Exposing the Australians in Focus

Exposing the Australians in Focus

Harold White Fellowship Lecture, National Library of Australia, 2011


The books I’m going to talk about this evening are the books you find on the bottom shelf at the very back of the second-hand bookshop. They have been slowly bending the chipboard shelves with their weight over the past years forty-five years. Now I think it is time that they were dusted off and re-examined.


There had been a trickle of Australiana photobooks throughout the twentieth century. For instance the British photographer E. O. Hoppe came to Australia in 1930 and shot the book The Fifth Continent. In the next decade Oswald Ziegler began to publish a long series of large-format commemorative volumes co-sponsored by various governments and municipalities. Many of his publications were designed by the European trained designer Gert Sellheim, who often constructed elaborate double-page panorama-montages of national destiny using photographs from a diversity of anonymous sources. Usually the images he used came from stock sources, however every now and again we can trace a montage fragment back to its origin. For instance one of his montages from 1946 contains an image taken by Roy Dunstan, a photographer for the middle class travel magazine Walkabout, of Gwoja Tjungurrayi, known as ‘One Pound Jimmy’. The image was originally taken near T. G. H. Strehlow’s camp in 1935 and first published in Walkabout in January 1936 with the caption ‘The aboriginal, as seen by the early explorers’,


During the 1950s Frank Hurley began to publish his series of ‘Camera Study’ scenery books, and they continued to be published well into the early sixties, even after his death in 1962. And occasionally the posh fine-art publisher Ure Smith would produce genteel photobooks about Sydney, or surfing.


As the 1960s progressed photobooks in this well established mould continued to be produced, but at a steadily increasing rate, and in an increasing diversity of approaches. The New Zealand photographer Robin Smith continued the tradition of Hurley’s scenery books. One of his many books, Australia in Colour, sold 50,000 copies. But the dodgy colour reproductions and haphazard layouts of his books were were beginning to look very tired and old fashioned. As well, corporations such as BHP or James Miller Ropes produced books as promotional tools. An example is The James Miller Story published in 1962 which succeeds in making even the daggiest of industries, rope making, appear glossy, glamorous and modern.


However some creative experiments with photographic formats were also published. For instance in 1957 Angus and Robertson published Piccaninny Walkabout, a children’s book shot on an Aboriginal mission by Axel Poignant, which told it’s story almost entirely in photographs. Three years later a small, charming book of post-Pictorialist photographs won a ‘Book of the Year’ prize. It was Melbourne a Portrait, designed and shot by the photographer Mark Strizic with words, translated into French and German to appeal to the overseas gift market, by the architect David Saunders. The cover was by Len French. The judges commented:

This book of photographs, printed by offset, is an outstanding production. All the illustrations have an attractive softness. Not often is text printed by offset so clearly and evenly carried out. The preliminary pages have been well treated and refreshingly break away from the stereotyped pattern…..


The judge’s comments pointed to one major technological change which was leading to the expansion of photobooks. Offset printing, as opposed to letterpress printing, allowed text and image to be more cheaply, conveniently and intricately integrated on the one page, while retaining photographic quality and textual clarity. The book was printed from Griffin Press in Adelaide, who were to establish a reputation for high quality offset printing. In addition, access to large offset printers in Asia meant that Australian picture books could be printed in Singapore, Hong Kong or Japan in bulk and at low cost. Many glossy promotional books were beginning to be printed in Asia. The Age said of Strizic’s Melbourne a Portrait: ‘It gives a truer picture of Melbourne than a book of more glossily conceived and executed pictures could ever do. It also gives a picture of an exciting and a vital city” Melbourne Truth (2/12/60) called it ‘friendly and intimate … Melbourne’s old familiar places, caught and held by the art of the camera, come alive with fresh beauty…In comparison, the glossy production of the Victorian Promotion Committee, Melbourne — Big, Rich, Beautiful, sinks to the level of a singing commercial’.


But in the mid to late 1960s there was a dramatic acceleration to this increasing flow of photobooks. Books began to be published which were larger in format, better in design, and integrated text and image even more closely. In addition, these books were no longer simply about scenery, or worthy propaganda flattering the progress of this or that municipality, or this or that manufacturing company, they were about Australia itself. And they were timely, about Australia in the 1960s, rather than timeless, about a generic Australia. And they were quite explicitly about the new Australian identity that was emerging in the post war period.


During this period there was a radical increase in the number of independent, start-up publishers in Australia such as Rigby, Landsdowne, Nelson and Jacaranda, all trying to get a slice of the boom in book sales. The value of Australian publishing increased eight fold between 1961 and 1979; and from 1961 to 1971 membership of the Australian Book Publishers Association increased from 37 to 67, of which nearly 40 were Australian owned.


There was also a vibrant discourse on the nature of Australian identity being carried on during this period, with landmark texts being widely read and discussed. These included the smash hit post-war migration novel They’re a Weird Mob, 1957, which sold 300,000 copies in three years; critiques of Australia’s urban environment in The Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd, 1960; discussion of the supposed success of Australia’s assimilation policies in I, the Aboriginal, by Douglas Lockwood, 1962; critiques of how Australia’s wealth and provincialism had made it uninspiring and indolent in The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties, Donald Horne, 1964; discussion of the country’s changing ethnic and age demography in Profile of Australia, Craig McGregor, 1966; and new approaches to thinking about Australian history in a world context in The Tyranny of Distance, Geoffrey Blainey, 1966.


As a background to this there was unprecedented wealth flowing from a mining boom, continuing mass migration from Southern Europe, and the beginnings of what would be our escalating commitment to the Vietnam War from 1966.


Significantly, as well, the Australian film industry would not undergo a renaissance until the 1970s. There were only a handful of feature films made in Australia during the sixties, and most were by overseas directors. The biggest hit was They’re a Weird Mob made by an English director in 1966, eight years after the book was first published. You can count the number of 1960s Australian feature films on the fingers of one hand, but at least sixty significant Australiana picture books were published during the same period


Looking back on this period from 1970, the novelist and journalist George Johnston commented:

I think it is significant that the rise over the past 20 years of a new, different, technological Australia runs almost parallel with the startling increase in and acceptance of books about Australia.’ The magazine quoting him added: ‘Perhaps there is also evidence that Australians are looking for an ‘instant heritage’”. [Walkabout 1970]


The Australians

In 1962 a National Geographic photographer named Robert Goodman came to Australia on assignment. Whilst here he met the Australian photographers Jeff Carter and David Moore, and worked with the Tasmanian born National Geographic staff writer Allan Villiers on a major National Geographic article on Australia. The article came out in September 1963 and established the dominant theme of the decade, the contrast between country and city. The articles he had assisted in lining up for Jeff Carter came out as ‘The Alice in Australia’s Wonderland’ in 1966; and for David Moore as ‘NSW The State That Cradled Australia’ in 1967. Whilst here, Goodman also conceived the idea of producing a high production value coffee table photobook about Australia for a global market.


Goodman, an extraordinarily energetic entrepreneur, got the support of a series of companies who were persuaded of the benefit of having a stock of books to be used as promotional gifts. 12 companies made $150,000 available over three years to finance the book, in return for10,000 copies to be used as promotional gifts. The companies were travel, mining and manufacturing companies and included: Qantas, the National Travel Association, Alcoa, Ansett, Associated Pulp and Paper, BHP, Commonwealth Bank, Felt and Textiles, IBM, International Harvester, Mutual Life and Citizens Assurance Company, P&O, H. C. Sleigh.


Goodman returned to Australia to shoot the book in 1964. He met the novelist George Johnston who had just returned from living abroad for fourteen years, and whose just-published sentimental autobiographical novel My Brother Jack was receiving critical and popular acclaim. Johnston agreed to write the text. Although many photobooks at this period were making use of the new Asian printers in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, Goodman ensured quality control by using the Adelaide independent publisher Rigby and the Adelaide printery Griffin Press, which was known for its quality, to have control over the colour separation, plate production, and paper quality. This control is indeed palpable in the final product. There is a wide variation in the print quality of the books I am discussing, but The Australians is amongst the best.


Goodman had also made important media connections, including with the class travel magazine Walkabout who a year out from the book’s publication began to build anticipation for it by covering his travel around Australia with his wife. When it was finally published in September 1966 the book was supported by an unprecedented publicity blitz, with articles and mentions in every magazine, from Pix, to the Women’s Weekly, to Walkabout, to Australian Photography, to Vogue Australia, as well as the newspapers. The coverage was tailored to each magazine, the Women’s Weekly featured his wife, Australian Photography showed the gear he had used. Even with the assistance of the copies going to the corporate sponsors, sales were excellent, despite the hefty coffee table price of $7.95. After it’s first edition of 35,000 copies sold out it went through several editions eventually staying in the best-seller list for a total of 14 months, and staying in print until well into the seventies. By 1970 it had sold 90,000 copies. [Walkabout 1970]


The big splash the book made was further increased by two exhibitions which were printed, one by the Australian Government for display in the US, and one by Ansett-ANA for display in Australia. 66 prints were sized from 1.5 metres x 1metre down to 75 cms x 50 cms. The book became a favourite corporate and government gift, being an official Gift of State at the Montreal Expo of 1967.


As well as its bar-setting production values, the other significant shift in the book was its change in subject matter from previous photobooks. It wasn’t about the continent of Australia simply inhabited by some people, it was about the people of Australia as formed by their continent. The empty urban and pastoral vistas of Hurley or Robin Smith, images of imperial potentiality, became landscapes of faces, a collective portrait.


The modernist designer Harry Williamson, a typographer who had trained at the London School of Printing, designed the book. Goodman and Williamson worked together projecting slides onto an enlarger baseboard. Goodman even returned to slide-rolls he had shot in 1962 on his first trip here, but flipped them and re-cropped them. Williamson cleaned up and de-cluttered each spread, and regularly punctuated the reader’s progress through the book with dramatic double-page images. But these spreads weren’t of vast distant landscapes or urban ravines, as we might expect from previous photobooks, but of the faces and most significantly the gazes, of Australians. Williamson said of his design of The Australians:


I believe it was quite a major statement in design. I tried to produce an integrated statement, to relate the pictures to the words and also to work to a specific grid which I designed, based on Bob Goodman’s 35mm shape. I could bleed the 35mm shape across on to the next page and it conditioned the column of text, generating a continuity throughout the book. I learned quite a bit about tuning things up from an editor from Newsweek [Jonathan Rinehart] who we used to edit the text. I’d do things in a rough sort of way, but he’d say ‘Look, we’re going to end every story on a big red shot, or … we’re always going to start this way.’ Although my grid was rational, I learned a lot from him about structure, about orchestration of pictures and that sort of thing.’ Caban 117


The flavour of The Australians was determined by its international context. It was photographed by a hot-shot American photographer, and narrated by a famous writer returning home after fourteen prodigal years as an expatriate. The bulk of Johnston’s text was a sequence of potted history chapters. These chapters followed a trajectory very familiar from lots of other Australiana photobooks — from the ‘land’ to the ‘people’ to ‘industry’, to ‘arts’, to ‘sport’ and finally ‘Anzac’ — but they were given personal colour by a series of short written vignettes mixing Johnston’s nostalgic recollections, anecdotes and social speculation. These paralleled the photographs quite closely, so text and image informed each other. For instance opposite an image of two Australians on a park bench we read:


The simplest generalization is that Australians and Americans are the two most instantly identifiable peoples of the western world. After ten years of living in Europe I could on a Mediterranean waterfront unerringly recognize from 150 yards away an Australian arriving on the noonday steamer. When I returned to my native land I had been absent for almost fourteen years. Yet everywhere I looked they were the same people I had recognized from the quayside, but infinitely multiplied. The first vivid impressions of homecoming I have not had reason to change…..


Reviews confirmed that The Australians had set a benchmark both in terms of the physical quality of the book, and in terms of its broadening of the themes and issues which could be encompassed by a Australiana photobook. Walkabout’s review of The Australians picked up on the book’s design sophistication and the closeness of the collaboration ‘His running text, which parallels the pictures, is a successful exercise in verbal interpretation which manages to avoid any trace of redundancy.” [September 1966]. While the bookseller trade journal Ideas indicated that this was a book to be sold as fundamentally about the national character of Australians caught between bush and city: ‘Both text and photographs reveal the outback — the back breaking pioneer character of the country which lead to the mateship quality of its inhabitants [as well as] the present-day, suburban, industrialized situation, which now leaves a question mark hanging over the character of today’s Australians’ [September 1966:]


Southern Exposure

The extraordinary success of The Australians prompted a series of replies from other publishers, as well as a series of attempts to jump on the Australiana bandwagon. The most trenchant reply came from Collins who published Southern Exposure in 1967, using a text by Donald Horne, who’s ironically titled The Lucky Country had been a talking point since it’s publication in 1964, and the photographer David Beal, whose black and white photographs had traces of the gritty documentary acerbity and class consciousness of photographers like Bill Brandt or Robert Frank.


The dust jacket states blurb its intention clearly:

Southern Exposure is the most original picture book on Australia yet to be published. It marks a departure from the stereotyped, quasi-official, ‘coffee table’ productions which portray in verbal and visual clichés an idealized picture of Australia. As Donald Horne says in his forward: ‘Neither of us — photographer or 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…..


The cover images are just as explicit, and almost satirical. A prototype of ‘Norm’, the character Phillip Adams was to invent eight years later for a government sponsored exercise campaign called Life Be In It, holds a worker’s shovel but incongruously licks an ice cream — almost a visual encapsulation of The Lucky Country — while on the back cover the ‘real’ Australia remains dry and parched. The faces in The Australians were frontal and open with frank gazes, the faces in Southern Exposure are belligerent or turned away. Their gobs are plugged with bottles, cans or cigarettes. As in the cover, the book is full of sly and sardonic puns. A theatre-goer’s be-jeweled décolletage transmutes with the turn of the page to a drinker’s empty beer glass shoved down her blouse. The book ends with a sequence of two shots implying that both the bush and the suburbs are places where we are equally marooned. Other images, such as of bleached skeletons, a major visual trope of post war Australian iconography, seem to be out to directly trump Goodman’s more glamourized depictions, and Beal’s ANZACS, rather than looking weary but quaintly proud as in Goodman, just look smug and slovenly.


In contrast to Johnston’s expansive and easy-going anecdotes, Horne’s essays are densely written monologues, or almost harangues. To Horne, following on from The Lucky Country, Australians were provincial, complacent and intolerant. Just a skim through the chapter headings and sub-headings are sufficient to give a flavour of his text:

A transported civilization —What the Australians brought with them; Deserts of disaster —Australia’s manic-depressive cycles; The same but different — Australia as a province; Life in the south-seas — Good time Australia; Boxes of brick — Australia as a suburb; Mates— The Australians as a folk; Non-mates — The ‘Blacks’; Bosses — A crisis in leadership; The new Australia — A freshening; Existential Australia — A new style?


The pre-publicity for this book was nowhere near as extensive as that for The Australians. The trade journal Ideas said in July 1967:

Collins are very excited about this book and from what we can see have every reason to be. The photography is excellent and depicts the Australia that most of us know, rather than the Australia many publishers attempt to expose to the eyes of the world. … Absent are the clichés; the overtones of self-congratulation are missing’


The Australian newspaper was also keen:

Everything about it is brilliant, from its sardonic title and sleek presentation to its blistering essay and acute photographs (From ad in Ideas September 1967)


However the book raised the hackles of Walkabout, the travel journal that had doyens from the travel industry on its board, and which had supported The Australians. They complained:

This new genre of picture-book, solidly established last year by The Australians, was given an impeccable and sophisticated pattern by George Johnston’s text and Bob Goodman’s pictures. A welling, wholesome sanguineness swept through it. Australian frailties were admitted with grace, but Johnston’s pride in and Goodman’s American admiration for a people who had tamed but had been simultaneously moulded by a fiercely raw nature, and from scruffy beginnings had built a nation with no small part in the world’s affairs, arts, sciences and sports, seeped through unashamedly. Achievement was the keynote.


In [Southern Exposure], people will read what is tantamount to a lecture to Australians themselves from a superior posture of niggling, radical intellectualism. The Top People, gibes Donald Horne, have come to a dead end, and can’t tell the rest what to do next. Australians are provincial, superficial, and existential, and they have lost the ability to “conceptualise”, raise issues and find broad meaning [except] in action which is now a relief from meaning. They have become imitators and adapters. Even their individualism has become group individualism. They are more concerned with “ordinariness” and mindless conformity.’ [September 1967]


Not surprisingly most Australians agreed with Walkabout’s assessment and weren’t going to pay money to be insulted. The book did reach the best seller list in September 1967, exactly one year after the Australian’s spectacular debut, but stayed there only one month, compared to Goodman’s fourteen. (However many other books I will discuss never made it to best seller status at all.)


It was clear from Walkabout’s over the top reaction that the agenda for photobooks had now shifted, from the purely promotional where it had been for decades, to the personal and political.


Jeff Carter Outback in Focus

Jeff Carter had cleared the equivalent of $3200 from his National Geographic assignment and, more importantly, it had left him with a stock of 3000 colour slides to draw upon. He was regularly publishing letterpress books, where photograph and text were printed on different pages, but in 1967 he moved into offset photobooks with Central Australia in 1967, and Outback in Focus in 1968, published by Rigby, the publishers of The Australians. These books enabled him to place the National Geographic slide stock, and the work he had been doing on an almost weekly basis for the popular magazines Pix and People into the broader more expanded context established by The Australians and Southern Exposure. Even some of the layouts that were occurring in the weekly magazines, such as Pix, People and Australasian-Post, could be transferred to books with higher quality printing.


These books took as their topic Carter’s favourite site, what he called ‘Centralia’. Outback in Focus valorised individual farmers, stockmen and fossickers, but took issue with the pastoral industry as a whole, which he accused of destroying the environment of central Australia. He also critiqued the standard assimilationist trajectories espoused by magazine like Walkabout. In these comforting narratives traditional Aborigines were noble, fascinating and grand, but they were inevitably the last of their generation. White education would produce new Aborigines fully functioning in white society, but still with some residual qualities of Aboriginality.


Carter was quite clear to his readers that this narrative couldn’t play itself out while there was still social and economic exploitation and injustice in Central Australia.  Quasi ‘anthropological’ gangs of figures or faces were a very popular graphic trope in many photobooks. It was used on any exotic species from opera dowagers to Aborigines. In one spread Carter seems to use this ganging layout to give us a standard assimilationist ascension to civilization across the two pages, but only when reading the caption do we realize that he is undermining it.


This Wailbri tribesman is amongst the last generation 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.’


On the page before Carter’s triptych another familiar image of a tousled hair aboriginal boy, commonplace enough since the days of Piccaninny Walkabout, comes with the warning:


Friendly, but doubtful now, this youngster’s attitude to white men will almost inevitably harden into active dislike. The onus is squarely on the white man to win the respect and trust of the black minority.


Walkabout, by now connoisseurs of travel books, praised the proximity Carter got to their beloved outback. They themselves had been responsible for reproducing frequently the head of ‘One Pound Jimmy’ taken by Roy Dunstan in 1935, such that it finally becoming iconicised into a postage stamp, so they praised the frank frontality of Carter’s Aboriginal heads — while ignoring the acerbity of their captions.


Some of his pictures here, in particular aboriginal portraits in colour, are magnificent. In flesh tint and texture, definition of form and line, use of light and projection of character they, in my view, transcend the mechanical and become Carter-creative. I have never seen better, nor such good reproduction by a Japanese printer.


Perhaps because two years had elapsed since the publication of The Australians, they didn’t directly take issue with his critiques of the outback as vehemently as they had Beal’s critiques of Australia as a whole.


The author-photographer describes the aboriginal population as he knows it, and deplores the poor treatment they get, despite legislation to improve their lot and their pay. ‘The new laws are scarcely worth the paper they are written on’, he asserts. A lot of outback topics Carter writes about are well in focus, starkly defined indeed. [August 1968]


Like Southern Exposure a year before Outback in Focus spent just one month in the best-seller list in August 1968.


Kings Cross

Other topics can also been looked at to trace this development in the sophistication and agenda of photobooks. Kings Cross was a staple subject of almost all photobooks about Sydney. Kenneth Slessor, author of the quintessential Sydney poem, 1939’s Five Bells and the book Darlinghurst Nights, was the virtual laureate of Sydney. In 1950 he wrote the text for a Ure Smith book on Sydney illustrated by a variety of photographers including Max Dupain, and in 1965 he wrote the text for a book on Kings Cross.


However his prose in Life at the Cross is rather journalistic and anodyne, and the photographs by Robert Walker are rather distant. The book, which in true promotional style includes a welcome from the Lord Mayor of Sydney, never really gets behind the scenes, or when it does there is a sense that the action has been staged. The design uses lots of small photographs to create a sense of business, but their grouping is incoherent, and their visual dynamism is dispersed.


However six years later, after several years of visitation to The Cross from US servicemen on R & R leave from the Vietnam War which began in late 1967, and the beginnings of the hippy movement, Kings Cross was done again by Rennie Ellis and Wes Stacey. Their book, Kings Cross Sydney, is much more satisfying than the earlier book. The picture groupings are graphically dynamic, and we are taken right into the dressing rooms and hippy pads of the area. The text, while not poetical, is nonetheless pungently personal.


Graham Kennedy’s Melbourne

Other publishers undoubtedly saw a bandwagon to jump on. The ‘King of Television’, Graham Kennedy, lent his name and his image to a book published by Nelson in 1967. The Channel 9 photographer Barrie Bell went round with Graham and took a total of six shots which were dropped in amongst the stock photos from the likes of Mark Strizic and Wolfgang Sievers. For a shot by Brian MacArdle of a South Yarra restaurant Graham comments:

Every second Melbournite has become a sort of instant connoisseur who can chat knowledgeably about Cabernet reds and steak Béarnaise. I know, because I’m one of them myself. I used to think it was snobbery to go beyond a steak (medium thanks) with chips, washed down with a lager. Now I know there are few things in this life to beat good cooking, good company, and a glass or two of good wine.


Made in Australia

When the English low cost, mass distribution publisher Paul Hamlyn entered Australian publishing they also saw potential in the photobook boom. After working with the English photographer David Mist on a book about Sydney. They accepted his idea of copying a 1967 book by the London fashion photographer John D Green called Birds of Britain, and doing a Swinging London, Carnaby Street style take on Australian women. The Sydney bon vivant and wine expert Len Evans would write the cheeky Playboy-style captions. Made in Australia the large format book that resulted in 1969 attempted a kind of groovy design aesthetic, but the ungainly addition of graphic elements like speech bubbles shows the limits of offset printing at the time. Nonetheless it was launched by none other than Patrick McNee from The Avengers TV series in Len Evans’ own restaurant.


In Her Own Right

Made in Australia deliberately and completely ignored the Women’s Movement. But in the same year Nelson published a book of essays called In Her Own Right edited by Julie Rigg which addressed what she called ‘the woman problem’:


The unresolved struggle for equal pay; the occupational problems faced by married women — whether or not to work in a society where industrial expansion depends on tapping married women as a convenient labour pool, but in which child care facilities are grossly inadequate — and the problems of the older married woman who finds her skills as a mother redundant once her children have grown, but is ill-equipped to do very much else; the inequalities of status and treatment which women still experience in many areas of occupational and social life.


The book was illustrated with photographs by Russell Richards, and its design was generally conservative and subservient to the text, however occasionally it breaks in to full bleed double page spreads reminiscent of The Australians.


To Sydney With Love

The combination of David Mist and Len Evans was a good one to target the upwardly-mobile, male, urban-dandy market, but other combinations seem more forced. In 1968 Nelson teamed the social commentator Craig McGregor, who had had the idea for In Her Own Right, with the Austrian-born landscape photographer Helmut Gritscher in To Sydney With Love. McGregor attempted a very personal beat-poetry meditation on Sydney. He opened his text late at night standing on the roof of a block of flats in Potts Point looking into Woolloomooloo:


I know this city, I comprehend it utterly, my guts and mind embrace it in its entirety, it’s mine. It was a moment of exhilaration, of exquisite and loving perception, my soul stretched tight like Elliot’s across this city which lay sleeping and partly sleeping around me and spread like some giant Rorschach inkblot to a wild disordered fringe of mountains, and gasping sandstone, and hallucinogenic gums.


But despite this attempt to ramp up the emotional ampage of the book Gritscher, primarily a landscape photographer most comfortable behind a long focal-length lens, shots things very much at a distance and brought the book back down again to the pedestrian level.


In The Making

However in 1968 McGregor collaborated with the photographers David Moore and David Beal as well as the designer Harry Williamson (the designer on The Australians) on another Nelson book which was to be the largest and most technically ambitious book of the decade. The reader’s experience of In the Making was very much led by Williamson’s design, which compared to the robust simplicity of The Australians, over-reached itself in its complexity. Ostensibly about the process of art making, from poetry to opera, the book must have been a confusing experience for the reader. McGregor’s potted biographies were quite trivial, and had a clever archness to them which failed to engage with any real issues. The photographs were often repetitive in their documentation of the artist at work or, confusingly, they were used as abstract design elements to illustrate the meaning of some poems or pieces of music. And the collage-like design with its lack of chapters and headings was often bewildering. It was a giant book, and at $19.95 a very expensive one, even if aimed at the Paddington or South Yarra coffee table market. It seems to have never made it anywhere near the bestseller list.


By the 1970s the number of Australiana photobooks being published died down. Although some notable photobooks were published from time to time in 1970s, not many took the totality of Australian identity as their topic, and few had the big corporate budgets of the 60s books. The adventures of travel writers like Jeff Carter transmuted into the gonzo TV shows of the Leyland Brothers or the films of Albie Mangles. The expeditions of Walkabout magazine transmuted into the TV shows of Bill Peach. What the seventies had, of course, which the sixties didn’t, was an Australian film industry. Perhaps the last book in the traditional style was A Day in the Life of Australia, initiated by another American photojournalist Rick Smolan, and published in 1981.



In conclusion I hope that I have convinced you that the late 1960s produced a series of photobooks which were not only important and formative collaborations between publishers, writers, artists and designers, but also engaged with real issues of the moment. Is there any legacy here for us? These books were produced during a period of economic boom and geopolitical re-alignment. Many of them were structured around the contrast between the economy and culture of the bush, in particular the mining industry and the pastoral industry, and the economy and culture of the city, in particular its suburban inhabitants. The 1960s had a two-speed economy and a two-speed culture. Mining and pastoral interests have recently re-entered our media and our cultural discourse in a big way to argue against things such as the Mining Industry Super Profits Tax, the temporary cessation of the live export trade, or a price on carbon, and to argue for such things as special industry assistance. In doing so they have been able to draw upon a deep well of iconography produced over many decades, largely, though of course not exclusively, by photobooks such as the ones I have discussed. I think at the background to many of these massive PR campaigns is the implication that real jobs, authentic Australians and nationally significant activities remain in the bush, rather than the suburbs, and should naturally take some kind of historical priority in defining the terms of everything else. This is exactly the same background implication that was at issue in The Australians, Southern Exposure, and Outback in Focus


This debate appears to be coming around again, but after having my head stuck in these books for the last couple of month, its terms, and its visual iconography, appear to me to be very familiar.


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