The Sunbaker — baked in

My essay for the Australian Centre for Photography exhibition Under the Sun: Reimagining Max Dupain’s Sunbaker. State Library of New South Wales 18 February — 17 April; Monash Gallery of Art 6 May — 6 August, 2017.

The Sunbaker photograph was taken eighty years ago. That’s an entire lifetime. After eighty years it’s time to look back at your life. But if we were able to wake the Sunbaker up and tell him what had been happening to him he might reckon it was all a bit of a soap opera.

The Sunbaker we know was conceived on Culburra Beach near Nowra in 1937, during the camping trip of a bunch of friends from Sydney who were all twenty-something years old and brimming with sex. Two of the group, Max Dupain and Olive Cotton, took photographs of the trip that are horny and aesthetic at the same time. Taut skin and patterned sunlight predominate. Our Sunbaker was born one of twins, a pair of negatives Max Dupain shot of Harold Cyril Salvage — an English bookseller and avid reader, rower and pipe smoker — who, in Dupain’s words, ‘slammed himself down on the beach to have a sunbake’ after a swim.

A small print of one of the negatives was made for a personal album of the trip compiled by one of the party (the album is now in the State Library of New South Wales). In 1948 a signed and dated enlargement, now lost, was reproduced along with other documentary-style photographs in the book Max Dupain Photographs. Here, the Sunbaker lies darkly and heavily at the bottom of the frame, one hand grips the other, and the distant surf rolls creamily through the crook of his elbow while clouds demarcate the backdrop of sky. He is located. He’s on a particular beach at a particular time. The book was limited to an edition of 1000 copies, didn’t sell well in any case, and is now rare, but on its contents page the Sunbaker was christened. The photograph is not titled ‘Harold Salvage’, but ‘Sunbaker’. And not ‘Sunbather’, but ‘Sunbaker’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘sunbaker’ was an exclusively Australian variant to the more globally accepted word ‘sunbather’. It implies an excess. Not a genteel luxuriant bathing in therapeutic rays, but a vigorous and transformative baking, like a steak slammed down on a BBQ.

Max Dupain copy of original print. Josef Lebovic Gallery

Fast forward to 1975. Photography is now art, not documentary. It is the International Year of Women. Gough Whitlam has been in power for almost three years. His wife Margaret has just opened the Australian Centre for Photography. Max Dupain is sixty-four. It’s time for his first retrospective. The ACP is the place. The negative Dupain had printed before had been lost to history during one of his studio moves, so he prints the second negative, our negative, our Sunbaker. Harold Salvage is moved upwards in the frame and the line of surf disappears behind his forearms so the figure floats abstractly against fields of tone. The hand unclenches so the wet fingertips rest on the sand. Water droplets roll over his muscles. His forearm hair forms rivulets down from his elbows.

 This Sunbaker was chosen for the retrospective’s poster and the rest is history. No longer a document of a particular beach, nor a dark glowering print from wartime Australia, it quickly became mobilized as a bright national symbol within the visual environment of seventies Australia. As the figure, photographed thirty-eight years earlier, lay suspended against the non-perspectival bands of sand and sky, it looked as contemporary as an abstract ‘colour field’ painting of the day. In its composition it almost felt as bold as the new Aboriginal flag, designed in 1971 by Harold Thomas, which graphically deployed the same three symbolic elements of sun, land and people but in an entirely different configuration. Perhaps it even reminded some of Ayers Rock (now Uluru) in its timeless monumentality. Or even, as Harold Salvage’s physically engineered shoulders arched across the frame, it reminded us of the tensile strength of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, opened five years before the Sunbaker was made.

In the following decades until his death in 1992 Dupain made about 200 prints from the surviving negative. The print exhibited at the ACP in 1975 was priced at $85, but eventually he was selling them for $1,500 each. As he iterated prints from the slightly overdeveloped negative he incrementally made the Sunbaker even more abstract, lightening the burned-in borders of sky and sand at top and bottom, and dodging the thick shadows around his head so he is suspended with even more high-tensile strength against the void. The image was frequently reproduced. It became an icon seemingly as delicate and solid as the Harbour Bridge itself. Before his death Max Dupain professed to being embarrassed by all the attention it was getting, from jingoistic Australians in general, and from gay couples decorating their new flats in particular. He said he preferred other of his classic shots such as Meat Queue, 1946, where there is more going on in terms of content and composition.

After Dupain’s death the Sunbaker continued his apotheosis. His studio, which continued to be run by its manager Jill White, made posthumous editions of his famous negatives and the Sunbaker’s edition of ninety, printed slightly lighter still than Dupain’s own prints, virtually sold out at up to $8000 each. Importantly, the Sunbaker began to be pastiched and parodied by photographers and cartoonists. In 1989 Anne Zahalka photographed a pale-skinned red-haired ‘Sunbather’ growing a fine crop of pre-cancerous cells. And in 1985 the Indigenous photographer Tracey Moffatt pointedly displaced him entirely with her photograph of ‘The Movie Star’ David Gulpilil reclining at Bondi complete with boardies, a tinnie, a surfboard, a ghetto blaster, dreads and tribal face paint.

Parodists pounced on the Sunbaker to exploit the incipient ambiguities of his state of mind, which could become a stand-in for the national state of mind. As he claims the beach for himself, sucking up spiritual sustenance from the land and exposing his back to the benedictions of the Australian sun, is he poised, ready to spring into virile action, or is he experiencing the ultimate state of relaxation, in blissful post-coital communion with the beach? Or, is he in some heat-induced stupor, or asleep? In an historical coma, or dead? An example of these many parodies is the cover of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine from 1996, where an obese sunbaker snores away on the beach above the tagline ‘Sleep! Slop! Slob! Wake Up Australia, you’re getting fatter!’ Many other cartoons and photographs used the Sunbaker to comment on Australia’s high sun cancer rates, its general political torpor, its sexism where public space was ruled by men, and his persistent claim to a supposedly ‘pure’ Australian Anglo Celtism in the face of an ethnically diversifying Australia. But, for a time, all these parodies only reinforced his iconicity.

Cover of the Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend Magazine, 4 May 1996.

Geoffrey Pryor, political cartoon, The Canberra Times, 29 December, 1995

Advertising postcard for The Republican newspaper, 1997

Meanwhile the Sunbaker still had his unalloyed fans. In 1995 the retail artist Ken Done made a series of paintings which gridded the Sunbaker’s instantly recognizable muscular arch in a gestural shorthand across a bright orange field. In the year 2000 the Max Dupain Studio licensed the photograph to QANTAS, who obviously still saw it as an unproblematic image of ‘The Spirit of Australia’. For the Sydney Olympics they published it on billboards and across both pages of broadsheet newspapers with the tagline: ‘The Spirit of Australia: When it comes to the art of relaxation, Australians are recognized as truly world class. Perhaps that’s why the people at QANTAS are so naturally good at making you feel at home, wherever in the world you happen to fly.’ QANTAS’s copywriters summed up the essence of his iconicity: the Sunbaker is at home in Australia, truly relaxed in his decisive claiming of the land. He’s baked in.

QANTAS newspaper advertisement, 2000

But Harold Salvage slammed himself down on a very different beach to the beaches of today. In the 1930s, before the rise of bohemian surf culture in the post war period, beaches were unproblematic places for collective displays of health, vitality and nationalism. Surf lifesavers were idolized as embodiments of racial purity, and at annual club carnivals they marched across our metropolitan beaches with Nuremberg like precision. More remote beaches like Culburra could also become tabla rasa sites of personal potential for idealistic groups of young people such as Dupain and his friends, but they were again centred around the vigorous, vital, pure, white body. If the Sunbaker awoke from his coma today we would have to gently break to him the news of the Mabo decision of 1992 which overturned the concept of terra nullius; the Cronulla race riots of 2005 which revealed fault lines in assumed cultural rights of beach ‘ownership’; the advent of the burkini which challenged the hegemony of the body in the scopic regime of the beach; and the inexorable rise in skin cancer mortality rates.

Nonetheless, Sunbaker prints continue to command good prices in the art market. A standard sized print from amongst the 200 or so Dupain printed will set you back between twenty and thirty thousand dollars, while a special larger print from his family estate recently sold at auction for 105 thousand dollars. But there are signs his popular iconicity in the media is fading. Image icons need to be continually reproduced to survive. Unlike the Harbour Bridge or Uluru the Sunbaker is no longer in our face every day. Even though in 2013 his son, Rex Dupain, made a new sunbaker on a Xperia ZI smartphone for a charity auction, we certainly aren’t seeing the same number of parodies as before. The complexity of contemporary debates around our national identity may have superseded his graphic usefulness for cartoonists. And today’s teenagers can’t seem to place him. ‘It’s a guy on a beach’, my daughters helpfully tell me.

Cover of the Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend Magazine, 7 August 2004

In 2004 the Sunbaker made it to the front cover of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine for the second time. This time it was not a parody, but the precious, auratic, original negative that appears, held up to the camera by a white-gloved hand. The lurid tagline, ‘How this tiny negative of Sunbaker came to be at the centre of a tale of love, money and ambition’, refers to an article by the journalist Janet Hawley about the legal tussle over Dupain’s will. Seeing the negative in public for the first time (it has recently been purchased by the Stare Library of New South Wales) we noticed a shadow in the lower right hand corner that had been cropped out of all of the enlargements. It looks like the shadow of the camera strap on Dupain’s Rolleiflex, cast as he lay on his stomach in front of Salvage grabbing his two shots. This common ‘mistake’, made every day by generations of photographers, immediately takes us back to the holiday that started it all. Those friends. That beach. That moment.

Martyn Jolly

 

Octavio Garcia

Catalogue essay for Cihuateotl’s Myth by Octavio Garcia, PhotoAcess, 26 May to 19 June, Canberra, gallery below.

Octavio Garcia

What kind of photograph is a chemigram? It’s made with an ordinary sheet of photographic paper, but negatives aren’t projected onto it in a darkroom. Instead, the lights are left on. This super overexposure ‘charges’ the paper with the maximum potential to react to photographic chemicals. To make the various tones and lines of a picture the photographer must manually modulate the amount of physical contact between the halides embedded in the paper and the chemicals in the developer and fixer baths.

The photographer applies resists of various sorts (lacquers, syrups, sprays and so on), which are then selectively removed to let the chemicals penetrate into the emulsion. Garcia applies a hard resist and makes intricate incisions with a scalpel, chemicals penetrate the cuts, leach through the emulsion, react with the halides, and lay down deposits of metal compound. Through alternating sequences of peeling, soaking, developing, washing and fixing complex images emerge in delicate tones and lapidary colours. The images form through obscure reactions deep in the subterranean strata of the emulsion. If you insist, it’s a process of drawing, but you couldn’t call it ‘mark making’ in the conventional sense. The photographer can direct, but he can never completely control, the slow leaking and leaching as his potent chemicals work their way through his intricate incisions.

Photographers often experience something transcendent in the normal light-based photograph, as the ‘pencil of nature’ delicately writes herself as an image. And I suspect chemigrammers feel a similar deep connection to similarly large, if not more chthonic, forces, as reagents migrate through emulsions and metals microscopically crystalize themselves. If conventional photographs come from the same family of images as paintings, perhaps chemigrams come from the same family of images as tattoos —at the endpoint of a long laborious physical process both tattoo and chemigram appear not on top of, but inside of, a sensitive surface.

Recently there has been a worldwide resurgence of interest in chemigrams and other cameraless photographs of their ilk. A major book Emanations: the Art of the Cameraless Photograph (in which quite a few Canberra-connected photographers get a guernsey) is about to be published, and an exhibition of the same name is currently on at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand. Late last year, The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg, was held at the Australian Centre for Photography; earlier the J Paul Getty Museum mounted Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography; the year before that the International Centre for Photography mounted What is a Photograph?; before that, the Aperture Foundation toured The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography and the Victoria and Albert Museum mounted Shadow Catchers: Cameraless Photography.

Looking back over all this diverse activity you get the sense that many cameraless photographers are seeking a connection to larger forces, often environmental or historical — not a ‘feeling’ of connection, or an ‘image’ of connection, but an actual connection. The sense of actual connection Garcia seeks is historical. Chemigrams are a process as much as they are an end result, and through the almost ritual process the chemigrammer undertakes in the darkroom he can almost feel as though he is continuing, in a way, other equivalent rituals from the past involving sacred libations of various sorts. In his head Octavio Garcia has distilled the chemigram process down to two sacred elements, paper and water: paper, through which the sacred symbols of humans are created and transmitted through the generations; and water, through which life itself is sustained.

Garcia is concerned with his ancestors. As a contemporary Mexican he feels a pull down through the generations, down through the layers of colonial and postcolonial disruption and dislocation, down through the genetic dilutions and recombinations of history, deep down to his ancestors — the ancient inhabitants of Veracruz. Garcia uses his scalpel to incise designs derived from his cultural past into the chemigram resist. Previously he has copied the drawings found in the paper codices collected from Pre-Columbian civilizations and now kept in museums. More recently he has recreated a colossal Olmec head, dating from a millennia before Christ and weighing several tons, which he reconstructed at original scale from a photograph he took on a pilgrimage to the Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa, where it now sits.

In the series exhibited here he has worked with sculptures in the same museum and made by his ancestors more recently (only one to one-and-a-half thousand years ago!). The sacred figures emerge from Garcia’s chemigrams with a kind of geological force. The gesture of Garcia’s wrist is there, as it has swiveled and turned the scalpel to manually inscribe the image of the museum aretefact into his resist layer, but through the darkroom process his drawing interacts in a physical way with the slow propulsions of chemical reaction and metallic deposit. The combination produces an image a bit like fossil suddenly revealed in a split rock, or the faint outlines of an ancient settlement only discernable from the air, or the eroded groove in a petroglyph revealed in a chalk rubbing, or any other of a chain of associations to do with the tangible presence of the ancient past.

The most popular tattoo designs for our deracinated age are ancestral symbols, Celtic braids or whatever. But Garcia goes much further, and much deeper, than these attempts at readymade off-the-shelf skin memory. In his endless search for the presence of his past through the chemigram he has invented both a new visual language and a new ritual process.

Martyn Jolly

Counter morphologies of the male body in Australian photography

‘Sorely Tried Men: The male body in Australian photography’

paper delivered at the Art Gallery of New South Wales photography symposium, 27 July, 2013.

Powerpoint accompaniment:

Counter morphologies of the male body

Powerpoint gallery:

I love ANZAC biscuits. I usually make my own, but when I was in Woden Woolies last April I couldn’t resist buying this tin of ‘limited edition’ pre-made biscuits. The tin would be so handy, I thought, I could put my own biscuits in there; and it was so handsome, adorned with a photograph of a tower of soldiers, stripped to the waist and embossed into the lid. It’s a long journey from the Borneo of 1945 to the shelves of Woolies in 2013, but these men had taken it, and I couldn’t help thinking it was the nature of their bodies which had sent this photograph on its way.

Almost seventy years later, the male body remains central to our culture: from the affectless cyborg of the blue-tied corporate type, to our future Prime Minister in red speedos, to the blurred body of the drunken footballer caught on CCTV. But it has long been argued by historians of Australia’s visual culture that it is the modernist male body, epitomized by the ANZAC Soldier on my biscuit tin lid, against which all these variants are now defined.

The interwar period, from the 1920s to the 1940s was crucial in creating the template of the nationalistic Australian body, both male and female. The best analysis of the construction of the male body in photography during this time is Isobel Crombie’s wide-ranging analysis of Max Dupain’s photography in her important book Body Culture. In this period the national body of Australia as a whole and the individual bodies of each Australian were seen as one. Australia, it was claimed, was becoming not only a sovereign nation within the British Empire, but also a distinct race. The race was Anglo-Saxon, and was defining itself by both looking into the past, and into the future. The emergent Australian type could be recognized when it seemed to conform to either ancient classical ideals, the Apollonian upright ‘noble’ figure, or modern streamlined forms, made pneumatic with sexual energy. During this period metaphors of health, vitalism, purity and fitness, along with their opposites — contagion, vitiation, pollution and degeneracy — constructed the body at three interpenetrating levels, the physical level of individual bodies, the national level of the Australian race, and the spiritual level of human connectedness with larger life forces.

At the background of all these metaphors were strong currents of social Darwinism, which threw up two specific sciences: eugenics, the deliberate selection for breeding of the fittest and purest part of the population in order to aid the evolutionary advancement of the race; and anthropometrics, the diagnostic measurement of the human body. Because their simultaneous popularity with the Nazi regime in Germany made them suddenly and deeply unfashionable with the onset of World War Two and the Holocaust, it is easy to forget how pervasively popular and mainstream these sciences were in the interwar period. But popular they were: for example suburban surf carnivals mimicked militaristic displays of standardized ideal racial types, and in1926 the corsetry company Berlei in collaboration with physiologists from the University of Sydney undertook an anthropometric study of 6,000 Australian women, some of whom were measured at a special tent erected at Bondi Beach. Termed the National Census of Women’s Measurements it analysed twenty-three different measurements from each woman, which led to the development of the Berlei ‘five Australian figure type’ classification scheme and the ‘figure type indicator’ which was sent out to retailers who would take the customer’s exact measurements and then use them to classify the woman’s figure type for corset selection. As Sue Best has pointed out, the average type was not a statistical average at all, but was a physiologically arbitrary ideal which most Australian women would necessarily fail to live up to.

In the interwar period bodies were things to be sculpted — carved by the ocean, or re-moulded by new corsetry technologies. Bodies were generally seen as moving along one main vertical axis, from degeneracy to regeneracy. The type of body at the top of this axis, the Apollonian body, was most often what was pictured. There are far fewer pictorial examples of the bottom, degenerate end. Crombie illustrates two in her book. She reproduces two 1939 images by Dr Julian Smith from his Pictorialist ‘character studies’: The Blonde, by implication an Aryan type at the top of the racial axis, and ‘Leaf Music’, where the hapless sitter has had his hair styled and has been lit and posed by Smith to imply that he is at the bottom of the axis. The other illustration of degeneracy is A. O. Neville’s well-known and chilling illustration Three Generations, where a happy family portrait is turned into a eugenically genocidal prophecy for Australia.

So far so familiar. I don’t think anything I have said so far would be news to any one here. So I want to spend some time adding some small tangents to this vertical Apollonian axis, specifically in relation to the male body. The force of the ideal male body is upward and outward, a vertical pressure of racial vitality funneled by a tight column of torso muscle and tightly sheathed in a smooth membrane of tanned skin. At its most extreme it is a pneumatic phallus. But even during WW11, just a few years after the classic Modernist photographs of the 1930s, this norm was given surprising new meanings which showed how wobbly the Apollonian axis was.

From 1942 the Civil Construction Core conscripted men between the ages of 35 and 55, who were otherwise ineligible for military service, to work on large building projects in northern and interior Australia. However they quickly began to attract adverse publicity. There was industrial unrest on many projects with workers accusing the management of inefficiency and rorting, and management accusing the workers of unpatriotic union activity. Against this background the Department of Information sent the photographer Edward Cranstone to all the CCC projects. His photographs were published in everything from the communist newspaper the Tribune to the Women’s Weekly, and were eventually formed into a large exhibition, which also included paintings of CCC workers by Dobell and other artists, that toured capital cities in 1944.

As a member of the Communist Party of Australia Cranstone was exposed to a rich source of propagandistic imagery. Soviet socialist photographs were regularly published in the Tribune, and their influence can be clearly seen in Cranstone’s Modernist visual rhetoric — his use of upward looking camera angles, strong diagonal compositions, bright sunlit forms and heroic poses. As one article reviewing the exhibition stated:

The Australian worker—bareheaded, steady-eyed, stripped to the waist—is the dusty, sweating keynote to a display [….] It would be surprising if most people did not take away a warm impression of that typical Australian, stripped to the waist, working on untouched land, levelling it, digging into it or building up from it. In a real immediate way, the show tells the story of how Australia—the country itself— has gone to war.

Cranstone’s men are heroic soldier/worker/pioneer hybrids. The battle they fight is in the industrial workplace and on the colonial frontier. Cranstone has to strive very hard to fit his workers, which were by definition not Australia’s finest, into the Apollonian type. In some images skin is pumped out by muscle, sheened by sweat, and ribboned by shadow as the men vigorously swing crowbars and work machinery, however in other images the visual rhetoric seems too extreme for the men’s actual bodies to live up to.

This may have been what led some commentators to react against their overt visual rhetoric and mechano-machismo, which had been clearly imported from elsewhere and applied externally to their subjects. In Canberra the exhibition was displayed hidden away in the basement of Parliament House rather than in the usual exhibition space of Kings Hall. The Speaker of the House, complaining about the Modernist paintings of William Dobell with their thick fleshy strings of paint, claimed that the show ‘was a grave reflection on the manhood of Australia generally, and particularly the fine types who have discharged essential duties during a critical period in Australia’s history.’ He added, in reference to Cranstone’s brand of photographic Modernism, that a ‘photograph allegedly taken in a quarry made me feel that I was in Dartmoor [Gaol].’ In using an internationalist visual rhetoric to rehabilitate the Australian worker Cranstone had stretched the Apollonian model to breaking point.

Damien Parer was also employed by the DoI, but as a war cameraman. The footage he shot in New Guinea was supplied to newsreel companies to be cut into their weekly newsreels. Parer’s most famous newsreel, Cinesound’s Kokoda Frontline, was essentially a collaboration between himself and the head of Cinesound Ken Hall. Damien Parer appeared as the ‘star’ to introduce the newsreel. After some titles telling us that Parer has already been responsible for some of the ‘classic footage’ of the War and that he is a reliable witness, Kokoda Frontline opens on Parer, in his uniform, in an empty domestic room, leaning casually against a table. The camera slowly moves in on his handsome face as he speaks directly to the camera, attempting to explain to his audience how close the war is:

I’ve seen the war, and I know what your husbands, your sweethearts and brothers are going through.

After this introduction the film cuts to some spectacular combat footage, but most important to the film are the intimate close-ups of the soldiers in retreat down the Kokoda Track with which the film ends. The soldiers either pass in slow procession past the camera, or compose themselves into tableaus as they have their bandages tenderly applied by their mates, or their cigarettes lit. Cut into these sequences are extended close-up shots of the faces of native bearers and Australian soldiers which act as still portraits of various emotions. The hortatory voice over commentary during these scenes contrasts with Parer’s tender pain, but it re-emphasises the theme he established:

This is war, the real thing. The utter weariness of sorely tried men is evident in their faces. […]Half the distance from Sydney to Melbourne men are sweating, suffering, dying in that jungle so that it cannot happen here. Are they getting all the support they deserve, from the mines, from the factories, from the ordinary civilian? […]

In the final seconds Parer’s soft face of concern returns, angelically superimposed over shots of the feet of the soldiers pushing down through mud. He repeats, but now in ghostly tones:

I’ve seen the war, and I know what your husbands, your sweethearts and brothers are going through.

The soldiers in Parer’s films are very different to Cranstone’s workers. The frontline on which they fight is not the domesticated colonial frontier of the purifying, astringent desert, but the dark uncannily wet tunnels of a jungle beyond the borders of Australia. The men are not assertively doing, but passively suffering. Parer’s soldiers are sick, bleeding and blinded. They rely on the tenderness of comrades or natives to survive. Their feet slip through mud as they lean on sticks or each other. They are not symbolic nationalist cyphers like Cranstone’s men, they are individuals, suffering psychological, as well as physical privations on our personal behalf. Parer was a devout Catholic and many have seen spiritual and religious connotations in his work. Many historians have linked Paper’s Catholicism to the composition of one of the final shots of Salvation Army Major Albert Moore lighting a cigarette for a wounded soldier, which is similar to a medieval or renaissance Deposition of Christ painting. The religious analogy is strengthened by the fact that the soldier is naked, covered from the waist down by an army blanket

Through their suffering these men will lead us to redemption. We, the audience of Parer’s newsreels, are feminised: we are wives, mothers or sisters who weakly complain at home and don’t acknowledge the danger from overseas. We see with our own eyes that our delusion and triviality has personally dispirited Parer, when he arrived back he was ‘full of beans’ with ‘the spirit of the troops’ but now he has experienced our complacency, he is worried and upset, his voice drops, and his face tightens.

There is abjection here too, not the auto-phallicisation of man and machine as in the CCC, but a polymorphous blending of mate into mate and man into mud. Australians would have easily recognised this abjection as already part of the ANZAC myth, Australian men similarly suffered together on the beaches of Gallipoli or in the trenches of France.

Parer’s trinity of ‘mother, wives and sisters’ are always present whenever the sacrifice of soldiers is evoked been evoked. For instance the sculptural centrepiece for the memorial which Sydney had built for its WW1 ANZACs was Rayner Hoff’s Sacrifice 1934, in which a symbolic Australian mother, wife and sister hold aloft a lithe, cleansed and perfect male body crucified on a sword, successfully borne up out of the miasma of battle and into a transcendent erotic masculinity. However in Kokoda Frontline Parer is sadly compelled to inform the women of WW11 Australia that, unlike these women, they have abandoned their soldiers to an abject eroticism.

The newsreel’s powerful message is that, in the darkest hour of the War, while their women are still enthralled by false images and trivial concerns, it is up to desperately abjected soldiers, redeemed by the spiritually defined eroticism of mateship, to defend Australia. In contrast to Parer’s psychologically specific homo-eroticism, Cranstone’s internationally symbolic, stylised auto-eroticism attempted, not always successfully, to redeem the home front labours of another potentially unstable category of Australian male — the worker.

Whilst these two types of male body were produced at a particular extraordinary juncture of Australian history and culture I cannot resist the temptation to extrapolate them into later manifestations. The obvious place to look is not the battlefield but the sporting field. In 1963 the Fairfax photographer John O’Gready photographed two captains coming off the field after the Rugby League Grand Final. The coating of mud turned the footballers into bronze statues, while also referring to the battlefield mud of World Wars One and Two, where sublime mateship was forged in abjecting slime. In 1982 the cigarette company Winfield used the photograph for their Grand Final trophy. The enveloping of the Apollonian body within the abject still pervades contemporary sports photography. Many photographs, particularly around the State of Origin games, reprise the abjecting mud and eroticizing intimacy of war, as well as extreme pneumatic auto-phallicization.

If, back in the interwar period, the abject and the rhetorical complicated the simple Apollonian narrative of the supposed Australian race, revealing it as nothing more than a portable nationalistic rhetoric, in the case of Cranstone; or one which could be quickly supplanted by other models of masculinity in extremis — the abject and feminized, in the case of Parer, where there other forces also at work? The Berlei corsetry company had identified five different types of Australian female bodies, were there other types of male body? Two comedians dominated the Australian vaudeville scene in the interwar period. One, Roy Rene, was a slump-shouldered Semitic type in heavy make-up who slyly simpered lewd double-entendres. The other, George Wallace, played a naively optimistic, child-like, working class, everyman character. Wallace had a low-slung body, short legs, and a stomach hanging over his belt, which was a direct contradiction to the upward torso-led thrust of the Apollonian body.

Wallace’s low centre of gravity was perhaps a nascent beer-gut, and the beer grew to become more important in Australian culture as the decades progressed. In the compilation Australian Photography of 1947 virtually all of the bodies are Apollonian, however ten years later, in Australian Photography of 1957, there is a whole double paged spread devoted to humorous or pathetic images of fat people. In another ten years, in the extremely important book Southern Exposure, by David Beal and Donald Horne, the beer gut makes it to the front cover, as a national trope of self indulgence, which is contrasted with an image of interior aridity on the back cover. By then the beer gut had become a perverse image of Australianness, for instance in a 1961 a Tanner cartoon connected it to conservative older generations standing in the way of women’s progress, an opposition homage in 1993 in a Nicholson cartoon where the beer gut was directly contrasted to the proudly black Apollonian body of the indigenous footballer Nicky Winmar. In a further ten years after Southern Exposure the beer gut, which had been used by the young firebrands Horne and Beal to indict Australia, had been adopted by the Australian Government in their national fitness campaign Life Be In It, attached to the archetypally unfit, but loveable Australian — Norm. Lately, however there have been signs of a the beer gut coming in a complete cycle, with men reclaiming their beer guts as an ironic part of a new metropolitan, feminized, masculinity.

In conclusion it is clear that the Apollonian axis, identified by so many historians, is still the dominant one, but it is not the only one, the male body is more complex that that, and has taken up many different morphologies throughout its history from the high points of Modernity, until now.

H.P. Brown,(Commissioner) Inquiry under the National Security Regulations into certain allegations concerning the administration of the Allied Works Council   5 March 1943.

K.K. ‘Australia Portrayed Stripped to the Waist’ Melbourne Herald 3 August 1944, p5.

Massey Stanley ‘Art Critic’ Sunday Telegraph 24 September 1944, p10.

Neil McDonald War Cameraman: The Story of Damien Parer, Lothian 1994, pp157-158.

Leigh Astbury ‘Death and eroticism in the ANZAC Legend’ Art and Australia Spring 1992 Vol 30 No 1, pp68-73.

 

 

 

Networking the Tradition: Curating Photography in Australia

Photofile

Vol. 95, Spring/Summer, pp48-55.

(with Daniel Palmer)

Australia’s big galleries and libraries have been seriously buying and curating photographs for over forty years now, during a period when the medium itself has undergone profound transformations. It’s time now to take an overview of the interaction between the institutional imperatives of our state and national collecting institutions and the changes in photography as a medium.

Although the institutional curating of photography did not begin in earnest until the 1970s, in the five or so decades before then the powerful idea of collecting photographs was intermittently discussed, at various levels of institutional authority, and with various degrees of vigour. For instance, at the end of the First World War, the amateur photographic magazine the Australasian Photo Review called for a ‘national collection of Australian photographic records’. The Mitchell Library was one of several institutions who responded positively to this idea, even suggesting a list of twelve different categories of photographs which amateurs could take for a future repository. However the librarians did not follow through on their initial positive noises and collections failed to materialise.

Thirty years later, at the end of the Second World War, the idea of a national collection was raised again. Laurence le Guay, the editor of the new magazine Contemporary Photography, devoted an entire issue to new sharp bromide enlargements Harold Cazneaux made from his Pictorialist negatives of Old Sydney, and declared that they ‘would be a valuable acquisition for the Mitchell Library or Australian Historical Societies.’ However, once more the library failed to follow through, and Cazneaux’s photographs remained uncollected.

Nevertheless, the interest in photography as an Australian tradition and the persuasiveness of the idea of significant public collections of historic photographs continued to build. By the 1960s both libraries and state galleries were beginning to make serious policy commitments to collecting photographs. The aims were to both collect photographs as documents of Australian life, and to record the importance of photography as a visual medium. For instance, the National Librarian of Australia, Harold White, began to work with Keast Burke who in 1956 had proposed a two tier national collection: one part to be purely about the information which photographs contained, and assembled by microfilming records and copying images in the library’s own darkrooms; the other part to be about the medium itself, made up of ‘artistic salon photographs’ and historic cameras.

The National Gallery of Victoria, under Director Eric Westbrook, became the first state gallery to collect photography. Despite forthright opposition from some members (one of whom referred to photography as “cheat’s way of doing a painting”), the Trustees approve the establishment of Department of Photography in 1967.[ii] The first work to enter the collection – David Moore’s documentary photograph Surry Hills Street (1948) – was acquired through a grant from Kodak. In the same year the NGV imported The Photographer’s Eye, a touring exhibition from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which had been the first art museum to establish a Department of Photography in 1940.[iii] The exhibition was curated by MoMA’s John Szarkowski, undoubtedly the most influential photography curator of the second half of the twentieth century, as a statement of his formalist position on photographic aesthetics. Its title was adapted for a local version, The Perceptive Eye (1969–1970).

By 1973 the yet-to-be-opened National Gallery of Australia had purchased its first photograph, an artistic confection by Mark Strizic (Jolimont Railway Yards, 1970) that looked more like a print than a photograph. Two years later the AGNSW was laying the foundation for its collection with the acquisition, exhibition and book on the early twentieth century photographs of Harold Cazneaux, collected by them as fine-art Pictorialist prints, rather than as the sharp bromide enlargements that had been published by Contemporary Photography in 1948.

In this period the dual nature of the photograph as both a carrier of historical and social information, and an aesthetic art object and exemplar of a tradition, which had co-existed within the formulations of the previous decades, was finally separated between libraries and galleries. Library collecting focused on the photograph as a document of Australian life. For example in 1971 the National Library of Australia clarified its collection policy: it would only collect photographs as examples of photographic art and technique from the period up to 1960, leaving post-1960s ‘art for art’s sake’ photography to the new state and federal gallery photography departments.[iv]

The stage was set for the much-vaunted ‘Photo Boom’ of the 1970s, when, as Helen Ennis has pointed out, the baby boomer generation turned to photography for its contemporaneity in the context of a counter-cultural energy.[v] Galleries and libraries found themselves embedded in the newly constructed infrastructure of the Whitlam era: the newly established Australia Council, rapidly expanding tertiary courses in photography, new magazines and commercial galleries, and the establishment of the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney in 1974.

In this context the need to define photography as both a tradition and a new language became more urgent. Such initiatives were largely driven by photographers themselves, whose leading figures made themselves aware of what was happening internationally. Thus Athol Shmith, a key member of the NGV Advisory Committee set up in the late 1960s, corresponded and travelled regularly to Europe. David Moore, one of the key figures in the establishment of the ACP, was familiar with plans for the International Centre for Photography in New York. The first director of the ACP, Graham Howe, was brought back from a stint at the London Photographers’ Gallery. Developments were typically framed around a broadly didactic mission: that photography is central to visual culture but ‘the public needs educating’ in the art of photographic seeing. In addition, the longed-for acknowledgement from overseas materialised in the form of John Szarkowski himself, who was invited on a ‘papal’ tour by the ACP in 1974. Szarkowski gave six public lectures titled “Towards a Photographic Tradition’ (recently recounted in Photofile Vol 93). The purpose of the national tour, as Howe put it at the time, “was to liberate photography from the world of technique and commerce and to suggest that it could also be of absorbing artistic and intellectual interest.”[vi]

Although Szarkowski’s approach was put under sustained stress during the period of postmodernism – especially by feminist critics – his ‘formalist’ approach to the medium continued to dominate the way that photography was understood in the art museum for the ensuing decades. Even as the discourse emerged of an Australian tradition with, for instance, the NGV’s investment in Australian documentary photographers in the late sixties, this became embedded in a model of Euro-American modernism. As Ennis put it, “The argument for ‘photography as art’ was based on the critical position of Modernism. Photography was considered to be a medium with its own intrinsic characteristics”.[vii] At the AGNSW Gael Newton deployed a clear art historical teleology, with the acquisition of Pictorialist photography by Harold Cazneaux and other members of the Sydney Camera Circle forming the foundation for the collection. Pictorialism was important to Newton because it was a: ‘conscious movement, aimed at using the camera more creatively’[viii] Her exhibitions of Harold Cazneaux and Australian Pictorial Photography in 1975 closely followed by a monograph on Max Dupain in 1980, seen as the modernist successor to the Pictorialists. However, the galleries also engaged with the contemporary art photography of the graduates from the new art schools, as well as emerging postmodern ideas. For instance the title of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ 1981 exhibition Reconstructed Vision defined this new style of work against, but within the overall trajectory of, the newly established historical traditions.

In Melbourne a slightly different but equivalent art historical strategy was taking place within the institution of the NGV. This included the mass importation of canonical images from overseas. For instance, shortly after her appointment, the NGV’s inaugural curator (and first ever curator of photography in Australia), Jennie Boddington, ordered Farm Security Administration re-prints from the Library of Congress’s reproduction service. However at the same time the NGV also held solo exhibitions by the young, art school-trained artists Carol Jerrems in 1973 and Bill Henson in 1975.[ix]

While galleries were using art historical strategies to embed photography within their structures, libraries were also confirming their commitment to photography, but as a non aesthetic-object based, content-driven, curatorial strategy. The contemporary cultural relevance of the subjectivist photo boom of the seventies, combined with Modernist and Postmodernist teleologies, drove the aesthetic strategies of galleries, but the nationalistic socially cohesive agendas of events like the 1988 Bicentenary drove the content-based strategies of library photo collecting. In a forerunner to today’s participatory online photographic projects, in 1983 Euan McGillivray and Matthew Nickson proposed a snapshot collecting project, Australia as Australians Saw It, which would copy photographs in the possession of individuals, then index them and make them accessible through the latest technology. During the Bicentenary year Alan Davies, curator at the State Library of New South Wales, travelled to twenty-three country towns and copied about seven thousand vernacular photographs from 576 individuals. Under the title At Work and Play, they were made accessible by a videodisc keyword search (a forerunner to today’s digital database).

Fast forward to the present. Over the intervening 40 years, since the establishment of various departments and the ACP, the boundaries of photography have expanded. However, galleries have largely kept to the historical trajectories inaugurated in the 1970s. In the 1980s, photographic reproductive processes became central to postmodern art, which had the flow-on effect of boosting photography’s place in the art museum (Tracey Moffatt, Bill Henson, Anne Zahalka, etc.). But postmodernism did not fundamentally alter the increasing focus of departments of photography on ‘art photography’. Indeed, as many writers have observed, the wholesale acceptance of photography as art by the institutions and market occurred precisely at the moment of the critique of art photography, as it had been defined within the ‘formalist’ tradition, by artists and postmodern critics.

Photography’s potential as a protean medium to disturb or at least promote a dialogue between institutional disciplines and ordering systems has only rarely been explored by curators. Perhaps the most notable is the disruptive placement of contemporary Indigenous work, like Brook Andrew’s Sexy and Dangerous (1996) – which appropriates an image by the Charles Kerry photography studio – within galleries of nineteenth-century colonial painting at the NGV. Into the 1990s and 2000s, departments of photography essentially continued a monographic and consolidation phase, aided by the international prominence of large-scale colour photography as art, such as the Düsseldorf School (including photographers such as Andreas Gursky), or what Julian Stallabrass dubs “museum photography”.[x]. Meanwhile, we have seen the ongoing integration of photography as part of interdisciplinary art practice which may also include sculpture, performance or installation (sometimes dubbed the ‘post-medium condition’). Simultaneously, we have witnessed the rise of digital photography, which has produced a whole new generation of photographers using online photosharing services like Flickr and Instagram, whose effects are much more widely felt outside the museum. In response to these complex historical changes libraries have invested institutional effort into digitizing their image collections and making them available online, while art museums have embraced photography’s status as an object to be experienced in the flesh, hung in exhibition galleries.

If the primary aim of photography curating in the 1970s was to establish photography as art, this has clearly been achieved. Photography is ubiquitous within contemporary art, but not as an autonomous tradition – rather as a mode integrated within wider practices. And if the now forty-year old institutional structures are still largely with us, if museums continue to have departments, curators and galleries of photography, this is largely for the history of photography, for the knowledge of specific collections and conservation techniques. However, even if photography is now deeply embedded in the art museum, its precise role is still up for grabs. For instance, in 2013 the dedicated photography gallery at the NGV International was given up without any controversy (along with prints and drawings). In the early 1970s, photography enthusiasts had fought for a dedicated area, even just a corridor outside the Department of Prints and Drawings in 1972.[xi]Recently, in a delicious irony, the former photography space was occupied by Patrick Pound’s installation The Gallery of Air (2013) – which the wall label described as a poetic “site specific installation comprising 91 works from the collection of the NGV and 286 works from the collection of the artist” organized around the idea of air. Pound’s work included a wide variety of media in its playful exploration of collecting (both personal and institutional), but its inspiration lay in photography’s role as an ordering system. Various inclusions (such as Man With a Tie) were included in a previous work of found photographs, Portrait of the Wind (2010).

Clearly, museum departments can no longer work in isolation. However, what the mere integration of photography into the newly contemporary art museum all too easily elides is that photography’s place there has always been unstable, its ambiguous status as object and information continually threatening the grounds of the art museum’s hierarchies and collection policies. This instability manifests itself in different ways in different periods, but as we have already hinted at, one of the underlying themes in photography in the museum is the constant exclusion of the vernacular and of reproducibility itself. As Douglas Crimp argued in the late 1970s, the inclusion of photography within the canon of modernist art practice, by its own logic, excludes photography as reproduction.[xii] We have seen this in Australia in relation to the location of photography between the library and the art museum, in terms of a split between information and aesthetics, a documentary database versus an aesthetic object. Photography’s recent insertion into digital networks reveals these tensions yet again, in a new guise. Within a modernist logic, the networked digital image, circulating as reproducible information, is guaranteed to be excluded. The potential for different kinds of photography in the art museum goes largely unnoticed.

It could be argued that similar issues are faced by other Departments such as Painting, in the ‘post-medium’ age. And indeed that the sway of the MoMA Photography Department could be compared to the influence of the massively influential travelling show Two Decade of American Painting in 1967. However, we argue that the protean and unstable nature of the medium of photography makes its placement more problematic. As a result, within the rapidly growing discourse of curating contemporary art, we argue that more attention needs to be paid to the specific situation of photography and the history of photography exhibitions. This is not to regress into conventional medium specificity. It is simply to acknowledge that photography’s multiple, democratic and ambiguous presence as image and object within our culture complicates its place in the art gallery. Photography as a creative art has a more or less integrated tradition that we can and should continue to value because it drives further developments. But we should simultaneously recognize that this tradition is based on a series of exclusions, and addressing these exclusion can also energize the medium. As Peter Galassi once put it, the tradition is both indispensable and inadequate.

In identifying the future potential of photography in the art gallery, perhaps we can learn from the popularity of ‘metaphotographers’ such as Patrick Pound, working with the (always incomplete) archive.. Furthermore, if curators are engaged in creating innovative contexts for public engagement, networked photography opens up new possibilities for this to happen. We are not arguing that the art gallery ought to emulate the hyper-linked experience of the Internet, or the swipe-based logic of mobile media. However, we are proposing that authoritarian presentations of a connoisseurial canon need to become part of a larger project: exploring photography’s protean nature as a medium and its potential to complicate spectatorship and activate audiences in new ways.

Daniel Palmer & Martyn Jolly

[i] This essay derives from early research into the various forces currently influencing photography curating in Australian art galleries, funded in the first instance by an Australian Council grant.

[ii] Isobel Crombie and Susan van Wyk, 2nd sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2002), 7.

[iii] Founded in 1929, MoMA presented its first photography exhibition in 1937 (the major Beaumont Newhall exhibition on the history of photography in 1938–1937). MoMA held their first one-person exhibition, by Walker Evans, in 1938, and established their Department of Photography in 1940, then the only one in any art museum.

[iv] Helen Ennis, ‘Integral to the Vision: A National Photographic Collection’ in Peter Cochrane (ed.), Remarkable Occurrences: The National Library’s First 100 Years (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2010), 210

[v] See Helen Ennis, ‘Contemporary Photographic Practices’ in Gael Newton, Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839–1988 (Canberra : Australian National Gallery, 1988), 134.

[vi] Graham Howe, ‘The Szarkowski Lectures, Art & Australia, July–September , 1974, 89.

[vii] Ennis, ‘Contemporary Photographic Practices’, 136.

[viii] Gael Newton, Silver and Grey: Fifty Years of Australian Photography 1900-1950 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1980), np

[ix] In Canberra the National Gallery not only purchased photographs from young art-school trained Australian photographers through the largesse of the Phillip Morris Arts Grant, but also, in 1980, before it even opened, gained Ministerial approval to spend $150,000 for the Ansel Adams Museum Set from an American gallery.

[x] Julian Stallabrass, ‘Museum Photography and Museum Prose’, New Left Review, no. 65, September-October 2010, 93–125.

[xi] Crombie and van Wyk, 2nd sight, 10

[xii] Douglas Crimp, ‘The Museum’s Old/The Library’s New Subject’ in Richard Bolton, ed., The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1989), pp. 3-13. See also Andrew Dewdney, ‘Curating the Photographic Image in Networked Culture’ in Martin Lister, ed., The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, Second edition (London: Routledge, 2013), 95–112.

Catalogue Essay: The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg

The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg

Australian Centre for Photography

Essay by Martyn Jolly, Cherine Fahd, Suzanne Buljan

Full catalogue below

 

It is often said that it was the painters who invented Photography (by bequeathing it their framing, the Albertian perspective, and the optic of the camera obscura). I say: no, it was the chemists. For the noeme “That-has-been” was possible only on the day when a scientific circumstance (the discovery that silver halogens were sensitive to light) made it possible to recover and print directly the luminous rays emitted by a variously lighted object. The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. Roland Barthes. [1]

Photographs are both pictures of things and emanations from things. Over the last twenty years all the buzz has been on the ‘picturing’ side of photography: we are astounded by the latest estimate of the astronomical number of smartphone images uploaded to the internet every second, we are shocked by the latest sickening images tweeted from a violent war zone, we are awed by the majestic detail in the latest mural photograph mounted behind pristine acrylic in an art museum, and we are habituated to the sleek look of digital images — either Photoshopped into high-dynamic-range conformity or with one selection from a convenient menu of retro Instagram-filters laid on top.

But lately a global movement of artists has been building around the world, not so much interested in the medium as the endless iteration of separately framed scenes, but rather fascinated by it as an ongoing process of chemical and visual becoming. The works they are producing are not photographs of things, they are photographs as things. In various ways these photographers are directly re-approaching the core power of photography — the touching of time and light.

This core power was present at the medium’s birth. Many of William Henry Fox Talbot’s first images in the 1840s were photograms — of lace or leaves laid directly on salted paper in the sun — so that object physically touched the resultant image. Photograms went on to become a staple of high modernism in the 1920s and 30s, with photographers such as Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray and Max Dupain producing a ‘new vision’ out of pure light. To the modernists these darkroom impressions were a future orientated extension of the technical capacity of new photographic technology; but to subsequent photographers, photograms and other images of their ilk became a way of bypassing the whole corporate apparatus of photography and getting back to the elemental forces of nature itself.

After the rise of industrially manufactured amateur photography in the 1890s, signaled by the invention of the Kodak, Pictorialists began to make their own emulsions in gum-bichromate, or produce ink impressions in bromoil transfer, to declare their independence from the emerging mass photography, and their allegiance to fine art. In the 1970s, handmade emulsion and photograms returned to art schools, which were beginning to teach fine-art photography alongside other media such as printmaking. Courses in so-called ‘alternative techniques’, along with their accompanying ‘darkroom cookbooks’, became very popular.[2] Similarly, pinhole cameras and the construction of camera obscuras have been integral to thousands of introductory photography courses around the world for decades. And, in the 1990s in the immediate wake of the digital revolution, ‘post-photographers’ such as Adam Fuss used pinhole cameras, photograms and other ‘obsolete’ processes to stage spectacular conceptual deconstructions of the transforming medium.

But in the last ten years these longstanding and historically disparate tendencies have combined with new energy and conceptual force. Not only have a thousand instructional YouTube videos from enthusiasts around the world replaced the darkroom cookbooks of old, but more photographers are more seriously exploring the fundamentals of the medium. Many of the artists in the The Alchemists had their initial student training in digital photography, but felt a curiosity for learning about ‘analogue’ photography that replaced the dry, precise, virtual environment of the computer screen with the liminal and wet laboratory-place of the darkroom. This discovery of the darkroom was paralleled by the discovery of vintage cameras and retro processes, not only by art school trained photographers, but by amateur photographers as well, who were able to buy Lomo cameras and refurbished Polaroid cameras from museum gift shops, or Sunprint cyanotype kits from craft stores.

What is ‘new’ about this photography is that: images are magically produced by the simple optical fact of the camera obscura, rather than the factory manufactured equipment of the camera; the photographic print is treated not as neutral screen for the image, but as a physical object layered with light sensitive halides and dyes — potential eruptions of colour waiting to be revealed; hand-made emulsions, such as collodion which is freighted with a hundred and fifty years of historical association because it was used for nineteenth century ambrotypes, tintypes and wet-plate negatives, are used in modern large-format cameras; and photographers continue to find enormous wells of inspiration in the photogram, where three-dimensional objects and two-dimensional images meet and mingle in cradles of light.

This is not just a nostalgic retreat to the past, a hipster reinvention of the outmoded, or a retro fad. Nor is it part of some redundant ‘debate’ between the lost ‘purity’ of the analogue in the face of the encroaching contamination of the ‘digital’. Rather it is a discovery of another mode of making — a slower making, a more curious making, and a making which looks, in the words of one young artist, ‘simultaneously backwards and forward.’[3]

A series of exhibitions and books from London, New York and Los Angeles have already showcased these artists internationally.[4] But, what is happening in Australia and our region? Recently there have been several thoughtful attempts to address the Australianness of Australian photography. While taking different approaches, two books, The Photograph and Australia[5], and Photography and Australia[6], both identify the relatively recent — compared to the US, for instance ‑— colonization of the continent and displacement of its indigenous inhabitants as crucial to our photography. While Australian photography is obdurately oriented to people and land, every realistic portrait and landscape remains nonetheless marked in some way by the ambiguities and complexities of colonization. As Helen Ennis suggests:

These [significant local] differences [of photography in Australia] stem from one inescapable historical reality: photography in Australia is not simply a product of the modern era, but is tied inextricably to the imperialist and colonialist underpinnings of modernity. This distinguishes Australian photographic practice from its counterparts in Great Britain and various European countries, aligning it in crucial ways with that of other colonized countries such as India, Indonesia and New Zealand instead. Of primary importance therefore is the interaction between Indigenous and settler Australians. This has given rise to some of the most potent images in Australian visual culture.[7]

All of the works in The Alchemists are driven by joy and pleasure: the joy of seeing the fundamentals of optics and chemistry magically manifest themselves; and the pleasure of being the one to ride the unleashed processes of transmission, projection, refraction, filtration, sensitization, exposure, impression, reaction, absorption, precipitation, development and fixation to the unknown destination of a material outcome. But at the same time every artist, to varying degrees, attempts to use that joy and pleasure to engage with some other aspect of Australia, New Zealand, or Asia, not to ‘take a picture’ of it, but to materially and critically participate in it.

As one example amongst many, we could cite the oldest work in the exhibition, Catherine Rogers’ The Nature of Evidence, from 1986. This work was an interrogation of the dodgy forensic evidence and popular witch hunt which eventually led to the conviction of Lindy Chamberlain for the murder of her baby Azaria at Uluru, rather than accepting that a dingo had taken it as she claimed. (The trial took place in a media frenzy that mobilized many Australian anxieties about living in a recently colonized country.) Through the bleeding of developer over darkroom projections of multiple negatives, as well as photograms of significant objects such as scissors, the works directly participated in the same ‘aesthetics of the forensic’ that had convinced the jury to wrongly convict Chamberlain in the first place. As Helen Grace identified at the time:

In The Nature of Evidence, each of the frames of counter-evidence [] interrogates both the ‘official story’ of the Chamberlain case and the ‘official story’ of photography itself, since the techniques of photography (at the level of the image rather than the camera) are laid bare.[8]

Like Rogers, other artists in this exhibition also unite various photographic processes with various political, historical, personal, and environmental processes. For example, collodion emulsion and daguerreotypes, literally the stuff of colonial photography, are used by contemporary Australian and New Zealand photographers, some of whom have indigenous heritage, with powerfully ironic results. In these works the past is not just re-enacted, but also, in a sense, optically re-materialized in the present.

Other artists simply mainline themselves into larger forces and expanded networks, either urgent bodily forces of sexuality, slowed-down spiritual forces of nature, or expanded cosmic forces of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Still others engage in the purely formal and abstract possibilities of lines and shapes and tones in a rectangle. But, in all of these works, beauty — the non-descriptive, non-referential, non-semiotic beauty of fundamental propulsions and ineluctable balances — is wordlessly reclaimed.

Finally, hovering above this exhibition, only occasionally directly referred to, but nonetheless always present — are the largest and most indefinable processes on the planet, but ones with the most tangible ultimate results. The processes of mixing, swirling, condensation, melding and melting, which we see at micro scale in so many of the works in The Alchemists, are the same as are happening at macro scale in our atmospheres, oceans and continents as ice caps melt, reactors leak, rivers break their banks, and the ground cracks apart.

Plenty of digital photographs have been taken, and will continue to be taken, of the environment we all share. But photography in the digital epoch can only show us our world as virtual pictures before our two eyes. Alchemical photography, on the other hand, attempts to manifest our world as physical events we must encounter with our whole body.

[1] Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes, Jonathan Cape, 1982, p. 80.

[2] Most popular was: Breaking the Rules: A Photo Media Cookbook, Bea Nettles, Light Impressions, 1977

[3] Kylie Banyard, ‘A Politics Of The Outmoded’, Photography & Fictions: Locating the Dynamics of Practice, (ed. V. Garnons-Williams), QCP, Brisbane, 2014, p.44.

[4] Shadow Catchers: Cameraless Photography, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2010-2011. The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography, toured by the Aperture Foundation, 2010-2013. What is a Photograph?, at the International Centre for Photography, New York, 2014. Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, at the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2015.

[5] The Photograph and Australia, Judy Annear, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2015.

[6] Photography and Australia, Helen Ennis, Reaktion Books, London, 2007

[7] Ennis, p8.

[8] Helen Grace, ‘A Shroud of Evidence’, Photofile, Summer 1986, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney.

TheAlchemistscatalogue

The Truth About Digital Photography

From the ANU Reporter Vol. 46 No. 2, May 2015

In the world Trending #2

There have been two different phases in the relatively short history of digital photography.

First was the apocalyptic phase, when there were dire warnings of ‘the end of photography’. The coming ‘revolution’, it was claimed, would fundamentally reconfigure the photographic ‘eye’.

We would be cast adrift from the firm shores of analogue photography, where chemical emulsion reliably reacted to the light reflected from real-world scenes, and left to float on a digital sea where pictures, now just data, could be changed at will.

Like many apocalypses, this one didn’t come. Although iconic names such as Kodak were swept away into history, the practice of photography itself went from strength to strength.

Cameras got cheaper and smaller and people took more and more photos to post on social media. Far from being bankrupted, the newly ubiquitous medium gained more impact than ever.

What those Chicken Littles didn’t realise is that photography is much more than just a technology, it is a social practice, a personal habit, a psychological need, an accumulated history of looking and, increasingly, a global network of exchange.

Photographic truth is supported by social protocols, and it is the multiple micro-recalibrations of these that we are currently experiencing in the second phase of digital photography. News organisations still protect direct photon to pixel mapping.

When Adnan Hajj, a hapless stringer for Reuters, was caught out by sharp-eyed bloggers using Photoshop’s clone tool to increase the amount of smoke rising from Beirut after a 2006 Israel bombing raid, he was summarily dropped. All 920 of his images were immediately removed from the Reuters site and a picture editor was sacked.

However, while minor excisions and additions to the image are strictly policed, enhancements or modifications to the connotational ‘feel’ of the reportage image as a whole are still allowed by press photography protocols.

In 2010, Stepan Rudik was stripped of his World Press Photo award.  He had radically cropped thephotograph he submitted, Street Fighting, Kiev, Ukraine, and  applied a heavy Photoshop filter to it. But that wasn’t why he was stripped of the award, it was because he had digitally removed a tiny pinch of pixels representing the intrusive foot of an irrelevant figure in the background of the image.

This year, 20 per cent of World Press Photo entries were disqualified for similar digital cutting and pasting and controversies like these, big and small, continue to erupt across the Internet.

But if we take a sideways step into celebrity photography, we find not only a tolerance for digital enhancement, but an expectation of it.

We are all now so completely habituated to seeing the flawless, poreless, skin of our celebrities stretched over their cheekbones that we barely give the routine post-production enhancement of the glossy images we consume a second thought. Indeed we now expect it as a kind of fantasy ‘truth’.

When 224 un-retouched photographs from a Beyoncé advertising shoot were released on a fan site earlier this year, before the texture of her tiny acne scars, moles and wrinkles had been digitally smoothed away, her fans “freaked out”, and were left “shocked and lost”.

The site was forced to remove the photographs of what they maintained was just Beyoncé as a “naturally beautiful” “regular woman” because “some of the things we have seen posted were just horrible, and we don’t want any part of it”.

But, before we laugh too quickly at the betrayal Beyoncé’s deluded fans felt, we must realise that reportage photos are also routinely undergoing similar makeovers.

In 2013, another controversy engulfed the World Press Photo Award when winner Paul Hansen’s Gaza Burial was accused of digital manipulation. It was eventually revealed that it was the product of the superimposition of three separately modulated versions of the one file, which gave the final digital composite a cinematic feel as though the director of photography on a big Hollywood movie had lit it with movie lights. Nonetheless it retained the prize because, although it had been enhanced, no pixels had been removed or added.

The meaning of the words ‘photographic manipulation’ is shifting before our eyes and growing in complexity. Today’s digital cameras don’t take pictures, they record data.

In this new imaging logic, the journey from scene to image is a continuity where image manipulation can feedback into a scene’s ‘truth’.

Add to this the exponential proliferation of images online, the acceleration of their transmission, and their accumulation into vast data-bases and we are set for yet more fascinating recalibrations in photographic truth.

An Australian Spiritualist’s personal carte-de-visite album

my chapter from:

Shifting Focus: Colonial Australian Photography 1850 – 1920

Edited by Anne Maxwell and Josephine Croci

Australian Scholarly Publishing

Melbourne 2015

At first glance it’s an unassuming album, barely twelve by fifteen centimetres in size and about six centimetres thick. The anonymous owner purchased the blank album for three shillings in Melbourne in the early 1880s. The thirty-six carte-de-visite portraits that she slipped into it were taken in Australia and overseas from the late 1850s onwards.

So far there is not much to distinguish this album, which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, from the hundreds of other carte-de-visite albums that were assembled in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Such albums visually located their owners within widening concentric circles of immediate family, social groups and political classes. They were oral, as well as visual, documents because their owners narrated them as they were shown to family and friends in the parlour. But, although they were domestic objects, the images they contained opened out onto the whole world.

In most nineteenth century albums portraits of intimate friends rubbed shoulders with portraits of famous personages, but in this album these images also rubbed shoulders with portraits of spirits. The album documents one person’s passion for the religion of Modern Spiritualism. Its owner was probably a member of the Victorian Association of Spiritualists, and her album uses cartes-de-visite to map the spiritual, social and political world the Victorian Spiritualists created for themselves.

Looking through this album now we are missing the owner’s all-important narration, but it is possible to recover some of the knowledge she would have recalled about each subject as she slid their photograph into its pocket. The portraits were inserted into the album in no particular order and most are, in themselves, visually unremarkable. However analysing the album as a complete object is still worthwhile, because, when we know some of the things the album’s original owner knew about each portrait, the disparate images begin to network together into a complex world-view made up of succeeding spheres of the local, the famous, and the disincarnate. Biographical information can be found for all but one of the portraits in the album. Of these only a couple are Melbourne locals. Of the rest, approximately a third are of Spiritualist mediums and lecturers who visited Melbourne on their round-the-world tours, another third are international luminaries of Modern Spiritualism, and a final third are of well known spirits returned from the dead. A description of even a small representative sample of the these four groups gives an indication of the extent of the album’s reach, all the way from Melbourne, to Britain, to the United States, and on to the Beyond.

The Network of Portraits

The album contains a couple of portraits of Melbourne spiritualists who its owner probably would have known personally. Perhaps she even obtained their portraits in exchange for her own. Most significant is a portrait of William H. Terry by the Melbourne photographers Stewart & Co. Terry was Melbourne’s most prominent Spiritualist. A vegetarian teetotaller, Terry was a spiritual healer, diagnosing ailments through what he called a ‘spiritual telegraph’ with the Beyond. Throughout the 1870s, popular interest in Spiritualism and séances continued to grow so that by 1878 a reporter for the Melbourne Age was confessing:

Though I do not profess to being a Spiritualist, I own to having been infected with the fashionable itch for witnessing ‘physical manifestations’ as they are called, and accordingly I have attended several séances with more or less gratification[1]

By 1881, at about the time this album was being compiled, the membership of the VAS had climbed 853 members, at a time when Melbourne’s population was barely 300,000.[2]

The VAS sponsored the visits of many prominent international spiritualists to Melbourne, and their cartes-d-visite were placed into the album. The glamorously bearded American lecturer, Dr J. M. Peebles, who came to Melbourne in 1872 and again in 1878, visited the same Melbourne photographer as Terry, Stewart & Co, to have his portrait made. He lectured to standing-room-only crowds of up to 3000 people every Sunday for three months about progressive vegetarian diet reform.[3]

One of the most high-profile mediums to visit Australia was J. J. Morse. Supposedly an uneducated barman, he suddenly became full of erudition when entranced. He also appeared to be able to withstand fire and physically elongate his body. [4] His carte in the album was taken by the photographer James Bowman of Glasgow. The album also features a Bowman portrait of Morse’s spirit guide, Tien Sien Tie. (Figure 1) Supposedly a Chinese philosopher who had lived on Earth in the reign of the Emperor Kea-Tsing, Tien Sien Tie first ‘controlled’ Morse in 1869. The spirit portrait is in fact a photographic copy made by Bowman of a trance drawing produced by the Glasgow medium David Duguid. Duguid would take a plain card and breathe on it and rub it between his hands in order to ‘magnetize’ it. He would then place it in a sealed envelope in the centre of the séance table, while the sitters placed their hands on the envelope and sang hymns in order to protect the fine mechanisms of the spirits from outside influences as they worked. When the envelope was eventually opened a spirit drawing was found on it.[5] Duguid’s trance drawing is a stilted piece of proto ‘photo-realism’, however it was adapted to being turned into a carte-de-visite, allowing the spirit to take his place amongst the other personages in the album.

James Bowman (Glasgow), J J Morse’s Controlling Spirit Tien Sien Tie, c1874, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

James Bowman (Glasgow), J J Morse’s Controlling Spirit Tien Sien Tie, c1874, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Conventional cartes-de-visite of many of the senior figures of the international movement, who never visited Australia, were also placed in the album. For instance it contains a thoroughly unremarkable portrait of Modern Spiritualism’s first and most famous medium, Kate Fox, who as a young girl in 1848 had first established a code of raps for communicating with a spirit that haunted her house in upstate New York, thus sparking the growing craze for Spiritualism which spread across the world.

These cardinal figures are supported in the album by a range of lesser known writers, proselytisers and investigators for the movement. However without doubt, the highlights of the album are the spirits themselves. The world’s first spirit photographer was William Mumler of Boston, and his photographs were circulated widely throughout the global Spiritualist community as visual testimony to Spiritualist truths. Perhaps the most famous testimony came from Moses A. Dow. The faded, desiccated spirit we see slipped into the Melbourne album today gives the contemporary viewer little indication of the intense emotions and complex interactions that surrounded the photograph. Dow had taken a talented young woman, Mabel Warren, under his wing and eventually came to regard her as a dearly beloved daughter. She was suddenly taken ill and quietly passed into spirit land, leaving Dow grief stricken. The spirit stayed in touch with Dow through several different Boston mediums before announcing that she wished to give Dow her spirit picture via Mumler’s photographic mediumship. Dow described the result of Mumler’s photographic séance with him:

Her right hand passes over my left arm and clasps my hand. Her left hand is seen on my left shoulder, and between the thumb and forefinger of this hand is held an opening rose bud, the exact counterpoint of the one I placed there while she lay in the casket at her funeral.[6]

For three shillings sixpence for a packet of three, spiritualists living in Britain and Australia were able to order copies of these photographic proofs that the dead lived from Spiritualist magazines, such as Boston’s Banner of Light, and London’s Spiritual Magazine. However in this album all traces of that rose bud have finally leached out of the photograph.

The other key photographer in Spiritualism was the London photographer Frederick Hudson. His 1872 group portrait of two mortals and a spirit is inserted into the album’s first page. (Figure 2) The medium Charles Williams, who is seated, could supposedly produce fully materialized spirits while he sat tied up and entranced in a curtained-off cabinet. He benefited from the patronage of Samuel Guppy who is photographed standing beside him. The wealthy Guppy had married the medium Agnes Nichols in1867and they became London Spiritualism’s ‘first couple’. In this portrait the top half of a shrouded spirit appears to be materializing in front of the two men, assertively looking towards the viewer and raising his hand in a biblical gesture.

Frederick Hudson, Samuel Guppy (left), the medium Charles Williams, and a spirit, c1872, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Samuel Guppy (left), the medium Charles Williams, and a spirit, c1872, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Some Spirits were known by name. The best-known spirit of the day was John King, who spoke in direct voice through a floating trumpet and said he was Henry Owen Morgan, the buccaneer. Many mediums claimed to be able to materialize him, including Charles Williams, and with his trademark turban King frequently appeared at séances in London. He even posed behind some studio scenery in substantial form (though with suspiciously similar facial features to Charles Williams himself) for his carte-de-visite, which is in this album. (Figure 3)

Unknown, The spirit John King, c1870s, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Unknown, The spirit John King, c1870s, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Hudson’s fame quickly grew amongst Spiritualists and he began to accept many clients into his studio, producing draped spirits on the plates for them as well. However his most important collaborator was Miss Georgiana Houghton, an accomplished upper class women who in 1859 found her true passion in Spiritualism and ebulliently developed her own amateur mediumship.

She had read the first reports of William Mumler’s spirit photographs in the Spiritual Magazine of December 1862. She at once believed, and purchased one of the packets of Mumler photographs that the magazine offered to its readers. Ten years later the Guppys introduced her to Frederick Hudson. She recounted her subsequent four years of experimentation with him in a book illustrated with fifty-four miniaturised cartes-de-visite called Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye. In the preface to the book Houghton granted her photographs a privileged role in proving Spiritualism’s truths:

I send them forth in full assurance that they carry a weight of evidence as to the substantiality of spirit being far transcending any other forms of mediumship.[7]

Houghton travelled across London every Thursday to Hudson’s backyard glasshouse studio, meeting Mrs Guppy for a regular appointment at which Hudson would coat, sensitise and expose three plates of her. Hudson wholesaled his photographs of Houghton back to her, and she retailed them to her Spiritualist correspondents around the world, thus increasing his clientele as well as making enough profit for Houghton to cover her own costs. Miss Houghton and Mrs Guppy took turns to be photographed after mesmerizing the other in a ‘cabinet’ — a curtained-off part of a room which supposedly collected and concentrated the psychic energy of entranced mediums. The mesmerized women acted as batteries of stored-up spirit-power which could be drawn upon by the spirits to supplement their own spirit-power as they materalised themselves. To Houghton the draped figures could not possibly be Hudson’s collaborators dressed-up, they were too flat and unfilled-out. Their draped appearance was the result of the spirits using the women’s spiritual power with wise economy. Spirits told the lady experimenters to preserve their magnetism by wearing clothes that they had had about their person for a considerable time, and to avoid wearing clothes that had just been laundered. Houghton went a step further, using one of her black satin petticoats to construct her own dark-cloth for Hudson to cover and uncover the lens of his camera.

For Houghton, what was most genuine about the shrouded figures in her photographs was the simple, unassuming modesty of their attitudes (poses we would now see as stilted eschatological theatrics). In contrast, she noted, living people usually wanted their portraits taken in order to exhibit their ego, and photographers were paid to make the most of any good feature. For her, the hundreds of cartes-de-visite displayed in shop windows, where the sitters were full of self-consciousness and had an air of self-gratification, contrasted badly with the air of peaceful repose of the spirits that she saw in Hudson’s photographs.

In a photograph taken in May 1872 a spirit appeared whom she recognised as her Aunt Helen who had died thirty years before of heart disease brought on by grief at the loss of her husband. Aunt Helen had left half her fortune to Houghton who had gratefully spent it all on her Spiritualist enthusiasms. She appeared now standing right behind Houghton to indicate that she continuing to support her from beyond the grave. The Melbourne compiler of this album purchased this double portrait for her album. (Figure 4)

Frederick Hudson, Miss Houghton and spirit of her aunt, c1872, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Miss Houghton and spirit of her aunt, c1872, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

A key Hudson portrait from the album is of Dr Walter Lindesay Richardson, father of the future famous Australian author Henry Handel Richardson who based her book The Fortunes of Richard Mahony on him. Richardson was a successful doctor in Ballarat and became the first president of the Victorian Association of Spiritualists, while also holding other eminent posts in colonial society such as on the Senate of Melbourne University. He was so successful in business he was able to return to Britain for a tour of the Continent with his family in 1873 and 1874. Whilst there, he wowed British Spiritualists with an address that connected progressive Spiritualism to the manifest destiny of the colonies. He said:

I come from a far country where […] the Teuton and the Celt and the Anglo-Saxon are founding a new republic and […] the great wave of modern Spiritualism is spreading over the length and breadth of the land. It is sapping the foundations of ecclesiastical Christianity; it is splitting asunder corporations based on self-interest and human greed […] It is, amid much ridicule and denunciation, proclaiming the brotherhood of the human race and the absolute and unconditional freedom of each immortal soul.[8]

When in London Richardson also attended séances with London’s leading mediums including Charles Williams, Mrs Guppy and Miss Houghton. He witnessed the materialization of London’s most celebrated spirits as well, including John King. In early 1874 he visited Frederick Hudson, as so many others were doing. After cleaning the plates himself and followed every stage of the process through to development, he received spirits on three out of the four plates, sending prints back to William H. Terry in Melbourne. The most remarkable of the three successes is in the album. (Figure 5) Terry, writing in his magazine the Harbinger of Light, tried to wrap his head around exactly what he was seeing:

Frederick Hudson, Dr Richardson and spirit of his sister, 1873-74, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Dr Richardson and spirit of his sister, 1873-74, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

…a Gothic chair is standing before the sitter with its back in close proximity to his knees; a female figure which is kneeling in front of him seems to permeate the chair, portions of the chair being visible through the form, as though the matter of the chair offered no obstruction to the more refined material of the Spirit form.[9]

So, Terry reasoned, this form must be a transition stage to full materialization…..

As far as we understand it, the Materialized Spirit form which appears on these occasions, is a condensation of sublimated matter, brought about by a scientific process known to Spirits who have studied Chemistry. The power used is Electricity, brought to bear through the magnetic emanations of the Medium, and but few Media (sic) have the necessary emanation to enable the spirits to complete the process.[10]

Richardson also sat in on several séances with the leading matron of London Spiritualism, Mrs MacDougall Gregory, who was also the widow of his old Chemistry professor. Hudson’s carte-de-visite of Mrs Gregory is also in the album. (Figure 6) The shrouded spirit who has joined her, identified in the caption as the sister of her departed husband, has eschewed the self-conscious formal poses of the standard carte-de-visite, and instead sits comfortably cross-legged on the floor beside her, imitating the sitting conventions of the American Indians and Orientals who were often Spirit Controls for British mediums.

Frederick Hudson, Professor Gregory’s wife and spirit of his sister, c1873, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Professor Gregory’s wife and spirit of his sister, c1873, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Spiritualism and Nineteenth Century Science

For us, merely knowing bare facts such as these about the subjects of the portraits may have only succeeded in filling the album with bewildering chatter from the procession of grifters, hucksters, naifs and idealists who crowd its pages. But, if we could hear how its owner would have narrated it in the 1880s, this silent collection of now-faded cartes-de-visite would become full of the urgent discourse, the very presence, of all of the key protagonists in the Spiritualists’ world. These personages formed themselves into series of conceptual concentric circles around her: local campaigners such as Terry and Richardson; celebrity proselytizers and mediums who had visited and performed in Melbourne such as Morse; famous mediums and writers from overseas who she had only read of or heard about; and finally, in the outer circle, the spirits themselves, such as Charles Williams’ tall and turbaned John King or Georgiana Houghton’s stalwart Aunt Helen.

This structure of progressive elevation and etherealization was also how, in a cross-pollination of their Swedenborgian and Copernican cosmologies with progressive ideas of political progress and social evolution, the Spiritualists conceived of this life and the afterlife — as a series of concentric spheres through which mortals and spirits gained more knowledge as they continued their ascent towards God.

Not only were developments in politics and social philosophy shaping the movement’s progressive social agenda, but developments in science were also structuring its metaphysical imagination. Nineteenth century advances in evolutionary biology, geology, physics and chemistry, which emphasised that matter and being changed incrementally over time, were crucial to Spiritualism. The new technologies arising from these sciences not only provided tangible evidence that science was progressing and opening up hitherto unknown worlds of knowledge, which the Spiritualists were confident already contained confirmed examples of spirit communication, but they also provided enabling metaphors and analogies which were joyfully inhabited and extrapolated upon by the Spiritualist imagination — an imagination which had the capacity to stretch far beyond the breaking point of incredulity other people had.

The reigning metaphors were electricity and the telegraph, the wonders of the age, which allowed communication over vast distances. For instance in the 1850s two separate magazines called themselves The Spiritual Telegraph. Spiritualism was therefore a theory of communication as much as it was a conventional religion. It was not a faith in a deferred redemption, but an active belief in the current opportunities provided by supposed communication with those who already had higher knowledge — the spirits.

Mediated Intimacy

If Spiritualism was a theory of technological communication, can contemporary theories of the media cast any light on the activity of this anonymous compiler of carte-de-visites? In his 1995 book The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of Media, John Thompson argues that, because of today’s new technologies such as TV and the internet, our social relationships and sense of ourselves are increasingly characterised by what he calls ‘mediated intimacy’, an intimacy exemplified by the real sense of closeness many fans feel with the stars they idolize. He says:

It is this new form of mediated, non-reciprocal intimacy, stretched across time and space, which underlies, for example, the relationship between fan and star. It can be exhilarating, precisely because it is freed from the reciprocal obligations characteristic of face-to-face interaction. But it can also become a form of dependence in which individuals come to rely on others whose very absence and inaccessibility turn them into an object of veneration.[11]

Fans create their own customised worlds by taking up, transforming and incorporating media products into a structured symbolic universe inhabited only by themselves. Because of media technologies, Thompson says, we are all living in a mediated world in which we are increasingly unconstrained by our location or our time, but only at the cost of the displacement of immediate ‘lived’ experience:

If we compare our lives today with the lives of individuals who lived two or three centuries ago, it seems clear that the structure of experience has changed in significant ways. […] While lived experience remains fundamental, it is increasingly supplemented by, and in some respects displaced by, mediated experience, which assumes a greater and greater role in the project of self-formation.[12]

Perhaps we can see the owner of this album, who lived a mere one hundred and thirty years or so ago, as a pioneer of both the pleasures, and the pitfalls, of this use of mediated experience for a project of self formation. She probably never left Melbourne, but through the global interchange of cartes-de-visite, and through the global reach of Spiritualist networks, she assembled a coherent world for herself out of fragments of photographically mediated experience.

She probably did this by sending money overseas to spiritualist magazines, as well as to individuals like James Bowman from Glasgow, and Georgiana Houghton from London. In addition she brought cartes-de-visite off visitors to Melbourne, and probably exchanged her own image for cartes-de-visite of her fellow Melbourne Spiritualists. They all come together in her little parlour album — from Melbourne, from London, and from Boston — all assembled in the ready-made pockets of her album.

These cartes-de-visite constructed an entire world, with the compiler’s firm place at the centre of it implied, but never stated. Some of the images were drawn from lived experience in the colony of Victoria, and some were drawn from the higher planes of the spirit world, where celebrity spirits such as John King perpetually hovered, intimately near, but yet always out of reach — very much like a contemporary fan’s relationship to their favourite celebrity. As media objects they were all flattened, delocalised and mobilised by the globalised conventions of the various photographic studios around the world, which produced cartes-de-visite in a standardised format, in standardised glass-house studios, with standardised photographic conventions. (The Glasgow photographer Bowman even transduced trance drawing of supposed spirits into conventional cartes-de-visite.) They were all brought together into the compacted space of the album, where they were available for instant retrieval and sharing. In many respects they are like a page on a contemporary social networking site such as Facebook. In these virtual spaces close intimates, social acquaintances and favourite celebrities are all similarly flattened into ‘friends’, which orbit around the empty centre of us, constructing what we now call our ‘profile’ through our connections, rather than our innate selves.

Conclusion

Thompson warns us that there are both strengths and dangers in mediated intimacy, both pleasures and pitfalls. Did our compiler experience any of these pitfalls? Was this album, and the extraordinarily intimate, yet mediated, world it constructed simply the product of a passing enthusiasm? Did the owner, perhaps with too much money and time on her hands, simply jump on the bandwagon at the height of the fad, collecting cartes-de-visite indiscriminately before eventually getting bored with Spiritualism’s breathless rhetoric of progress and revelation, or perhaps disillusioned with its charlatans? Did the interpenetrating spheres she built up in her album all suddenly collapse in on her like a house of cards? Or, did she remain one of the social, spiritual and technological pioneers of Australia, expanding on the conventions of the portrait album to describe both the palpable and the evanescent world she lived in. Did she seriously manage to incorporate the worlds she constructed in her album, although they were ultimately built only within her imagination, into a sustained, and sustaining, personal commitment to her new religion?

We will never know.

Martyn Jolly

[1] Emma Hardinge Britten, Nineteenth Century Miracles: or Spirits and their work in every country of the earth: A complete historical compendium of the great movement known as ‘Modern Spiritualism’ (New York: William Britten, 1884), 238.

[2] Alfred J. Gabay, Messages from Beyond, Spiritualism and Spiritualists in Melbourne’s Golden Age, 1870-1890, ( Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001), 70.

[3] Ibid, 83-86

[4] Nandor Fodor, Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science, (London: Arthurs Press, 1933), 246.

[5] ibid, 97.

[6] Martyn Jolly, Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography, (Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2006), 19.

[7] Georgiana Houghton, Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye, Interblended with Personal Narrative, (London: E. W. Allen, 1882), np.

[8] Dorothy Green, ‘Walter Lindesay Richardson: the Man, the Portrait and the Artist’, Meanjin Quarterly 29.2 (March 1970): 5.

[9] William H. Terry, Harbinger of Light, 1 July 1874, 651.

[10] ibid, 651.

[11] John Thompson, The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of Media, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), 208.

[12] ibid, 233.

Of Strange Glasses: Camera Obscuras, Brisbane, and Robyn Stacey

(Catalogue essay for Cloud Land, Museum of Brisbane, 18 September 2015 — 3 April  2016)

Stick your hand in your pocket and hoik out your mobile phone. Flip it over and find the camera lens, it’ll be about the width of a grain of rice. Behind the lens is a sensor about the size of a baby’s fingernail, and between the lens and sensor is the only void in your phone that the manufacturer hasn’t crammed with electronics. It is a chamber, dark except for the tiny pyramid of image which the lens projects. That ‘chamber dark’ is a camera obscura. Now only a few millimetres high, the camera obscura was once the size of a room.  Of course your phone’s camera obscura is really a tiny photographic camera. When you tap the button the phone saves an image file from the stream of data produced by the sensor, while skeuomorphically playing you the comforting sound effect of an old-fashioned photographic shutter. But photographic cameras are only 176 years old, while camera obscuras are at least half a millennium old and may be even older.

Five hundred years ago Leonardo da Vinci already understood quite well what was going on when he asserted that:

[E]very [light] ray passing through air of equal density travels in a straight line from its cause to the object or place where it strikes. The air is full of an infinity of straight and radiating lines intersected and interwoven with one another without one occupying the place of another. They represent to whatever object the true form of their cause. The body of the atmosphere is full of infinite radiating pyramids produced by the objects existing in it.[1]

But how could the ‘infinity of radiating pyramids’ produced by everything in every direction be organised into a coherent image? The answer was the camera obscura. Inside a darkened room a tiny pinhole could squeeze down the ‘infinity of straight and radiating lines’ to individual pencil beams, each one drawing only a small separate sample of the scene onto the opposite wall.

Opticians then discovered that if glass discs were ground into the shape of lentils (hence the word lens) and placed in enlarged pinholes, more light rays could be admitted into the dark chamber and bent by the different density of the glass to form an upside-down and back-to-front image. In 1589 Giambattista della Porta celebrated the wonder of seeing an image separate itself from its object for the first time, and the uncanny effect of the inversion of the image as it was projected into the room. In the seventeenth book of his magnum opus Natural Magic, titled ‘Of Strange Glasses’, he begins by describing a pinhole camera obscura, where the hole in the wall is the width of a little finger:

So shall you see all that is done without in the sun, and those that walk in the streets, like to Antipodes, and what is right will be left, and all things changed, and the farther [the images] are from the hole the greater they will appear. … If you put a small centicular crystal glass in the hole, you shall presently see all things clearer, the countenances of men walking, the colours, garments, and all things as if you stood hard by, you shall see them with so much pleasure, that those that see it can never enough admire it.[2]

della Porta went on to describe, 250 years before the invention of photography, how the combination of different types of lenses could increase the angle of view, to the point where the viewer inside the room would rejoice to see projected onto a piece of paper “an epitome of the whole world”. As well, he reported, concave mirrors could be used to re-invert the image to being upright, while redirecting it to another part of the room. It didn’t take della Porta long to realise the potential of this kind of optical set-up. He launched himself into an extravagant flight of fantasy where he imagined some ‘ingenious person’ staging elaborate scenes of “hunting, battles of enemies, and other delusions” on a spacious, sunlit plain outside the camera obscura. Inside the camera obscura, viewers, unaware of the elaborate tableaus being staged for their benefit outside, would only see the moving images of these scenes:

they cannot tell whether they be true or delusions: swords drawn will glitter in at the hole, that they will make people almost afraid. I have often showed this kind of spectacle to my friends, who much admired it, and took pleasure to see such deceit; and I could hardly by natural reasons, and reasons from the optics, remove them from their opinion, when I had [revealed] the secret’.[3]

The idea of two pyramids of light, from object to image, with their apexes meeting at a lens, had already become one of the dominant tropes of the Enlightenment but, for della Porta and others, fantasy and delusion were never far away from natural truth and its optical laws. This was especially strange because, as della Porta well knew, the camera obscura also demonstrated how the eye worked: the image is let into the eye by a pupil, just as it is let into the camera obscura by a lens; and the back of the eye receives the image, just as the rear wall does in a camera obscura.

In 1619 Christopher Scheiner performed an experiment where human perception and the camera obscura were collapsed one into the other. He suggested entering a darkened room and boring a hole in the wall, and into that hole placing the eye of a recently dead man, or if a recently dead man was unavailable, a dead ox. The dead eye must still be plump with all its aqueous and vitreous humors, and it must be inserted into the hole so that it is looking out from the dark into the light. Then he suggested taking a sharp knife and scraping away at the flesh behind the retina, then placing thin paper or an eggshell over the spot. There, in the dark of the room, if you peered closely enough, you would see a tiny image of the outside world projected onto the inside of the eyeball.

What this experiment couldn’t demonstrate, however, was how this upside and inverted image was combined with its neighbour from the other eye, rectified, and turned into human vision incorporated within the mind of the perceiver. The philosopher Rene Descartes featured Scheiner’s experiment in his Optics of 1637. He illustrated the camera obscura set-up schematically, but he rendered the optical structure of the eyeball with surgical detail. However, in the book’s illustration the retina is being observed by a classical bust hovering in the dark with robes and a patrician beard. Who is this man? Of course he is the experimenter in the camera obscura, but if this is also a model of how human vision works, the illustration is also of our own heads, and he is a homunculus of us, or our perception, or our knowledge, or our spirit, or our soul.

Illustration from 'Optics', Rene Descartes, 1637

Illustration from ‘Optics’, Rene Descartes, 1637

What worried philosophers and scientists such as Descartes, Johannes Kepler, John Locke and Isaac Newton was: what was the nature of that homunculus who took the various light beams which had irrupted into the eye and struck the retina, and eventually delivered them as ‘the world’ to the person? Was vision just inert vitreous optics screening pictures in front of the tribunal of perception in our brains, or was the human spirit, or soul, necessary as well, to tie us into the world we subjectively experience? Where was our faculty of perception located, just behind our eyes where the robed bust hovered, or somewhere else in our spirit? Where did we end and our world begin?

Whilst camera obscuras were performing duties as philosophical and scientific analogies, they were also being developed as machines. They were shrinking from the size of rooms to the size of scientific instruments. Diderot’s Encyclopedia from the mid18th century illustrates several handy desktop models in the section devoted to drawing. In these camera obscuras the world is miniaturised by the lens, and the artist looks attentively down at the world re-inverted by mirrors and projected onto a ground glass screen or drawing paper. Some camera obscuras were boxes of wood where a reflex mirror reflected the image up onto the underside of the artist’s drawing paper, which was protected from being washed out by ambient light with a hood. Others were like pyramidic tents into which the draftsman stuck his head and hand, where a periscope projected the image down onto paper. These camera obscuras removed their users from the flux of world, and laid out images for their rational eyes to observe and draw.

Plate 4, Drawing, Camera Obscura, Encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, 1751-1772

Plate 4, Drawing, Camera Obscura, Encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, 1751-1772

Plate 5, Drawing, Camera Obscura, Encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, 1751-1772

Plate 5, Drawing, Camera Obscura, Encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, 1751-1772

But even though the camera obscura was adopted as an instrument of rational sight in the 18th century, the problem of our vision’s simultaneous enmeshment in and removal from the world, which the camera obscura spectacularly instantiated, wouldn’t go away. In 1846 Karl Marx even took the camera obscura analogy and radically expanded it out to be a metaphor for ideology as well.

If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life processes.[4]

To Marx, we could not trust what we see in society because it had already been inverted by the ideology into which we had been born. We don’t recognise the inversion of ideology because we have been formed by it as historical subjects, just as we don’t recognise that our eyes invert our vision, because we are formed by it as cognitive subjects.

While Marx was using the camera obscura as a handy metaphor in his revolutionary thought, actual camera obscuras were being enjoyed by the proletariat. In Australia they were becoming popular attractions, rather than scientific instruments. From the 1850s camera obscuras, probably built into carts, were being advertised as feature attractions in Australian traveling fairs and exhibitions. Intrepid entrepreneurs began to build permanent camera obscuras, out of either stone or wood, at prominent vantage points in Adelaide, Sydney, Wollongong and Brisbane. The ones in Adelaide, Sydney and Wollongong didn’t last long, but the one in Brisbane lasted almost 50 years.

After Robert and Eliza White opened a kiosk and sly grog outlet on the top of the hill (now Whites Hill) in their property on the outskirts of Brisbane, they decided to invest 200 pounds in importing two telescopes and a camera obscura from England.[5] The camera obscura apparatus, “consisting of a lens which reflects panoramic views on a saucer shaped concrete bowl, with a plaster of paris surface”, was built into a tower above their octagonal dining room, and from 1891 the attraction garnered a steady trickle of visitors, many of whom were happy to take the half-hour walk from the Coorparoo tram terminus.[6]

Camera Obscura, Catalogue, William Y. McAllister, New York, c1890

Camera Obscura, Catalogue, William Y. McAllister, New York, c1890

Like many others around the world, the Whites Hill camera obscura provided visitors with an uncanny experience. As they looked into the pool of image they felt a bit like the homunculus in Descartes’ Optics, as if they were losing certainty as to where they were, what size they were, or where their body ended and the rest of the world began. Bob White twisted one handle to rotate the periscope around, sweeping Brisbane and Moreton Bay across the circular viewing table, while also pulling another handle to shift the angle of the reflex mirror, swinging the centre of view from foreground to distance. The Queenslander enthused:

Above is the tower, which is a camera obscura. Like an impressive old-necromancer the host operates the strings controlling the finder, and amazingly lovely scenes flit across the large horizontal, white disc placed in the centre of the room. Forest scenery is succeeded by water scapes, and the mouth of the Brisbane River appears. A slight tug at the cord and the bay slips into view. Then one picks up several islands. Another movement of the finder, and stately mountain peaks limn themselves on the white disc. In the foreground, just where one was going to rest his hand, trees quiver in a breeze which has been shut out from the tower. There are skies, too, where luminous clouds move across wonderful pools of blue. Another twist of the cord, and the finder discovers a mighty city with its suburbs rambling over countless hills. Above these are lovely cumulus clouds; and in the foreground a path strangely familiar. Then one remembers suddenly that he passed along it when climbing the ascent to the house. One feels glad that this the twentieth, not the seventeenth century, and that the grave old magician near by is not likely to be burned as a wizard![7]

Whites Hill, from 'The Pocket Brisbane', 1913

Whites Hill, from ‘The Pocket Brisbane’, 1913

View of the Observatory restaurant at Camp Hill Brisbane, 1924

View of the Observatory restaurant at Camp Hill Brisbane, 1924

In similar camera obscuras elsewhere in the world operators encouraged their lofty customers to adopt an almost god-like attitude to the scenes they witnessed. In the 150-year-old Edinburgh camera obscura visitors are still invited to hold slips of paper on the table, so the Lilliputian figures walking below appear to walk across the paper, unaware that they have been ‘captured’.

In 1928, following the death of Bob White, the Greater Brisbane Council resumed White’s Hill and sublet the kiosk and its camera obscura. But, even though the Lady Mayoress did her bit by holding tea parties there, the attraction did not thrive. In 1935 the delegates to the Australian Newspaper Conference and their wives visited, but the new lessee didn’t even bother to put on a shirt for the southerners. As he swiveled the periscope and tilted the mirror the delegates looked on truculently.[8] A year later, and the same operator was slightly better dressed for the children of the South Brisbane Intermediate School Rambling Club, who seemed slightly more impressed as they leant into the bowl, immersing themselves in the coloured concave image which the Telegraph photographer’s flash was about to blast away.[9] But, within a few years, continually hampered by the difficulty of public transport access and poor publicity, the kiosk had been abandoned. By the Second World War the American army had commandeered the land for its geographical eminence as an observation post and training ground. After the War the Whites Hill camera obscura was left to the vandals.[10]

‘Seeing the City, The Delegates to the Australian Newspaper Conference and their wives see Brisbane through the Camera Obscura at White’s Hill’, The Telegraph, 1 June 1935 p13.

‘Seeing the City, The Delegates to the Australian Newspaper Conference and their wives see Brisbane through the Camera Obscura at White’s Hill’, The Telegraph, 1 June 1935 p13.

‘Children from the South Brisbane Intermediate School Rambling Club view the surroundings through the camera obscura at White’s Hill’, The Telegraph, 18 July 1936, p30.

‘Children from the South Brisbane Intermediate School Rambling Club view the surroundings through the camera obscura at White’s Hill’, The Telegraph, 18 July 1936, p30.

In one sense these camera obscuras (Queensland hosted another one during the 1960s at Picnic Point in Toowoomba) are a subset of the panoramic mode of photography. Wickham Terrace was the most popular place in Brisbane from which cameras could click through 360 degrees, surveying the achievements of the city as it progressed with the straightening of streets, the building of bridges and the construction of buildings. But panoramas have just one temporal dimension, they are about measuring how far we have come, or how far we have yet to go. They have just one point of view, a stable one at the centre of the circle (usually, in Brisbane’s case, near the Windmill) acting like a scopic surveyor’s peg from which distances to landmarks in both history and geography can be measured. They have none of the hallucinatory, groundless shifts of the camera obscura attraction.

But that is the tradition that Robyn Stacey’s city photography belongs to: magical experiential pockets tucked into the seamless panoptic sweep, delusion within vision, memory within history, and the psychic within the civic. Brisbane, with “its suburbs rambling over countless hills” as The Queenslander put it, is particularly good at evading the panoptic view. The river and the hills fold in on themselves, but these folds have always been riven with shifting and unseen boundaries, divisions, segregations and curfews defined around race, class and gender. However, the biggest permanent division was between high and low. During the time of Robert White’s camera obscura, which was only 120 metres above sea level, any eminence amongst the hills, even of a few metres in altitude, was enough to cement social division: the rich built their villas along the ridges, straining to catch any breeze off the Bay, while the poor built their bungalows in the gullies, waiting to be flooded. During the Second World War, the time of greatest segregation, the American army observation post that replaced the Whites Hill camera obscura was only one node in a vast, South-East-Queensland-wide network of observation points, searchlight units and anti-aircraft gun-batteries that took over every hilltop, anxiously watching the sky.

After the War the rambling topography of Brisbane, with its hidden pockets of local intensity, was written over by progress. The ‘mighty city’, which The Queenslander had seen, must have been no more than a horizontal smudge in Bob White’s camera obscura, but it nonetheless began to sprout. In 1960 the Torbreck home unit tower claimed Highgate Hill for modernity; shortly after television towers, one for each of the four channels on the TV set in our living rooms, ranged themselves along the ridge of Mount Coot-tha; in the 1970s office buildings were erected in the CBD, dwarfing the previous eminence of the City Hall from which reputedly you could once have scanned from Stradbroke Island to Mount Tibrogargan; and in 1982 the Deen Brothers demolished Cloudland Ballroom to make way for crappy apartments.

This urban thicketing is recorded by some of Stacey’s images: the relentless grids of high-rise buildings completely wallpaper Ronald van Weezel’s room at the Hilton; and they spear to death the dreamy clouds and nostalgic photographic views of old Brisbane laid across the bed in room 1706 of Quay West; while all the young occupants of Willara House can look out to from her window is a fractured wall of brick and concrete. Sometimes, however, Stacey is able to carefully pick out her views between the towers and recall the underlying geographies of Brisbane. For instance, the image of the Story Bridge from All Hallows School (which was established in a doctor’s mansion built on another key site of geographical eminence, Duncan’s Hill at the top of Fortitude Valley, purchased by the Catholic Church in 1863) is like a giant picture postcard someone has put back upside down in the postcard rack. In a similarly spectacular inversion Stacey implodes the panoptic Benthamite architecture of another famous landmark, Boggo Road Gaol, to create an internal horizon of brick, fringed by the tops of the trees and blocks of flats of Dutton Park peeping over the wall. The City Botanic Gardens, which was originally a convict farm lying at the heart of Brisbane’s colonial layout, has been inverted and turned into a curtain of richly brocaded green. The curtain rises to reveal Maroochy Barambah, the song woman of the Turrbal people, the original owners of the land, who strikes a pose against a blue backdrop of sky. The Turrbal people unsuccessfully claimed Native Title over areas of Brisbane, but Maroochy’s defiant stand in a room of the Royal on the Park Hotel still attempts to topsy-turvy the hotel’s claim that it ‘provides a view like no other and offers guests a tranquil retreat in the heart of the Brisbane CBD’.

.Robyn Stacey has asked other transient occupants to perform as themselves in her room camera obscuras: Tyrone waits in the Children’s Court; while Jade in Room 1817 or Lesley in room 2212 of the Sofitel, or Mess in room 2418 of the Marriott, wait in their hotels. They remind me of the homunculus in Descartes’ Optics, they seem like they are sitting inside their own heads, immersed in a ‘through the looking glass’ dream of Brisbane. Or perhaps Stacey’s uncanny photography has temporarily released Brisbane from the thrall of its ‘historical life-processes’, as Marx would have put it, so it appears to these visitors as it really is. For instance Carlos, an occupant of a room at the Hotel Tower Mill, leans forward against a wall, with his eyes closed in intense inner communion. Projected onto the wall of the room once, and then reflected in a wardrobe mirror again, is the Windmill across the road, haloed in a nebula of jacaranda blossom. The Windmill is the oldest, and for many years was the highest, building in Brisbane, from which the Hotel Tower Mill takes its name and its architectural shape. The Windmill was the spot near which many of Brisbane’s proud photographic panoramas were taken; the building on top of which a time ball once dropped every day at 1pm, keeping Brisbane synchronised before clocks; and the building from which test radio and television transmissions were first made in the 1920s. But folded into this panoramic history darker functions and submerged lacunae lurk. Built on a ridge to catch the breeze in the late 1820s the sails of the Windmill never worked properly, perhaps they were put on the wrong way. So convicts were put to work until they dropped at a treadmill, grinding their grain and receiving their punishment simultaneously. Reputedly, the sails did become eventually useful as an improvised gibbet for two Aboriginal men, wrongly accused of murder who, in 1841, were unceremoniously pushed off the balcony of the Windmill, amid the howls of the other Aboriginal people of Brisbane, to dangle in a public execution. Now quaintly down at heel, the Hotel Tower Mill, in which Carlos dreams, was once seriously posh. It was the accommodation chosen for the all-white Springbok Rugby Union team from apartheid South Africa when they were invited to Brisbane in 1971. Police violently pushed the anti-apartheid protestors, who had gathered next to the Windmill across the road from the motel, down the steep slope of Wickham Park, bashing them as they tried to escape. Does the camera obscura re-project these distant memories, which the Windmill has attracted to itself like an historical lightening rod, into Carlos’s head?

Carlos isn’t saying. After taking part in Stacey’s experiment he’s checked out and gone back to where he came from. But as we look at her images of the outside in and the upside down, we too are invited to observe how a whole big, brash city may magically find itself silently floating upside down inside a single room; and how the past may still be felt, delicately tucked up into the present.

Another, more elemental, vision underpinned the laws of optics before they were rectified, framed and interpreted by photographic cameras and cultural conventions. Stacey shows us that, even in these days of the camera phone, da Vinci’s mind blowing revelation of infinite radiating pyramids filling the atmosphere is still capable of shaking us out of our habits and allowing us to experience the city we have built for ourselves in fresh and uncanny ways.

[1] Leonardo Da Vinci, Notebooks, Oxford University Press, 2008, p115

[2] Giambattista della Porta, ‘Of Strange Glasses’, Natural Magic (English translation), Thomas Young, 1658, pp363-364

[3] ibid, pp364-365

[4] Karl Marx, A Critique of The German Ideology, 1846, np

[5] ‘Passing of a Pioneer, Mr John White, of White’s Hill, Glimpses of early Brisbane, The Telegraph, 25 February 1927, p9)

[6] ‘Excursionist, Trips Around Brisbane, The Australasian, 20 February 1892, p44; The Brisbane Courier, 31 July 1929 p14.

[7] ‘Illustrations, Sixty Years Married, The Whites of White’s Hill’, The Queenslander, 24 January 1925, p40

[8] The Telegraph, 1 June 1935, p13

[9] The Telegraph, 18 July 1936, p30

[10] Judy Rechner, Where Have All The Creeks Gone: Camp Hill Heritage Drive Tour, Brisbane East Branch, National Trust of Queensland, 2001.

The Face in Digital Space

Published in ‘The Culture of Photography in Public Space’, edited by Anne Marsh, Melissa Miles and Daniel Palmer, Intellect, Bristol, 2015

GALLERY OF ILLUSTRATIONS

That configuration of eyes, nose and mouth stuck to the front of our heads, which we call the face, not only connects the outer sociological self to the inner psychological self— the old ‘window on the soul’ idea — but it also connects one person to another in a relationship. For the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas the face was the place of authentic encounter between self and other: ‘The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation’. (Levinas 1979: 210) According to Levinas, when two faces face each other, each demands something from the other, even if it is only recognition. It is the power of ideas such as this that still underpin controversies around the role of the face in public places of social interaction. For instance, the debates around recent attempts by various European governments to ban the burqa and the niqab in public, place the face at the very centre of contemporary definitions of personal autonomy and public citizenship. (Chesler 2010)

In order to perform this social function of human interaction the face has to be abstracted away from the body so that it can enter into a system of semiotic exchange. Deleuze and Guattari called this ‘faciality’, a process that over-codes the organism of the body with other strata of signification and subjectification. (1988) To them, the face is an abstract machine of ‘black holes in a white wall’ — a technology increasingly becoming enmeshed with other technologies.

Facial history

But in many ways this process of abstraction and ‘over-coding’ begins much earlier, with John Caspar Lavatar’s popular Essays in Physiognomy from the 1770s. Lavater defined his new science of physiognomy as the ‘the science … of the correspondence between the external and the internal man, the visible superficies and the invisible contents.’ (Lavater 1885: 11) He established that correspondence by either visual analogy, where a bovine-looking person must exhibit dull, bovine personal characteristics; or by biometric algorithms, where the slope of a brow, for instance, indexed cranial capacity and thus intelligence. A brow at a high angle above the nose was the mathematical index of a large brain, but also the visual equivalent of Roman nobility. A brow at a low angle indicated a small brain, and was also literally simian. Lavater’s analogical mapping and algorithmic vectorization allowed him to compare and classify faces, but they also removed the face from the ranks of the purely human, and placed it into an abstracted morphing space which was also shared by animals. Plate 80 of his Essays in Physiognomy demonstrates this with startling clarity as Lavater’s illustrator morphs a drawing of a frog’s face through twelve separate frames. In the first frame the angles of the isosceles triangle between the frog’s eyes and its lips is, Lavater tells us, just 25 degrees. Frame by frame the frog’s eyes slowly become more almond shaped and the whole face lengthens until, by the final frame, we find ourselves looking into the face of an androgynous human. The angle between the eyes and lips of this face has now increased to 56 degrees, a facial angle shared, according to Lavater, by Aristotle, Pitt, Frederick the Great, and Apollo.(497)

Eighty years later Charles Darwin completed the project of placing the human face within the realm of animals with his development of the theory of evolution. In his wildly popular follow-up book of 1872, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he homed in on the mechanics of the face and established that human facial expression was an instinctual animal behaviour, rather than a social language. (Darwin1 872) He demonstrated the automatic, biological mechanics of expression by artificially decoupling the external hydraulics of the facial muscles from their usual inner, instinctual motivations. For instance, for plate seven he obtained from the French scientist Dr Duchene a photograph of the facial muscles of an intellectually impaired man being twitched into the expression of ‘horror and agony’ by the external application of the terminals of a galvanic battery. He then juxtaposed this with a photograph he had commissioned of the photographer Oscar Rejlander acting out exactly the same expression. By photographically proving that muscles could be manipulating by two entirely separate methods — electricity and pantomime — to produce exactly the same expression. In this plate Darwin demonstrated that the face lay on top of the self, the face alone, without the self, could enter the plane of abstracted analysis and comparison.

Lavater’s physiognomic analogs and algorithms, and Darwin’s muscular decoupling, had the effect of conceptually delaminating the face from the body. But it was photography that then circulated that face within society. The greatest celebrity of Victorian England was the royal courtesan, partygoer, actress, beauty, and endorser of Pears Soap, Lillie Langtry. Through photography her face left the realm of her body and entered other media spaces. In Victorian England the most lubricious place where newly mobilised images bumped up against each other was the stationer’s shop window, and Lillie’s photographs were right in the middle of every window, disturbing the pre-existing social order. A writer at the time commented on:

… that democratic disregard of rank which prevails in our National Portrait Gallery of the present day — the stationer’s shop window — where such discordant elements of the social fabric as Lord Napier and Lillie Langtry … rub shoulders jarringly. (Ewing 2008: 22)

 Langtry was also the very first person in the world to find herself in a photographic feedback loop, that is, to feel the effects of her photographed face, as it circulated though Victorian visual culture, reflecting back on to her actual body. In her autobiography, The Days I Knew, she recalled:

Photography was now making great strides, and pictures of well-known people had begun to be exhibited for sale. The photographers, one and all, besought me to sit. Presently, my portraits were in every shop-window, with trying results, for they made the public so familiar with my features that wherever I went — to theatres, picture galleries, shops — I was actually mobbed. Thus the photographs gave fresh stimulus to a condition which I had unconsciously created. One night, at a large reception at Lady Jersey’s, many of the guests stood on chairs to obtain a better view of me, and I could not help but hear their audible comments on my appearance as I passed down the drawing-room. Itinerant vendors sold cards about the streets with my portrait ingeniously concealed, shouting ‘The Jersey Lily, the puzzle is to find her’. (Langtry 1925: 40)

 

Facial velocity

In the subsequent 130 years, of course, the velocity of that photographic circulation has only increased in speed and brutality. And now it is not just the mega-famous who find themselves caught up in photographic feedback loops. Erno Nussenzweig has become the chief exemplar of the ever-present possibility that any one of us can suddently become an accidental celebrity. One day in 1999 this elderly, bearded, orthodox Jewish man innocently emerged onto the sidewalk from a subway at Times Square. It wasn’t until five years later that he discovered that at that decisive moment he had been photographed by Philip-Lorca diCorcia who had set up a bank of flashlights on scaffolding to capture random passers by as they came into his camera’s plane of focus. diCorcia had exhibited the portrait at the prestigious Pace/McGill Gallery, published it in a book called Heads, sold out its edition of ten prints at between twenty and thirty thousand dollars each, and had eventually won London’s prestigious Citibank Prize with it. Nussenzweig sued for 1.6 million dollars claiming the photographer had used his face for purposes of trade, as well as violated his religious beliefs. His lawyer, Jay Golding, put his case best succinctly to the New York Post who in their report ‘What’s a picture worth — he wants 1.6 Mil’ quoted him as saying: ‘It’s a beautiful picture. But why should this guy make money off of your face?’. (Hafetz 2005: 23) diCorcia’s lawyer, however, was able to convince the judge that the photographs were taken primarily for the purpose of artistic expression, not commerce, and were therefore protected by the First Amendment.

Or consider the case of Neda Soltan. In 2009 she was videoed by the mobile phones of three separate pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran as she lay dying from a government-sniper’s bullet. After the videos went viral on the internet her face was even turned into a mask and worn by pro-democracy demonstrators at a protest in Paris. (Wikipedia ‘Death of Neda Agha-Soltan’ 2013) Meanwhile, in the hours after her death, some eager journalists mistakenly harvested a photograph of another Iranian woman with a similar name, Neda Soltani, from her Facebook page. It was this face that was used in many improvised shrines to the other, assassinated Neda. Iranian authorities then began to harass Soltani in order to get her to cooperate with them in claiming hat the original murder had been a set-up by the western media. After twelve days of harassment the other Neda was forced to flee Iran and seek refuge in Germany, from where she wrote a book about her experience, My Stolen Face. (Soltani 2012)

Or put yourself in the shoes of Nicole McCabe, an Australian citizen living in Jerusalem and pregnant with her first child. She also had her photograph harvested from Facebook. In 2010 the Israeli Government had stolen McCabe’s identity for a Mossad agent to use in order to assassinate a Hamas official. When the story broke and the passports the Israeli’s had forged were circulated in the media, complete with their actual passport numbers, Nicole McCabe decided she did not want to talk to Australian journalists, or be photographed by them. But after having the door slammed on them by McCabe’s angry husband, the journalists simply sourced photographs of her from Facebook, where friends had posted her wedding photographs. Nicole said she felt:

‘sick, angry, embarrassed and upset … even if Facebook is public, they have no right to take what they want without asking. I was more determined than ever not to let anyone take a photo of me.’ (Media Watch 2010)

 Or consider the fate of the footballer Sonny Bill Williams. In 2007 he embarked on an afternoon drinking session at the Clovelly Hotel with his team-mates and a group of football groupies that included celebrity iron woman Candice Falzon. Later that night one Clovelly local got a message on his phone. The local reported: “It said Candice Falzon had followed Sonny Bill into the toilets upstairs at the pub and everyone knew about it. The next message I got was an … um … action shot.” The shot, taken by putting a mobile phone under the toilet door as William and Falzon had sex, was soon being widely circulated amongst the mobile phones of Clovelly, and when it was eventually published on The Daily Telegraph’s website, it attracted a record number of hits. Williams reportedly had to spend all the following morning buying up copies of newspapers in his area in a futile attempt to stop his girlfriend learning of his toilet tryst. Although the person who took the photograph could have been liable for two years jail under the summary offences act for taking lewd photographs in toilets and change rooms, the newspaper itself could not be successfully prosecuted for posting the photograph once it was taken. (The Daily Telegraph 2007)

Incidents such as this show that faces don’t just have features, they also have velocities. The more famous you are the more recognizable you are to more people, but also the faster your face is circulated in the media. Even if you aren’t famous, a lightning bolt of sudden celebrity can dramatically, thought temporarily, catapult your face into a higher strata of recognizability, which propels exchange at a faster velocity.

While some have felt themselves suddenly swept up into these currents of facial velocity, others have attempted, with mixed success, to ride those turbulent currents to even greater fame. Consider the career of Lara Bingle. Once an ordinary bikini model, her celebrity stocks rose in 2006 when she was chosen for a tourism campaign. The men’s magazine Zoo Weekly then published revealing photographs of her that had been taken eleven months earlier, before she was chosen to be the wholesome face of Australia, on which they superimposed sexually suggestive speech bubbles. She sued the magazine for defamation. She won the case when the judge accepted that the magazine was smutty and had implied that she had willingly consented to pose for the sexual titillation of its readers. (Sydney Morning Herald 2006a, 2006b) However by the end of 2006 the tourism campaign had flopped, and Bingle was having an illicit affair with the married footballer Brendan Fevola. But by 2008 her stocks had risen again, she was engaged to the cricketer Michael Clark, and they were one of Sydney’s foremost celebrity couples, even endorsing an energy drink. By early 2010 she had even signed up with celebrity agent Mark Marxson. But then Woman’s Day published a mobile-phone photograph her ex-lover Brendan Fevola had taken of her in the shower back in 2006, which his football mates had been circulating between their mobile phones for some time. Her engagement with Michael Clark broke down and the energy drink company dropped them. Mark Marxson threatened to ‘strike a blow for women’s rights’ by getting her to sue Fevola, but she did not have a case because, unlike in the Zoo Weekly case, no specific laws of defamation were broken. (Byrne 2010) Bingle’s stocks in the celebrity marketplace plummeted but, after a period of careful career management including charity work, family-friendly television appearances, and the avoidance of footballers, they begun to rise again. They rose so far that by 2012 she successfully negotiated with a TV production company to become the subject of a ‘reality’ TV series Being Lara Bingle on a commercial television network. Conveniently, just before the premiere was about to air, another controversy erupted when she was supposedly photographed surreptitiously by the famous paparazzi Darryn Lyons (who was in fact a business partner of Bingle’s) standing nude near the window of the Bondi flat that had been rented for the show. This confected ‘invasion of privacy’ allowed her to tell breakfast radio that: “There should be a law against someone shooting inside your house …. it’s just not right”, thus garnering pre-publicity for the series, and conveniently forming the content of the first episode. That first TV episode rated highly, however subsequent episodes in the series steadily lost viewers, to the point where Bingle’s career languished once more. (O’Brien 2012) Bingle then climbed back in the celebrity news cycle after she began to date the Avatar actor Sam Worthington, reportedly introducing him to the use of social media platforms such as Instagram. In February 2014 the couple suddenly hit the celebrity gossip headlines when Worthington was arrested in New York for allegedly assaulting a photographer who had allegedly kicked Bingle in the shin. (Clun 2014)

The camera has ruled Lara Bingle’s career as celebrity, someone defined by our desire to look at her. But this has been the case ever since Lillie Langtry. However the roller coaster ride of Bingle’s value as a bankable celebrity has also been ruled by the sudden eruptions or irruptions, whether planned or not, ‘authorised’ or not, of particular recognisable photographs which re-attach the ‘face’ of Bingle to the ‘brand’ of Bingle in different ways. The speed of their circulation through both social media and the mainstream media, create the volatility of the market for her images. Celebrities are sometimes even forced to engage in this market directly. For example, in 2013 the TV and radio presenter Chrissie Swan, who had acquired her celebrity status dispensing homespun wisdom to ordinary women, was photographed smoking whilst she was pregnant, something she herself had campaigned against. So that they could never be published, she engaged in a bidding war with two magazines for the photographs, eventually pulling out after offering $53,000, two thousand dollars less than the winning bid by Womens Day. (news.com.au 2013)

Facial vecotorisation

These examples indicate the high speed of facial velocity. But what of facial vectorisation? The terrain of the face continues to be the site of scientific research that updates Lavater’s and Darwin’s pioneering efforts and re-affirms the face’s muscular mechanics as central to our humanity — although now not by indexing some immutable inner person as Lavater had supposed, but through their intrinsic role within language comprehension. Contemporary cognitive psychologists such as professor Rolf Zwan, from Erasmus University Rotterdam, are researching the ways that facial muscle-movement directly feedbacks to the brain. For example experiments have shown that if you are smiling you can read sentences about emotions quicker than if you are frowning; and if you have had Botox you have more difficulty interpreting photographic portraits of emotions because in conversation your facial muscles subtly enter into a feedback loop of micro-mimicry with your interlocutor, which Botox decouples. (Lingua Franca 2011; White 2011; Zwaan 2013) Other experiments suggest that if you are in the presence of the representation of a face your moral standards are higher. (Bourrat, Baumard, McKay 2011; Smith 2011)

 

While these examples of cognitive research indicate that the face as a concept remains central to discourses of the human, individual faces are also increasingly caught up in ever-finer meshes of delamination, vectorisation, and mobilization. For instance plastic surgery is moving down the social scale from being the prerogative of the famous and the fatuous, to being a commonplace conventional practice for all of us. ‘Extreme makeovers’ are increasingly re-mapping everyday faces, and recalibrating with the scalpel the vectoral angles between eyes, noses and chins in order to ratchet their owners up in scales of beauty.

If the facial structure itself can be morphed through surgery, in other instances the facial pixel maps representing the person can be manipulated. The regular Photoshoping of celebrity portraits in our magazines simply replicates in two dimensions the effects of the cosmetic surgeon’s scalpel, and the amount of pixelated deviation away from the ‘truth’ can even be algorithmically calculated and given a value. (Fahid, Kee 2011) Photoshop can also be used to disguise faces. Consider the case of Christopher Paul Neil who liked to post pictures of himself sexually abusing Vietnamese and Cambodian children on paedophile websites. He applied a swirl filter to his face to disguise his identity, but German police simply applied the same filter in reverse and unswirled the pattern and reveal his face. Interpol then posted the image on their website where he was recognised by five different people and identified. After his face was picked up by a surveillance camera at Bangkok Airport he was eventually arrested in October 2007. (Daily Mail 2007; Wikipedia ‘Christopher Paul Neil’ 2013)

Neil was recognised by a human being, but the technological possibility exists that eventually his face could have been recognised by a machine. Facial recognition software applies algorithms to the same sets of vectors between eyes, nose and mouth that Lavater originally identified. Australia is at the forefront of facial recognition research. We have not only already introduced ‘smart gates’ at our airports to match our facial algorithms with a database, but National ICT Australia (NICTA) received 1.5 million dollars from the Cabinet to research what it describes as the ‘holy grail’ of surveillance: ‘real-time face-in-the-crowd recognition technology’. Concurrent with these Australian research projects, international protocols are also being developed. For instance the US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology hosted the Face Recognition Grand Challenge open to entrants from industry, universities and research institutes. This means, according to NICTA, that:

The surveillance industry is currently undergoing the same revolutionary changes that shook up the computer industry when internet use took off in the 1990s. Instead of each supplier providing a unique product, the sector will soon be dominated by standards and interoperability. Surveillance will eventually merge into a virtually seamless multimedia network embracing social media, location services, mobile devices, maps, and 3D models. (Advanced Surveillance Project 2013; (Bigdeli, LovellMau, 201abc)

However even though technology is yet to actually deliver on its promises, the idea of facial recognition and facial manipulation has already become commonplace in the media, and almost domesticated. For several years it has been something we can all indulge in as a kind of game. A whole class of smart phone apps are based on face recognition software. We can also apply face recognition algorithms to the vast reservoirs of faces on the internet, or on Facebook, or in our iPhoto libraries, in order to locate friends we are looking for even when the metadata tags aren’t available; or to look for celebrities; or to calculate how much we look like a celebrity; or to calculate which of our children most looks like us. Many new cameras also have face recognition software built in which recognises, automatically focuses on, and tags, particular people even before the shutter is clicked.

In a way of thinking about the face that is very similar to Lavater’s and Darwin’s, the frontier of contemporary 3D computer animation is the mapping of actual micro-muscular movements onto animated wire-frames. The most famous example of this so far has occurred in the movie Avatar, 2009, where actors, including Sam Worthington, wore head-rigs which filmed the movement of motion-tracking markers on their faces. This digital information was then ‘peeled’ off the actor’s face and re-applied to a 3D animation wire-frame model. The use of the same rigs on the actor Andy Serkis for the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011, finally placed the human face and its expressions in the realm as animals, as imagined by Lavater 230 years ago. Significantly, this technology has also become domesticated in on-line games such as Macdonald’s website Avartize Yourself. Other games take forensic ‘age progression’ software used by missing-persons bureaus, and turn them into games such as the iPhone app Hourface.

Facial Privatisation

Why is it worthwhile looking so closely at tabloid trash and trivial on-line games? Because they, as much as high-end cutting-edge research, are the symptoms of two new tendencies in the valency of the face. Firstly, we are all becoming celebrities, at least potentially. The velocity of our own faces can suddenly speed up when we least expect it. Secondly, our faces are all part of what NICTA calls a ‘virtually seamless multimedia environment’. This is not just analogical space, the bit-mapping and point-by-point comparison of appearances, but algorithmic space, where faces are vectorised and turned into equations that can instantly interact with a myriad of other equations. The pervasiveness of celebrity culture, combined with the explosion of algorithmic biometrics within merging media and data spaces, has had a profound effect upon the ways in which every one of us regards our own face. The face is congealing as a bastion from which to advance privacy rights and proclaim property rights.

 There has been a consistent and inexorable drift in legal opinion in Australia towards a tort of privacy — which we currently do not have — that is ultimately focussed on protecting the human face. Back in 2001 Justice John Dowd was able to confidently claim that a person ‘does not have a right not to be photographed’. But by 2003 Justice Michael Kirby was commenting that extending the law in Australia to protect the ‘honour, reputation and personal privacy of individuals’ would be consistent with international developments in human rights law. (Nemeth 2012)

 By 2008 Professor David Weisbot, president of the Australian Law Reform Commission, was saying that during their inquiry into privacy law, the ALRC had:

consistently heard strong support for the enactment of a statutory cause of action for serious invasion of privacy. While the debate overseas has focussed on the activities of paparazzi photographers, interestingly, most of the concerns expressed to the ALRC related more to the private sphere than the mainstream media — and to the protection of ordinary citizens rather than celebrities. People are extremely concerned about new technology and the ease with which their private personal images may be captured and disseminated. (Australian Law Reform Commission 2008)

 In their recommendations the ALRC called for: ‘a private cause of action where an individual has suffered a serious invasion of privacy, in circumstances in which the person had a reasonable expectation of privacy’. (2008) And in 2011 the NSW Law Reform Commission agreed, releasing draft laws that stated that an invasion of privacy should exist where a person ‘has a reasonable expectation of privacy’, which could potentially even include a public place. (New South Wales Law Reform Commission 2010; Marr 2009))

So, why this paradox? Why, when our personal information is flowing more freely than ever before, when 80% of people want CCTV cameras in their public spaces, and when the vast majority of Facebook users are happy to use its default settings where there is little or no privacy at all, why are we getting increasingly paranoid about our faces? I think it is because the face is caught up in a wider transformation. It is swimming against the tide that is pulling the private into the public because it is part of a stronger current, from signification to possession. Those of us feeling the effects of both celebrity culture and algorithmic data-media are regarding privacy less as a singular inherent right, and more as a fungible personal commodity which can be exchanged in a market place. For instance Nicole McCabe knew her participation in Facebook was not free, she knew she had ‘sold’ it some of her privacy in order to enjoy its benefits, but suddenly and unexpectedly she came to realize that perhaps she had ‘traded off’ too much of her privacy. This mercantile logic is also beginning to pervade other environments of facial interaction, such as public places. Within the politics of the face the receding sense of the private, in the sense of the ‘the discreet’, is being overtaken by an encroaching sense of the privatised, in the sense of ‘the owned’. We all increasingly agree implicitly with Nussenzweig’s lawyer: ‘why should this guy make money off of your face?’.

The abstraction, delamination and mobilization of the face has led to its reification. The face is closing down on the sense of openly mutual obligation that, in Levinas’s terms, once arose when one face faced another, and is replacing it with a sense of commercial enclosure. This reification is intensified by the way that all faces, even our own, can be peeled away from our bodies to enter new virtual and algorithmic spaces. Celebrities are merely at the vanguard of this transformation. Celebrities believe they are their own commodity. They believe that their face is the result of their labour and their talent. It is their capital, their brand, their corporate logo. The velocity with which their face travels through the neworks of the media is what determines their value as a celebrity. They believe they therefore have a proprietary right in it. In America their faces are even protected by a common law ‘right of publicity’ which grants them, in the words of one key judgement, ‘the exclusive right to control the commercial value and exploitation of [their] name, picture, likeness or personality.’ (Wikipedia, ‘Personality Rights’ 2013) And, just like them, we ordinary people also feel that our own faces are also becoming more monologic, less a window or an interface, and more a logo for ‘Brand Me’. That configuration of eyes, nose and mouth stuck to the front of our heads, which we call the face, is now not so much a portal to the inner self, or a species of physiognomic autobiography, or an interface to our fellow citizens, as much as a rebus of identity, or perhaps a corporate logo for the persona. It is clear that laws of privacy, photography and reproduction will eventually be changed to confirm for everybody what has already happened in facial valency to a select few. They will come to protect not only the integrity of the personal autonomy and public citzenship of the individaul as accessed through the face, but also the value of the face itself — as an individual’s property

 GALLERY OF ILLUSTRATIONS

Bibliography:

Advanced Surveillance Project (2013), NICTA, http://nicta.com.au/research/projects/safe_as. Accessed 31 January 2013,

Australian Law Reform Commission (2008), ‘For Your Information: Australian Privacy Law and Practice (ALRC Report 108)’, http://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/report-108. Accessed 31 January 2013.

Bigdeli, A. & Lovell, B. & Mau, S. (2011a), ‘You, yes you: welcome to the world of advanced surveillance”, The Conversation, 23 May, http://theconversation.edu.au/. Accessed 31 January 2013.

Bigdeli, A. & Lovell, B. & Mau, S (2011b), ‘Something to watch over me: policing our national bordersThe Conversation, 26 May, . http://theconversation.edu.au/>

Bigdeli, A & Lovell, B & Mau, S 2011c ‘All-seeing eye: the future of surveillance and social media’ The Conversation, 27 May, Accessed 31 January 2013, http://theconversation.edu.au/. Accessed 31 January 2013.

Bourrat, P. & Baumard, N. & McKay R. (2011) ‘Surveillance Cues Enhance Moral Condemnation’, Evolutionary Psychology,  9(2) pp.193-199.

Byrne, L. (2010), ‘Lara Bingle to sue Brendan Fevola over nude photo’, Herald Sun, 2 March, http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/lara-bingle-to-sue-brendan-fevola-over-nude-photo/story-e6frf7l6-1225835852364. Accessed 31 January 2013.

Chesler, P. (2010), ‘Ban the Burqa? The Argument in Favor’, The Middle East Quarterly, Fall, pp34-45.

Clun, R. (2014), ‘Sam Worthington arrested in New York for assaulting photographer who allegedly kicked Lara Bingle’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 February, http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/celebrity/sam-worthington-arrested-in-new-york-for-assaulting-photographer-who-allegedly-kicked-lara-bingle-20140224-33c4f.html. Accessed 28 February 2014.

Daily Mail (2007), ‘Police name internet paedophile caught out in digitally altered images’, 16 October, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-486334/Police-internet-paedophile-caught-digitally-altered-images.html. Accessed January 31 2013.

Darwin, C. (1872), The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, J. Murray London.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1988), ‘Year Zero: Faciality’, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, , trans Massumi, B, Athlone Press, London.

Ewing, W. A. (2008), Face: the new photographic portrait, Thames & Hudson, London.

Fahid, H. & Kee, E. (2011), ‘A perceptual metric for photo retouching’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the Unites States of America, 28 November, PNAS 108 (50), pp. 19907-19912.

Hafetz, D. (2005) ‘What’s a picture worth — he wants 1.6 Mil’, New York Post, 26 June, p23.

Langtry, L. (1925) The Days I Knew, George H Doran Company, New York.

Lavater, C. (1885) Essays on physiognomy, also one hundred physiognomical rules, taken from a posthumous work by J.G. Lavater, and a memoir of the author, 17th ed, trans Holcroft, T., Ward Lock, London.

Law Reform Commission of New South Wales (2010), ‘Report 127 – Protecting Privacy in New South Wales’, http://www.lawreform.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/agdbasev7wr/lrc/documents/pdf/r127_final_revised.pdf. Accessed 31 January 2013. <http://www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/lawlink/lrc/ll_lrc.nsf/pages/LRC_r127toc>

Levinas, E. 1979, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans Alphonso (Lingis, M. Nijhoff Publishers The Hague, Boston.

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Marr, D. (2009), ‘Pesky Press Annoying You? Now You Can just Sue Them’, The National Times, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 August 2009, http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/pesky-press-annoying-you-now-you-can-just-sue-them-20090814-el51.html. Accessed 31 January 2013.

Media Watch (2010), ‘Identity Fully Revealed’, Episode 05, 8 March, http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s2839839.htm. Accessed 31 January 2013.

Nemeth, A. (2012), NSW Photo Rights: Street Photography Legal Issues, 4020, http://4020.net/words/photorights.php. Accessed 31 January 2013.

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Delicious Moments: The Photograph Album in Nineteenth Century Australia

 

Published in The Photograph and Australia, edited by Judy Annear, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2015

Photographs were never just images, they were always also things: objects to be touched or held, given or received, hidden or revealed, kept or destroyed. Photographic historians are paying increasing attention to objects such as photographic albums, and as they do so new insights into the way people once loved, shared and remembered are opening up to us.[1] But, as we look afresh at these old albums, connections with the way we use photographs today are also emerging, even though photographs are no longer the things they once were.

On 18 October 1860 a Sydney merchant announced: ‘We have received per mail a few photographic portraits of The Queen, the Prince Consort, and all members of the Royal Family. They have been taken from the life by Mr Mayall of Regent Street and are highly interesting from their truthfulness and unexaggerated appearance’.[2] The royal portraits were in the new carte-de-visite format – full-length portraits photographed in sets of eight by special multi-lens cameras and glued onto small mass-produced visiting cards. By early 1862 Sydney stationers were advertising another new commodity, the carte-de-visite album.[3] These albums had thick, decorated pages with pre-cut slots to hold cartes de visite. By July that year the Sydney photographers Freeman Brothers were announcing that they had ‘arranged a series of variable and appropriate backgrounds, so as to produce increased effect and add interest to the pictures […] in order to meet the increasing demand for these elegant varieties of the photographic art’.[4] The global carte-de-visite craze had hit Australia – the product of the coming together of an international postal service, a modular album, and a standardised photographic format. A popular poem that was placed on the first page of many Australian albums instructed the reader on how to use this new object:

Yes, this is my album

But learn ere you look:

That all are expected

To add to my book.

You are welcome to quiz it

The penalty is,

That you add your own portrait

For others to quiz[5]

 

The album was therefore a site of mutual obligation and reciprocal exchange. Mayall’s portraits, which reportedly sold in their hundreds of thousands around the empire, set up the royal family as the template for all the other families in the colony, while carte-de-visite albums became a physical manifestation of one’s place in a rigid social system. As she tucked images of the famed, such as those of the royal family with their ‘truthfulness and unexaggerated appearance’, into the same intimate pockets as the portraits of people she knew, each album’s owner stitched herself tightly into her immediate family as well as concentric social circles extending all the way up to the stratospheric reaches of royalty. The Sydney Morning Herald quoted one satirist who poked fun at the ‘claims to gentility’ the carte-de-visite album had unleashed; but his social vignette also points to how tactile the albums were, how startlingly immediate the portraits were, and how the combination of portraits was animated by a compiler’s narration:

 You place it in your friend’s hands, saying, ‘This only contains my special favorites, mind’, and there is her ladyship staring them in the face the next moment. ‘Who is this sweet person?’ says the visitor. ‘Oh that is dear Lady Puddicombe’, you reply carelessly. Delicious moment![6]

 There was much that was formulaic about the carte-de-visite’s iconography. The ‘series of variable and appropriate backgrounds’ Freeman Brothers arranged for their clients would have been necessarily limited, and the repertoire of poses, derived from paintings, equally formulaic.[7] But cartes de visite allowed the middle classes to ‘perform’ themselves as they wanted to be seen, then socially articulate themselves within the juxtapositions of the album, and finally even to see themselves ensconced in global networks. These were all powerful forces so, not surprisingly, albums themselves began to appear as talismanic objects within carte-de-visite portraits. Townsend Duryea, for instance, photographed a young Moonta woman gazing wistfully off into the distance; we don’t know whom she is thinking of, but we are certain their portrait is in the album which sits open in front of her (p xx).

Not all nineteenth-century albums followed the modular conventions of the pre-made carte-de-visite album; some were surprising informal. Around Christmas-time 1858 Louisa Elizabeth How, the wife of a wealthy merchant, briefly took up photography.[8] Her photographs of visitors to her harbourside home provide an insight into the day-to-day social life of friends in a domestic space. The settlers John Glen and Charles Morrison lounge with stereoscopes and stereo cards – an earlier photography craze – while William Landsborough, just returned from opening up new land for pastoral claims in southern Queensland, sits stiff-leggedly. His young Aboriginal companion ‘Tiger’ has obviously been told by How to wedge his elbow on the back of Landsborough’s chair in a fraternal gesture. He loosely holds his doffed cap in one hand, but hovers his other hand just above the explorer’s shoulder, barely touching it with his stiff fingers.

Albums such as How’s, which take us so closely into the bodily interrelationships of colonial Australians, are extremely rare. More common are the large, elaborately hand-painted, collaged scrapbook albums that became popular among middle- and upper-class women in the late 1860s.[9] Mrs Lambert, the compiler of one of these albums, Who and what we saw at the Antipodes, not only records the social circles of Sydney’s colonial elite, but also their houses and drawing rooms. For one photograph she flung open the curtains to her own drawing room at 46 Phillip Street. Though the streaming sun reduced the exposure time, Edith Gladstone, the young sister of Countess Belmore, the Governor’s wife, still has to hold her head to keep it from moving while she is photographed reading at a desk. There is an air of casual immediacy to the image, and a domestic informality is revealed as our eye wanders through the clutter of novels, albums and knick-knacks.[10]

Another album, from the Lethbridge family of Queensland pastoralists, contains a lovely, and remarkably modern-looking, portrait of a fresh-faced young girl leaning back in her chair and looking frankly into the camera with her fingers laced behind her head. Somebody, at a later date, has added the necessary metadata in pencil: ‘Effie Dalrymple, sister to Florence Lethbridge’. Thanks to those worker-bees of history, the family genealogists, and the digitisation of photographic collections, it only takes Google 0.45 seconds to find me another image of Effie, this one taken in 1900 after she had been married for twenty years and borne four children to the Mayor of Mackay, David Dalrymple. In the image that Google delivers, her face is now set hard and her hair tightly drawn back.

To jump from a nineteenth-century portrait album to the internet is now an automatic leap. And plenty of people have noticed the structural similarities between carte-de-visite albums and Facebook.[11] This comment from 1862 about the process of being turned into a carte de visite seems remarkably familiar today:

 

you have the opportunity of distributing yourself among your friends, and letting them see you in your favorite attitude, and with your favorite expression. And then you get into those wonderful books which everybody possesses, and strangers see you there in good society, and ask who that very striking looking person is?[12]

Slide04

Slide02 Slide06 Slide05

Nineteenth-century albums mediated between the private and the public, allowing people to invent themselves and to feel connected with each other over vast distances of space and time, networked into global, virtual communities. Just like online photo-sharing today.

 

[1] See, for example: Geoffrey Batchen, Forget me not: photography and remembrance, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2004; Martha Langford, Suspended conversations: the afterlife of memory in photographic albums, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2001; Elizabeth Edwards, ‘Photographs as objects of memory’, in Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward & Jeremy Aynsley (eds), Material memories, Berg, Oxford, 1999, pp 221–36; Deborah Chambers, ‘Family as place: family photograph albums and the domestication of public and private space’, in Joan Schwartz & James Ryan (eds) Picturing place: photography and the geographical imagination, IB Tauris, London, 2003, pp 96–114; and Verna Posever Curtis, The album in the age of photography, Aperture/Library of Congress, New York, NY & Washington, DC, 2011.

[2] Sydney Morning Herald, 18 October 1860, p 8. For more on carte-de-visite albums in the 1860s see Warwick Reeder, ‘The stereograph and the album portrait in colonial Sydney 1859–62’, History of Photography, vol 23, no 2, summer 1999, pp 181–91.

[3] Sydney Morning Herald, 15 March 1862, p 2; Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Apr 1862, p 7.

[4] Sydney Morning Herald, 2 July 1862, p 2.

[5] A carte-de-visite copy of this poem appears in an album in the papers of Isobel Mackenzie, State Library of New South Wales, MLMSS 2996/SPG/1; another is in the State Library of Tasmania, TL.P 779.POR. The poem is also cited in Reeder 1999, p 182; Deborah Chambers 2003, p 99; and Risto Sarvas & David M Frohlich, From snapshots to social media: the changing picture of domestic photography, Springer, London, 2011, p 41.

[6] Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Oct 1862, p 8.

[7] For more on carte-de-visite conventions see Geoffrey Batchen, ‘Dreams of ordinary life’, Photography: theoretical snapshots, Routledge, London, 2009, pp 80–97.

[8] Isobel Crombie, ‘Louisa Elizabeth How: pioneer photographer’, Australian Business Collectors Annual, 1984; and Joan Kerr (ed), Dictionary of Australian artists: painters, sketchers, photographers, engravers to 1870, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992, pp 375–76.

[9] For international examples of these albums see Elizabeth Siegel, Playing with pictures: the art of Victorian photocollage, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, 2010.

[10] Martyn Jolly, ‘“Who and what we saw at the Antipodes”: who and what?’, martynjolly.com/writing/nineteen-century-albums/, accessed 30 June 2014.

[11] See Martyn Jolly, ‘A nineteenth-century Melbourne spiritualist’s carte de visite album’, in Anne Maxwell (ed) Migration and exchange, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2014 (forthcoming); Esther Milne, ‘Magic bits of pasteboard: texting in the nineteenth century’, M/C Journal, vol 7, no 1, Jan 2004, media-culture.org.au/0401/02-milne.php, accessed 30 June 2014; Simone Natale, ‘Photography and communication media in the nineteenth century’, History of Photography, vol 36, no 4, Nov 2012, pp 451–56; and Risto Sarvas & David M Frohlich 2011, pp 35-42.

[12] Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Oct 1862, p 8.