The curators of the National Portrait Gallery are thoroughly professional. Vogue Australia has been a vibrant part of our visual culture for sixty years. That’s why it’s disappointing that this show never really gets off the ground. By the time we get to Julie Bishop’s shoes it seems to be over. Is it because, as has been mentioned, the Vogue Australia archive was destroyed in a fire in 1982? A national tragedy, but the work of those great photographers, people like Laurie le Guay, Patrick Russell, Dieter Muller and Grant Matthews, was still there in the pages as ink on paper. Visitors were looking at the wonderful covers through the glass cases, how I yearned they would have had more than a few brief opportunities to have those issues opened up for them to see the fashion, design and photographic riches I know are inside. But, although it was so close on the printed page this show didn’t seem to care all that much about the history of Australian photography. Or photographers. Or design. Or fashion. But I think ordinary visitors do, more than is sometimes realised.
Can we ever forgive the hapless Fairfax beancounter who, in 2013, thought he had solved at least one of the troubled news organisation’s many financial problems? Their massive archive of deteriorating photographic negatives and prints was costing a motza to house and maintain, and without a rapid program of digitisation it was going to be hard to monetise it. His answer was to do a deal with an Arkansas sports memorabilia dealer, John Rogers, who said he would buy two million physical items from Fairfax for $300,000 along with the agreement that he would catalogue and scan them. Rogers could sell the physical prints and Fairfax, who always retained copyright, could licence the digital images. In the words of Fairfax executive Garry Linnell, shipping two million negatives and prints overseas would ‘preserve them for future generations’ of Australians. There were several problems with the deal. As anyone who has done it knows, digitising two million items is an enormous task, and properly cataloguing them even more so. As it was, Rogers was only ever going to use high speed document scanners, yielding at best low resolution files of little monetary value and little use to our visual heritage. The second problem was that Rogers was a conman.
Shortly after the collection of Australian and New Zealand photographs was shipped off to Little Rock in late 2013, prints which hadn’t even been scanned yet, even at low resolution, were beginning to turn up on eBay. The receiver later estimated that up to a thousand images may have been skimmed off before digitisation even began. Rogers became unresponsive to requests from Australia and then, in early 2014, the FBI raided him. He was later convicted of fraud, became bankrupt, and a sizeable chunk of Australia’s heritage fell into a legal limbo. In 2015 we in Australia who love photography stared in open mouthed dismay at the ABC’s Glenn Sloggett like images of padlocked warehouse doors beginning to be choked by weeds in the outer suburbs of Little Rock.
Then in 2017 came the news that California’s Duncan Miller Gallery had purchased the entire collection, still estimated to be around two million items. The new owner of the physical archive, Daniel Miller, reasoned that even though the copyright of images taken after 1955 still resided with either Fairfax or the original photographer, the ’pieces of paper’ could perhaps return him around four dollars each from Australian institutions as a bulk purchase, and considerably more for the ‘name’ photographers who had found their way into the archive, such as Jeff Carter, Max Dupain, Olive Cotton, Wolfgang Sievers and David Moore.
Miller launched a website with the rather Peter Allenesque url of hometoaustralia.org. He sought corporate sponsorship, and came to Australia in 2017 to speak to curators from major collections and go on breakfast TV. In 2018 he had a booth at Sydney Contemporary showing some of the collection in art frames. To aid their repatriation, and the return on his investment, the gallery did a new taxonomic survey of the collection, dividing them into 500 different thematic categories.
So far they estimate that they have sold about 160,000 photographs back to various Australian collections, including the Bradman Museum who have purchased 24,000 cricket photographs, and Beleura who have purchased 20,000 theatre photographs. Last weekend the Canberra Museum and Gallery announced they had purchased 3,500 Canberra photographs, many from the Canberra Times, at $20,000. A good deal. They plan to work with the University of Canberra to do the cataloguing that John Rogers promised and didn’t do. They still have to negotiate with the original photographers or Fairfax, which has now been swallowed by the media conglomerate of Nine Entertainment, to reproduce the post 1955 images.
Can we ever forgive that Fairfax executive? No we can’t. But what does this farrago tell us? Firstly that photographs, whether physical or digital are equally vulnerable. Australian photography is full of similar stories at varying degrees of apocrypha — of collodion being cleaned off plates for green house windows, of glass plate negatives being used for road ballast, and so. There are also stories of rescue missions, which is how the Duncan Miller Gallery see their work. For instance in 1929 the bookseller James Tyrell brought 7903 negatives from the Charles Kerry and Henry King studios, which were then sold to Australian Consolidated press in 1980, who donated them to the Powerhouse Museum in 1985. Secondly, it throws into relief the legal separation between the three values that photographs have always had: ownership, display and reproduction. Thirdly it brings to the fore an increasingly important photographic value — searchability.
Fairfax did eventually got back a set of digital files from Rogers’ receiver in Arkansas. They are probably of low quality anyway, but without even a searchable interface they are next to useless. The physical archive’s current owner, the canny Duncan Miller Gallery, has realised the importance of the interface. While they have certainly capitalised on the short list of proper names of Australian photography in the collection, whose prints can be sold as individual ‘art works’, the gallery also realised they needed a ‘team of archivists’ to generate five hundred new separate categories out of the raw A to Z sequencing of the images. Major Categories, from ‘Aboriginal people’ to ‘Yachting’; Smaller Categories, from ‘Abacus to ‘Witch Doctor’’; and Personalities and People, from ‘Aboriginal people’ to ‘Zoo’. It remains to be seen how useful potential clients in Australia will find these newly generated search terms in approaching the vast opaque repository of images in America. But what is certain is that issues of the archive are only just beginning to come home to us.
I admit it took a while for the penny to drop. Most daguerreotypes we see are reversed because the lens forms an image directly on the metal plate. This wasn’t such a problem for portraits, but it became an issue with views, where potential purchasers would immediately see that the buildings were the wrong way round. After admiring it for years (it’s in the Tasmanian Museum and Gallery, and has featured in virtually every history of Australian photography) I finally twigged that Australia’s oldest extant outdoor photograph, an 1848 daguerreotype taken by J W Newland down Murray Street towards the docks of Hobart, wasn’t reversed. He must have used a popular daguerreotype camera accessory, a ‘reversing mirror’ that clipped on the front of the lens at a 45 degree angle, so the camera faced at right angles to the view being taken.
My research colleague, Elisa deCourcy, and myself stood on Macquarie Street at the top of Murray Street and scanned the buildings. Bless Hobart, many of its nineteenth century buildings are still there, including the building in which Newland had his ‘Daguerrian Gallery’ – known then, as now, as The Stone Building – and the buildings which feature in his view, which are now part of Treasury. Closing one eye to turn ourselves into human theodolites we discovered the exact second floor window out of which Newland had stuck his full plate camera, compete with its reversing mirror, out over the footpath. The offices which currently occupy his floor were shut up tight, but Elisa was able to talk us into the empty legal chambers on the floor below, and confirm that we had found the site of one of Australia’s most important photographs. It was then that we realised something else, we had returned to take the view again 170 years later, almost to the day.
Amidst all the current discussion over the threats of facial recognition software and message encryption to personal privacy and online discourse, other more longstanding contractions of our everyday public space continue their creep. Thus the ABC can publish an online article today quoting legal advice that parents should not video their kiddies at school concerts because they are infringing the copyright owners of the popular songs to which the kiddies are dancing. As the Arts Law Centre warns ominously: ‘if the entertainment company that owns the copyright decides that they’re going to crack down on this particular type of infringement, then as a parent you’re potentially at risk’.
This now apparently acceptable notion that even intimate moments of familial sharing are privatised in both senses — personal but also privately ‘owned’ — so proud parents should now just purchase their cherished memories by buying the offical DVD, casts a grim chill over the valuable role family photography has played in social cohesion for a century — from Kodak moments to Facebook pages.
I agree more and more with the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission, made five years ago and never acted on by our government, that existing specific Fair Dealing copyright exemptions should be expanded with Fair Use exemptions, including exemptions for ‘non-commercial private use’. Some may see the the calls for expanded ‘fair use’ exemptions as a stalking horse for online distribution platforms exploiting small content producers, but the positive function of personal cameras in social space has also to be taken into account.
I started to complain about Peter Jackson’s commission from the Imperial War Museum to colourise their archival war footage when I first heard about it earlier this year, and now I’ve actually seen the result, ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, I’ve decided to keep on complaining. This, despite two moments in his feature length film about the experience of English men at the Western Front which do truly take the breath away.
Jackson bookends his VFX historical concoction with two extended sequences of ‘authentic’ black and white footage complete with scratches, hair in the gate, and even the clattering sound of an old film projector. About half an hour into the film, at the moment in the film’s narrative when the men arrive at the Front we, the audience, see the ‘archival’ film magically transition to full colour, correct speed, and full cineplex-quality Dolby sound. To Jackson’s credit it is a truly astonishing, and moving, moment. We are exiting History and entering Experience. After about another hour, when the men have won the War, we transition again, back home to jerky black and white, from Experience back to mere History.
These moments have roots deep in the history of media. In the 1890s many people saw their first kinematograph film through a hand cranked attachment placed on the front of a magic lantern. Canny operators would hold the first frame of their ninety second filmstrip in the gate so the audience thought they were looking at a standard glass magic lantern slide, then they would begin to crank the image into lifelike animation. This moment of phenomenological wonder wrought by drawing attention to the very apparatus of representation itself has been rehearsed frequently since. Perhaps most pertinent to Jackson’s film is the transition from black and white to colour, at about the same narrative points, in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, where the film transitions from the familiar Hollywood black and white to the new Technicolor. We’re not in Kansas anymore in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, just as we’re not in Documentary anymore in ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’.
These two moments are the film’s triumph, and all the talk has rightly been about the creation of lived experience from supposedly inert archival material — the lip reading, the stretched frame rate, the image sharpening, the 3D, and so on. So it is interesting that many of these ‘effects’, so lauded for their technical novelty today, were in fact in play before the War itself had even ended.
Jackson composites separate archival images together into the one frame, he passes off footage shot of training exercises as actual battles, and he closely edits together images shot far apart to make it seem as though we are seeing one action, one dramatic moment. I’m not going to be churlish, that’s fine. In fact it was being done in 1918, even before the Armistice, by the photographers Ivor Castle and Frank Hurley who worked for the Canadian, British and Australian propaganda units. They did it for a series of giant collages and hand coloured murals made for exhibitions in the UK during 1918. The only VFX Jackson has in his arsenal which Castle and Hurley didn’t have is the loop. And he uses the loop to dilate time like the master he is. In his film men look over their shoulder with impending dread, or stroke the necks of dogs with PTSD distraction, for a sublime, looped, eternity.
The fact that the War was actually being commemorated before it had even ended is only one of the about five billion other inconvenient truths about the War which Jackson’s film has to ignore in order to sustain itself. The film might be about a male English soldier’s experience, but surely we can handle more complexity than the Joseph Cambellesque narrative arc of: we didn’t know what we were getting into, it was an industrial hell, we had a battle where we found reserves of Edwardian heroism we didn’t know we had, we won that battle, we returned home and nobody understood us.
That this is a story from the cineplex, not reality, is betrayed by the fact that in the frenzied thick of its digital editing of the battle sequence the film doesn’t distinguish between photographic imagery and popular graphic imagery derived from Boy’s Own propaganda. True, there is virtually no imagery directly from WW1 battles, so Jackson had a problem. A film which used the same footage as Jackson’s, Charles Urban’s ‘The Battle of the Somme’, shown in London in 1916 (two years before the Armistice) to bring the reality of trench warfare home to complacent UK audiences, had the same problem, and also had to use footage of training exercises to stand in for actual battles. And perhaps Jackson was also trying to make the point that for these brief moments the young men temporarily entered the mythology of war under which they had enlisted, but even if he is trying to make this jingoistic point, is it is lost in the ontological muddling.
The only thing masking the narrative banality which is at the heart of Jackson’s film, and which it cannot rise above, is the voices of the returned soldiers which drive the soundtrack. They also have been been conjured from the archive of oral history, but come through, along with all their distinct and distant accents, as clear as a bell. Without those voices, Jackson’s VFX would bleach to nothing.
Their voices, and their dental work. In 2018 nobody can exit the film without wondering at the rank tombstone teeth of the soldiers. Thank God Jackson didn’t give them digital orthodontics. Those crumbling teeth stoutly defend the truths of history in the face of Jackson attempts to conjure the cinematic effects of experience.
I reject utterly your statement today that the Australian War Memorial is the ‘one national institution in this country that reveals more than anything else our character as a people, our soul.’ Our national soul is embodied in more than just our experience of war, it is just as fundamentally rooted in our environment, our history of settlement, and our first peoples. It is expressed not only by our military actions but by our culture and our everyday lives.
I also reject utterly your demagogic rhetorical manoeuvre of immediately invoking the blood sacrifice of our soldiers whenever you are challenged. The blood shed and the traumas experienced were on behalf of our whole country, not just its military aspects.
I reject utterly your completely disingenuous statement, when asked about the enormous disparity between the income of your institution and other national institutions, that ‘as far as decisions that are made by governments in relation to other institutions, that is a matter for the Government,’ when you yourself are very close to the Government, and you must also be aware that your colleagues in other national institutions are suffering under the 2% so called ‘efficiency dividend’, such that they can now barely do their vitally important jobs. Have you ever stopped to think, Dr Nelson, that the trauma of the wars commemorated in ‘your’ Memorial have their echoes throughout Australia, and are therefore also recorded in our libraries, museums, and archives?
In the end the size of the tab isn’t really the point, and who suffered the most isn’t really the point, the point, as you say, is ‘our soul’. What kind of soul do we want to make for ourselves within our hard won freedom?
Heritage Council chair Stephen Davies is unable to issue a stop work order against the Opera House advertising projections of Racing NSW because light does not cause physical harm. Instead The Chaser projected Alan Jones’s phone number on the Supreme Court and NSW parliament from a moving car, while citizens disrupted the racing ads with torches. This David and Goliath contestation of public space has a fascinating history. In 1894 the Melbourne Salvation Army was just as aggressive as Racing NSW, but for the cause of Temperance. They used the latest limelight powered magic lantern to obliterate a schnapps ad on the side of a pub with a projection of Jesus and images from ‘The Rock of Ages’, while their band played hymns.
While light does no physical harm, as anyone who works with projection knows, it completely redefines space, transforms mood, and rewrites meaning. The act of projecting on a building is strangely exhilarating, because a small act is ‘projected’, not just optically by the lens, but semiotically by the stored symbolic power of the building.
Heritage values are created by lighting. Think of how the warm tungsten lights, which nightly bathe the newly cleaned sandstone facades of the public precincts of virtually all the world’s cities, have reshaped our mental image of those cities. And they can be destroyed by lighting. Fortunately, in the optical arms race, guerrilla action can still outgun the big boys.
A video of the magic lantern performance I devised in collaboration with Elisa deCourcy, Alexander Hunter and Karen Vickery is now available for viewing online. We performed it at the ANU twice during September 2018, once in the Sir Roland Wilson Building at the Magic Lantern in Australia and the World conference, and once a week later in the NFSA ARC Theatre at the Frankenstein: Two Hundred Years off Monsters conference. It goes for about half an hour, and uses about sixty slides. I decided to hang it off Mary Shelly’s book because I knew we would be performing it for the Frankenstein conference. It was wonderful reading the book again after so long, and I picked out some choice quotes for Karen to intone at intervals through the five ‘scenes’, which begin in a scientific laboratory, and end lost in snow and ice, but otherwise have little to do with the story! I was initially going to commence with a moiré pattern chromatrope to set the dark mood, but I eventually decided to use the new chromatrope that Miheng Dong had cut from acrylic in the ANU Makerspace, working from a pattern coded by Kieran Browne. After that it wasn’t much of a leap to some microscopic slides of bacteria and bacillus from the Atlas of Bacteriology by Slater & Spitta, then after a ‘Flash of Lightning’ slide (Copyright T T Wing), with some great music effects from Alex, Elisa flickered up an anonymous slide of a monstrous skeleton using her fingers. We then dissolved to microscopic cross-sections of rectal cancer growths (!) originally used at the Westminster Medical School, which were also meant to look like aerial views of icy wastes. After Alex’s great music, Karen came into her own as we showed panoramic caricature slides dissolving into comic mechanical slides in the next scene. Her wetly mouthed responses to the slides as they came on the screen were fantastic. it was Elisa’s idea to project both of the Steward lantern simultaneously for a ‘tongue in ear’ sequence, and for a dancing skeleton sequence (with some skeletal EDM from Alex) during the next section of ‘monstrous’ mechanical slides. We used some temperance motto slides, a J W Beattie Port Arthur Slide, two slides from Jane Conquest, some hand painted slides, and an amateur double-exposed ghost slide for the next sequence, which required a lot of changing between carriers. For the final sequence we began ‘finger flickering’ between a group of slides which I originally thought were slides illustrating the Franklin North West Passage expedition of the Erebus, but which I now realise are simply illustrating ‘Arctic Phenomena’. We ended with my favourite slide from my collection, a hand painted slide of some Byronic figure roiling around in the snow, overlooked by a distant church perched high on an icy cliff. Elisa once again had the inspired idea of holding what I call our ‘Cardboard Ken Burns’, a piece of cardboard with a hole in it, in front of the lens, to ‘spotlight’ key elements of the scene. I couldn’t have done it with out Elisa, Alex and Karen, all of whom contributed inspired original ideas. The video was made by Amr Tawfik, who was able to handle the low light OK, and was able to give a good impression of the labours of Elisa, Karen, Alec and myself. The audience reaction to the first performance was good, we filled the room up with fog from a fog machine before they entered, and they filled the basement room to capacity, and were well primed for the show. The audience reaction to the second show was more muted, for several reasons, the necessary intimacy of the performance was somewhat swallowed up by the larger space of ARC, and the audience was less primed as to what to expect.
Working through Anne Zahalka’s excellent website Zahalkaworld I came across this old essay of mine, so I OCRed it.
If you wanted to write the story of recent Australian photography you could say that, about ten years ago, some photographers of Anne Zahalka’s generation found themselves engaged in a kind of oedipal drama with the grand traditions of photography.
They began to doubt whether photography’s contiguity with the real automatically guaranteed the privileged access to social, historical and psychological truth which it claimed for itself. They also doubted whether the camera’s internalisation of Renaissance perspective automatically created a universal language innocent of contextual inflection.
Against photography’s core documentary and transcendental traditions they counterposed an array of critical strategies: a deliberate play with its significatory codes; a seditious appropriation of its most persuasive and pervasive images; and a provocative flirtation with either the theatrical or the filmic mise-en-scene.
Photographic denotation now came chaperoned by irony. And the viewer’s simple delight in the photograph’s self-evident truth was displaced by a knowing complicity with the photographer’s intertextual virtuosity.
Very good. And all, by now, more than familiar. But perhaps, in the heat of their battle, these photographers surrendered what remains one of photography’s main functions – the recording of our social environment. In their strategic opposition to the assumptions that underpinned photography’s entrenched, but exhausted traditions —such as Documentary — they neglected the task of ‘The Social Record’. The two are not necessarily identical.
You don’t have to look far past the critical spotlight to see that the visual representation of our current historical formation is still in the thrall of those who are themselves enthralled by dead photographies. Not only does the Australiana book-mill continue to churn out their all too familiar images of ‘social history’, but even our galleries have an institutional stake in maintaining the continuity of their own art-historical investments.
Of course no theoretically aware photographer ever believed that their critiques of the dominant traditions would revolutionise the mainstream of visual representation, or even end up as anything other than yet another art-historical moment. But by re-addressing their obligations to The Social Record on their own terms, and re-using the visual tactics developed in their skirmishes with the problematics of picturing, a long overdue re-occupation of abandoned territory can begin. Photographic records of us, which are now no longer beholden to the monosemic truths of the documentary tradition can circulate in the media.
Take Bondi for instance. How can you photograph somewhere which is not so much a place, as a site for the contestation of nationhoods? Bondi is invested with so many different meanings by so many different people that it resembles one of those thick, gluey wads of rival dance-party posters which slowly slough off hoardings under the increasing weight of their own commitment to splintering cultural identity. Or perhaps it’s more like a bus shelter onto which so any messages have been sprayed that no one graffitist’s contribution is actually legible. How do you photograph Bondi without simply adding another layer to this furious accumulation? To document it – to collect its ‘characters’ and ‘sights’, and celebrate its freedom’ and ‘diversity’ – is simply to do what Bondi already demands, expects and requires: it is only to confirm it as the effect of prior representations, and therefore further aggrandize its mythological status. How, then, to record it without also succumbing to it?
Bondi, we are often told, is the place to which overseas visitors and Australians are equally attracted. They flock there in a kind of instinctual migration. But Bondi is no originary site, it is the birthplace of nothing and has been sanctified by no momentous events. Its significance as a place resides solely within the national rituals it is witness to every day. The flocking tourists are drawn to the various versions of Australiahood which are eternally enacted there. It is only when they arrive that they realise that they have contracted to be both spectator and spectacle, because the symbolic economy of Bondi runs on mutual voyeurism and exhibitionism.
If Bondi has no ‘essence’ other than the eternal flame of enactment, then maybe the time-honoured conventions of the stage are a way of recording it. With this in mind Anne Zahalka turned the amphitheatre at the back of Bondi Pavilion into a temporary stage cum studio. She strung up a backdrop onto which had been painted three broad bands of sand, sea and sky; she brought in some of the beach’s sand to spread over the concrete; she unrolled some Astro-turf; and she dragged in a few park benches and picnic tables. Bondi wasn’t so much recreated as imploded.
Under a mixture of sunlight and artificial fill-light Bondi’s cast of character-types hold themselves in timeless containment. Each pose typifies and distils the parts they play. Each tableau illustrates one aspect of Bondi’s cultural cavalcade. These portraits share their premise with the nineteenth century studio portrait — in which backdrops, clothing, furniture and pose were similarly deployed in order to firmly install the sitter in a pre-existent social niche. Their air, however, is quite different. Rather then the solemn density of the nineteenth century studio, Bondi’s players are portrayed in the transparent gelato colours of an imagined ‘perfert day at the beach’ – cool, charmed, and impossible.
But this imploded, distilled, typified Bondi no longer performs its usual function of invitation and promise. All the other photographs of Bondi we have seen, from postcards to sociological studies, say ‘where are you, why are you absent from this census of flocking Australians?’ Anne Zahalka’s formally complete images do not invite us to enter them. Only in these closed tableaus is our absence not included, because there has been no place left for us on the stage.
As The Beach Inspectors adopt their characteristic stance to gaze into the infinity of nature we certainly recognise Bondi, but we also realise that the inspectors are really only staring at the painted backdrop which hangs a mere four feet in front of their noses. We are therefore not invited to identify or anticipate, but rather to observe, compare and notice. We observe the firm plant of their feet, we compare their broad backs and sensible hats, and we notice how their walkie-talkies are worn in such a way as to draw our attention to a lifesaver’s best assets.
The Japanese honeymooners photographed being photographed in Tourists are, as always, cute as buttons. But now they are not simply our spectacle, and we are not theirs. Instead it is Bondi’s economic exchange of mutual spectacle which we see.
Although Anne Zahalka photographs the various cultural sub-groups that make up the ‘colourful’ population of Bondi, she is not interested in describing ethnicity as it is accommodated within the bureaucratic regime of Multiculturalism. Each of her characters, although typified, is not abstracted – each retains his or her particularity. In her photographs, as in Bondi itself, Asians hang with Asians and Anglos hang with Anglos. And judging by the inflated poses brandished by some members of those groups, Bondi’s sun has provided no benediction for broader social conflict.
She also addresses that aspect of Bondi with which it has been associated the longest — the nationalist surf-cult of health, strength and purity. The historical phallo-anglo-centrism of Australian beach culture is addressed in two pastiches which appropriate key icons from our collective beach memory. In the classical beach Arcady of Charles Meere’s 1940 painting Australian Beach Pattern the white nuclear family is presented as the paradigm of the Australian race. The Australian body is painted as though it was the finest product of Imperial engineering – almost as smooth and powerful as an aircraft engine. In Anne Zahalka’s elaborate restaging the physical individuality of mortal flesh is re-introduced, breaking both the metaphorical connection between the natural family and the national race, and the historical nexus between the colonial beach and the Imperial battlefield.
Similarly, the shock of red hair and pale skin of her The Sunbather #2 gently lightens the masculine weight of Max Dupain’s monument to Modernist bodily architecture — his Sunbaker 1937. But her images are not just the blank parody of Postmodernist pastiche. Within this context they serve to record a Bondi which is changing on both a material, and an ideological level.
Finally, acting as visual pauses within the exhibition, are photographs of ‘raw’ nature – the sun, surf and sky which were painted onto the backdrop. This is Nature’s Infinity – Bondi’s gift to the city of Sydney. But in this context the ambiguous squares of abstracted Nature lose all their pre-cultural significance. The ‘natural’ of Bondi is not a tabula rasa upon which we have written our culture. There never has been a clean bus shelter or an unpostered hoarding at Bondi. The Natural is something which is always already deployed within the culture of Bondi. For instance, the munificent bounty of the sun now becomes an insidious, cancerous threat just as it once caused madness and sunstroke. The cleansing briskness of the surf now becomes a toxic source of infection, just as it once threatened the pioneers with shipwrecks, sharks and drowning. Similarly, Anne Zahalka’s squares of nature only become a natural landscape within their specific cultural context.
If you wanted to establish the importance of this show you could say that, at last, it indicates the beginnings of a return by some of our photographers to what will always be one of photography’s primary tasks — the maintenance of The Social Record. Yet in recording Bondi today it continues to refuse an easy nostalgia for the truth of Bondi. The beach remains the stage it always was.
The paper I read and powerpoint I showed at the conference Imagineers in Circus and Science: Scientific Knowledge and Creative Imagination, ANU, 3-5 April, convened by Dr Anna-Sophie Jürgens
The 1870s was a big decade for the colony of Victoria. The money flowing from the gold fields had led to rapid growth in its size and sophistication. By the early 1870s passengers could reach Melbourne from England in as little as two months, and Morse code messages could be relayed from London in just seven hours. Victorian colonists were feeling themselves more connected to the rest of the world than ever before. They too were part of the tension between traditional religion and the great scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century. They too craved novelty and modern experience. But their place in the world meant that they engaged with these ideas in ways that were distinctly their own. During the decade three events cast emerging ideas of ‘science’, ‘belief’, ‘entertainment’ and ‘technology’ into new configurations for the colonists of Victoria.
Modern Spiritualism, the belief that human personality survived beyond death and that the dead could communicate with the living, was an integral part of the general foment of 1870s Victoria. It was part of the broader Free Thought movement, reconciling the terrifying divisions that seemed to be opening up between religion and science.
In the powerful experience of the séance the Spiritualist believer, suffering from what psychologists would now call apophenia, or cognitive confirmation bias, was gradually enmeshed into a seductive relationship with a ‘medium’, who used techniques of misdirection learnt from stage magic to convince them of what they wanted to believe — that their dead could return to them.
In 1870 William Terry opened a shop as a bookseller, Spiritualist medium, and magnetic healer. Customers could buy imported herbs for the ailments which Terry had clairvoyantly diagnosed, they could buy the latest copies of spiritualist journals and pamphlets published in Australia or imported from the US and the UK, and they could buy factual evidence of Spiritual truths in the form of carte de visite spirit photographs.
Spiritualists thought they were at the forefront of progress, leading the way for the rest of the world. They embraced rational scientific methods, which they thought were equivalent to the methods that were leading to the other great technological breakthroughs of the age. Terry claimed that:
spiritual intercourse can be proved as conclusively as telegraphic communication, postal delivery, or any other fact know to one section of the world’s inhabitants, and not to others.
In late 1873 visitors to Terry’s shop may have perused the latest copy of the London magazine The Spiritualist and read that the medium Florence Cook, a young girl of 17, had produced what was known as a ‘full body materialization’ of the spirit Katie King. Florence materialized the Spirit at a séance while supposedly entranced and tied to a chair in a curtained-off cabinet. On 7 May the spirit was photographed by the ignition of magnesium powder. The Spiritualist reproduced an engraving produced directly from one of the photographs. The magazine advised its readers:
The efforts of the experimentalists have been successful, and the large engraving […] is about a faithful a copy as wood-cutting can give […] In the photograph itself the features are more detailed and beautiful, and there is an expression of dignity and ethereality in the face, which is not fully represented in the engraving, which, however, has been executed as nearly as possible with scientific accuracy, by an artist of great professional skill.
There was at least one enthusiastic Melbourne reader of this amazing account. He was William Denovan, a successful gold miner, parliamentarian and chairman of a séance circle in Bendigo called The Energetic Circle. There were many séances held in the goldfields during this period. They successfully produced Spiritualistic phenomena because, it was reasoned, the deposits of quartz running underground along the veins of gold were acting as crystal concentrators for spiritual forces.
As the Energetic Circle held hands, prayed, and sung hymns, they slowly began to experience more and more manifestations of spirit communication. After a period, the male medium began to levitate, they smelled delicious perfume, felt cool breezes, and spirit lights appeared. Then the sitters began to brushed by spirit lips and spirit hands, then they began to see disembodied arms. Then, finally, in June 1874, the Bendigo female medium fully materialized the beautiful spirit Katie King, almost a year after she had been photographed in London. She stood in the middle of the séance room illuminated only by the dying embers of the fire, and clothed head to foot in ‘robes of white muslin or gauze’. Denovan marveled how:
… those who saw the face of Katie King on Sunday evening state that she wore a turban on her head just as she appears in the photograph of her published in the London Spiritualist of the 15th of May 1873. […] The face appeared to some of swarthy colour, to others fair, with fair hair, and parted down the middle; but to me it appeared copper coloured, with drapery round it and over the head similar to the photograph of Mrs MacDougal Gregory, of London, and her spirit sister. […] as [Katie] made herself visible to all present — distinctly and unmistakably visible — all became deeply impressed, and several sobbed audibly. None who were present will ever forget what they saw on this occasion, and the feeling of solemnity and awe to which the sight gave rise, and all inwardly offered up their thanks to Almighty God for his goodness in thus having by his great natural laws vouchsafed to them by positive demonstration, the reality of another life. It was a solemn yet joyous moment never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it. And it is just the beginning.
But Denovan and his circle hadn’t only witnessed a modern miracle, they had witnessed it in Bendigo. The Spirit of Katie had instantaneously travelled to where the mediumistic power was concentrated. Denovan declared:
I have now the satisfaction of informing you that we have no need to go to England or America to see the spirits in mortal from, as they are here in our midst.
To you or I, the fact that the materializations in Bendigo wore the same style of drapery as seen in the photographs and magazines sold in Terry’s shop may be evidence that the huckster mediums were simply copying the photographs. But to the Spiritualist believers it was corroborative. It was powerful proof that it was the actual Katie King they were seeing, who was able to travel from a séance in London to a séance in Bendigo even faster than an electric telegraph message.
While these extraordinary Bendigo visions were being reported, a new spirit photograph was also being discussed in Melbourne. The Melbourne Spiritualist Dr Walter Lindesay Richardson had attended a photographic séance in London. He wrote back to Victoria:
… a draped figure projected itself beside my likeness. I send you specimens. During the process [the photographer] afforded me every facility for scrutiny, allowing me to clean the glasses myself, to follow them through several stages, and to see them developed.
Terry tried to wrap his head around exactly what he was seeing:
… a Gothic chair is standing before the sitter with its back in close proximity to his knees; a female figure which is kneeling in front of him seems to permeate the chair, portions of the chair being visible through the form, as though the matter of the chair offered no obstruction to the more refined material of the Spirit form
So, this form must be a transition stage to full materialization.
As far as we understand it, the Materialized Spirit form which appears on these occasions, is a condensation of sublimated matter, brought about by a scientific process known to Spirits who have studied Chemistry. The power used is Electricity, brought to bear through the magnetic emanations of the Medium.
Professor Pepper’s Scientific Festivals
One of the major figures of the London entertainment scene was Professor Henry Pepper who had become synonymous with the popular Royal Polytechnic Institution. In the 1850s and 60s Pepper developed a spectacular lecturing style incorporating many new ‘scientific’ entertainments that demonstrated the principals of physics, chemistry and optics, while also feeding the audience’s appetite for illusion, wonder, and even the occult.
At the Polytechnic he patented an illusion that directly fed into the public’s appetite for gothic and spiritualist effects. The ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ illusion required the use of a new technology developed for shop windows, plate glass, and a magic lantern. The angled glass reflected a concealed figure brightly lit against a black background, while the audience could still see the scene behind the glass. As the original inventor of the illusion said:
Mesmerism throughout all its harlequinade, down to its present disguise under spiritualism or spirit rapping … has never had nerve enough or nous enough to produce such thorough full-length ghosts as are now every day to be seen.
Pepper’s Ghost was both a theatrical illusion and a scientific curiosity at the same time. In one of the first illustrations of the illusion Professor Pepper himself stands off to one side, observing the materialization with cool detachment. Pepper was therefore caught in a paradox. He needed to protect the secret of his illusions to maintain audience interest, but to also be a ‘scientific’ professor he needed, at some point, to explain the scientific principles behind the illusion.
Pepper eventually left the Polytechnic, but increasingly found it hard to get audiences. There was even criticism of what had come to be seen as his ‘ponderous and didactic’ delivery style. He developed another mirror illusion, the Metempsychosis. But even this wasn’t enough to revive Pepper’s flagging British career so, in 1879, he decided to lecture in Australia.
He arrived with ‘a large amount of scientific exhibition apparatus and full staff of professional assistants’. ‘Pepper’s Scientific Festival’, billed as an ‘ILLUSORY ENTERTAINMENT’ featured all of his Polytechnic hits, with the added excitement of an electric light. Like the many other touring celebrities, Pepper’s fame preceded him. Shortly after his arrival, Melbourne’s St Georges Hall was crammed with people ‘evidently anxious to hear the wonders of Nature unfolded and explained by the lecturer, who for more than a quarter of a century has amused and at the same time instructed thousands in London.’ Unlike in London, where his oratorical style had seemed ponderous and didactic, in Melbourne, ‘[h]is luminous and genial mode of elucidating the various phenomena which he exhibited rendered the lecture a genuine treat.’
Judging by newspaper reviews, for his new audiences Pepper was able to rebalance the tension between ‘illusion to entertain’ and ‘illusion to demonstrate scientific truths’. On the one hand ‘one might be tempted to believe that he possessed supernatural powers’. On the other hand ‘[he] is a man of science [who recognises] that the time has passed when the secrets of nature were explained only in the cloister’.
Some even recognized that Pepper’s doubling of the idea of ‘the marvelous’ could be a weapon against the errors of Spiritualism. The journalist Marcus Clarke wrote:
[A]mid the nonsense being talked and written on all sides concerning “Spiritualism” and miraculous intervention, it might be a good thing if the Government would suffer the children it educates to see some of the marvels which can be produced by human ingenuity. A course of Pepper would give a tone to the youthful stomach, and brace it to the withstanding of tales of dancing tables and hovering apparitions of dead children.
Pepper’s arrival was greeted with well-orchestrated fanfare. However, the press noted:
Not that we have no scientific men amongst us; on the contrary, they are as plentiful as in other civilized lands; but our scientists have neither the time nor the opportunity of coming before the public as Professor Pepper does in the cause of natural philosophy.
This comment must have come as an insult to the Royal Society of Victoria, which had in fact been promoting science to the public since the early 1870s. They had even held a ‘conversazione’ a year before Pepper arrived. Conversazioni were mixtures of entertainment and education, where gentlemen and ladies could promenade, have hands-on interactions with new technologies, listen to lectures, and talk to individual ‘proficients’ who were drawn from science, academia, government and commerce.
At each conversazione the President of the Royal Society summed up the previous year’s progress in colonial science. In 1878 he commented on the pace of technological change:
In my last address I referred […] to the then recent invention of the telephone. Since then this wonderful little instrument has been greatly improved, and is now in actual use in Melbourne, not only as a scientific toy, but as a means of communication. We had no sooner become familiar with the telephone than we were astounded by accounts of a still more wonderful apparatus, the ‘phonograph’, […] Still later we heard of the ‘microphone’ […] although their practical applications are as yet limited, there can be but little doubt that they will eventually become of great value […].
Two years later he noted approvingly that the sophistication of the colonists was keeping pace with this heady technological change:
… the subject of science attracts in this community the same keen attention, and is pursued with the same ardour, given to it in all intelligent communities. We are at least able to show that the intellect of the colony perceives the importance of scientific investigation; that the Government and the public are liberal in its support …
But people went to conversazioni to see inventions. In 1878 a phonograph played Rule Britannia and He’s a Jolly Good Fellow which ‘sounded as if it was being sung by an old man of 80 with a cracked voice.’
The phoneidoscope reproduced the vibrations of words sung into its mouthpiece as an ‘an endless variety of exquisite designs, resembling those observed in the ordinary kaleidoscope’, on a film of soap water and glycerine.
The microphone, powered by a galvanic battery, amplified the sounds of a telephone so that a ‘[t]he ticking of a watch could be heard at the other end of the room.’ Ammonia gas was liquefied under pressure, and microscopes showed rock sections, algae and invertebrates from across the colony, while the siren produced ‘melancholy and discordant’ sounds throughout the night.
In his address the President of the Society had speculated about the future offered by these inventions. But, once they had tried them themselves, the ordinary visitor to the conversazione found they could speculate about the future just as well as he could. The ‘remarkable nature’ of the displays ‘was productive of much wonderment’, but they also ‘gave rise to varied speculation as to their ultimate development’.
1000 people, including many ladies, attended the 1879 conversazione. An Edison phonograph was displayed, and a working printing press. But the magic lantern was the central apparatus. Amongst other things, the magic lantern showed some striking experiments with vortex rings and astronomical views.
Many of the ladies and gentlemen caught in the newspaper illustrations of 1880 look remarkably contemporary, like customers at an Apple Store Genius Bar, as they confidently manipulate the various devices on offer. Technology had gone from ‘philosophical toy’ to ‘personal device’
The people in these three case studies thought they had very little in common with each other. Although he flirted with the occult, Professor Pepper ultimately regarded the Spiritualists as gullible dupes. He and his audience knew that his illusions were just that — illusions — and that if he chose to, he could scientifically explain how they were created. If you had asked them, the members of the Royal Society would have most probably looked down on Pepper’s broadly popular audience. To these middle class consumers of knowledge, science didn’t need Professor Pepper’s carnival effects. To them the effects of science were being felt in the actual utilitarianness of its inventions, which were usefully recording invisible phenomena such as sound or performing real actions at a distance.
At face value these three case studies could therefore be seen to be following a familiar developmental trajectory: from the observer being tricked by hucksters into believing something that isn’t true, and in any case is no longer necessary; to observers willing ‘suspending disbelief’ for the duration of a scientific entertainment, and experiencing an occult illusion in order to have it deconstructed into its scientifically knowable components; to, finally, observers becoming individual operators of new technologies, and rehearsing their forthcoming role as consumers of technological devices as future customers of Bell Telephones, IBM, and Apple.
It is tempting to see a millennium’s worth of progress refracted into the decade. But although we can easily arrange these case studies into a single developmental line, we can also arrange them into at least two different constellations that are perhaps more illuminating.
The first constellation is phenomenological. Although there are epistemological differences between the three case studies, there are also deep phenomenological similarities. There is an identical sensation of science that persists through the arc of progress. Through seeing Spirits with their own eyes, and then correlating their vision with the photographic proofs sent from England, the Spiritualists knew the truth of Spirit return. Through having their eyes willingly ‘tricked’ by Pepper’s machinery and then being shown how it ‘really’ worked, attendees at Pepper’s shows felt they knew a little bit more about the nature of light and reflection. By placing their mouth to the mouthpiece, or their ear to the earpiece, or their eye to the eyepiece, and then seeing, hearing or feeling the invisible, conversazioni participants felt the future enter their own bodies.
In each case a single observer is instantiated as the ground for belief and understanding. To reach forward into a future where they would routinely converse with the dead, as the Spiritualists expected; or routinely call each other up on the telephone, as visitors to the conversazioni expected, each visitor was asked to stand on no other evidential ground than themselves. But in each case, the human test subject of perception is only instantiated through, and within, the apparatus.
The second constellation is geographical. It interests me that all of the experiences from my three case studies are in some sense ‘airy’. They happen up in the air in some virtual space in front of the observer, which is sort of still ‘in Victoria in the 1870s’, but sort of ‘all over the world’ as well. And all of my examples — spirit materializations, wonderful illusions straight from London, telephones, microphones and phonographs — collapse time and space. Although they were seven hours ‘behind’ via the telegraph, or two months ‘behind’ by ship, in some sense these colonial audiences were ‘ahead’ of the rest of the world in this new experience of the globe. I think that the experiences of instantaneity, simultaneity, immediacy and proximity were more powerful for colonial audiences, who were part of the same currents of modernity as everyone else, but who joined hands in Bendigo, or bought a ticket to St Georges Hall or attended a conversazione, in Melbourne, at the outer edge of the modern world itself.