Volume 43, Issue 1, 2019, pages 60-83
Martyn Jolly & Daniel Palmer
Among the various new modes for making photographs that were explored by Australian photographers in the first decades of the twentieth century, three in particular – Pictorialist images, authentic records, and personal snapshots – had far-reaching implications for the institutions of Australian photography. Pictorialist photographs are now the foundation of many Australian art museum collections; photographic records produced at the time have become iconic in Australian public history, forming the backbone of many social history collections; and personal snapshots from the period are increasingly reproduced in social histories. Historians of Australian photography have discussed and analysed each of these modes1, but they have tended to treat them separately, or even in opposition to each other, and to concentrate on the distinct careers of individual photographers. This article looks at this crucial period, and these key photographic modes, from the point of view of the worldwide networks and systems for the distribution, exhibition, collection, and indexing of photographs. We show how these modes, far from being distinct, overlapped one another as each grappled with the same issues of nation, history, and memory, and as each articulated their nationalistic concerns through international networks and idioms.
The curators of the National Portrait Gallery are thoroughly professional. Vogue Australia has been a vibrant part of our visual culture for sixty years. That’s why it’s disappointing that this show never really gets off the ground. By the time we get to Julie Bishop’s shoes it seems to be over. Is it because, as has been mentioned, the Vogue Australia archive was destroyed in a fire in 1982? A national tragedy, but the work of those great photographers, people like Laurie le Guay, Patrick Russell, Dieter Muller and Grant Matthews, was still there in the pages as ink on paper. Visitors were looking at the wonderful covers through the glass cases, how I yearned they would have had more than a few brief opportunities to have those issues opened up for them to see the fashion, design and photographic riches I know are inside. But, although it was so close on the printed page this show didn’t seem to care all that much about the history of Australian photography. Or photographers. Or design. Or fashion. But I think ordinary visitors do, more than is sometimes realised.
Can we ever forgive the hapless Fairfax beancounter who, in 2013, thought he had solved at least one of the troubled news organisation’s many financial problems? Their massive archive of deteriorating photographic negatives and prints was costing a motza to house and maintain, and without a rapid program of digitisation it was going to be hard to monetise it. His answer was to do a deal with an Arkansas sports memorabilia dealer, John Rogers, who said he would buy two million physical items from Fairfax for $300,000 along with the agreement that he would catalogue and scan them. Rogers could sell the physical prints and Fairfax, who always retained copyright, could licence the digital images. In the words of Fairfax executive Garry Linnell, shipping two million negatives and prints overseas would ‘preserve them for future generations’ of Australians. There were several problems with the deal. As anyone who has done it knows, digitising two million items is an enormous task, and properly cataloguing them even more so. As it was, Rogers was only ever going to use high speed document scanners, yielding at best low resolution files of little monetary value and little use to our visual heritage. The second problem was that Rogers was a conman.
Shortly after the collection of Australian and New Zealand photographs was shipped off to Little Rock in late 2013, prints which hadn’t even been scanned yet, even at low resolution, were beginning to turn up on eBay. The receiver later estimated that up to a thousand images may have been skimmed off before digitisation even began. Rogers became unresponsive to requests from Australia and then, in early 2014, the FBI raided him. He was later convicted of fraud, became bankrupt, and a sizeable chunk of Australia’s heritage fell into a legal limbo. In 2015 we in Australia who love photography stared in open mouthed dismay at the ABC’s Glenn Sloggett like images of padlocked warehouse doors beginning to be choked by weeds in the outer suburbs of Little Rock.
Then in 2017 came the news that California’s Duncan Miller Gallery had purchased the entire collection, still estimated to be around two million items. The new owner of the physical archive, Daniel Miller, reasoned that even though the copyright of images taken after 1955 still resided with either Fairfax or the original photographer, the ’pieces of paper’ could perhaps return him around four dollars each from Australian institutions as a bulk purchase, and considerably more for the ‘name’ photographers who had found their way into the archive, such as Jeff Carter, Max Dupain, Olive Cotton, Wolfgang Sievers and David Moore.
Miller launched a website with the rather Peter Allenesque url of hometoaustralia.org. He sought corporate sponsorship, and came to Australia in 2017 to speak to curators from major collections and go on breakfast TV. In 2018 he had a booth at Sydney Contemporary showing some of the collection in art frames. To aid their repatriation, and the return on his investment, the gallery did a new taxonomic survey of the collection, dividing them into 500 different thematic categories.
So far they estimate that they have sold about 160,000 photographs back to various Australian collections, including the Bradman Museum who have purchased 24,000 cricket photographs, and Beleura who have purchased 20,000 theatre photographs. Last weekend the Canberra Museum and Gallery announced they had purchased 3,500 Canberra photographs, many from the Canberra Times, at $20,000. A good deal. They plan to work with the University of Canberra to do the cataloguing that John Rogers promised and didn’t do. They still have to negotiate with the original photographers or Fairfax, which has now been swallowed by the media conglomerate of Nine Entertainment, to reproduce the post 1955 images.
Can we ever forgive that Fairfax executive? No we can’t. But what does this farrago tell us? Firstly that photographs, whether physical or digital are equally vulnerable. Australian photography is full of similar stories at varying degrees of apocrypha — of collodion being cleaned off plates for green house windows, of glass plate negatives being used for road ballast, and so. There are also stories of rescue missions, which is how the Duncan Miller Gallery see their work. For instance in 1929 the bookseller James Tyrell brought 7903 negatives from the Charles Kerry and Henry King studios, which were then sold to Australian Consolidated press in 1980, who donated them to the Powerhouse Museum in 1985. Secondly, it throws into relief the legal separation between the three values that photographs have always had: ownership, display and reproduction. Thirdly it brings to the fore an increasingly important photographic value — searchability.
Fairfax did eventually got back a set of digital files from Rogers’ receiver in Arkansas. They are probably of low quality anyway, but without even a searchable interface they are next to useless. The physical archive’s current owner, the canny Duncan Miller Gallery, has realised the importance of the interface. While they have certainly capitalised on the short list of proper names of Australian photography in the collection, whose prints can be sold as individual ‘art works’, the gallery also realised they needed a ‘team of archivists’ to generate five hundred new separate categories out of the raw A to Z sequencing of the images. Major Categories, from ‘Aboriginal people’ to ‘Yachting’; Smaller Categories, from ‘Abacus to ‘Witch Doctor’’; and Personalities and People, from ‘Aboriginal people’ to ‘Zoo’. It remains to be seen how useful potential clients in Australia will find these newly generated search terms in approaching the vast opaque repository of images in America. But what is certain is that issues of the archive are only just beginning to come home to us.
I admit it took a while for the penny to drop. Most daguerreotypes we see are reversed because the lens forms an image directly on the metal plate. This wasn’t such a problem for portraits, but it became an issue with views, where potential purchasers would immediately see that the buildings were the wrong way round. After admiring it for years (it’s in the Tasmanian Museum and Gallery, and has featured in virtually every history of Australian photography) I finally twigged that Australia’s oldest extant outdoor photograph, an 1848 daguerreotype taken by J W Newland down Murray Street towards the docks of Hobart, wasn’t reversed. He must have used a popular daguerreotype camera accessory, a ‘reversing mirror’ that clipped on the front of the lens at a 45 degree angle, so the camera faced at right angles to the view being taken.
My research colleague, Elisa deCourcy, and myself stood on Macquarie Street at the top of Murray Street and scanned the buildings. Bless Hobart, many of its nineteenth century buildings are still there, including the building in which Newland had his ‘Daguerrian Gallery’ – known then, as now, as The Stone Building – and the buildings which feature in his view, which are now part of Treasury. Closing one eye to turn ourselves into human theodolites we discovered the exact second floor window out of which Newland had stuck his full plate camera, compete with its reversing mirror, out over the footpath. The offices which currently occupy his floor were shut up tight, but Elisa was able to talk us into the empty legal chambers on the floor below, and confirm that we had found the site of one of Australia’s most important photographs. It was then that we realised something else, we had returned to take the view again 170 years later, almost to the day.
Amidst all the current discussion over the threats of facial recognition software and message encryption to personal privacy and online discourse, other more longstanding contractions of our everyday public space continue their creep. Thus the ABC can publish an online article today quoting legal advice that parents should not video their kiddies at school concerts because they are infringing the copyright owners of the popular songs to which the kiddies are dancing. As the Arts Law Centre warns ominously: ‘if the entertainment company that owns the copyright decides that they’re going to crack down on this particular type of infringement, then as a parent you’re potentially at risk’.
This now apparently acceptable notion that even intimate moments of familial sharing are privatised in both senses — personal but also privately ‘owned’ — so proud parents should now just purchase their cherished memories by buying the offical DVD, casts a grim chill over the valuable role family photography has played in social cohesion for a century — from Kodak moments to Facebook pages.
I agree more and more with the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission, made five years ago and never acted on by our government, that existing specific Fair Dealing copyright exemptions should be expanded with Fair Use exemptions, including exemptions for ‘non-commercial private use’. Some may see the the calls for expanded ‘fair use’ exemptions as a stalking horse for online distribution platforms exploiting small content producers, but the positive function of personal cameras in social space has also to be taken into account.
I started to complain about Peter Jackson’s commission from the Imperial War Museum to colourise their archival war footage when I first heard about it earlier this year, and now I’ve actually seen the result, ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, I’ve decided to keep on complaining. This, despite two moments in his feature length film about the experience of English men at the Western Front which do truly take the breath away.
Jackson bookends his VFX historical concoction with two extended sequences of ‘authentic’ black and white footage complete with scratches, hair in the gate, and even the clattering sound of an old film projector. About half an hour into the film, at the moment in the film’s narrative when the men arrive at the Front we, the audience, see the ‘archival’ film magically transition to full colour, correct speed, and full cineplex-quality Dolby sound. To Jackson’s credit it is a truly astonishing, and moving, moment. We are exiting History and entering Experience. After about another hour, when the men have won the War, we transition again, back home to jerky black and white, from Experience back to mere History.
These moments have roots deep in the history of media. In the 1890s many people saw their first kinematograph film through a hand cranked attachment placed on the front of a magic lantern. Canny operators would hold the first frame of their ninety second filmstrip in the gate so the audience thought they were looking at a standard glass magic lantern slide, then they would begin to crank the image into lifelike animation. This moment of phenomenological wonder wrought by drawing attention to the very apparatus of representation itself has been rehearsed frequently since. Perhaps most pertinent to Jackson’s film is the transition from black and white to colour, at about the same narrative points, in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, where the film transitions from the familiar Hollywood black and white to the new Technicolor. We’re not in Kansas anymore in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, just as we’re not in Documentary anymore in ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’.
These two moments are the film’s triumph, and all the talk has rightly been about the creation of lived experience from supposedly inert archival material — the lip reading, the stretched frame rate, the image sharpening, the 3D, and so on. So it is interesting that many of these ‘effects’, so lauded for their technical novelty today, were in fact in play before the War itself had even ended.
Jackson composites separate archival images together into the one frame, he passes off footage shot of training exercises as actual battles, and he closely edits together images shot far apart to make it seem as though we are seeing one action, one dramatic moment. I’m not going to be churlish, that’s fine. In fact it was being done in 1918, even before the Armistice, by the photographers Ivor Castle and Frank Hurley who worked for the Canadian, British and Australian propaganda units. They did it for a series of giant collages and hand coloured murals made for exhibitions in the UK during 1918. The only VFX Jackson has in his arsenal which Castle and Hurley didn’t have is the loop. And he uses the loop to dilate time like the master he is. In his film men look over their shoulder with impending dread, or stroke the necks of dogs with PTSD distraction, for a sublime, looped, eternity.
The fact that the War was actually being commemorated before it had even ended is only one of the about five billion other inconvenient truths about the War which Jackson’s film has to ignore in order to sustain itself. The film might be about a male English soldier’s experience, but surely we can handle more complexity than the Joseph Cambellesque narrative arc of: we didn’t know what we were getting into, it was an industrial hell, we had a battle where we found reserves of Edwardian heroism we didn’t know we had, we won that battle, we returned home and nobody understood us.
That this is a story from the cineplex, not reality, is betrayed by the fact that in the frenzied thick of its digital editing of the battle sequence the film doesn’t distinguish between photographic imagery and popular graphic imagery derived from Boy’s Own propaganda. True, there is virtually no imagery directly from WW1 battles, so Jackson had a problem. A film which used the same footage as Jackson’s, Charles Urban’s ‘The Battle of the Somme’, shown in London in 1916 (two years before the Armistice) to bring the reality of trench warfare home to complacent UK audiences, had the same problem, and also had to use footage of training exercises to stand in for actual battles. And perhaps Jackson was also trying to make the point that for these brief moments the young men temporarily entered the mythology of war under which they had enlisted, but even if he is trying to make this jingoistic point, is it is lost in the ontological muddling.
The only thing masking the narrative banality which is at the heart of Jackson’s film, and which it cannot rise above, is the voices of the returned soldiers which drive the soundtrack. They also have been been conjured from the archive of oral history, but come through, along with all their distinct and distant accents, as clear as a bell. Without those voices, Jackson’s VFX would bleach to nothing.
Their voices, and their dental work. In 2018 nobody can exit the film without wondering at the rank tombstone teeth of the soldiers. Thank God Jackson didn’t give them digital orthodontics. Those crumbling teeth stoutly defend the truths of history in the face of Jackson attempts to conjure the cinematic effects of experience.
I reject utterly your statement today that the Australian War Memorial is the ‘one national institution in this country that reveals more than anything else our character as a people, our soul.’ Our national soul is embodied in more than just our experience of war, it is just as fundamentally rooted in our environment, our history of settlement, and our first peoples. It is expressed not only by our military actions but by our culture and our everyday lives.
I also reject utterly your demagogic rhetorical manoeuvre of immediately invoking the blood sacrifice of our soldiers whenever you are challenged. The blood shed and the traumas experienced were on behalf of our whole country, not just its military aspects.
I reject utterly your completely disingenuous statement, when asked about the enormous disparity between the income of your institution and other national institutions, that ‘as far as decisions that are made by governments in relation to other institutions, that is a matter for the Government,’ when you yourself are very close to the Government, and you must also be aware that your colleagues in other national institutions are suffering under the 2% so called ‘efficiency dividend’, such that they can now barely do their vitally important jobs. Have you ever stopped to think, Dr Nelson, that the trauma of the wars commemorated in ‘your’ Memorial have their echoes throughout Australia, and are therefore also recorded in our libraries, museums, and archives?
In the end the size of the tab isn’t really the point, and who suffered the most isn’t really the point, the point, as you say, is ‘our soul’. What kind of soul do we want to make for ourselves within our hard won freedom?
Heritage Council chair Stephen Davies is unable to issue a stop work order against the Opera House advertising projections of Racing NSW because light does not cause physical harm. Instead The Chaser projected Alan Jones’s phone number on the Supreme Court and NSW parliament from a moving car, while citizens disrupted the racing ads with torches. This David and Goliath contestation of public space has a fascinating history. In 1894 the Melbourne Salvation Army was just as aggressive as Racing NSW, but for the cause of Temperance. They used the latest limelight powered magic lantern to obliterate a schnapps ad on the side of a pub with a projection of Jesus and images from ‘The Rock of Ages’, while their band played hymns.
While light does no physical harm, as anyone who works with projection knows, it completely redefines space, transforms mood, and rewrites meaning. The act of projecting on a building is strangely exhilarating, because a small act is ‘projected’, not just optically by the lens, but semiotically by the stored symbolic power of the building.
Heritage values are created by lighting. Think of how the warm tungsten lights, which nightly bathe the newly cleaned sandstone facades of the public precincts of virtually all the world’s cities, have reshaped our mental image of those cities. And they can be destroyed by lighting. Fortunately, in the optical arms race, guerrilla action can still outgun the big boys.
A video of the magic lantern performance I devised in collaboration with Elisa deCourcy, Alexander Hunter and Karen Vickery is now available for viewing online. We performed it at the ANU twice during September 2018, once in the Sir Roland Wilson Building at the Magic Lantern in Australia and the World conference, and once a week later in the NFSA ARC Theatre at the Frankenstein: Two Hundred Years off Monsters conference. It goes for about half an hour, and uses about sixty slides. I decided to hang it off Mary Shelly’s book because I knew we would be performing it for the Frankenstein conference. It was wonderful reading the book again after so long, and I picked out some choice quotes for Karen to intone at intervals through the five ‘scenes’, which begin in a scientific laboratory, and end lost in snow and ice, but otherwise have little to do with the story! I was initially going to commence with a moiré pattern chromatrope to set the dark mood, but I eventually decided to use the new chromatrope that Miheng Dong had cut from acrylic in the ANU Makerspace, working from a pattern coded by Kieran Browne. After that it wasn’t much of a leap to some microscopic slides of bacteria and bacillus from the Atlas of Bacteriology by Slater & Spitta, then after a ‘Flash of Lightning’ slide (Copyright T T Wing), with some great music effects from Alex, Elisa flickered up an anonymous slide of a monstrous skeleton using her fingers. We then dissolved to microscopic cross-sections of rectal cancer growths (!) originally used at the Westminster Medical School, which were also meant to look like aerial views of icy wastes. After Alex’s great music, Karen came into her own as we showed panoramic caricature slides dissolving into comic mechanical slides in the next scene. Her wetly mouthed responses to the slides as they came on the screen were fantastic. it was Elisa’s idea to project both of the Steward lantern simultaneously for a ‘tongue in ear’ sequence, and for a dancing skeleton sequence (with some skeletal EDM from Alex) during the next section of ‘monstrous’ mechanical slides. We used some temperance motto slides, a J W Beattie Port Arthur Slide, two slides from Jane Conquest, some hand painted slides, and an amateur double-exposed ghost slide for the next sequence, which required a lot of changing between carriers. For the final sequence we began ‘finger flickering’ between a group of slides which I originally thought were slides illustrating the Franklin North West Passage expedition of the Erebus, but which I now realise are simply illustrating ‘Arctic Phenomena’. We ended with my favourite slide from my collection, a hand painted slide of some Byronic figure roiling around in the snow, overlooked by a distant church perched high on an icy cliff. Elisa once again had the inspired idea of holding what I call our ‘Cardboard Ken Burns’, a piece of cardboard with a hole in it, in front of the lens, to ‘spotlight’ key elements of the scene. I couldn’t have done it with out Elisa, Alex and Karen, all of whom contributed inspired original ideas. The video was made by Amr Tawfik, who was able to handle the low light OK, and was able to give a good impression of the labours of Elisa, Karen, Alec and myself. The audience reaction to the first performance was good, we filled the room up with fog from a fog machine before they entered, and they filled the basement room to capacity, and were well primed for the show. The audience reaction to the second show was more muted, for several reasons, the necessary intimacy of the performance was somewhat swallowed up by the larger space of ARC, and the audience was less primed as to what to expect.