I was intrigued when I noticed at the National Gallery of Victoria that each landscape-oriented image in Bill Henson’s latest installation of pigment prints from digital scanned negatives had the same slightly rough edge around the black border. Was this a digital simulation of the effect you would get at the edge of a negative printed from an optical enlarger? And since each rough edge was exactly identical, as is visible even in the online selection, was this a single film-edge stock-file composited on top of the different digital scans? This automatic visual affectation simulating an optical print in a bit mapped print-space is pure Digital Pictorialism, as assuredly as overly desaturated, or overly saturated, or overly healed Photoshop images are. They are all either technologically skeuomorphic or aesthetically nostalgic. These added-on edges are beginning to make Henson’s iconography look not only familiar, but also rote.
Try as I might I just can’t get myself worked up into a rage about the ‘William Eggleston Portraits’ hang at the NGV. In fact I quite liked it. The show which was shipped out to Australia from London’s portrait gallery contained two new large scale digital enlargements from scans of his 1970s negatives to entice punters into the space; and then, cue gasp, new digital prints alongside ‘vintage’ 1970s dye-transfer prints. I agree with one colleague who pointed out that it’s a shame the opportunity was missed to show Australia’s own Eggleston dye-transfer portraits, including the super-iconic ‘Huntsville Alabama’ c1969-70, only in this show as a new digital print, which is sitting in all its dye-transfer glory in a solander box up in Canberra. And I could immediately see for myself that the London portrait gallery’s addition of gossipy back stories to some, but not all, of the prints seriously corrupted the totality of Eggleston’s ‘democratic’ vision. But, standing back from the walls a few metres, the mixture of print technologies visually ‘scanned’ together coherently for me, and when I got up close I loved the warm toothsomeness of the dye transfers, of course, but also thought the dry stipple of the new digital prints was pretty good too in its own way. And why can’t Eggleston agree to make large scale enlargements for the kids who, brought up on giant face-mounted acrylic museum photography, are used to big prints? He’s still alive, he can make his own decisions. Once lured inside, the kids found themselves treated to a selection of his small black and white ‘vintage’ work prints from the early sixties which I saw them eagerly poring over. This fetishisation of the vintage print, vocalised by the tuts directed towards this hang, can’t sustain itself for much longer. Before all of their other elaborations, most photographs (OK, not daguerreotypes and not iPhones) are in two parts: negative/print, capture/display. The vintage print may be the ordinary gallery-goer’s safest path to directly accessing the artist’s vision at the time the work was conceived, no question, but photographers, particularly photographers like Eggleston, are shooters as well as printers. Negative and print are separate objects, separated even ‘about the time the negative was made’ by separate technologies which activated different sets of substrate, pigment, halide, dye, coupler and bleach in different ways. They were divergent even in this mythical and temporally undefinable prelapsarian ‘vintage’ time, and they haven’t got more divergent since, only the technological nature of their divergence has changed. The supply/demand market-based logic of editioning photographs is alien to the fundamental nature of photography, it was imported into photography from manual printmaking conventions by gallerists trying to make a buck more recently than you realise. (Dupain never editioned ‘Sunbaker’ for example, he just wearily put the neg in the enlarger one more time whenever he was asked.) Also fundamentally alien to photography is setting up the print as the capital of all photographic aesthetics. Where would you rather look to find an old street photographer’s original intention, at a faded and severely colour-shifted type-c print made in some dodgy darkroom, or at a pigment print made from a fresh scan of the original negative? But which will get the higher price in a gallery? Those of us who aren’t in the print fetishists club are told we lack discrimination. Quite the opposite. We are quite capable of discriminating the nuances of different camera AND print technologies, and understanding them in terms of the technological history of photography, which includes deterioration of negative and print in different ways at different rates. But unfortunately our task isn’t helped by the lazy labels in the Eggleston show where the different exposure and printing dates are deliberately fudged, and viewers are encouraged to not discriminate. (Thanks to Geoff, Justine, Danica, Jane, Bronwyn and Isobel!)
My essay for the Australian Centre for Photography exhibition Under the Sun: Reimagining Max Dupain’s Sunbaker. State Library of New South Wales 18 February — 17 April; Monash Gallery of Art 6 May — 6 August, 2017.
The Sunbaker photograph was taken eighty years ago. That’s an entire lifetime. After eighty years it’s time to look back at your life. But if we were able to wake the Sunbaker up and tell him what had been happening to him he might reckon it was all a bit of a soap opera.
The Sunbaker we know was conceived on Culburra Beach near Nowra in 1937, during the camping trip of a bunch of friends from Sydney who were all twenty-something years old and brimming with sex. Two of the group, Max Dupain and Olive Cotton, took photographs of the trip that are horny and aesthetic at the same time. Taut skin and patterned sunlight predominate. Our Sunbaker was born one of twins, a pair of negatives Max Dupain shot of Harold Cyril Salvage — an English bookseller and avid reader, rower and pipe smoker — who, in Dupain’s words, ‘slammed himself down on the beach to have a sunbake’ after a swim.
A small print of one of the negatives was made for a personal album of the trip compiled by one of the party (the album is now in the State Library of New South Wales). In 1948 a signed and dated enlargement, now lost, was reproduced along with other documentary-style photographs in the book Max Dupain Photographs. Here, the Sunbaker lies darkly and heavily at the bottom of the frame, one hand grips the other, and the distant surf rolls creamily through the crook of his elbow while clouds demarcate the backdrop of sky. He is located. He’s on a particular beach at a particular time. The book was limited to an edition of 1000 copies, didn’t sell well in any case, and is now rare, but on its contents page the Sunbaker was christened. The photograph is not titled ‘Harold Salvage’, but ‘Sunbaker’. And not ‘Sunbather’, but ‘Sunbaker’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘sunbaker’ was an exclusively Australian variant to the more globally accepted word ‘sunbather’. It implies an excess. Not a genteel luxuriant bathing in therapeutic rays, but a vigorous and transformative baking, like a steak slammed down on a BBQ.
Fast forward to 1975. Photography is now art, not documentary. It is the International Year of Women. Gough Whitlam has been in power for almost three years. His wife Margaret has just opened the Australian Centre for Photography. Max Dupain is sixty-four. It’s time for his first retrospective. The ACP is the place. The negative Dupain had printed before had been lost to history during one of his studio moves, so he prints the second negative, our negative, our Sunbaker. Harold Salvage is moved upwards in the frame and the line of surf disappears behind his forearms so the figure floats abstractly against fields of tone. The hand unclenches so the wet fingertips rest on the sand. Water droplets roll over his muscles. His forearm hair forms rivulets down from his elbows.
This Sunbaker was chosen for the retrospective’s poster and the rest is history. No longer a document of a particular beach, nor a dark glowering print from wartime Australia, it quickly became mobilized as a bright national symbol within the visual environment of seventies Australia. As the figure, photographed thirty-eight years earlier, lay suspended against the non-perspectival bands of sand and sky, it looked as contemporary as an abstract ‘colour field’ painting of the day. In its composition it almost felt as bold as the new Aboriginal flag, designed in 1971 by Harold Thomas, which graphically deployed the same three symbolic elements of sun, land and people but in an entirely different configuration. Perhaps it even reminded some of Ayers Rock (now Uluru) in its timeless monumentality. Or even, as Harold Salvage’s physically engineered shoulders arched across the frame, it reminded us of the tensile strength of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, opened five years before the Sunbaker was made.
In the following decades until his death in 1992 Dupain made about 200 prints from the surviving negative. The print exhibited at the ACP in 1975 was priced at $85, but eventually he was selling them for $1,500 each. As he iterated prints from the slightly overdeveloped negative he incrementally made the Sunbaker even more abstract, lightening the burned-in borders of sky and sand at top and bottom, and dodging the thick shadows around his head so he is suspended with even more high-tensile strength against the void. The image was frequently reproduced. It became an icon seemingly as delicate and solid as the Harbour Bridge itself. Before his death Max Dupain professed to being embarrassed by all the attention it was getting, from jingoistic Australians in general, and from gay couples decorating their new flats in particular. He said he preferred other of his classic shots such as Meat Queue, 1946, where there is more going on in terms of content and composition.
After Dupain’s death the Sunbaker continued his apotheosis. His studio, which continued to be run by its manager Jill White, made posthumous editions of his famous negatives and the Sunbaker’s edition of ninety, printed slightly lighter still than Dupain’s own prints, virtually sold out at up to $8000 each. Importantly, the Sunbaker began to be pastiched and parodied by photographers and cartoonists. In 1989 Anne Zahalka photographed a pale-skinned red-haired ‘Sunbather’ growing a fine crop of pre-cancerous cells. And in 1985 the Indigenous photographer Tracey Moffatt pointedly displaced him entirely with her photograph of ‘The Movie Star’ David Gulpilil reclining at Bondi complete with boardies, a tinnie, a surfboard, a ghetto blaster, dreads and tribal face paint.
Parodists pounced on the Sunbaker to exploit the incipient ambiguities of his state of mind, which could become a stand-in for the national state of mind. As he claims the beach for himself, sucking up spiritual sustenance from the land and exposing his back to the benedictions of the Australian sun, is he poised, ready to spring into virile action, or is he experiencing the ultimate state of relaxation, in blissful post-coital communion with the beach? Or, is he in some heat-induced stupor, or asleep? In an historical coma, or dead? An example of these many parodies is the cover of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine from 1996, where an obese sunbaker snores away on the beach above the tagline ‘Sleep! Slop! Slob! Wake Up Australia, you’re getting fatter!’ Many other cartoons and photographs used the Sunbaker to comment on Australia’s high sun cancer rates, its general political torpor, its sexism where public space was ruled by men, and his persistent claim to a supposedly ‘pure’ Australian Anglo Celtism in the face of an ethnically diversifying Australia. But, for a time, all these parodies only reinforced his iconicity.
Meanwhile the Sunbaker still had his unalloyed fans. In 1995 the retail artist Ken Done made a series of paintings which gridded the Sunbaker’s instantly recognizable muscular arch in a gestural shorthand across a bright orange field. In the year 2000 the Max Dupain Studio licensed the photograph to QANTAS, who obviously still saw it as an unproblematic image of ‘The Spirit of Australia’. For the Sydney Olympics they published it on billboards and across both pages of broadsheet newspapers with the tagline: ‘The Spirit of Australia: When it comes to the art of relaxation, Australians are recognized as truly world class. Perhaps that’s why the people at QANTAS are so naturally good at making you feel at home, wherever in the world you happen to fly.’ QANTAS’s copywriters summed up the essence of his iconicity: the Sunbaker is at home in Australia, truly relaxed in his decisive claiming of the land. He’s baked in.
But Harold Salvage slammed himself down on a very different beach to the beaches of today. In the 1930s, before the rise of bohemian surf culture in the post war period, beaches were unproblematic places for collective displays of health, vitality and nationalism. Surf lifesavers were idolized as embodiments of racial purity, and at annual club carnivals they marched across our metropolitan beaches with Nuremberg like precision. More remote beaches like Culburra could also become tabla rasa sites of personal potential for idealistic groups of young people such as Dupain and his friends, but they were again centred around the vigorous, vital, pure, white body. If the Sunbaker awoke from his coma today we would have to gently break to him the news of the Mabo decision of 1992 which overturned the concept of terra nullius; the Cronulla race riots of 2005 which revealed fault lines in assumed cultural rights of beach ‘ownership’; the advent of the burkini which challenged the hegemony of the body in the scopic regime of the beach; and the inexorable rise in skin cancer mortality rates.
Nonetheless, Sunbaker prints continue to command good prices in the art market. A standard sized print from amongst the 200 or so Dupain printed will set you back between twenty and thirty thousand dollars, while a special larger print from his family estate recently sold at auction for 105 thousand dollars. But there are signs his popular iconicity in the media is fading. Image icons need to be continually reproduced to survive. Unlike the Harbour Bridge or Uluru the Sunbaker is no longer in our face every day. Even though in 2013 his son, Rex Dupain, made a new sunbaker on a Xperia ZI smartphone for a charity auction, we certainly aren’t seeing the same number of parodies as before. The complexity of contemporary debates around our national identity may have superseded his graphic usefulness for cartoonists. And today’s teenagers can’t seem to place him. ‘It’s a guy on a beach’, my daughters helpfully tell me.
In 2004 the Sunbaker made it to the front cover of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine for the second time. This time it was not a parody, but the precious, auratic, original negative that appears, held up to the camera by a white-gloved hand. The lurid tagline, ‘How this tiny negative of Sunbaker came to be at the centre of a tale of love, money and ambition’, refers to an article by the journalist Janet Hawley about the legal tussle over Dupain’s will. Seeing the negative in public for the first time (it has recently been purchased by the Stare Library of New South Wales) we noticed a shadow in the lower right hand corner that had been cropped out of all of the enlargements. It looks like the shadow of the camera strap on Dupain’s Rolleiflex, cast as he lay on his stomach in front of Salvage grabbing his two shots. This common ‘mistake’, made every day by generations of photographers, immediately takes us back to the holiday that started it all. Those friends. That beach. That moment.
Thank you Bec Cody. Thank you for showing us the way to deal with fifty-year-old racist imagery. When her husband Bruce returned from the men’s toilets at the Sussex Inlet RSL and told her that he had seen four bathroom tiles, originally installed in the 1960s, bearing kitsch images of kangaroos, emus and Aboriginal men, she knew how to respond. Her husband went to the bar and ‘carried on like a pork chop’, while she bottled up her fury ready to unleash it on the hapless board of the Sussex Inlet RSL under privilege in the ACT Legislative Assembly. Thank you Bec Cody. In the tradition of Hetti Perkins, Rona Joyner and countless iconoclasts before you, when confronted with problematic imagery your only response is — the jackhammer! No need to waste your important time with the wonderful array or ironic, satiric, parodic, nuanced, contextualised responses rehearsed for you by literally generations of indigenous Australian artists who have exhibited on Australia’s behalf in international art exhibitions for decades. No need to think about the work cultural historians and theorists have done on the complex and yes, problematic, operations of kitsch imagery in our visual culture, globally and across the generations. Why, your husband fought in Iraq! Enough said! No, instead the fifty-year-old tiles were unilaterally declared to be ‘perverted and disgusting’. You were going to be the self-appointed semiotic Harpic banishing this historical texture for ever. The Sussex Inlet RSL knew how to reply though: ‘I reckon she’s out of order’.
It’s been eleven years since Tess Horwitz, Tony Steel and myself designed and built the ACT Bushfire Memorial. Tess’s plantings look great, Tony’s stream gurgles beautifully. My five ‘digiglass’ columns of 600 photographs have faded, but not as much as I feared eleven years ago. There’s a general loss of density, but not a severe colour shift. Eleven years in the sun on the side of Mount Stromlo is a hell of a lot of UV. The columns have fared better than C Type prints, rapidly shifting to oblivion in the climate controlled solander boxes of our art museums.
An interview I did with Katrina Sluis from the Digital Programme of the Photographers Gallery, London, is now up at Daniel Palmer and myself’s Photocurating site. Check it out. There’s one there Daniel did with Ian North too. While you’re there have a look at our Timeline and see if you can spot anything we’ve left out. Then let us know. We still need more installation shots.
Hard to know where to begin with the clash of temporalities that is evoked when you stumble across a click bait link that uses one of museum photography’s most canonical projects. As has been celebrated for decades, Nicholas Nixon’s Brown Sisters project — shot on 8 x 10 film and contacted printed into luminous prints once a year, every year, over 40 years or so — proceeds at the same pace as time itself. It records memory and mortality for a lifetime’s worth of unfolding on museum walls and in art house photobooks. The click bait version, with it’s breathless drive to click through to the next spectacle of temporal ravagement, is certainly compelling, but the noble contemplation of flesh growing into time is replaced with impatience for the next shot to load. In the click bait version authorship is wrested from Nixon and invested in the sisters. But the downside for them is that are unwittingly cast in a soap opera of aging.
When I was a teenager in the mid seventies and just getting interested in photography David Hamilton was everywhere, on every magazine rack and in every bookstore, even in Brisbane. Barely out of puberty myself I admit I was attracted to the impossibility of his adolescent art-house eroticism. Later, at art schooI in Sydney in the late seventies , I learnt to disdain his cloying kitsch and forgot about him. It wasn’t till I was clearing out my childhood room a few years ago that I found some glossy pages again, wrinkled with decades of humidity, and gasped at the now-obvious pedophilia. Today I hear that after being accused of rape by his child models of long ago he has been found dead in his Paris apartment, a pill bottle by his side. The apotheosis of kitsch. But I sort of don’t want him to disappear altogether, his ‘sunlight filtered through corn onto downy skin’ look burrowed its way into our culture. And remains there.
I find myself shouting at the radio more and more, and this morning I found myself shouting at the gross hypocrisy of Dawn Airey, CEO of the Getty Stock Images, who is in Australia. Getty scrapes public domain images and then re-offers them for use with its own ‘licence’ fee. Using public domain images for commercial gain is not illegal, as Getty will be the first to point out. But Getty goes further, using bots to ‘chase down individuals’ who unwittingly use the public domain images Getty have incorporated into their digital archives. Thus Carol Highsmith, who donated her collection of 18,000 images to the Library of Congress, found herself on the wrong end of a stiff letter from Getty demanding $120 from her for using one of her own images, because Getty had scraped it from the Library of Congress. She replied with a billion dollar law suit. This morning Airey told the ABC she was confident that thanks to Getty’s lawyers, Highsmith ‘will go away’, in the same way oligarchs are confident that only stupid people pay taxes. But big archives are deliberately blurring the distinction between copyright and usage fees for their own gain and against the interests of image users. When I look at things like Getty’s ‘worthy’ Getty Images Instagram Grant for third world photographers, their behaviour in the algorithmic space of digital archives just makes me shout at the radio.
I’m saddened by the prospect that the fatal algorithms of this app might actually being used by some hapless people on their snapshots. Photographic contingency, the precious flame worshiped by generations of photographic theorists, is extinguished by the cold blast of these automatic operations. Time, memory, and place are all sucked into their frigid black hole. In the future the image will no longer prick or prod us with the unexpected, it must lie supine. Under the tyranny of these ‘healing’ tools photography no longer records but projects pale antiseptic fantasies. Yes, fantasy has always been a part of the snapshot, but at least they were constructive fictions, what is proposed here is solipsistic fantasy through erasure and exclusion.