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.
Take a look at this carte de visite.
Dr Henry Slade
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.
W H Terry
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.
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.
The edge of a Henson digital pigment print
Henson print, skeuomorphic edge? (mobile phone bit out of focus)
Different Henson print, same edge
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!)
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’.
Sussex Inlet RSL Men’s Toilet
Sussex Inlet RSL Men’s Toilet
Sussex Inlet RSL Men’s Toilet
A test print which has been kept in the dark, compared to one of the columns.
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.