The Face of Australia NPG


In this talk I want to look at a neglected aspect of Australian photography, that is the photo books published about Australia. I think these ‘Australiana’ picture books, which have been published in a steady trickle from the 1930s till the present, are particularly interesting. In particular these books had their heyday in the 1960s and 70s. These books generally aren’t high quality art books. They were often cheaply printed and poorly designed and they were usually the product of several authors, not only the photographer, but also the publisher, book designer and writer. Many of the photographs were radically cropped and resized, and many of the photographers works for which they are now best known weren’t published at all. Nonetheless they provide us with a rawer and more immediate access to the visual culture of their time.  They were what picture editors and photographers thought their readers wanted at the time the photographs were taken. They only reproduce photographs as they were selected and laid out by picture editors at the time, rather than as today’s curators and dealers have subsequently excavated them from photographer’s archives.

Secondly, the photographers, writers, designers and picture editors on many of these books took it upon themselves to either implicitly or explicitly attempt to explain and document for their readers what kind of society Australia was, and what typical Australians looked like. These books, which had titles like This is Australia, or The Australians were, in a period before the burgeoning of Australia’s TV and film industry, were often the only forum Australians had to picture themselves to each other. Many of the books saw themselves as on a social mission to describe ‘the face of Australia’.

I hope to prove to you that they were largely successful because we can all, now, readily conjure such a face in our mind’s eye — the weathered skin, the stubbly chin, the tousled hair, the craggy profile, the thousand-mile stare.

Although such an idea has recently been made very fraught by debates around multiculturalism, the idea is still a live one in our popular culture. For instance,` would this famous photograph of a Cronulla rioter be as effective semiotically if the head and face of the boy who is wearing the flag like a cape wasn’t of such a fresh-faced anglo type, if for instance he had dark curly hair, sallow skin and glasses?

THE 1960s

Mny things changed in Australian visual culture in the 1960s. There was a burgeoning of overseas interest in Australia because of our involvement in the Vietnam War, and the use of Sydney as an R & R base by American servicemen. There was also a massive increase in the publishing industry because Australian publishers could use Asian presses for cheaper printing, and aggressive overseas publishers like Paul Hamlyn entered the market aiming books at a popular supermarket audience. An explosion of interest in all things Australian —Australian history, Australian wildlife, Australian touring holidays (think Bill Peach and the Leyland Brothers) — combined with the effects of postwar immigration, the baby boom, the increase in wealth, and the shift in our allegiance from Britain to America, to put questions of national identity and national character on the popular agenda. Examples of this popular discussion were the publication of Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country in 1964, the massive popularity of Michael Powell’s film They’re a Weird Mob in 1966, and the unpopularity of Wake in Fright from 1971.

Some of the books were aimed at Australians who were loading up their Holdens and Falcons and heading round Australia. Examples are Rigby’s 1966 book Around Australia on Highway One. Others were aimed at an overseas audience, for instance in 1964 David Moore shot widely for an assignment on Australia and New Zealand for the LIFE World Library. The writer for the LIFE book, Colin McInnis describes the Australian type thus:

Certainly the Australian male is tough — very tough — and in appearance lean-eyed, hatchet-jawed, relaxed and slightly ungainly. The girls generally come in two types — either a rather stringy, small-breasted leggy girl with a sun-baked complexion, or else one with a large-hipped figure and an easy grace of posture.


But the watershed book came in 1966. Called, significantly, The Australians, it was the first true coffee table book in the Australiana genre. A ruminative, fifty-thousand word text by the novelist and journalist George Johnston supported an extended photographic essay shot over two years by the American National Geographic photographer Robert Goodman. Their stated objective was,

 [T]he fair and unpropagandised presentation of the Australian in his unique and many-faceted setting. The essential image, if you like, of a race apart from the others.’[i]

It had a budget of $200,000, fronted up by twelve of Australia’s biggest companies such as BHP and QANTAS, and ended up printing ninety thousand copies, which sold in the shops at the upmarket retail price of $8.95.[ii]

The book’s chapters followed a similar trajectory to Ziegler’s, from the ‘land’, to the ‘land’s people’ (meaning white settlers, more than Aborigines) through to ‘the economy’, ‘science’, ‘the arts’, ‘sport’, and culminating in ‘Anzac’. But its photographs home in on the faces of Australians, who look out from the pages in frank close-up. Their faces are enlarged right up into full-page or double-page spreads, often bleeding to the edge in the contemporary style of picture-magazine layouts. The cast of characters was cosmopolitan. There was the familiar dusty-but-lithe stockman, the craggy farmer, and the sweaty worker, but also the winsome office girl, and the intense artist.

The centrality of art and artists to popular accounts of Australian identity in the sixties might come as something of a surprise to those of us who have got in to the lazy historical habit of identifying the beginning of the renaissance of post-war Australian culture with the signal ‘It’s Time’ campaign in 1972, prior to which everything cultural was cringing. In The Australians, Johnston confidently asserted that there were already:

… more good painters in Australia than there were good jockeys’. ‘Australians’, he claimed, perhaps a tad over-optimistically, ‘who like to think of themselves as easy-going people, rough and ready, physical rather than cerebral, who are deeply suspicious of the longhair and the intellectual, also pay the greatest respect, homage and even, of late, cash, to their artists. There is no country in the world, not even in Scandinavia, where the easel painter of even reasonable competence can survive as comfortably as in Australia.[iii]

A few pages on, spread across both pages in full and virulent colour, Russel and Maisie Drysdale lean toward the camera. One of Drysdale’s desert-red canvases is behind them and, because of the book’s advanced six-plate colour printing, their blue eyes seem to pop out from behind their extravagantly rimmed glasses as they warmly smile at us. There’s a cigarette jammed between Drysdale’s fingers and a can of Resch’s slammed on the table beside the crumple of Masie’s hankie, house keys, cigarettes and matches.

The most powerful spread in Goodman’s book is a chiaroscuro tableau of anxious faces called ‘Immigrant arrivals, Sydney Harbour’. These shipboard faces don’t engage the reader’s gaze, as Russell and Maisie Drysdale do, but search the unknown space of the dock beyond the reader. (A very similar, and now much more famous, copycat photograph was taken in the same place the following year by the Australian photographer David Moore, whilst on assignment for the National Geographic article ‘New South Wales: The State that Cradled Australia’.[iv] )


Other books followed Goodman’s lead. In 1967 Donald Horne collaborated with the photojournalist David Beal on a book called Southern Exposure, which in its acerbic treatment of Australia was almost like a pictorial version of The Lucky Country. Horne wrote in the book’s introduction:

Neither of us — photographer nor writer — could be bothered producing the ordinary kind of picture book on Australia. There are no photographs of koala bears in gum trees here. We are trying to get down in pictures and words the Australia we see — a nation in which more people live in big cities than happens in any other nation, but which is set in a largely empty continent, a continent which seems very strange to non-Australians. In this nation people lead a life not quite the same as the life led anywhere else, but they are so indifferent to it that they hardly care what kind of life it is that they lead. … We have a special theme — to suggest some answers to the following question: What happened to European civilization when it came to Australia?

The chapter headings don’t follow the usual triumphalist trajectories of most over picture books, but capture the text’s acerbic tone: ‘A transported Civilization’; ‘Deserts of Disaster’; ‘The Same but Different’; ‘Boxes of Brick’; ‘Mates’; ‘Non-Mates’; ‘Bosses’; ‘The New Australia’; ‘Existential Australia’.


In the following year Jeff Carter’s Outback in Focus a travel book aimed at the rising market of tourists and campers was nonetheless not shy in commenting on Australian civilization in general. In the book physiognomic close-ups are arranged across the pages for comparison. The dryly cynical captions to some of his sequences include:

This Wailbri Tribesman is amongst the last generations of Aborigines still capable of a nomadic life;

This man could still live in the bush, too, but looks to the ways of the white man for a better life

This Alice Springs policeman works as a white man, but is not paid as a white man or treated like one.


Occasionally younger photographers attempted to modify the mould that had now been well established for picture books about Australia. For instance in 1971 Rennie Ellis and Wes Stacey self published a small 81-page book about the effect of the R & R day on Kings Cross called Kings Cross Sydney. This book takes a deliberately cosmopolitan, bohemian approach to the idea of an Australian type.


In 1969 the commercial photographer David Mist produced a kind of Playboy guide to Australia, punningly titled Made in Australia, it claimed to be:

… a book of Australia’s bird life (of the non-feathered variety).

And it saw Australian women as a multiracial cocktail.

The beauty of Australian woman is unlike that found in any other nationality, yet its unique style is a combination of the characteristics of every nation. Beginning with the elegance of the English and the tranquil dignity of the Aboriginal, we have since added Italian vivacity, Slavic warmth, German discipline, Greek joi de vivre, Asian serenity and American ingenuity — what emerges is ‘Australian’ — a look that has claimed the Miss International and Miss World titles.


Five years later a rejoinder came with the feminist A Book About Australian Women with photographs by Carol Jerrems and text edited from interviews with various women by Virginia Fraser. Fraser wrote of her interviews:

They can’t represent the whole experience of all women in Australia. There is not just one way of being a person. They are some individual experiences of being a female in this society, dominated by a culture that sees biological gender as a decisive difference between people, instead of one aspect of human possibility and individual uniqueness; in which the institutions traditions and mythology are defined and controlled by men, out of their experience and in their interests.


Despite these counter-cultural efforts even in subsequent mainstream picture books the city largely remains a dystopian place and true character still lies out in the bush. For instance on Friday March 6 in 1981 seventy top international photojournalists joined thirty Australian photographers to shoot Australia across a 24 hour period for A Day in the Life of Australia, but the pattern of coverage has not significantly changed in 20 years.

However these books did solve the problem of picturing the character of a multicultural Australia by gridding photographs up into mosiacs. However they still persisted in locating bush types as the baseline against which to contrast shifts in identity.


To my knowledge there have been no significant picture books about Australia since then. The resurgence of the film industry in the 1970s, and the continuing dominance of television, have taken over the task of visually defining and redefining what might be our national character. But our bookshops are still awash with biographies of Australian heroes and anti-heroes. And the interest in the face, captured in the frame for scrutiny, remains. In 1998 the National Portrait Gallery opened in Canberra with the vision that at least in part took up where the Australian picture books left of, the gallery’s mission was to:

increase the understanding of the Australian people – their identity, history, creativity and culture – through portraiture.

The inaugural National Portraiture award attracted nearly 1500 entries.


Is there still such a thing as a ‘typical Australian’. Let’s see. In Australian Photography 1947 Laurence le Guay published a studio portrait of the film actor Chips Rafferty, craggy, unshaven, staring off into space. Rafferty made his name playing lank ANZACs in films like Forty Thousand Horseman in 1940 and the Rats of Tobruk in 1944, and a drover in the Hollywood film The Overlanders in 1946. Twenty years later Chips Rafferty played the cranky patriarch in They’re a Weird Mob who begrudgingly allowed the Italian migrant to marry his beautiful daughter.  For me Chips is an ur-type for a distinct lineage of men that travel through Paul Hogan, to Les Hiddens the Bush Tucker Man, up to Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter (Whose portrait now hangs in the NPG). What are the physiognomic characteristics of this type? I think they are:

  • A no-nonsense non-cosmopolitan haircut
  • Laugh-lines or sun-creases around the eyes
  • A weathered complexion — freckles, sunburn, etc
  • A clear-eyed, open gaze
  • A sinewy, lanky body

In essence these are the characteristics which make the face and the body a synecdoche and an analogue for the continent of Australia itself. It is a type where the weather seems to have indexically inscribed itself onto the face to turn it into its own Australian landscape. And they are also the characteristics which physically materialize the supposedly decent, frank personality of the Australian.

Significantly, even though this type obviously had its origins in some kind of Aryan racial ideal, beneath even its digger and drover manifestations, I think it has now transcended it. In the sixty years since it emerged it has now crossed ethnic, racial and even gender lines. Steve bequeathed it to Bindii. And I see the net-baller Liz Ellis as very much of the type, as, perhaps was Fred Hollows. I’m even going to go out on a limb and include Ernie Dingo in my category.

The type is always susceptible to self-parody. Jack Thompson first appeared as a drunken kangaroo shooter in Wake in Fright, but I was startled to see Jack Thompson’s face being used by the Byron Bay Chilli Company on their new range of BBQ sauces. Our Jack is no Paul Newman, and there is something about the implied sexual rapacity of his unruly beard which undermines he fundamental decency of the type.

As yet I haven’t been able to think of any celebrities who represent migrant communities, although I think somebody from the South-East Asian communities must be ready for it. For instance Ahn Do has certainly captured the larrikin aspects of the type, but he is too metropolitan and lacks the embodiment of the outdoors and the bush that is there even in the suburban girl Liz Ellis, via the netball court.


Perhaps there are other types that I could have explored, for instance the stolid, indomitable woman — the middle aged woman built on a sturdy framework of bone, and with a secure layer of subcutaneous fat. Max Dupain and David Moore specialized in this type, though I can’t think of any current examples.


Now of course these types aren’t really types in the old nineteenth century mode at all. They now no longer grow up from the national soil, but are constructed by the national media. Yet I think that they are more than just superficial media stereotypes as well. While there is a level of self-parody in many of these figures, there is still a way in which in their very physiognomies they persist in embodying a material, physical history that goes back a century.

I think also that if we look back at the picture books about Australia we certainly find a very fragmented, interrupted, and meagre history. But nonetheless it is one that has been totally ignored until now, and it demonstrates that photography played an important role in the popular conversation around national identity well before the recent art photography boom.

Martyn Jolly

[i] George Johnston and Robert Goodman, The Australians, Rigby, 1966, p292.

[ii] John Currey, ‘Australian Books Are Selling FAST!’, Walkabout, March 1970. (My thanks to Gael Newton for this reference)

[iii] p 214, p210.

[iv] Howell Walker, ‘New South Wales: The State that Cradled Australia’, National Geographic, November 1967

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