs are insignificant in themselves, not great works of art, but they have had something in them that I have found interesting, and which has sent me off on a tangent in my research. Because of these tangents, my research trajectory since I started my career at the NGA has followed a somewhat unexpected path, and has covered a lot of ground. To show you just how unexpected I will start my talk with some photographs I found myself getting excited about several months ago in the State Library of New Wales.

Margery Ectoplasm

Margery Seance

These are some photographs reproduced in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. The photographs are of some animal lung. This lung has been cut into the shape of a hand, with the animal’s trachea serving as a wrist, and the spongey lung tissue cut into fingers. This crude hand had recently been compressed into a woman’s vagina, and then expelled during a Spiritualist séance. It has been flash photographed in the dark by a psychic investigator, a person called Eric Dingwall, who was trying to establish whether or not the woman, called Margery Crandon, had the power to produce ectoplasm, a psychic matter extruded from the other side; and whether this wasn’t the hand of a psychic entity, a spirit manifesting itself to us from the other side of the veil of death.

As I eagerly looked at this photograph I had one of those moments, I thought ‘how did I get here’. I am an atheist, a rationalist, a sceptic, and a materialist. I have a house in the suburbs and a good job teaching photography at a respectable university. What am I doing getting excited about this photograph? I hoped that none of my colleagues would ever find out what I got up to on my research trips.

It was a bunch of photographs that led me down this trail.

When I first started at the NGA I was a callow graduate of an art school, rather than an art history department in a university. I had been trained to think of myself as a contemporary art photographer, though I had also developed a passionate, intimate and, I thought at the time, privileged, love for the history of photography, thanks to my practical art school training. I think what interested me mostly about photography at the time was it’s power as a historical medium, its power to palpably contain history.

What I realized when I began to work here was that this power was articulated by a machinery, mechanisms of memory and forgetting that operated every day through the processes of selection, accessioning, curating, cataloguing, researching, categorising, displaying, and publishing. And as a kid curator I was a small cog in this vast machinery producing the past.

For the next decade or so my research as an artist was all about the relationship between personal, micro moments of time and memory which were residual in individual photographs, and the public, macro uses of photography for master narratives of nation, history or ideology. It was also about how photography had been used to bind personal affect into collective ideology.

In the Australian War Memorial

In The Australian War Memorial

Whilst working at the gallery I made one series of art photographs, which were curated into a touring show by Geoffrey Batchen after I had left the gallery and returned to Sydney. They were called In The Australia War Memorial, and I was able to print them because a friend let me sneak into the Canberra School of Art after hours without the staff knowing. These are simple snaps of the displays at the war memorial. But I was interested in catching threads or shards of experience, seen here in the eyes of the soldiers in the photographs.

Wonderful Pictures


Wonderful Pictures


This led me, after a few other series of photographs, to a large series called Wonderful Pictures, which were copied from the pages of Australiana picture books. I skimmed over the curved pages of the opened books with a view camera and adjusted the camera movements so the images dilated out. Some of the prints were purchased by the National Gallery and are now in their collection.

Australia a Camera Study

Australia a Camera Study

By this time I was specifically interested in Australian propaganda, and the construction of Australian identities. Many of the books I photographed were produced by a publisher called Oswald Ziegler. He used the designers Gert Sellheim and Douglas Annand, whose poster work is in this collection. Other books were by Frank Hurley who published vast quantities of Australiana in the 1950s. And it was whilst looking at a book by Frank Hurley, Australia a Camera Study in the NGA research library that I had a little epiphany. The NGA library had brought the book second hand, and it had obviously originally been brought as a gift, probably by an English migrant to send back home. Still between its pages, and still probably there now upstairs in the library, were two pieces of toilet paper. On the toilet paper the original purchaser had traced his, or her, own personal, chthonic, quotidian routes and history of inhabitation. They have written: ‘Arthur, Marjorie’s brother lives just off the picture…This is where Jim Miller has his block of land — where we nearly built a Duplex….I pass along this road every time I go to White’s.” and “My Ferry Run”. Hurley photographs were banal, rhetorical, yet another iteration of his nationalist jingoism, yet two pieces of toilet paper can turn them into personal expressions of reconnection, whilst they remain, of course, essentially propaganda images.

Whilst I had been at the NGA I had been involved with the acquisition of some albums of WW11 propaganda photographs by Edward Cranstone, which I had exhaustively researched for an article in Photofile. So this interest in Hurley, and war propaganda, and Australian identity, and masculinity naturally led me to the First World War. I began to be very interested in propaganda photography, because propaganda is all about eliciting intense personal emotion, but in a collective context.

School Children at an Exhibition

I began to research a series of enormous propaganda exhibitions that were held in Britain in the last years of WW1. I was particularly fascinated by a series of composite murals which were produced by a company called Raines and Co.

Canadian Vimy Ridge in Paris

Vimy ridge straight

Vimy ridge component

British Dreadnoughts of the Battlefield

Australian ‘The Raid’ at Raines & Co.

These photographs were montages, and thus in one sense fake, but they were also spectacular, and some of their components were certainly at least taken on the battlefield, so they also had a real affective power for viewers desperate for images of the Front. In my PhD I wrote about how propagandists managed these competing terms of ‘the fake’ and ‘the spectacular’ in the context of an emerging mass media. I discovered that in terms of an individual’s response to the photograph, the two ideas — the true and the fake — were very labile indeed. A certain kind of affective truth can be orchestrated by a photograph.

You don’t have to spend too long amongst the visual culture of WW1 before you begin to get a bit disturbed. It is shot through with the uncanny. There is a real fascination with strange new industrial forms, particularly bomb blasts, by all the war photographers.

The Canadians ‘snapped’ bomb blasts like exotic butterflies. And Frank Hurley gave them allegorical meaning.

Canada in Khaki

Hurley Death’s Head

I had another mini epiphany in the storeroom of National Museum of Film Photography and Television in Bradford, England. I was there with my colleague Denise Ferris. She was researching an obscure nineteenth century printing technique, and I was looking through two official presentation albums of Australian War Photographs. Then I came across this page taken in the Middle East, probably by Hurley. The caption is “A wonderful cloud-like face hanging above the ancient town like a beautiful guardian angel”.

I knew Hurley liked his clouds, adding them as a kitsch benediction to his scenes. Since I had spent so much time rephotographing his books for Wonderful Pictures I also knew that in his later years he often used the same cloud twice. I also knew that the composite allegorical kitsch of the propagandists had been so pervasive that it had even influenced the high faluting Pictorialists. At the end of the War Harold Cazneaux, for instance, made this patriotic picture Peace after war, and memories, which brings all the tropes of the European battlefield composites back home to Australia. This picture is in the collection of the National Gallery.



Morning After the Battle of Passchendael

Australia a Camera Study

Australia a Camera Study

Harold Cazneaux, peace After War, and Memories

Presentation album

But I had never before seen a cloud so spiritually allegorised in such an official context as an expensive presentation album. My interest was piqued because the cloud wasn’t your usual piece of Hurley flummery, but a quite ordinary, innocent everyday cloud that just happened to be in the right spot at the right time. My interest in what was obviously a pervasive Spiritualism was further piqued when I read about Mrs Ada Deane in a book by Jay Winter, Sites of memory, sites of mourning: the Great war in European cultural history. Deane was a spirit photographer who in 1922 supposedly photographed the spirits of fallen soldiers above the crowds at London’s Cenotaph during the two minutes silence. From him I learnt that Spiritualism, and communication with the dead through séances, enjoyed a huge revival after WW1 as a kind of mass mourning ritual.

Ada Deane, Two Minute’s Silence

I had to think of something to do whilst I was in London for three months at the Australia Council studio, so I decided to see if I could find any spirit photography. I began a  research relationship with that wily old lady, Mrs Ada Emma Deane. In London I went to the Society for Psychical Research, and from there to their archives in the Cambridge University Library. Calling up all the Deane files I was rewarded with four huge albums containing over 3000 spirit photographs.

Deane album page

Deane photograph

Deane photograph

I found turning these pages a moving experience, not because of the fake cottonwool spirits, but for the genuine looks of yearning on the faces of the sitters.

From these album pages I produced a body of work called Faces of the Living Dead, where I paid Cambridge to make slides for me and I scanned the slide and burrowed into them in Photoshop.

Faces of the Living Dead

Faces of the Living Dead

Faces of the Living Dead

Faces of the Living Dead (Deane self-portrait)

In doing this work of re-visualizing the archive I continually came up against Mrs Deane herself. Most of the other archives I had worked with had been anonymous or institutional, but Mrs Deane’s personality still inhabited this one. I had to come to an agreement with her ghost by writing her biography, which I published in the form of an artist’s book

Deane and Barlow family.

This is an image of Deane and her daughter and their two spirit guides, along with one of her early patrons, Fred Barlow and his wife. When he died Barlow left his huge collection of spirit photographs to the British Library. They were annotated by Eric Dingwall, the person who had photographed the animal-lung ectoplasm of Margery in the early 1930s. When the British Library decided to publish a book on this collection they asked me to do it, so I re-immersed myself in the bizarre world of the Spiritualists.

I went all the way back to 1848, to the beginnings of spirit photography in the US, and track it all the way forward to the 1930s, to the forensic documentation of ectoplasm which I showed at the beginning of this talk. Along the way my colleague Helen Ennis told me about an Australian album of spiritualist carte-de-visites from the 1870s, and I’m delighted to say that this album is now in the collection of the NGA. It features many of the Spiritualist celebrities and some of the classic spirit photographs of the nineteenth century. It also illustrates the global trade in carte-de-visites that existed at the time.

Mrs Slater

Mr Guppy, Mr Williams and spirit

Miss Fairlamb (Mrs Melon)

Miss Georgina Houghton

Whilst always remaining a materialist and a sceptic I felt I understood the Spiritualist’s relationship to photography. Their use of the process of photography was just a heightened, exaggerated version of our own private uses of personal snapshots. They helped me understand that belief was something which could be invested in the photograph, as much as received from it. When they went through the ritual of posing for their spirit photographs, which was often accompanied by a laying on of hands onto the photographic plate and a saying of prayers over the camera, they entered into a kind of thaumaturgic contract with the photographer, and through them with the medium itself. As the spirit photograph was taken, and the film supposedly exposed to impressions from both the invisible spectrum and the psychic spectrum, the sitters engaged their own processes of memory as they tried to contact their loved ones with their minds. When they entered the alchemical cave of the darkroom and saw their own face well-up from the emulsion, to be joined by another face which, as often as not, they recognised, their belief was sealed by this thud of recognition they felt in their chests.

Spirit photography brings to the fore the performative, transactional nature of the photographic act, it also links the photographic image very close to the presence of the body. In the bizarre spiritualist imagination ectoplasm was closely related to photographic emulsion, it was a kind of bio/techno membrane between two worlds that was either able to form itself into proto limbs of spirit beings, or take the impressions of images projected from the other side. Although bizarre I can also see these séances as a kind of overheated performance about the power of the photograph, and its ability to directly connect us with bodies from the past.

In one sense these mediums are just tricksters, but in another sense they are conducting a kind of cathartic performance art, producing indexical photographic evidence that the dead are still present in the form a ectoplasmic images. But isn’t that what all photographs are, ectoplasmic images of the dead?  I’m not the first person to say that incidentally, the first person to say that was Roland Barthes.

The Spiritualists chose to believe in fake photographs, but isn’t the truth of all photographs a much a communal consensus as anything else? We only have to think of digital images, that ten years ago were feared as threatening photographic truth, which today have unproblematically created their own digital truth and are blithely consumed every day.

So I think all my research has been in one way or another about the palpable existence of the past in the present through the materiality of the photograph. It’s been about photographic truth as a collective act, rather than an inherent ontological trait. And it’s been about how individuals make private meaning through collective rituals.

My art and my writing have always fed each other. Initially I printed Faces of the Living Dead digitally on gloss photo paper, but I was never really happy with them. But since getting into ectoplasm with all it phlegmy materiality, which historically, besides being offal was also lengths of chiffon, I have decided to reprint some images onto silk-satin. This will happen in a few weeks. So on it goes.

I am also now working on the ACT Bushfire Memorial, which involves making some very public glass columns, out of some very private and precious family snapshots which I scanned during two extraordinary days of collective memory for Canberra’s bushfire victims, so my concerns are continuing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s