An article by myself and Elisa deCourcy on Uncovering, Connecting, Researching and Animating Australia’s Magic Lantern Past has just been published on the Open Library of the Humanities, thanks to Geoff Hinchcliffe and Mitchell Whitelaw. In it we discuss the fabulous Collection Explorer interface, developed with Mitchell Whitelaw.
On 20 April we performed this 130 year old chromatrope under the stars at Mt Stromlo Observatory. We projected it through a 130 year old magic lantern onto the scarred wall of the shell of the dome which was built to house the 26 inch Yale-Columbia refractor telescope in 1955, and destroyed by the ACT Bushfires in 2003. Music Ben Keogh, video Clare Jolly. For Heritage in the Limelight: The Magic Lantern in Australia and the World.
Three years ago, so the media release goes, the Imperial War Museum approached Peter Jackson, famous director of The Lord of the Rings, ‘to see what could be done’ with their archival film footage of the Great War. Jackson’s answer was to slow the footage to the frame rate at which it had been originally shot, remove scratches, grade it and sharpen it. All this is what any good digital restoration does. But Jackson then went on to add colour to it. This is not restoration, because something is added which was not there in the first place. And it is not even ‘enhancement’, it is destruction.
Any creative re-use of archival footage is generally to be supported, and purist approaches to some notion of untouched archival sanctity get us nowhere. But the wholesale colourisation of archival footage is becoming more and more common recently. Jackson is not the only film maker to claim that colourisation is essential to bring ‘neglected’ or ‘lost’ or “forgotten’ footage to new audiences. And his is not the only company with a digital colourisation process to sell. For instance this year Screen Australia’s documentary funding program supported Stranger Than Fiction Films to use a French company to colourise ‘pivotal moments in our nation’s history’ for SBS. So it may be worthwhile to take a step back and consider the long term impact on our historical consciousness of wholesale colourisation as an archival default. What is its effect on affect?
The director of the Imperial War Museum, Diane Lees, states the argument for colourisation: ‘what we want to do is to take film that is very often dismissed by audiences because it is black and white’. There seems to be two strands to this argument: colour will somehow appeal to young eyes put off by boring old drab black and white with its association with – yawn – school history lessons; and colour is closer to the ‘reality’ for which the original cameramen strove, but were prevented from achieving because the technology they needed was yet to be developed. Both arguments are wrong.
Colourisation is not a gift to young people, it robs them of visual and historical literacy. It diminishes their ability to appreciate the full and beautiful range of tonal and chromatic spectra associated with each decade’s intrinsic technology. The technologically immersed young clearly have no problem in choosing from amongst the 24 default Instagram filters, including several in monochrome, with all of their historical associations, so why is their discrimination not trusted by Jackson and Lees?
And is a digitally colourised frame, where colours from a pre-determined palette are arbitrarily overlaid in a paint-by-numbers fashion, closer to reality than the original 256 tones of grey? We may know the original colour of a uniform, or an epaulette; but somebody’s skin, or their wallpaper? We can all, now, have a little snicker at Roland Barthes who, writing as late as 1980, still couldn’t help himself thinking that colour was: ‘a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph.’ For somebody like Barthes, who grew up when press photographs and films were overwhelmingly black and white and expensive colour was reserved for special portraits and fiction, colour was an artifice, a cosmetic like the kind used to paint corpses. Now the situation is reversed, for those who came of visual age amongst colour, black and white is the connotational accent, signifying a certain classical aestheticism, laid on top of the RGB substrata. This indicates the fluidity of the exchange between black and white and colour. It is not just from an incomplete to a complete image potentiality, it’s an historical dialectic.
Even during the Great War itself, colour was perceived as a ‘lack’. When, in 1918, Australia’s War Records Section projected Paget Plate magic lantern slides at London’s Grafton Galleries (panchromatic emulsion exposed, and re-projected, through a three-colour matrix screen giving a pixelated colour image) they were rightly applauded as the first ‘real’ colour images of the War. They were recognised as ontologically different to the thousands of hand-coloured War photographs that already had been, and would continue to be, produced. (In 2016 the State Library of New South Wales held a wonderful exhibition of hand coloured Great War photographs from Melbourne’s Colart Studios.)
But anybody who has worked in the area of colour reproduction, Peter Jackson most particularly, knows that there is no prelapsarian urcolour waiting to be discovered. From Paget plates, to Dufay colour, to Kodachrome, to Technicolor, to the bling of today’s Canon or Sony firmware, all supposedly ‘natural’ colour is technologically sampled and replicated, and therefore of its time. Jackson is not returning what was lost, not clarifying what was muddied. He is just adding a supernumerary layer and obscuring the past with a chromatic corrosion from today. This is the first sin of historicism. Some colour profile has to be generated for the palette from which different colour values are assigned to various areas in the tonal image. The colourisation efforts I have seen so far project a vaguely retro palette back into the past — unlike today’s colour technology but also unlike any actual primitive colour technology of the past either — perhaps closest to Instagram’s ’Slumber’ filter.
Jackson says: ‘the people come to life in this film’. And that is the problem. They are not alive, they are dead. Allow us to meet them in their own technological time, not in a fantasy of ‘presence’ which is really just a current technological effect.
Some of the news reports suggest that Jackson is even adding digital 3D (although perhaps, let’s be thankful for small mercies, they mean 2.5D) to the archival footage. The hyper realism of stereoscopic photographs was also an important part of the contemporaneous experience of the Great War. (For instance in Australia the Rose Stereographic Company produced thousands of stereo views of the War.) But if it is true that Jackson plans to invent a new 3D effect within the archival footage, then the revenant automata manufactured out of the indexical template of the scanned film frames will even further divorce contemporary audiences from a profound acknowledgement of the significance of those who once lived within a specific past. They deserve to be more than just retro effects within the present.
The Rolfoclasts with their attempts at Rolfoclasm are at it again!
Somebody stop them!
In 1986 Rolf Harris painted for Warrnambool’s Lighthouse Theatre a lovely mural in vivid tones of ‘outback red’ and ‘charcoal black’, presumably supplied by British Paints. The mural, with its artful paint drips and edge-of-the-brush paradiddles, has roots reaching deep down through Pro Hart and Eric Jolliffe, picking up some hints of panel van on the way.
Yet through a primitive idolatorous thinking that comes from the dark ages, some equate the painting of a landscape by a pedophile with the act of pedophilia itself. Purely to expiate their own unresolved anxiety over the epidemic they equate a painting with the man, and want to erase both. They are putting pressure on the Warrnambool City Council, who have already voted to cover the mural up. That was never going to work. “Hiding the mural behind perspex is exactly what’s been happening with sexual abuse,” Warrnambool City Councillor Peter Hulin said. “We’re covering it up and pretending it’s not there.” But the iconography of bush hut and blasted sapling seems innocent, is there something secretly encoded in the onanistic brushwork?
Of course covering the mural does nothing to address the issues that cause pedophilia. I’m sure I’ve gone to restaurants where paedophiles have worked, driven on roads they have built, and so on and so on. And covering a mural is one thing, erasing Rolf from my psyche is quite another. You only have to whisper ‘Caractacus’ in my ear and Rolf’s interminable version of Court of King Caractacus starts up all over again in my head. Once seen, Jake the Peg cannot be unseen. Will everybody who, like me, was a television addict in the 1970s have to submit to neurological erasure?
What a magnificent concoction of hocus pocus was mixed in today’s piece about a newly discovered tintype which may be, perhaps, of Billy the Kid. All the tropes are there: bought at a flea market for ten dollars; photographic experts supposedly dating the object to just a two year window of 1879 to 1880 (how so precise, exactly? one of these experts is a friend of my friend Craig Tuffin, and he doesn’t know either); then, from material connoisseurship, we swing to contemporary facial recognition software which supposedly picks Pat Garret and Billy the Kid’s faces out from the algorithmic line-up; finally the handwriting experts chime in with their confirmation. The ten dollar tintype may now be worth five million. The proud owner said what the narrative inevitably demanded he say: ‘One day it may end up at an auction house somewhere. We’ll see what happens.’ Meanwhile the smudge of the supposed Billy the Kid’s face, with it’s doll-like splodges of pink hand-colouring on his cheeks, stare out at me from the iPad. And I feel like David Hemmings from Blow Up, staring back at the clump through my ridiculously ostentatious magnifying glass, wanting, just wanting.
No other Australian battle has been reenacted as often as the Battle of Beersheba. Although the America Civil War is the most reenacted war in history, something about the 1917 charge of the Light Horse on the Turkish foothold in Palestine has the same elements of attraction for Australian reenactors. It’s probably the comforting links back to preindustrial warfare and to an ‘Outback’ national mythos that makes this ANZAC Melbourne Cup so attractive for those who want to feel what it felt like a hundred years ago.
But, reenactment was at the battle’s very origin. For decades a photograph of distant horsemen against a parched horizon was taken to be an authentic document grabbed by a frightened Turk as the 800 hoses thundered down on him. It wasn’t, it was taken by Frank Hurley more than three months after the battle in early 1918. Hurley characteristically exaggerated the number of men put at his disposal for the reenactment to 1000, but the men themselves resented being conscripted for such a ‘rehearsal’ so soon after the trauma of the actual event, and refused to push their horses to a full gallop.
Hurley filmed the charge again twenty years later in 1938, this time as a teaser for the financial backers of Charles Chauvel’s patriotic blockbuster Forty Thousand Horsmen, eventually released right on cue for World War Two in 1940. They borrowed some cavalry horses from Sydney’s sesquicentenary celebrations and got them thunder over the sand hills at Cronulla as Hurley filmed them from a trench dug into the sand. (The future famous war photographer Damien Parer, who also occasionally included reenactments in his subsequent newsreels, was also there filming amongst the horses)
In September this year a hundred horses reenacted the charge at Winton in Queensland, and on the hundredth anniversary of the Battle a couple of days ago Australian enthusiasts reenacted the charge in front of the prime minister and opposition leader back at Beersheba, now in Israel, on horses borrowed from an Israeli pony club.
The first assault on the dignitaries was at a slow trot, but later thirty horses suddenly returned for a charge at full gallop.
OK, the big two oh oh is usually the one you pop the champagne and light the fire crackers for but, you’ve got to admit, a one hundred and seventy-fifth birthday isn’t too bad either. It is one hundred and seventy five years ago that Sir John Herschel discovered the process we are celebrating in this exhibition. All you needed was ammonium ferric citrate, potassium ferricyanide, and light. That was it! It was so simple, but oh, look at that blue. Blue, the most sublime the most pure of all the colours — the colour of the sky, the colour of the ocean when it was smiling, maybe the colour of Heaven, certainly, in its lighter version, the colour of the Virgin’s cloak. A colour so pure and airy, but laid down in that chemical reaction with a ferric fist of iron. Herschel’s amazing discovery of what, on 16 August 1842 he called, chemist that he was, the cyanotype (I would have called it the skyograph, but that may not have caught on) endured and endured. In the twentieth century it became the blueprint. Every steel-girded skyscraper, every streamlined jetliner, started out as cyanotyped lines on an engineer’s diagram. The technical blueprint gave three-dimensional form, through physical construction, to our modernist aspirations. But earlier artists had already discovered that through the magic of light modulation the cyanotype also gave three-dimensional form to physical objects that were laid on the sensitive paper out under the sky. When Anna Atkins laid two specimens of dictyota dichotoma, one in its young state the other in fruit, on cyanotype paper for her book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions she was the first of thousands to discover that the seaweed recorded itself in a magically volumetric way — floating in a virtual space of blueness. One hundred and seventy four years later the seaweed is still suspended there as though not a second has ticked past. How do I know it is dictyota dichotoma? Because Anna Atkins wrote a label, using all of her knowledge of biology, and placed that on the sensitive paper as well. Herschel’s implacable reaction photogrammed Atkins’ Linnaean knowledge and the seaweed’s objective existence together into the same stuff of knowing.
So cut the cake. In a hundred and seventy five years’ time people will still be knowing the world by making cyanotypes. Of that I have no doubt.
My words for ‘Out of the Blue’, curated by Ursula Frederick and Kerry Martin, opening tonight at Photospace in the ANU School of Art & Design. Featuring work from 1981 by Mazie Karen Turner, Bronwyn Rennex, and others
Look I don’t want to add to the beat up, but jeez some ridiculous things are being said about Justine Varga’s winning photograph for the Olive Cotton Portrait prize. Now a professor of Law at the University of Sydney is saying the chemical and light produced image of Justine Varga’s grandmother’s pen marks and spittle isn’t authored by Varga but by her Grandmother. Does she know nothing of the history of, say, conceptual art (Lewitt: ‘The idea becomes the machine that makes the art’) or participatory art? This completely out of touch law professor thinks that ‘expression’ must lie in the perfunctory hand made mark (presumably because Shakespeare wrote his plays by hand?), not in the photographer’s highly developed and thought through photographic process of indexical translation. Somebody else (responsible for the nausea we feel when we are landing in QANTAS planes) reckons it’s not a photograph, even though at its core it is driven by light and chemistry and touch, the things that have been celebrated as the core of photography by photographic theorist since, oh, I don’t know, 1839? Somebody else reckons its not a portrait of Varga’s grandmother, even though all anybody has been talking about is — her grandmother! And even though, to return to our Sydney Law professor’s valorisation of the hand in her misunderstanding of art authorship, we have all long been valorising and fetishising the hand made mark as a signature of the person.
I’m enjoying preparing for a discussion I’m having about Rennie Ellis with Mandy Sayer and Manuela Furci at Surface Glitter and Underground Guts as part of the Kings Bloody Cross weekend. I was till going to primary school in Brisbane when Rennie (along with Wes Stacey) was cruising Macleay Street. But I loved finding these Horwitz book covers on line. It’s good to know that Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette’s book Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980 can be pre-ordered. Our discussion of Rennie Ellis will be on at The World Bar, 24 Bayswater Road, Kings Cross at 12.45 pm on Saturday 3 June.
Take a look at this carte de visite.
Looks pretty ordinary doesn’t it. This carte of of the spirit medium Dr Henry Slade is from an album of spiritualist photographs compiled in Melbourne in the 1870s and acquired by the National Gallery of Australia about ten years ago. To my knowledge the NGA has never exhibited any of the 36 cartes from this fascinating album. I used some of its pages in my book Faces of the Living Dead, and wrote about the whole album a while ago. Me and Craig Tuffin and Lisa Clunie even had a crack at reproducing one of its most interesting images, of Dr Richardson (on whom Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is based) with a spirt in London.
I thought I knew about Slade, who appears in the album. I thought I knew he was an American slate writer who placed a piece of chalk between two slates sealed together. As they were held on the underside of the séance table spirits supposedly wrote messages on the slate. He visited London in 1876 when he was exposed by Professor Lankester who paid the usual pound fee for the séance but grabbed the slates from the medium’s hands before the spirits had supposedly commenced writing. Opening the slates he found the writing already there. Slade was sentenced to three months hard labour for obtaining money under false pretences. There was an appeal, the conviction was quashed on a technicality, and Slade fled for the continent and then Australia. In Australia he did slate writing but also levitated his sitters clear off the ground. But Dr Samuel Knaggs from Sydney secreted a mirror into the séance and held it between his knees. He saw Slade remove his foot from his kid slippers and rap on the table and write on the slate with his toes, while his body remained still.
Imagine my surprise when the historian David Waldron from Federation University told me that his student Dr Greg Young had discovered that Slade was a woman! As the Australian newspapers gleefully reported in 1879, after his successful mediumship in the Australian colonies Slade was returning home on a mail steamer to San Francisco. Half way across he was stricken with paralysis and the ships’s doctor was called. As the doctor loosed Slade’s necktie, vest and shirt to restore his circulation he made the discovery that Slade was a woman. When this was reported back in Australia many newspapers gleefully conjectured on what they called ‘The Slade Sensation’, while Australian spiritualists, such as W H Terry, whose carte is also in the NGA album, leapt to his defence.
Looking at the carte again after this revelation it’s easy to see a woman behind the moustache, but where does the moustache come from? According to the Australian newspapers Slade confessed that she had been shaving since she was a girl, and that had induced the facial hair to grow. Sydney’s Evening News of 1 October 1879 countered that scientific men had declared this to be impossible. But all images of Slade sport a magnificent moustache, so if it’s stuck on, she must have done it every day, religiously. But the advantages, in terms of her independence, must have been great, as all the other nineteenth century ‘passers’ attest. Ah the nineteenth century, the century that just keeps on giving! It would be lovely if the NGA could show these cartes some day.