‘The Disinfected City in Australia’, Eugene Atget Symposium, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 25 August, 2012
The Panoramic, the Evidential and the Picturesque
The idea of Atget and archival delirium in Australian photography
Of course there is no antipodean Atget. The very idea is ridiculous. Any relationship drawn between a singularly exceptional photographer working in early twentieth-century Paris, the city which as the ‘capital of the nineteenth century’ was central to global shifts in urban culture, and any other photographer working far away in the colonial settler society of Australia, at the dusty extremity of a European empire, must be attenuated in the extreme.
Yet nonetheless Atget is here, and perhaps the mystique that surrounds him can be used as a lens to look afresh at some aspects of Australian photography.
The idea of Atget
Firstly what have been the reactions to Atget? The surrealists saw Atget’s photographs as suspended between fact and dream, between the prosaic and the poetic. Subsequent interpretations, particularly in the US, emphasised the prosaic, factual pole of this tension. Atget’s commercial imperatives were seen to have produced an archive of empirically authentic documents.
Walter Benjamin was attracted to Atget because his photographs thematised the spatially and temporarily liminal. Both were interested in contested and transformed spaces; and in the outmoded, which has the capacity to erupt into the present at the very moment it is consigned to history, challenging the linear distinctions between past, present and future.
In 1931 Benjamin said of Atget:
‘ … he disinfected the sticky atmosphere spread by conventional portrait photography … He cleansed this atmosphere, he cleared it; … He sought the forgotten and the neglected, … such pictures turn reality against the exotic, romantic, show-offish resonance of the city name; they suck the aura from reality like water from a sinking ship. … Atget almost always passed by the ‘great sights and so-called landmarks’ … the city in these pictures is swept clean like a house which has not yet found a new tenant. These are the sort of effects with which surrealist photography established a healthy alienation between environment and man, opening the field for a politically educated sight, in the face of which all intimacies fall in favour of the illumination of details.’
Five years later Benjamin praised Atget once again for eschewing the nineteenth century portrait ritual and the romance of the human face:
To have pinpointed this new stage constitutes the incomparable significance of Atget … It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed [the streets] like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way.’
What I take from all of that is that Atget’s photographs are dreamlike, but also authentic documents. They create a ‘disinfected’ city cleansed of the cloying atmospheres of myth, and cleared of the ideology of romantic humanism. They are made up of details that need to be read with a ‘healthy alienation’, rather than contemplated within a comfortable aesthetic familiarity. They document liminal temporalities where the smooth flow of history is folded back on itself; and liminal spaces where the seamless ideologies of civic space are unpicked to reveal urban gaps and layerings.
Urban photography in Australia
During roughly the same period in which Atget was working there were three dominant modes in the picturing of Australian cities, and each I think resonates in different ways with Benjamin’s comments on Atget. The three modes are the panoramic, the evidential, and the picturesque.
Colonial audiences loved panoramas, and photographers took every opportunity to take them. Charles Bayliss used Holtermann’s North Sydney Tower in 1875, the roof of the Garden Palace Exhibition Buildings in 1879, and the GPO Tower in the 1890s, as vantage points for his panoramas of the growing city. Even some of his terrestrial views were panoramic, working to extend the viewer’s eye across long and deep diagonals that led all the way to infinity down long vanishing streets which are completely delineated by the sun. In the twentieth century the American adventurer Melvin Vaniman also took a panorama of Sydney from a tethered balloon, as well as from the mast of a ship.
Tucked away on the far right of Vaniman’s ship-mast panorama is The Rocks area, which is the first site of the second mode of photography I want to discuss, the evidential. In 1900 the Department of Public Works assembled 300 ‘Views Taken During Cleansing Operations, Quarantine Areas’. They were taken by John Degotardi, under the supervision of the engineer George McCredie. They documented the cleansing of The Rocks area following the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in January 1900 from which 103 people died. The photographs were commissioned as evidence of dereliction to forestall possible litigation from slum landlords whose properties were to be either demolished or cleansed. The quarantined residents, unable to leave, were employed to cleanse their own streets, and to finish with whitewashing their own walls. Whitewashing had no sanitary value, but was purely a signifier of cleanliness. Degotardi himself often wore white, and often his photographs capture a face-off between cleansing official and hapless denizen of the quarantined area. Indeed the scale of the project gives it now, in retrospect, something of the same moral force that Jacob Riis’s much more famous flash-lit reportage of New York’s slums had. Some of the basements and toilets are lit by flashlight, as Riis’s was, but Degotardi’s usual illuminant was the purifying sun angled into the backyards.
The actual identity of the photographer was only established in about 1980 by the sharp-eyed historian Max Kelly who recognized, eighty years after they were first taken, that Degotardi had exceeded his initial brief.
… he offers us a way to know this previously unknown world rather more intimately than a literary or statistical account could provide. Here people are as they were. There is no artifice. Some are caught unawares, some are apprehensive. Others are just as interested in the photographer as he is in them. Most have only rarely, if ever, had their photographs taken. The same is true for the buildings — the terraces, shacks, doss-houses, warehouses and make-do shelters.’
In 1977 he published some of the archive in the important book A Certain Sydney which went into three printings. It began with the epigraph:
‘Most of the people pictured here are dead. Nearly all of the houses have been demolished and a number of the streets no longer exist. The book tries to resurrect an aspect of Sydney’s life which, even in its time, was largely forgotten.’
Thirty years after this statement, this period of The Rocks is now permanently remembered as part of the tourist’s heritage experience. If Max Kelly saw the collection as documents of city life, the cultural critic and artist Helen Grace saw them as documents of city politics. In a 1991 article she noted that the buildings themselves became suspects under interrogation. She claimed that many of the photographs are like mug shots, ‘portraits’ of the front of the buildings. But the buildings’ facades initially resist penetration by the official gaze. ‘This is the age of the façade’ Grace asserts, ‘a building which does not have a noble visage, a building which is hidden away from other buildings, in a side lane, for example, must have something to hide’. Therefore the official desire to see the building beyond the façade, as though unclothed, becomes almost pornographic. For Grace this penetration beyond the façade brings into view an ‘invisible city’:
[T]hat space which must be brought into existence so that the mechanisms of the modern city can begin to operate. Public health is the focal point around which revolves the impetus for discovery of the invisible city of unspeakable horrors and sanitary evils. Once the official has tentatively ventured down a side lane there is no stopping him; his curiosity is excited; he loses his fears of the inhabitants of these forbidden places. He is ready to enter the other side, the reversal of the facade.
But in Grace’s narrative the pleasure which the European bourgeoisie traditionally took in their own revulsion at the Dickensian squalor of the Other is complicated because such familiar and comfortable old-world squalor is not even supposed to exist in the modern cities of the new world. The threat posed to the optimism of the new world by the unexpected irruption of the old world put additional pressure on the photograph to be proof of a social evil. Therefore, in an emerging evidentiary paradigm, the photograph combined with writing so that they reinforced each other, the photograph adopted an anti-aesthetic, style-free visual rhetoric, while the accompanying text adopted the status of legal eye-witness testimony. The image was able to prove the meaning of the words, and this new authority was put to immediate use by the government.
In Grace’s analysis the outbreak of the plague, and the commissioning of the photographs, was a convenient excuse for the state to not only rid the city of the disease itself, but also of certain sections of the population, in particular the Chinese, and to reclaim land from the people through an ad hoc slum reclamation program.
Shortly after her political analysis of the plague photographs Grace herself made an art series that also used photographs and legal deeds to create a polyvalent archive that documented the politics and psycho-geography of land use in inner-city Sydney. In Secret Archives of the Recent Past she counterposed spookily radiant infra-red photographs of buildings which had been the sites of now mostly forgotten political activism, with a suspended parchment palimpsest of the official property deeds and changing ownerships of the same building. To quote from this Gallery’s guide to the collection: ‘In the space between image and manuscript lie the unrecorded activities of the site — ‘the ghosts which redevelopment attempts to exorcise but can’t’, writes Grace. (p296)
If, with her ‘politically educated sight’ Helen Grace was, like Atget, more focused on the activities of a site rather than the people per se, then Max Kelly, as an historian, was more interested in the people themselves who were caught in the emulsion. A few years after the success of A Certain Sydney he produced another important book, Faces of the Street, based on another set of albums that were also taken for evidential purposes by another photographer ,Milton Kent, under the official authorship of the City Building Surveyor, Robert Brodrick. These were the ‘Demolition Books’, compiled by the council to record condemned properties about to be demolished.
Kelly’s new book concentrated on photographs taken over a period of just one week, in 1916, of the building to be demolished for a widening of William Street inspired by Haussman’s improvements in Paris. Milton Kent’s photographs are not only a one-week snapshot of the south side of the street, but they could be extracted from the archive and re-assembled to form a new kind of terrestrial panorama of the lost street façade, a sort of proto Google Street View.
By entering this systematic space and enlarging sections from the evidentiary photos, Kelly performs a kind of retro street photography within the archive. Writing in Photfile in 1983 he argued for photographs as a new kind of historical document, a human document which objectively recorded things other forms of record couldn’t, importantly, intimate, contingent, human things. He noted:
[I]n an endeavor to tune the reader’s eye, and to motivate his and her mind, I included enlarged details from a number of the original photographs. It is interesting to note that it has been these details, thus isolated, that readers have remembered best.’ P10
Something of the sort had been done previously within Australian photographic historiography. In Keast Burke’s 1973 book Gold And Silver, based on the 1951 discovery of a cache of Bayliss and Merlin gold-field negatives, most of the reproductions were severely cropped, while Burke also occasionally selected extreme details for enlargement — ‘emphasizing elements of human or sociological appeal’ he said. (p57). (Of course this technique had been used in documentary filmmaking since the late 1950s. Ken Burns used it heavily throughout the 1990s, and his name is now irrevocably attached to the technique.)
But back in 1983 Kelly’s book took this technique a few steps further than even Keast Burke had. Like a documentary filmmaker he used literary texts and newspaper reports to add contextual ambience to the demolition photographs which he mined for as much evocative detail as possible. For instance, even though no working prostitutes were captured in the demolition photos, there was still a section of his book about the prostitutes of William Street. It used reports from The Truth newspaper, plus poems by Henry Lawson, Mary Gilmore and Kenneth Slessor, and was illustrated, not with images of real women, but with a tiny detail of shop window dummies the ever-vigilant Kelly had spotted in one facade.
While Max Kelly was concerned with the direct resurrection of the historical past, and Grace with our political education, other more contemporary artists are concerned with a more acknowledged fictionalized and poeticized evocation of history, but one with foundations still sunk deeply into the bedrock of evidential fact found in the photographic archive nonetheless. For instance Kate Richards and Ross Gibson have quarantined 3000 photographs off from the much larger collection at the Justice and Police Museum. They regard this data base of Sydney crime scene photographs from the 1940s, 50s and 60s as a self-contained ‘world’ which, under the title Life After War Time, they have iterated into various versions by introducing new poetic texts and various algorithmic sequencing techniques. Writing in 1999 Gibson described the uncanny relationship between artist and evidentiary archive.
The archive holds knowledge in excess of my own predispositions. This is why I was attracted to the material in the first instance — because it appeared peculiar, had secrets to divulge and promised to take me somewhere past my own limitations. Stepping off from this intuition, I have to trust that the archive has occulted in it a logic, a coherent pattern which can be ghosted up from its disparate details so that I can gain a new, systematic understanding of the culture that has left behind such spooky detritus. In this respect I am looking to be a medium for the archive. I want to ‘séance up’ the spirit of the evidence….
The Picturesque — Harold Cazneaux
My third mode is the picturesque. At about the same time as Degotardi and Kent, the artistic photographer Harold Cazneaux trod the very same streets of Sydney. In 1910 he wrote an article called In and about the City with a Hand Camera. Although ostensibly a guide for other aspiring Pictorialists, it is really a very personal record of his own engagement with the streets which, he said, ‘have all the humour and pathos of life’. However, unlike the evidentiary photographers, Cazneaux did not shoot with the cleansing sun over his shoulder, rather he shot into the sun, as well as into the mist, into the haze, into the steam and into the rain. In Cazneaux’s words this ‘[cut] down insistent detail, so that the masses and tones become more picturesque’, but it also immediately re-infected the city with an anachronistic yearning for the free-floating contemplation of a city built to a European blueprint. The article also took the reader along Cazneaux’s personal itinerary through the various areas of the city, each with its own pungent atmosphere, from the brisk CBD streets, to the smoky docks, to the bustling markets, to the steamy railway, and to finally to the secret alleys of the The Rocks. The article makes clear that while the streets do contain picturesque subject matter and artistic lighting effects waiting to be discovered by the intrepid Pictorialist, they are also resistant to the his gaze; and without the official authority of a engineer or a surveyor to back him up, the mute stand-off we have seen in the evidentiary pictures could quickly become an outright hostility that destroys the Pictorialist’s personal old world fantasy. As Cazneaux warned:
Hand and eye must work together, and to hesitate is sometimes to lose. If you are once caught in the act of presenting the camera, your work is almost invariably spoilt as expressions are not pleasant when the subjects are aware that the camera is pointing their way. It is much better to move about calmly, and knowing your camera, study any little group or street scenes. Whilst moving past, decide upon the best view point, mentally calculate the exposure and distance, adjust the shutter, stop the focusing scale. Then, returning to the chosen viewpoint, turn and bring the camera up, locate the image quickly on the finder and expose at once, with perhaps no one but yourself aware that an exposure has been made. … A trip down to the Rocks Area and Argyle Cut will convince any worker with Pictorial imagination of what is to be had, but photography is difficult in this neighborhood. To be successful the worker should have had some experience, as any nervousness of manner and lack of tact whilst working here would only end up by being ridiculed. However go by all means and get broken in. Tact and expert manipulation of one’s camera is necessary if you wish to deal successfully with side street work in this locality. Still, the chances are that you may not like to return again.
Despite these dangers Cazneaux’s photography was part a larger genre of ‘Old Sydney’, and pretty soon a plague of artists like Sydney Ure Smith, Julian Ashton and Lionel Lindsay were congesting the streets and alleyways with their quaint and charming views.
In the 1910s and 20s Cazneaux had turned many of the negatives he exposed into pictorial gems, such as the wee little gum-bichromate print of North Sydney, which is positively putrid with old world atmospheres. However in 1948 the young photographer Laurie Le Guay, editor of Contemporary Photography magazine, saw some of these prints in Cazneauz ‘s studio. He suggested Cazneaux make new prints for a special of the magazine. In the subsequent article Cazneaux relegates the Old Sydney of his youth to a past now decisively brushed aside by Modernism, rather than still caught in a bubble of the outmoded, and the ‘old worlded’, as it had been in 1910:
The old Sydney is changing. The March of Time with modern ideas and progress is surely brushing aside much of the old — the picturesque and romantic character of Sydney’s highways, byways and old buildings. Some still remain, hemmed in and shadowed by towering modern structures. ….
Cazneaux goes on to describe how he restored his 250, forty year-old negatives, and made new prints on modern, smooth contrastier bromide papers. Le Guay now saw the collection in documentary, historical and nationalistic terms. Once Cazneaux himself had willingly disinfected them of their Pictorialism, they became for le Guay, as Atget’s images were for others at the same time, exemplars for the Documentary movement that le Guay was promoting in Australia. He said:
[These prints] must assume the same importance as Atget’s photographs of Paris. As a document of early Sydney, they are undoubtedly the finest prints of the period, and would be a valuable acquisition for the Mitchell Library or Australian Historical Societies. Photographically, they are remarkable for their quality. With slow plates, relatively unprotected from halation, the against the light effects have exploited the range of film and paper with maximum efficiency, while Bromoil and rough textured prints have been dispensed with entirely. It is hoped that this collection may furnish an incentive for a more direct and accurate approach to photographing Australia today.
If, in the tasteful aesthetics of the Old Sydney school of the 1910s and 20s, Cazneaux, Ure Smith, Lindsay and Ashton had re-infected the slums of Sydney with the sticky atmosphere of old world anachronism, it was left to popular culture to disinfect old Sydney again. The popular children’s film Kid Stakes, made in 1927 by Tal Ordell contains an astonishing sequence that perfectly, elegantly and poetically, captures the spatial politics of Sydney in the 1920s. Based on a comic strip, the film centres on the slum kids of Woolloomooloo who play cricket and live their lives freely in front of the wharves and ships of Woolloomooloo Bay. Above them lies Potts Point, full of its posh mansions and restrictive mores. Suddenly, out of the rows of grand houses at the bottom of Victoria Street, emerges Algie Snoops, an upper class boy who yearns for the freedoms of the Wolloomooloo kids. Through the bars of his suburban prison he performs a panoramic sweep of the city across the bay, including St Mary’s cathedral. But this panorama is not a projection into the future, as Bayliss’s and Vaniman’s had been, instead Algernon is assaying a potential itinerary, just as the nervous and highly strung Harold Cazneux who, a bit like Algie, lived on the salubrious North Shore had his favourite itinerary through the city. Algie sees the kids playing, and the camera irises in. The Woolloomooloo steps dwarf him as he descends down them like a latter-day Dante, but the steps are leading him towards the salvation of the slums. Initially the slum kids taunt him, but when he proves he can fight he joins their gang, and, his velvet clothes now torn and put on backwards by the girls in the gang, he is free. He is able to lead the kids back up the steps, past a sleeping policeman on guard between the two elevations, the two classes, of Sydney, and into the wilds of Potts Point for further adventures.
By applying the lens of Atget, that is the tension between the prosaic and poetic, the descriptive and the uncanny, to what I have identified as the three modes of urban photography during the same period — the panoramic, evidentiary and picturesque — I think I have been able to identify the archive, and not the single photograph, as the key object of both photography and photographic historiography. Some photographers have re-invented their own archives within their own lifetimes; while historians have produced others, who were one anonymous functionaries, into significance. Some historians have gone into archives as resurrectionists, seeking to bring back the lives of the dead (something Atget never did); while other artists (perhaps a bit closer to Atget’s mystique) have attempted to use the residual power of archives to pick at the seams of the city and expose the spatially and temporally liminal nature of so much of Sydney. Yet all, and in this sense alone they are exactly like Atget, have been infected with the delirium of the archive.
Dana MacFarlane , Photography at the Threshold: Atget, Benjamin and Surrealism, History of Photography 34:1, 17-28)
Short History of Photography 1931
Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936Continuum, Photogenic Papers Vol6, No 2 1991
Photofile, Winter 1983 p10.
Harold Cazneaux: ‘In and about the City with a Hand Camera’ The Australasian Photo-Review August 22, 1910:
Photofile 58, December 1999