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!)
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.
Some images taken by Alex Hobba of the magic lantern performance ‘Tragic Drowning Fatality’ performed by Martyn Jolly and Alexander Hunter at Siteworks 2016, Bundanon, with: thirty original magic lantern slides from the 1880s to the 1920s; two JW Steward magic lanterns from the 1880s dissolving one slide projection into another; members of the ANU Experimental Music Ensemble (Ben Harb, Andrew Ryan, Jack Livingston and Chloe Hobbs) on double bass, guitar and percussion; and actors from the region (Kez and Libby Thompson, Peter Lavelle and Clare Jolly) reading verbatim coronial testimony of an actual double drowning that happened in the Shoalhaven River in 1922.