My City of Sydney, 1994

‘My City of Sydney’, 1994

Sydney Photographed catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. pp 59-67

A SECOND-HAND COPY OF FRANK HURLEY’S PICTURE BOOK Sydney: A Camera Study is held in the library of the National Gallery of Australia.1 Between its pages are four pieces of toilet paper.  Presumably they were put there by Derek, who, going by his inscription on the fly leaf, originally gave the book, ‘with love to Mum and Dad and Shirley’ at Christmas 1948.  He has used the toilet paper as improvised tracing paper to add a personal overlay to the grand civic vistas in the book.

For instance we can orient a square of paper over the full colour photograph ‘The Spit, Middle Harbour’2 by the traced outlines of Clontarf, Middle Head and a sail boat. Once it is positioned we can locate Derek’s superimposed comments. An arrow points from the inscription ‘This is where Jim Miller has his block of land where we nearly built a duplex’ to a spot in Clontarf. Another inscription above Spit Road says: ‘I pass along this road everytime I go to White’s’. And another, in the top left hand corner reads: ‘Arthur -Marjorie’s brother lives just off the picture’. This is a wonderful example of somebody tactically re-using civic photography to record their own sense of space within its hegemonic view of an urban place. But it also points to a dialectic which perhaps affects all Sydney photographers who try to photograph their city: ‘Sydney’ is both a space in which some of us live, and a place in which a certain national iconography is staged.

After its publication in 1948, Sydney: A Camera Study was reprinted three times, completely revised in 1958, and eventually sold 50,000 copies.3 Countless similar books, primarily intended to be given by Australians to friends and family overseas, have been published since, but none have the authority of Hurley. A veteran propagandist of the Antarctic, New Guinea, and various theatres of the First and Second World Wars, Hurley defined our official visual culture for decades, with his operatic stagings and heroic deeds and monumental edifices. Hurley’s photographs are horribly oppressive, monumental things.  Each of his images is arranged like an over-designed stage set: foreground forms frame a receding plane which forces the eye back towards infinity.  Every building is on the square, every landscape is crowned with piles of creamy cloud, and every citizen is frozen looking purposively somewhere, either diligently down at their work if it is a factory shot, or deeply into space if it is a landscape.  Every single element of every single one of his photographs is relentlessly bound into an obsessive, almost paranoid national enactment. Every beach, every lifesaver, every street, every building, every factory, every mountain, every valley, every koala – they all serve Australian progress.

Hurley roamed throughout Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, producing a whole set of picture books in every State of the Commonwealth. However, because Sydney is Australia’s pre-eminent city, Hurley’s Sydney images and similar images by other photographers had a defining role to play within a more broadly nationalist iconography. Sydney is the stage on which Australian progress has been primarily displayed. Unlike say, Melbourne’s discursive micro-mythologies of various gnostic places within the metropolis – this or that separate street or locality – Sydney’s special places are all oriented within the nationalist stage directions of Our Harbour, Our Beaches and Our Monuments.

But Sydney still has no equivalent to the Eiffel Tower, which is both a universal symbol of Paris as well as offering a panoramic perspective on it. Sydney may have its complement of skyscrapers built by ‘corporate high-flyers’, but these towers tend to constitute merely an undifferentiated vertical skyline, a generic backdrop to the ‘real’ Sydney rather than its central motif. Despite the recent popularity of Centrepoint Tower’s viewing platform there has been no consistent physical point from which to view Sydney panoptically. However, it is still remarkably easy to conceptualise Sydney in the mintd’s eye from an aerial perspective, with a panoramic view of its places. Because Sydney not only a physical, topographic, sociogeographic site for living, but also a giant, virtual amphitheatre of national imagining, it is easy to imagine it from this ideal perspective with all of its diverse places conceptually ordered within its twin destinies as Austral birthplace and gateway.

In the imperial histories of most Australiana picture books Sydney is not the scandalous Fatal Shore of recent popular historical revisions, but a sacred birthplace, a kind of 18th-century geo-political manger. And in the imagination of these books, Sydney’s manifest destiny reaches back deep into its rock strata. As L Cotton, Professor of Geology and Physical Geography at The University of Sydney, wrote in ‘As It Was

the Beginning’, the first chapter of Sydney: A Camera Study: ‘According to a time scale now generally accepted by geologists, it was nearly 200,000,000 years ago when nature laid the foundations of our city.’4 Those rocks then sat and waited, ignoring the Aborigines, for the First Fleet to arrive. As C H Bertie, past president and Fellow, Royal Australian Historical Society wrote in his chapter, ‘A City and a Nation are Built’: ‘We have no record of the ejaculations of the men as they entered the heads and discovered the extent and beauty of Port Jackson, but Phillip adequately summed up their impressions when he wrote, some months later in a report to Lord Sydney “We got into Port Jackson early in the afternoon and had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbour in the world”.’5

This kind of history telling has been described by Paul Carter in the Road to Botany Bay as ‘diorama history’: a mythological history which invents a point of view, a panoramic eye before whose gaze the historical facts unfold.  History becomes a sublime working model which renders time clockwork and miniaturises space.6 Diorama history continues to affect our relationship to our city. As John Thompson wrote of Sydney in his poem accompaniment to Max Dupain’s 1966 book Soul of a City:

Much of your pride is new-fangled, yet histories hide in your bricks.

Archway, balcony, staircase, paths of the poor and the rich,

Fill with echoes and shadows, the brave rough ghosts of the earlies,

Wherever a Sydneysider may pause and lean and muse.

A double lifetime ago there were trees where the traffic rolls;

A lifetime ago it was only the fearless who sped so far…7 Australian progress has always relied upon, but also feared, mass mobilisations of people.  For most of this century that unthinkable migration coming down upon us on a broad front from the north was only conceptually containable when countered by another controlled migration funnelled in through Sydney Heads. As John Thompson put it:

O beautiful, affirmative city!

O brooch on the breast of a continent in the caress of the sea!

Hub of exchanges, ideas and antilogies, eldest and freshest

Of all the brash clan of young cities that shine in the clean dry South!8 In this imagining Sydney was, in Ross Gibson’s words, safely South of the West, not vulnerably South of the East.9

Of course government policy has now changed our cultural longitude, and migration has made Sydney much more polyglot than in Hurley’s day.  But the carnival of nations is still drawn into the cradling arms of Sydney’s imperial history.  For example, there is currently a dispute between the multicultural festival Carnivale and the anglo-centric Festival of Sydney over just this question.  Should Carnivale stay dispersed amongst the various ethnic condensations on the invisible plain of Sydney’s flat suburbs, and remain a ‘community’ event for its participants; or should it be brought into coherent view within the already inscribed, defined, predetermined ground of Sydney City and become a ‘internationally prestigious’ event to benefit all of Australia?

Sydney has not only retained the original moment of colonisation, it has also remained the first point of penetration, physically and conceptually, into the heart of the country itself. To the rest of the world Australia is undoubtedly the Bush rather than Sydney, but nonetheless today’s tourists need to touch down at Kingsford Smith before flying on to the desert, and more importantly can only reach the ancient wonder of Uluru through a prior conceptualisation of the modern wonder of the Opera House.

To live in Sydney is to act as an Australian for others overseas. As Hurley says in his introduction to Sydney: A Camera Study. ‘I hope that those who study this book will feel a glow of civic pride, and appreciate more fully the splendid work done by our public services and institutions that have contributed so much to the citizen’s well being, safety, and convenience. I hope too, that when the pages of Sydney: A Camera Study are turned by friends overseas, the contents will rouse in them an urge to come and join us in Sydney, or in some other of our cities or towns.’10 Derek’s traced overlays, intended to illustrate his new spatial world for Mum, Dad and Shirley, are a personal, epistolary adumbration of this colonial relationship.

Since then, of course, Australia has become increasingly reliant on touristic, rather than colonial population mobilisation. As Meaghan Morris wrote in ‘Panorama: The Live, The Dead and The Living’: ‘Where imperialism wanted settlers for security, tourism needs visitors for endorsement. One regime values permanence and accumulation, the other transience and turnover, one fears invasion, the other metaphorically solicits it. Threatened by the ‘foreign’, the ‘primitive’, and by ‘ghosts’, imperialist discourse tends towards closure: it paranoically defends the borders it creates. A touristic space must be liberal, and open: the foreign and the primitive are commodified and promoted, ghosts are special effects: the only ‘barrier’ officially admitted is strictly economic.’11

The Sydney amphitheatre is still a node within this touristic space. Its job now is to be not so much a crowded city, as a city where crowds are deployed and made visible, just as the outback’s job in both nationalist and touristic imagining is to be empty except for either ghostly or intrepid presences.  Melbourne is a crowded city, but not a city of crowds. Its apocalyptic evacuation in On the Beach seemed to be its natural role (at least according to Ava Gardner), however the panoramic image of a nuked and desert-like Sydney on an old Midnight Oil record cover was meant to rouse us to indignation.

The crowds of Sydney aren’t just currents of teeming citizens, they are self-conscious festivals. Sydney’s crowds are there to enact a purpose: the crowds at the Mardi Gras, the Bicentenary, the footy, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, and the countdown to the announcement of the Olympic 2000 bid are all there to be seen to be there. Even when Sydney is exhorted to ‘let its hair down’ it does so in order to be admired by others.

The natural position for photographing this city seems to be up in the air, not only in a plane flying over the glinting harbour, but up with History itself, gazing over the shining events that make up the grand imperial narrative of Australia.  Countless images have pictured Sydney thus: ranged like stack seating around the Harbour, waiting for another First Fleet re-enactment or another Midget Sub attack. And countless other images -subversive collages or cheeky advertisements – have played with this repertoire, therefore reinforcing its primacy.

But of course if Sydney is a national diorama, for us who live here it is also a lived psychogeography.  Derek, in 1948, lived in the vista of Middle Harbour which he sent to his parents. He knew its contours, internal forces, and micro-histories intimately, and at the same time was proud of it as an abstract sign of his adopted country’s progress. Similarly we live, at one and the same time, in the abstract ‘Sydney’ and in our own locality, either on the North Shore, or in the Eastern Suburbs, the Western suburbs, or the Southern Suburbs. These sociomagnetic poles become the cardinal points of our: navigation: rich or poor, new or old money, working class or bourgeois, anglo or etr young or old, homely or trendy. Then there are the local ‘areas’, delicate atmosphe that ignore postcode boundaries. These are the sub-cultural enclaves: the residues outposts, the dying limbs and sprouting tendrils of any city. These differing urban densities and temperatures are the lacunae and folds of the city’s fabric which the panoramic view smooths away.

So the panoramic view of Sydney implies another, picturesque view, from down amongst it. It may be tempting to imagine that for every photographer ponderously positioning their camera on some eminent vantage-point in order to capture the monumental spectacle of Sydney, others have actively written their city of Sydney following personal paths within it. Many photographers appear to have inverted th unifying, prospective vision of Hurley’s dioramic photography of Sydney and sougf the fragmentary, the anecdotal, and the tangential.

There are several famous historical examples of this ‘other’ Sydney, for instance Harold Cazneaux’s middle-class dalliance with the besmirched, but pictorial, popp( the Rocks. Cazneaux lived on the North Shore, and in the 1900s photographed the children of the Rocks on his way to and from work in the city. In an article ‘In and i the City With a Hand Camera’ he described his techniques for hunting in these ne^ ‘picture grounds’ and warned his fellow amateur Pictorialists: ‘A trip down to the R | Area and Argyle Cut will convince any worker with pictorial imagination of what is I—I had, but photography is difficult in this neighbourhood. To be successful the work should have had some experience, as any nervousness of manner and lack of tact working here will only end by being ridiculed.  However go by all means and get broken in. Tact and expert manipulation of one’s camera is necessary if we wish to deal successfully with side street work in this locality.  Still the chances are that you may not like to return again.’12

Thirty-eight years later David Moore was out looking for American-style documentary poverty in Redfern on one of his weekends off from Max Dupain’s studio, with a Speed Graphic borrowed from Dupain. Suddenly he was yanked from the ‘cramped and sordid Redfern Lane’ and into the bedroom of Redfern Interior by a woman who mistook him for a newspaper photographer and demanded that he ‘take a picture and print it’.13

Although it may initially be tempting to see such photographic detours as the subjective, experiential reply to the demands of the panoptic, ideal Sydney, these photographers were not on a Situationist derive, or practising de Certeau’s ‘long poem of walking’.  If they were driven by any romantic desire it was the libidinous voyeurism of the flaneur. Their encounters were shot through with power, cliche, and stereotype, and were motivated by a pornographic desire to know the Other of civic place. Their reigning spatial metaphor is penetration, not drift. Thus they were always fully incorporated into Hurley’s imperial Sydney, analogous, in a way, to the discreet ads for ‘Naughty Sydney’s escort service’ at the back of the Tourist Guides left in hotel rooms.

Today Sydney has become as ‘overexposed’ as any other postmodern Western city. Our public life has shifted from the streets and plazas of our city to the screens and channels of our living rooms. Sydney’s famous crowds are now media, not civic events. In Meaghan Morris’s words, the media’s current demand ‘is for crowds, not population: people are needed to pass through a space (and be filmed or photographed), rather than inhabit it with communities.’14

The growth of the corporate towers that now form the backdrop in these images h meant that Sydney City has become evacuated of authentic ‘life’ (the town planner’s dreaded Doughnut Effect).  But although no longer ‘organically’ alive, Sydney City is i experientially dead. Those of us who may still, from time to time, walk in the cold an windy shadows of its office blocks, now find that its streets are being directly ‘theme a 1990s revision of Hurley’s dioramic national narrative.  For instance walkers occasionally come across a strategically placed sign-board, part of Westpac Bank’s Heritage Walk, which shows a photograph of the view from that exact spot a hundred years earlier.  If we wish we may go one step further and loll in a convict hammock at Hyde Park Barracks.  Soon, visitors to the Museum of Sydney, which has been incorporated into Governor Phillip Tower, will be able to interact with historical characters created by actors, scripts and computer technology. Visitors may even imagine them be phantoms rising directly from the soil of the archaeological site of first Govemment House, upon which the tower and the museum are built. Sydneysiders are no longer allowed to simply ‘pause and lean and muse’ on the ‘brave rough ghosts of the earlies’ as in John Thompson’s day. Now they must re-embody and re-enact, under controlled, sanitised conditions, the experience of those ghosts (now of both invaders, immigrants and Aborigines) as their civic duty to the commodified spectacle of Sydney.

Within the new historiographic logic of this theming, Sydney is now a compacted, archeological layering of contradictory historical moments, rather than simply the em stage for the perpetual unfolding of our imperial destiny. Yet it remains a mythic site the spectacle-culture of our nation.  Its potent vitality has been hollowed out into a shell a ruin. Sydney is now, more even than in Hurley’s heyday, an abstract space beyond contestation, waiting to be deployed within a primarily televisual spectacle of nationhood.  Reduced by cartoonist’s shorthand into the logo of a grafted Bridge/Opera House silhouette, or simply into an Opera House-shaped ribbon of exuberance for the Sydney 2000 Olympic bid, Sydney is now probably recognisable in a nano-second anywhere in the West.   Recent noisy conflict between the Federal, State and Local governments over the future of the Circular Quay precinct – the Cahill Expressway, the Customs House, East Circular Quay, even the Casino and the wharves – point to this intensifying national potency. The terms of the argument – universal aesthetic values,: amenability for promenading crowds, the need to have it all finished before ‘they’ arrive   in the year 2000 – all confirm Sydney City’s status as Australia’s televisual shop wine

It is this Sydney which is the site for current urban tactics. Some examples already present themselves. On Invasion Day 1988, Aboriginal protesters not only marched from Redfern to Hyde Park (tangentially, across the usual celebratory civic vectors, rather than, say, down George Street) but also invaded Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. What would have been a prime viewing balcony for proud white Australians became itself a stage for a protest which was televisually viewed by the world.

The televising of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras seemed to be the inevitable culmination of its history of contesting the straight’s hegemony over a particular urban place. After winning the right to march up Oxford Street, successfully claiming it as a gay and lesbian place, the next space to dance into is our living rooms, and the next place to claim a right to is television. But by covering the event in exactly the same way as an ANZAC Day march, perhaps the ABC withheld from the Mardi Gras the ultimate right to transform its televisual place.

It is within an urban dialectic that Sydney photographers work. Are they citizens or civic actors? inhabitants of a space they know like the back of their hand? or extras in perpetual civic festival? Or are they both?


Frank Hurley,  Sydney: A Camera Study, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1948

Frank Hurley,  Sydney: A Camera Study, p. 13

David P Millar, From Snowdrift to Shellflre, Sydney, 1984, p. 136

Frank Hurley,   Sydney: A Camera Study, p.10

Frank Hurley,  Sydney: A,Camera Study, p. 16

Paul Carter,  The Road to Botany Bay, London, Faber & Faber, 1987, pp. xix-xx

Oswald Ziegler, Max Dupain, John Thompson, Soul of a City, Sydney, Oswald Ziegler, 1966, unpaginated

Oswald Ziegler, Max Dupain, John Thompson, Soul of a City, unpaginated

Ross Gibson,  South of the West: Post Colonialization and the Narrative Construction of Australia, Indiana University Press, 1992

Frank Hurley,  Sydney: A Camera Study, p.7

Meaghan Morris, ‘Panorama: The Live, The Dead and The Living’, in Paul Foss (ed.) Island in the Stream, Sydney, Pluto Press, 1988, p. 182

Harold Cazneaux, ‘In and About the City with a Hand Camera’ in Australasian Photo Review, August and September 1910

David Moore,  David Moore: Australian Photographer, Sydney, Chapter & Verse, 1988, p.24

Meaghan Morris, ‘Panorama: The Live, The Dead and The Living’ p.182

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