My review of ‘The Photograph and Australia’

In The Australian & New Zealand Journal of Art, Vol 15, No 2, 2015

The Photograph and Australia, curated by Judy Annear, Art Gallery of New South Wales 21 March — 8 June, 2015; Queensland Art Gallery 4 July — 11 October, 2015

There haven’t been enough books or exhibitions about photography and Australia, given that the medium is so popular and so fundamental to our visual culture, and given that it has left such rich resources in our museums, libraries and archives.[1] There was Jack Cato’s anecdotal The Story of the Camera in Australia, first published in 1955 but still in print in 1977. Then in 1988 the confluence of the bicentenary and the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the medium led to two further books to succeed Cato’s: Gael Newton’s Shades of Light: Photography and Australia, accompanied by a National Gallery of Australia exhibition, which linked Australian photography to international aesthetic narratives such as modernism; and Anne-Marie Willis’s Picturing Australia, which took a socio-critical approach to photography as a medium of power. Next came some institutional collection showcases, which used the idea of ‘Australia’ as a framing device.[2] Then, in 2007, Helen Ennis’s Photography and Australia used the medium, which she regarded as having ‘no singular or monolithic form’, to reflect on key themes in Australian society such as indigenous/settler interactions, the land, modernity, and our relationship to the rest of the world.

Now we have the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ The Photograph and Australia, like Shades of Light both a book and an exhibition. Unlike its predecessors it does not deal with Australian photography as an industry, or an aesthetic project, or a source of social power, or a national conversation. Instead, it deals with Australian photographs as ‘a phenomenon rather than simply a form[3]. It puts the ontology of the photograph, its special status as a ‘message without a code’, at the heart of its methodology. It embraces the multiplicity and ambiguity of the roles and meanings diverse photographs have had in Australia. The starting point for the project was the direct aesthetic, emotional and intellectual engagement of Judy Annear, the Curator of Photography at the AGNSW, with the thousands upon thousands of individual photographs she trawled through in museums, libraries, archives, and dealers. Although the exhibition will be seen at two art galleries, the AGNSW and the Queensland Art Gallery, the visual power of the show was not primarily derived from state and national art gallery collections, which have been defined by the careful choices made by their curators since they first began to collect photography forty or so years ago. Rather, the exhibition was driven by the resonance Annear found with unexpected finds from relatively ‘uncurated’ archives and libraries — diverse institutions that have been acquiring more photographs for much longer than galleries. The show’s fascination is driven by the sheer eccentricity of some of these finds which Annear has winkled out of the archival recesses, such as Thomas Hinton’s kinky federation patriotism in four cabinet card dioramas featuring Australian heraldry and him wearing a loincloth, or Henry Tillbrook’s environmental self portraiture, or even CEW Bean’s hand-scrawled trigonometric annotations across one of his views of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

The book (assiduously researched by Annear and her team, and complete with biographies, checklists, timelines and glossaries as well as contributed essays) is divided into five chapters, from ‘Time’ to ‘Transmission’. The exhibition hang at the AGNSW explored four themes — settler and Indigenous relations, exploration, portraiture, and transmission — through nine rooms, from ‘Self and image’, through ‘Critique’, to ‘Transmission’ (again). But nonetheless, from the point of view of the visitor, the exhibition tended to remain a series of separate encounters with different photographs. It was up to the viewer to discover and interpret their own finds. There was no conventional authorial, aesthetic or technical hierarchy within the exhibition. An image which had faded to being little more than a sepia smudge, such as Richard Daintree’s circa 1860 image of his son Alfred asleep in a cot, was nonetheless included in the show because it remained a powerful ‘phenomena’ of paternal love, and anticipated the family snap of the twentieth century. There were other Daintrees in the show, for instance his promotional images of Queensland which had been printed and thickly covered with oil paint in London, but there was no way of reconciling these entirely different images by the one person, one supremely private the other explicitly public, into anything like an artistic oeuvre. That was not what this show was about.

Something of the sense of the raw unmediated archive carries over into the installation itself, the overwhelming impression for the viewer as they strained to peer into photograph after photograph after photograph was quantity, there has simply never been a show in Australia with so many photographs in it. Of course the point is that photography has always been a medium of quantity, that is part of the phenomenon, but still Annear brooks her viewers no quarter. She commands her visitors to look equally at every photograph, from the postage stamp sized heads in a tintype album or commemorative photomosaic to the tiny detail caught in the corner of a Melvin Vaniman platinum-print panorama. After finally exiting the exhibition — and if they have seen it all they must inevitably have sore eyes and the beginnings of a headache — perhaps Annear’s ideal viewer will nonetheless feel the same sense of satisfaction that a historical researcher is familiar with feeling after a hard day’s slog in the archive: that although they feel that they are not much closer to understanding their topic they have nonetheless engaged with the brut stuff of history.

There are no reproductions or enlargements in the show. The experience of the exhibition was concentrated on photographs as physical things — daguerreotypes in cases, albumen prints in albums, mammoth collodion negatives on light boxes, and cartes de visite by the hundred. If this turn to the materiality of the photograph was welcome, and very much in keeping with recent scholarship in photography, what remains for future exhibitions to properly address is that photography was a retinal phenomenon, as well as a physical one. As I looked through the top of a glass case down to William Hetzer’s stereographs of Sydney from the late 1850s (alongside their cute little original storage box), how I longed to see them in a stereoscope, so the new buildings of Sydney would pop up in relief along the receding length of Macquarie Street as he intended. Other museums are able to contrive safe stereo viewers for stereographs, why not the AGNSW?

Nonetheless some pockets of the exhibition represented a profound privilege for the viewer. Literally thousands of daguerreotypes were taken in Australia, but 99% have disappeared. Only a handful of them remain identifiable, and most of those seemed to be in this exhibition. There were a whole family of George Goodman daguerreotypes, four Douglas Kilburn groups of aboriginal people reunited at last from the National Galleries of Victoria and Australia, a JW Newland daguerreotype from 1848 of a twinkle-eyed Sydney publican in an extremely loud check suit looking like he was just about to step into a Dickens novel, and many other delights. As we bent over the glass cases in the gloom trying to get a visual purchase on the slippery, silvery images below us, we were subjected to one of Annear’s curatorial flourishes. Ricky Maynard’s series Portrait of a Distant Land, 2005, and Tracey Moffat’s Beauties, 1994, invigilated us from up high on the walls, from the same place where ancestral portraits might be hung in a great hall.

In a similar inversion Annear used the work of other contemporary photographers to pivot the historical photographs into the present. In some rooms this strategy was effective. For instance Anne Ferran’s Lost to Worlds series of 2008 — almost abstract images of grass mounds on the site of an old convict female factory — worked very well on the end wall of the room called ‘Picturing the Colony’. They added an extra dimension of time elapsation to John Watt Beattie’s creepy images of Port Arthur and Charles Woolley’s melancholic images of the ‘last’ Tasmanian aborigines. However other contemporary photographers found themselves with nothing to say to the historic photographs around them. Rosemary Laing’s giant image of an upside-down house-frame, Eddie, 2010, certainly added a dramatic sense of scale to the ‘Critique’ room, but it was too caught up in its own conceptual manoeuvres to be able to dialogue with the other images. However in the next room, called ‘Technology and time’, the the mortal time of Sue Ford’s epic autobiography Self Portrait with Camera, 2008, resonated across the room with the cosmic time of James Short and Joseph Turner’s late nineteenth century astronomical photographs.

One theme that strongly ran through the show were the many images that complicated the standard picture of white/black relations we have received. Historians such as Jane Lydon (who has an essay in the book) and curators like Helen Ennis and Michael Aird (who also has an essay in the book) have already begun the task of taking the photography of aboriginal people beyond the victim/oppressor paradigm. This show continues that project with its many wonderfully complex images of the entanglement of black and white lives, such as those by the amateur John Hunter Kerr, made in some kind of collaboration with aboriginal people on his Victorian property, or the intimate mixture of races in the carefully posed mission portrait-groups by the anthropologist Walter Baldwin Spencer and the photographer Walter William Thwaites.

The Photograph and Australia is overwhelmingly about nineteenth century photography, radically displacing what have conventionally been seen, until now, to be the two key decades in defining the Australianness of Australian photography — the 1930s with it international modernism, and the 1970s with its national counter-culturalism. In an exhibition which eschews teleology these decades are still there, but crammed uncomfortably into the weakest room in the exhibition, the room called ‘Critique’, where the icons of Australian photography such as Carol Jerrems’s Vale Street and Max Dupain’s Sunbaker are given a curatorial détournement. For instance Cazneaux’s heroic The Spirit of Endurance tree, 1937, is clustered with two other small Cazneaux snaps of soil erosion.

Cartes de visite, those ubiquitous photographs glued onto visiting cards, which are usually quickly dealt with en masse by most photo histories, were the artefacts that ran through the veins of this show from beginning to end. Small, cheap, ubiquitous and easily transmitted, when they were first taken each carte de visite would have delivered a specific packet of emotional punch for their original sitter and original recipient, but now most cartes are cast adrift in history, nameless and ambiguous. However the carte, this exhibition implies, most presciently anticipates contemporary uses of photography in social media, while containing riches of historical ambiguity pressurized into each tiny frame. Even the show’s magical publicity image of an antipodean Alice reflected in a looking glass of water in Middle Harbour turns out to be just a tiny carte when we finally encounter it at the very end of the exhibition.

Cartes de visite returned in bulk in this final room, titled ‘Transmission’. Two hundred and twenty-seven of them are installed on a grid on wall, while on other walls kitsch postcards and photobooks intimate the coming of mass media. In the middle of the room is a computer installation and online work Compound Lens Project by contemporary artists Patrick Pound and Rowan McNaught. This installation has the herculean task of swinging the whole massive exhibition behind it and orienting it to the twenty-first century where photography is, of course, digital, virtual, exponential, archival, online, and tagged. Their cross platform installation might work very well in another context where viewers have the inclination to pay the necessary attention to its algorithmic searching, selection, and graphic filtering of online photographs, particularly when the conceptual and visual connections between these iterative processes are not immediately evident, but in this context there was not enough visual plenitude on offer to engage with visitors whose eyes and brains were already wearying.

Annear would be the first to say that this is not a definitive exhibition. Although carried out with intelligence, ambition, passion, an acute eye, and considerable curatorial flair, her vast exhibition nonetheless is but one scratch of the surface. However it proves just how much remains unscratched. There must be more books and exhibitions about photography and Australia in the future.

Disclaimer: The reviewer contributed an essay to the book, and discussed aspects of the exhibition with Judy Annear during her research phase.

[1] For more on the historiography of Australian photography see: ‘Agency and Authorship in Australian Photo Histories’, Catherine De Lorenzo, in Photography, History, Difference, edited by Tanya Sheehan and ‘Other Histories: Photography and Australia’, Helen Ennis, Journal of Art Historiography 4 (2011).

[2] At Home in Australia, Peter Conrad, National Gallery of Australia and Thames & Hudson, 2003. An Eye for Photography: The Camera in Australia, Alan Davies, Carlton, Miegunyah Press and State Library of New South Wales, 2004. Intersections: Photography, History and the National Library of Australia, Helen Ennis, National Library of Australia, 2004

[3] ‘Introduction’, The Photograph and Australia, Judy Annear, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2015, p13.

 

One thought on “My review of ‘The Photograph and Australia’

  1. Thanks, Martyn, for this comprehensive review. I wish I could see the show! I’ll have to get the catalgoue. Were there any Batchelders that you can recall? I am also sending this review to my LOC photography friend, who is writing about the problem of getting people to come to look at the REAL photographs, not just the online reproductions.

    Like

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