Looking at The Photograph and Australia exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

This important show rejects conventional narratives and thematics, as well as standard modes of looking at photography as they have developed in art museums recently. Instead of leaning back and taking it all in, we have to bend down and peer closely. The viewer is given no quarter, and the installation brooks no lapses of attention. Visitors must work hard and long to divine their own meaning from either sepia smudges in tiny cartes de visite, or the fugitive sheen of daguerreotypes. There is little help from the labels which for the most part eschew the conventional narrativising comforts of extended captions (Yes, I know, we are meant to buy the book) and provide only the bare museal bones on which the viewer is required to build their own understanding.

Because the show is committed overwhelmingly to the auratic power of the photograph-object, and many of its objects have faded and were in any case initially scaled to domestic or bureaucratic situations rather than museum consumption, it is up to the dramaturgy of the hang to carry the show for visitors. Its emotional pitch is set by the doleful procession of aborigines who accompany us through the galleries to its very end with Kerry’s kitschly racist postcards. In contrast the panoramas of Vaniman, which are also threaded through the show, ironically play against them like a cheerfully optimistic chorus.

The architectural engine room of the show is the installation in the central void. Here the audacious curatorial strategy of using certain contemporary works to dramatically set off the historical works is most dramatically played out. In this space we can’t really look at the Moffats and the Maynards hanging above us, they are too high. As we bend ourselves to work over the vitrines, they look down at us like the crazy ancestral portraits in a haunted mansion (thanks Anne). This same reflective strategy works very well with the Ferrans in the Beattie room, where they spookily re-set the tone of the whole space. But the Laing work in the twentieth century critique section is not good enough to activate its space. The magnificent Ford installation has lot of work to do as it sits across from the astronomical photographs — two constellations of time, I guess — but this curatorial stroke also works. The vintage backlit X-rays placed between them — including the old skeletal hand with a wedding ring memento mori — are a treat, and maybe even make the Gills redundant?

There are many other spine tingles to reward our labour; while some icons, such as say Cazneaux’s Spirit of Endurance, are deftly detourned with some new surprising Cazneaux images. But sometime other image clusters, such as say the one with the two Poignants and the Bishop aren’t given quite enough curatorial spin, and perhaps allow us to lose the concentration which the show makes essential.

The show is committed to quantity, which it sees as the essence of the medium, thus we are not given the usual serving of one Goodman Daguerreotype, but the whole extended family of them. The auratic power of the patinated print is the show’s obsession, but it is wonderful to see the X-rays and a real, live, Holterman negative. I wish there had been other occasional ‘break out’ spaces to allow us to exercise other scopic regimes than just the ‘intense peer’. Some printed pages to touch, or some stereo viewers to look through, maybe?

Because of the show’s persistent close-up intensity, the sudden transition at the end to the projection of Pound’s computer installation, which certainly has the wit and elan we would expect, is too sudden. Although, flanking a programming work based on Google with a cascade of carte’s and a line of postcards makes its point! (For me Pound’s real punchline actually came in the gift shop, have a look)

There I was, going through the final bank of cartes, peering at what felt like was my gazillionth albumen surface. What was it? It was barely discernable even as an image. The label wasn’t much help, it just said J Davis, Sydney, 1860s to 1890s. So this pale smudge could have been taken any time during a thirty-year period. I think, but I’m still not sure, that it was somebody’s prize fruit tree, which they were obviously so proud of they made a carte of it. It had almost disappeared but there it was still, in the AGNSW, demanding to be seen.

The Photograph and Australia, AGNSW

The Photograph and Australia, AGNSW

The Photograph and Australia, AGNSW

The Photograph and Australia, AGNSW


Will the Angels Let Me Play — complete magic lantern perfomance video

On July 24, 2014, I was able to project a show of five magic lantern song-slide sets and one recitation set from my ‘Iron Duke’ lantern of 1905, with some additional effects added from a smaller 1890s lantern. Professor Peter Tregear and Dr Kate Bowan from the ANU School of Music sang and played the original words and music, and they were fabulous. Trevor Anderson from the National Film and Sound Archive also operated the ‘effects’ lantern for the angel effect in Jane Conquest. The event was part of the History, Cinema Digital Archives organised by Jill Matthews from the Humanities Research Centre and held in the theatrette of the NFSA. Here is our original abstract:

Martyn Jolly, Kate Bowan and Peter Tregear: ‘Will the Angels Let Me Play’, and other songs and recitations: a performance of magic lantern slides with song and piano

Collections such as the National Film and Sound Archive or Museum Victoria hold hundreds of magic lantern ‘song slides’. These sets of hand-coloured glass transparencies were produced in the early twentieth century to promote the sale of the sheet music for popular songs. They were projected by a magic lantern and accompanied by musicians and singers. Their popularity peaked with the First World War. The slides that remain, with their sentimental and melodramatic storylines, surreal photographic montages, and lurid hand-colouring, are still fascinating when we see them on the museum light box, or see the digitized copy in a museum database. But they were made to be performed, and were part of a technical ensemble which included the magic lantern, a musician’s performance and, most importantly, a singer’s voice. For this presentation this complete ensemble will be brought together once more, the slides will be projected by vintage magic lanterns and accompanied by live music and singing from the original sheet music. Will this be a reenactment, like we might see at an historical theme park? Or will it be authentic interpretation, such as an early music ensemble might perform on their antique instruments in a concert hall? Why bother with an original magic lantern when the optics and resolution of a contemporary scanner and data projector can reveal more detail more conveniently? And, no matter how brilliant the performers are, is it even possible to re-enter the affective power of a long ago performance when so much has changed in the meantime? Through this practice-led research experiment, and through subsequent discussion with the audience, these questions and other will be explored.

Bronwyn Coupe has now edited a video of the complete performance, cunningly disguising my mistakes with edited-in digital copies of a few of the slides, but retaining the flavour of my projections, and the brilliance of Kate and Peter. Here it is:

Will the Angels Let Me Play and other songs and recitations, a performance re-enactment for magic lantern, voice and piano

I learnt a lot from the experience. Fortunately I had Ian Christie turning the pages of my cue sheets for me, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with the changes for any of the songs! As it was I muddled two. Despite my rehearsals I need to have a better system for quickly accessing the slides in the dark, I was scrabbling around. I also think I should have realised that there was a certain amount of redundancy built into the slide sets by the manufacturers, and I could have left some out which would have given me more time to load the slide changer. The authority and smoothness (or lack of it) with which I changed and focussed the slides also became very important for the audience’s experience. The light levels in the auditorium— to satisfy both projection from the lanterns with their relatively low-lumen output from the LED floodlights I had in them, as well as the necessity for Kate and Peter to be able to read the music — was also crucial. I have been reading nineteenth and early twentieth century newspaper review of lantern shows in Australia and exactly these same issues are frequently reported on — both negatively and positively — by the writers. The audience discussion afterwards didn’t decisively answer any of the questions raised in the abstract. However it covered the historical accuracy, or inaccuracy, of our ‘re-enactment’ — a big issue with some of the experts in the audience — and the general visual culture of the period — in both America and the UK where the slides were made, and in Australia where they were shown. Also discussed were small but crucial details such as the lack of gain in the painted wall on which I was projecting, compared to the modern cinema screen on which the digital versions were projected. But there was enough there to go on with.

The Citizens of Canberra, 2013

An installation of Canberra travel brochures for the 1920s to the 1980s, each covered by a sheet of A4 paper in which had been cut a small window strategically revealing a hapless Canberra citizen, unwittingly conscripted to take part in the civic vista of the photograph, which remained obscured.

Wonderful Pictures, 1994

Photographed, in colour and black and white, from the pages of Australiana picture books with a Linhof camera. First exhibited at the Centre for Creative Photography, Melbourne, then at the Museum of Contemporary Art in an exhibition called Sydney Photographed.

The Sports Pages, 2000

The Sports Pages, 2000

Framed and matted pages from newspapers. Each sports page was framed and matted in its entirety, with windows strategically cut to reveal crucial deatails of the sports photographs. Exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, in 2000 in an exhibition Sporting Life.