Anne Zahalka at Work
Everybody wants a behind the scenes tour. Documentary filmmakers and photographers have always catered to this desire to lift the hood on an institution and see how the human machinery underneath works. We all remember seeing documentaries about, for example, the ‘below stairs’ bustle of majestic mansions, the below decks drills of mighty warships at sea, the behind the scenes dramas of great opera houses, or the backroom machinations of political campaigns. Our Parliament House combines all of these aspects — from the aristocratic to the bellicose to the operatic to the Machiavellian — in the one magnificent site that virtually every Australian has visited, or will visit, at one time or another. And even when we aren’t there in person — trailing through the public level in school groups, queuing for a spot in the public galleries, or attending a function in the Great Hall —we still see one or another of the several tips of the Parliamentary iceberg every night on TV: a shouting match in the chamber, a doorstop interview on a chilly Canberra morning, or the forced chit-chat of caucus or cabinet before the doors are closed on the cameras.
But how does it all run? Or, more specifically, who runs it all? Last year, twenty-five years after it opened, Anne Zahalka was commissioned to photograph Parliament House and, through a process of discussion and experimentation, eventually decided to work with the staff, the ordinary but essential people who keep the vast machinery of the legislature running day in day out, from year to year and from government to government. Of course Parliament House is an extraordinary piece of architecture, not so much a building set in a landscape as a citadel which is part building and part hill, a self-contained city voyaging through time on its own temporal rhythms driven by the imperatives of parliamentary sittings and legislative agendas. And photographers have always loved it; its flat planes, hard edges and abutted textures are made for the camera. Nor was Zahalka the first photographer to be commissioned to photograph it. As it was being built in the 1980s the Parliament House Construction Photography Project commissioned twenty-eight emerging and established photographers to respond to the construction process and the building as it grew into the hill. Most of the photographers concentrated on the tangled formal patterns which the concrete, reinforcing mesh, formwork, and so on made against the mud and bedrock. Only some, most notably Sandy Edwards, photographed the workers themselves — union members in her case — who were needed to actually do the work. As hill mutated into building other photographers, for instance Debra Phillips, got the opportunity to photograph the vast and complex cathedral like spaces that were opening themselves up beneath the buttresses and aprons of concrete above. These photographers can be seen as precedents to Zahalka’s anniversary commission.
But that heroic construction phase was long ago, the building and its staff have long since settled into a regular rhythm, chugging efficiently along as political storms rage above, and it is that on which Zahalka has concentrated. However in her work we still get a sense of the building’s full architectural scale, which so fascinated the construction phase photographers, through the building’s employees. A worker checks her phone in a storeroom for old furniture which has been built, at the lowest level of the building, into the roughly excavated bedrock of the hill itself. In another photograph another worker tugs apart the bus-sized flag which is about to fly high above the swards of rooftop grass, from the top of the massive quadrapod flagpole.
The architecture of the building has also written itself into the very compositional structure of Zahalka’s images. Like the building itself all of her images are strictly symmetrical and organised around a central axis which drives itself straight through the middle of her photographs. Some of her images are even bicameral like our Parliament house. The panoramas, made by digitally gluing several separate exposures together, seem to conjoin two visual halves into one unified image; and one image of the Parliamentary Library, made from two adjacent points of view, allows us to look down two bookshelf aisles at once.
There has always been a tableau-like quality to Zahalka’s photographs. For example in her series Welcome to Sydney, 2002, commissioned by Sydney Airport, new migrants to Sydney from different countries were posed against panoramic Sydney skylines as though they were giant postcards. Within the rectilinear pyramids of these Parliament House images the staff are arranged like actors on a well-lit stage waiting for the curtain to rise. Working with her subjects, Zahalka posed them in their work-settings, sometimes art-directing the furniture and ornaments, and sometimes styling vital details such as the orange electrical lead of the cleaner’s vacuum-cleaner which leads our eye in as it snakes across the carpet of the Prime Minister’s suite. As Zahalka works on the digital files after they had been captured she further controlled the final image.
This sense of the choreographed enactment of dignified work, rather than the instantaneous grabbing of workers from the midst of the mundanity of their labours, is not new in Australian photography. The photography of Wolfgang Sievers is another precedent to Zahalka’s approach. (Sievers did not participate in the 1980s Parliament House Construction Photography Project, though his contemporaries Max Dupain and David Moore did.) Sievers built his reputation constructing elaborate promotional photographs in factories, from which the worker-subjects were often sent home for clean shirts, shaved and cleaned-up, and posed as though they were masters of their machinery, which was dramatically lit against darkness. In front of Sievers’ camera even the grottiest factory looked dramatic, and the most grueling work felt heroic. No wonder Sievers’ photographs, originally taken to promote individual businesses, eventually became iconic images for Australia as a whole. Although not as extreme and artificial as this, Zahalka’s photographs do endow the staff of Parliament House with worth and national value. The image of the pond cleaner scrubbing the bottom of the ceremonial pond in the House’s forecourt, as the hose loops around his legs like a lazy eel, is not ironic. All edifices, no matter how grand, and all institutions, no matter how complex, require dedicated staff from top to bottom, and from outer perimeter garden to inner sanctum. All play their part. Even the cabinet table, around which crucial decisions will shortly be made ‘in camera’, needs to be cleaned, by somebody.
With a formally tuned, but visually witty, sensibility Zahalka has documented these diverse staff members in their diverse work environments; describing, twenty-five years after it was built, Parliament House not as simply a piece of architecture, and not as simply the seat of our government, but as a place, a symbiosis of people, power and architecture.