Flocking Australians — My 1989 essay for Anne Zahalka’s ‘Bondi, Playground of the Pacific’

Working through Anne Zahalka’s excellent website Zahalkaworld I came across this old essay of mine, so I OCRed it.

Flocking Australians

If you wanted to write the story of recent Australian photography you could say that, about ten years ago, some photographers of Anne Zahalka’s generation found themselves engaged in a kind of oedipal drama with the grand traditions of photography.

They began to doubt whether photography’s contiguity with the real automatically guaranteed the privileged access to social, historical and psychological truth which it claimed for itself. They also doubted whether the camera’s internalisation of Renaissance perspective automatically created a universal language innocent of contextual inflection.

Against photography’s core documentary and transcendental traditions they counterposed an array of critical strategies: a deliberate play with its significatory codes; a seditious appropriation of its most persuasive and pervasive images; and a provocative flirtation with either the theatrical or the filmic mise-en-scene.

Photographic denotation now came chaperoned by irony. And the viewer’s simple delight in the photograph’s self-evident truth was displaced by a knowing complicity with the photographer’s intertextual virtuosity.

Very good. And all, by now, more than familiar. But perhaps, in the heat of their battle, these photographers surrendered what remains one of photography’s main functions – the recording of our social environment. In their strategic opposition to the assumptions that underpinned photography’s entrenched, but exhausted traditions —such as Documentary — they neglected the task of ‘The Social Record’. The two are not necessarily identical.

You don’t have to look far past the critical spotlight to see that the visual representation of our current historical formation is still in the thrall of those who are themselves enthralled by dead photographies. Not only does the Australiana book-mill continue to churn out their all too familiar images of ‘social history’, but even our galleries have an institutional stake in maintaining the continuity of their own art-historical investments.

Of course no theoretically aware photographer ever believed that their critiques of the dominant traditions would revolutionise the mainstream of visual representation, or even end up as anything other than yet another art-historical moment. But by re-addressing their obligations to The Social Record on their own terms, and re-using the visual tactics developed in their skirmishes with the problematics of picturing, a long overdue re-occupation of abandoned territory can begin. Photographic records of us, which are now no longer beholden to the monosemic truths of the documentary tradition can circulate in the media.

Take Bondi for instance. How can you photograph somewhere which is not so much a place, as a site for the contestation of nationhoods? Bondi is invested with so many different meanings by so many different people that it resembles one of those thick, gluey wads of rival dance-party posters which slowly slough off hoardings under the increasing weight of their own commitment to splintering cultural identity. Or perhaps it’s more like a bus shelter onto which so any messages have been sprayed that no one graffitist’s contribution is actually legible. How do you photograph Bondi without simply adding another layer to this furious accumulation? To document it – to collect its ‘characters’ and ‘sights’, and celebrate its freedom’ and ‘diversity’ – is simply to do what Bondi already demands, expects and requires: it is only to confirm it as the effect of prior representations, and therefore further aggrandize its mythological status. How, then, to record it without also succumbing to it?

Bondi, we are often told, is the place to which overseas visitors and Australians are equally attracted. They flock there in a kind of instinctual migration. But Bondi is no originary site, it is the birthplace of nothing and has been sanctified by no momentous events. Its significance as a place resides solely within the national rituals it is witness to every day. The flocking tourists are drawn to the various versions of Australiahood which are eternally enacted there. It is only when they arrive that they realise that they have contracted to be both spectator and spectacle, because the symbolic economy of Bondi runs on mutual voyeurism and exhibitionism.

If Bondi has no ‘essence’ other than the eternal flame of enactment, then maybe the time-honoured conventions of the stage are a way of recording it. With this in mind Anne Zahalka turned the amphitheatre at the back of Bondi Pavilion into a temporary stage cum studio. She strung up a backdrop onto which had been painted three broad bands of sand, sea and sky; she brought in some of the beach’s sand to spread over the concrete; she unrolled some Astro-turf; and she dragged in a few park benches and picnic tables. Bondi wasn’t so much recreated as imploded.

Under a mixture of sunlight and artificial fill-light Bondi’s cast of character-types hold themselves in timeless containment. Each pose typifies and distils the parts they play. Each tableau illustrates one aspect of Bondi’s cultural cavalcade. These portraits share their premise with the nineteenth century studio portrait — in which backdrops, clothing, furniture and pose were similarly deployed in order to firmly install the sitter in a pre-existent social niche. Their air, however, is quite different. Rather then the solemn density of the nineteenth century studio, Bondi’s players are portrayed in the transparent gelato colours of an imagined ‘perfert day at the beach’ – cool, charmed, and impossible.

But this imploded, distilled, typified Bondi no longer performs its usual function of invitation and promise. All the other photographs of Bondi we have seen, from postcards to sociological studies, say ‘where are you, why are you absent from this census of flocking Australians?’ Anne Zahalka’s formally complete images do not invite us to enter them. Only in these closed tableaus is our absence not included, because there has been no place left for us on the stage.

As The Beach Inspectors adopt their characteristic stance to gaze into the infinity of nature we certainly recognise Bondi, but we also realise that the inspectors are really only staring at the painted backdrop which hangs a mere four feet in front of their noses. We are therefore not invited to identify or anticipate, but rather to observe, compare and notice. We observe the firm plant of their feet, we compare their broad backs and sensible hats, and we notice how their walkie-talkies are worn in such a way as to draw our attention to a lifesaver’s best assets.

The Japanese honeymooners photographed being photographed in Tourists are, as always, cute as buttons. But now they are not simply our spectacle, and we are not theirs. Instead it is Bondi’s economic exchange of mutual spectacle which we see.

Although Anne Zahalka photographs the various cultural sub-groups that make up the ‘colourful’ population of Bondi, she is not interested in describing ethnicity as it is accommodated within the bureaucratic regime of Multiculturalism. Each of her characters, although typified, is not abstracted – each retains his or her particularity. In her photographs, as in Bondi itself, Asians hang with Asians and Anglos hang with Anglos. And judging by the inflated poses brandished by some members of those groups, Bondi’s sun has provided no benediction for broader social conflict.

She also addresses that aspect of Bondi with which it has been associated the longest — the nationalist surf-cult of health, strength and purity. The historical phallo-anglo-centrism of Australian beach culture is addressed in two pastiches which appropriate key icons from our collective beach memory. In the classical beach Arcady of Charles Meere’s 1940 painting Australian Beach Pattern the white nuclear family is presented as the paradigm of the Australian race. The Australian body is painted as though it was the finest product of Imperial engineering – almost as smooth and powerful as an aircraft engine. In Anne Zahalka’s elaborate restaging the physical individuality of mortal flesh is re-introduced, breaking both the metaphorical connection between the natural family and the national race, and the historical nexus between the colonial beach and the Imperial battlefield.

Similarly, the shock of red hair and pale skin of her The Sunbather #2 gently lightens the masculine weight of Max Dupain’s monument to Modernist bodily architecture — his Sunbaker 1937. But her images are not just the blank parody of Postmodernist pastiche. Within this context they serve to record a Bondi which is changing on both a material, and an ideological level.

Finally, acting as visual pauses within the exhibition, are photographs of ‘raw’ nature – the sun, surf and sky which were painted onto the backdrop. This is Nature’s Infinity – Bondi’s gift to the city of Sydney. But in this context the ambiguous squares of abstracted Nature lose all their pre-cultural significance. The ‘natural’ of Bondi is not a tabula rasa upon which we have written our culture. There never has been a clean bus shelter or an unpostered hoarding at Bondi. The Natural is something which is always already deployed within the culture of Bondi. For instance, the munificent bounty of the sun now becomes an insidious, cancerous threat just as it once caused madness and sunstroke. The cleansing briskness of the surf now becomes a toxic source of infection, just as it once threatened the pioneers with shipwrecks, sharks and drowning. Similarly, Anne Zahalka’s squares of nature only become a natural landscape within their specific cultural context.

If you wanted to establish the importance of this show you could say that, at last, it indicates the beginnings of a return by some of our photographers to what will always be one of photography’s primary tasks — the maintenance of The Social Record. Yet in recording Bondi today it continues to refuse an easy nostalgia for the truth of Bondi. The beach remains the stage it always was.

Anne Zahalka, The Tourists, 1989

Anne Zahalka, The Bathers, 1989

Anne Zahalka, The Lifeguards, 1989

Anne Zahalka, The Girls, 1989

Anne Zahalka, The Sunbather, 1989.

The apparatuses of science, entertainment and belief in colonial Australia

The paper I read and powerpoint I showed at the conference Imagineers in Circus and Science: Scientific Knowledge and Creative Imagination, ANU, 3-5 April, convened by Dr Anna-Sophie Jürgens

Introduction

The 1870s was a big decade for the colony of Victoria. The money flowing from the gold fields had led to rapid growth in its size and sophistication. By the early 1870s passengers could reach Melbourne from England in as little as two months, and Morse code messages could be relayed from London in just seven hours. Victorian colonists were feeling themselves more connected to the rest of the world than ever before. They too were part of the tension between traditional religion and the great scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century. They too craved novelty and modern experience. But their place in the world meant that they engaged with these ideas in ways that were distinctly their own. During the decade three events cast emerging ideas of ‘science’, ‘belief’, ‘entertainment’ and ‘technology’ into new configurations for the colonists of Victoria.

Spiritualism

Modern Spiritualism, the belief that human personality survived beyond death and that the dead could communicate with the living, was an integral part of the general foment of 1870s Victoria. It was part of the broader Free Thought movement, reconciling the terrifying divisions that seemed to be opening up between religion and science.

In the powerful experience of the séance the Spiritualist believer, suffering from what psychologists would now call apophenia, or cognitive confirmation bias, was gradually enmeshed into a seductive relationship with a ‘medium’, who used techniques of misdirection learnt from stage magic to convince them of what they wanted to believe — that their dead could return to them.

In 1870 William Terry opened a shop as a bookseller, Spiritualist medium, and magnetic healer. Customers could buy imported herbs for the ailments which Terry had clairvoyantly diagnosed, they could buy the latest copies of spiritualist journals and pamphlets published in Australia or imported from the US and the UK, and they could buy factual evidence of Spiritual truths in the form of carte de visite spirit photographs.

Spiritualists thought they were at the forefront of progress, leading the way for the rest of the world. They embraced rational scientific methods, which they thought were equivalent to the methods that were leading to the other great technological breakthroughs of the age. Terry claimed that:

spiritual intercourse can be proved as conclusively as telegraphic communication, postal delivery, or any other fact know to one section of the world’s inhabitants, and not to others.

In late 1873 visitors to Terry’s shop may have perused the latest copy of the London magazine The Spiritualist and read that the medium Florence Cook, a young girl of 17, had produced what was known as a ‘full body materialization’ of the spirit Katie King. Florence materialized the Spirit at a séance while supposedly entranced and tied to a chair in a curtained-off cabinet. On 7 May the spirit was photographed by the ignition of magnesium powder. The Spiritualist reproduced an engraving produced directly from one of the photographs. The magazine advised its readers:

The efforts of the experimentalists have been successful, and the large engraving […] is about a faithful a copy as wood-cutting can give […] In the photograph itself the features are more detailed and beautiful, and there is an expression of dignity and ethereality in the face, which is not fully represented in the engraving, which, however, has been executed as nearly as possible with scientific accuracy, by an artist of great professional skill.

There was at least one enthusiastic Melbourne reader of this amazing account. He was William Denovan, a successful gold miner, parliamentarian and chairman of a séance circle in Bendigo called The Energetic Circle. There were many séances held in the goldfields during this period. They successfully produced Spiritualistic phenomena because, it was reasoned, the deposits of quartz running underground along the veins of gold were acting as crystal concentrators for spiritual forces.

As the Energetic Circle held hands, prayed, and sung hymns, they slowly began to experience more and more manifestations of spirit communication. After a period, the male medium began to levitate, they smelled delicious perfume, felt cool breezes, and spirit lights appeared. Then the sitters began to brushed by spirit lips and spirit hands, then they began to see disembodied arms. Then, finally, in June 1874, the Bendigo female medium fully materialized the beautiful spirit Katie King, almost a year after she had been photographed in London. She stood in the middle of the séance room illuminated only by the dying embers of the fire, and clothed head to foot in ‘robes of white muslin or gauze’. Denovan marveled how:

… those who saw the face of Katie King on Sunday evening state that she wore a turban on her head just as she appears in the photograph of her published in the London Spiritualist of the 15th of May 1873. […] The face appeared to some of swarthy colour, to others fair, with fair hair, and parted down the middle; but to me it appeared copper coloured, with drapery round it and over the head similar to the photograph of Mrs MacDougal Gregory, of London, and her spirit sister. […] as [Katie] made herself visible to all present — distinctly and unmistakably visible — all became deeply impressed, and several sobbed audibly. None who were present will ever forget what they saw on this occasion, and the feeling of solemnity and awe to which the sight gave rise, and all inwardly offered up their thanks to Almighty God for his goodness in thus having by his great natural laws vouchsafed to them by positive demonstration, the reality of another life. It was a solemn yet joyous moment never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it. And it is just the beginning.

But Denovan and his circle hadn’t only witnessed a modern miracle, they had witnessed it in Bendigo. The Spirit of Katie had instantaneously travelled to where the mediumistic power was concentrated. Denovan declared:

I have now the satisfaction of informing you that we have no need to go to England or America to see the spirits in mortal from, as they are here in our midst.

To you or I, the fact that the materializations in Bendigo wore the same style of drapery as seen in the photographs and magazines sold in Terry’s shop may be evidence that the huckster mediums were simply copying the photographs. But to the Spiritualist believers it was corroborative. It was powerful proof that it was the actual Katie King they were seeing, who was able to travel from a séance in London to a séance in Bendigo even faster than an electric telegraph message.

While these extraordinary Bendigo visions were being reported, a new spirit photograph was also being discussed in Melbourne. The Melbourne Spiritualist Dr Walter Lindesay Richardson had attended a photographic séance in London. He wrote back to Victoria:

… a draped figure projected itself beside my likeness. I send you specimens. During the process [the photographer] afforded me every facility for scrutiny, allowing me to clean the glasses myself, to follow them through several stages, and to see them developed.

Terry tried to wrap his head around exactly what he was seeing:

… 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

So, 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.

Professor Pepper’s Scientific Festivals

One of the major figures of the London entertainment scene was Professor Henry Pepper who had become synonymous with the popular Royal Polytechnic Institution. In the 1850s and 60s Pepper developed a spectacular lecturing style incorporating many new ‘scientific’ entertainments that demonstrated the principals of physics, chemistry and optics, while also feeding the audience’s appetite for illusion, wonder, and even the occult.

At the Polytechnic he patented an illusion that directly fed into the public’s appetite for gothic and spiritualist effects. The ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ illusion required the use of a new technology developed for shop windows, plate glass, and a magic lantern. The angled glass reflected a concealed figure brightly lit against a black background, while the audience could still see the scene behind the glass. As the original inventor of the illusion said:

Mesmerism throughout all its harlequinade, down to its present disguise under spiritualism or spirit rapping … has never had nerve enough or nous enough to produce such thorough full-length ghosts as are now every day to be seen.

Pepper’s Ghost was both a theatrical illusion and a scientific curiosity at the same time. In one of the first illustrations of the illusion Professor Pepper himself stands off to one side, observing the materialization with cool detachment. Pepper was therefore caught in a paradox. He needed to protect the secret of his illusions to maintain audience interest, but to also be a ‘scientific’ professor he needed, at some point, to explain the scientific principles behind the illusion.

Pepper eventually left the Polytechnic, but increasingly found it hard to get audiences. There was even criticism of what had come to be seen as his ‘ponderous and didactic’ delivery style. He developed another mirror illusion, the Metempsychosis. But even this wasn’t enough to revive Pepper’s flagging British career so, in 1879, he decided to lecture in Australia.

He arrived with ‘a large amount of scientific exhibition apparatus and full staff of professional assistants’. ‘Pepper’s Scientific Festival’, billed as an ‘ILLUSORY ENTERTAINMENT’ featured all of his Polytechnic hits, with the added excitement of an electric light. Like the many other touring celebrities, Pepper’s fame preceded him. Shortly after his arrival, Melbourne’s St Georges Hall was crammed with people ‘evidently anxious to hear the wonders of Nature unfolded and explained by the lecturer, who for more than a quarter of a century has amused and at the same time instructed thousands in London.’ Unlike in London, where his oratorical style had seemed ponderous and didactic, in Melbourne, ‘[h]is luminous and genial mode of elucidating the various phenomena which he exhibited rendered the lecture a genuine treat.’

Judging by newspaper reviews, for his new audiences Pepper was able to rebalance the tension between ‘illusion to entertain’ and ‘illusion to demonstrate scientific truths’. On the one hand ‘one might be tempted to believe that he possessed supernatural powers’. On the other hand ‘[he] is a man of science [who recognises] that the time has passed when the secrets of nature were explained only in the cloister’.

Some even recognized that Pepper’s doubling of the idea of ‘the marvelous’ could be a weapon against the errors of Spiritualism. The journalist Marcus Clarke wrote:

[A]mid the nonsense being talked and written on all sides concerning “Spiritualism” and miraculous intervention, it might be a good thing if the Government would suffer the children it educates to see some of the marvels which can be produced by human ingenuity. A course of Pepper would give a tone to the youthful stomach, and brace it to the withstanding of tales of dancing tables and hovering apparitions of dead children.

Conversazioni

Pepper’s arrival was greeted with well-orchestrated fanfare. However, the press noted:

Not that we have no scientific men amongst us; on the contrary, they are as plentiful as in other civilized lands; but our scientists have neither the time nor the opportunity of coming before the public as Professor Pepper does in the cause of natural philosophy.

This comment must have come as an insult to the Royal Society of Victoria, which had in fact been promoting science to the public since the early 1870s. They had even held a ‘conversazione’ a year before Pepper arrived. Conversazioni were mixtures of entertainment and education, where gentlemen and ladies could promenade, have hands-on interactions with new technologies, listen to lectures, and talk to individual ‘proficients’ who were drawn from science, academia, government and commerce.

At each conversazione the President of the Royal Society summed up the previous year’s progress in colonial science. In 1878 he commented on the pace of technological change:

In my last address I referred […] to the then recent invention of the telephone. Since then this wonderful little instrument has been greatly improved, and is now in actual use in Melbourne, not only as a scientific toy, but as a means of communication. We had no sooner become familiar with the telephone than we were astounded by accounts of a still more wonderful apparatus, the ‘phonograph’, […] Still later we heard of the ‘microphone’ […] although their practical applications are as yet limited, there can be but little doubt that they will eventually become of great value […].

Two years later he noted approvingly that the sophistication of the colonists was keeping pace with this heady technological change:

… the subject of science attracts in this community the same keen attention, and is pursued with the same ardour, given to it in all intelligent communities. We are at least able to show that the intellect of the colony perceives the importance of scientific investigation; that the Government and the public are liberal in its support …

But people went to conversazioni to see inventions. In 1878 a phonograph played Rule Britannia and He’s a Jolly Good Fellow which ‘sounded as if it was being sung by an old man of 80 with a cracked voice.’

The phoneidoscope reproduced the vibrations of words sung into its mouthpiece as an ‘an endless variety of exquisite designs, resembling those observed in the ordinary kaleidoscope’, on a film of soap water and glycerine.

The microphone, powered by a galvanic battery, amplified the sounds of a telephone so that a ‘[t]he ticking of a watch could be heard at the other end of the room.’ Ammonia gas was liquefied under pressure, and microscopes showed rock sections, algae and invertebrates from across the colony, while the siren produced ‘melancholy and discordant’ sounds throughout the night.

In his address the President of the Society had speculated about the future offered by these inventions. But, once they had tried them themselves, the ordinary visitor to the conversazione found they could speculate about the future just as well as he could. The ‘remarkable nature’ of the displays ‘was productive of much wonderment’, but they also ‘gave rise to varied speculation as to their ultimate development’.

1000 people, including many ladies, attended the 1879 conversazione. An Edison phonograph was displayed, and a working printing press. But the magic lantern was the central apparatus. Amongst other things, the magic lantern showed some striking experiments with vortex rings and astronomical views.

Many of the ladies and gentlemen caught in the newspaper illustrations of 1880 look remarkably contemporary, like customers at an Apple Store Genius Bar, as they confidently manipulate the various devices on offer. Technology had gone from ‘philosophical toy’ to ‘personal device’

Conclusion

The people in these three case studies thought they had very little in common with each other. Although he flirted with the occult, Professor Pepper ultimately regarded the Spiritualists as gullible dupes. He and his audience knew that his illusions were just that — illusions — and that if he chose to, he could scientifically explain how they were created. If you had asked them, the members of the Royal Society would have most probably looked down on Pepper’s broadly popular audience. To these middle class consumers of knowledge, science didn’t need Professor Pepper’s carnival effects. To them the effects of science were being felt in the actual utilitarianness of its inventions, which were usefully recording invisible phenomena such as sound or performing real actions at a distance.

At face value these three case studies could therefore be seen to be following a familiar developmental trajectory: from the observer being tricked by hucksters into believing something that isn’t true, and in any case is no longer necessary; to observers willing ‘suspending disbelief’ for the duration of a scientific entertainment, and experiencing an occult illusion in order to have it deconstructed into its scientifically knowable components; to, finally, observers becoming individual operators of new technologies, and rehearsing their forthcoming role as consumers of technological devices as future customers of Bell Telephones, IBM, and Apple.

It is tempting to see a millennium’s worth of progress refracted into the decade. But although we can easily arrange these case studies into a single developmental line, we can also arrange them into at least two different constellations that are perhaps more illuminating.

The first constellation is phenomenological. Although there are epistemological differences between the three case studies, there are also deep phenomenological similarities. There is an identical sensation of science that persists through the arc of progress. Through seeing Spirits with their own eyes, and then correlating their vision with the photographic proofs sent from England, the Spiritualists knew the truth of Spirit return. Through having their eyes willingly ‘tricked’ by Pepper’s machinery and then being shown how it ‘really’ worked, attendees at Pepper’s shows felt they knew a little bit more about the nature of light and reflection. By placing their mouth to the mouthpiece, or their ear to the earpiece, or their eye to the eyepiece, and then seeing, hearing or feeling the invisible, conversazioni participants felt the future enter their own bodies.

In each case a single observer is instantiated as the ground for belief and understanding. To reach forward into a future where they would routinely converse with the dead, as the Spiritualists expected; or routinely call each other up on the telephone, as visitors to the conversazioni expected, each visitor was asked to stand on no other evidential ground than themselves. But in each case, the human test subject of perception is only instantiated through, and within, the apparatus.

The second constellation is geographical. It interests me that all of the experiences from my three case studies are in some sense ‘airy’. They happen up in the air in some virtual space in front of the observer, which is sort of still ‘in Victoria in the 1870s’, but sort of ‘all over the world’ as well. And all of my examples — spirit materializations, wonderful illusions straight from London, telephones, microphones and phonographs — collapse time and space. Although they were seven hours ‘behind’ via the telegraph, or two months ‘behind’ by ship, in some sense these colonial audiences were ‘ahead’ of the rest of the world in this new experience of the globe. I think that the experiences of instantaneity, simultaneity, immediacy and proximity were more powerful for colonial audiences, who were part of the same currents of modernity as everyone else, but who joined hands in Bendigo, or bought a ticket to St Georges Hall or attended a conversazione, in Melbourne, at the outer edge of the modern world itself.

Martyn Jolly

 

 

Ian North, Manifest Destiny I – V, 1988/89

Catalogue essay for Ian North’s 1991 exhibition Manifest Destiny I – V

Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, 1991, ISBN 0 9588325 7 9

(The works were 79.0 x 246.5 centimetre laminates of wood, acrylic, ink, plexiglass, and colour coupler photographs, juxtaposing four different landscape images of the American West, to which were then added brush strokes of paint.)

Thanks to Helen Ennis and Ian North for reclaiming this forgotten historical text for my blog.

Ian North, Manifest Destiny, 1988/89.

Ian North, Manifest Destiny, 1988/89.

Appreciating the Scenery

As early as 1864 the American geologist Clarence King was complaining that the prominent points of the Yosemite Valley were being overrun by an ‘army of literary travellers who have planted themselves and burst into rhetoric’. He might have had in mind someone like the editor of the Springfield Massachusetts Republican, Samuel Bowles, who planted himself at Inspiration Point in 1868 and wrote: “The overpowering sense of the sublime, of awful desolation, of transcending marvelousness and unexpected­ness, that swept over us, as we reined our horses sharply out of green fields, and stood upon the high jutting rock that overlooked this rolling, upheaving sea of granite mountains, holding far down its rough lap this vale of beauty of meadow and grove and river — such tide of feeling, such stoppage of ordinary emotions comes at rare intervals in any life. It was the confrontal of God face to face.’

But in fact King had his own highly developed scientific rhetoric with which to admire the Western Landscape. His geological theory of Catastrophism accounted for Yosemite’s jutting promontories of rock overlooking the moist vales of meadow in the following way: ‘He who brought to bear the mysterious energy we call life upon primeval matter bestowed at the same time a power of devel­opment by change, arranging that interaction of energy and matter which makes the environment, from time to time, burst in upon a higher current of life and sweep it onward and upward to ever higher and better mani­festations. Moments of great catastrophe, thus translated into the language of life, become moments of creation, when out of plastic organisms something newer and nobler is called into being’. King asked ‘what sentiment, what idea does this wonder-valley leave upon the earnest observer? what impression does it leave upon his heart? …..First, the titanic power, the awful stress, which has rent this solid tableland of granite in twain; and secondly, the magical faculty displayed by vegetation in redeeming the aspect of wreck and masking a vast geological tragedy behind the draperies of fresh and living green’.

In both closely related rhetorics — the literary and the scientific — geology is generative and, as in the biological order of things, He has given progenitive force to periodic rocky cataclysms.

Despite the immediate potency of these ideas, at first the Western Landscape was officially regarded in mundane economic and strategic terms. In 1867 the U.S. Department of War ordered King to head the 40th Parallel Survey: ‘to examine and describe the geological structure, geographical condition and natural resources all rock formations, mountain ranges, detrital plains, mines, coal deposits, soils, minerals, ores, saline and alkaline deposits…[and to make] detailed maps of the chief mining districts’

However, because of the persuasive power of the scientific rhetoric of the Catastrophism and the literary rhetoric of the sublime, by the twentieth century the American Western Landscape had become famous as the most recognisable bit of scenery in the world after the Swiss Alps. But the best definition of the word ‘scenery’ remains an economic one: it is that topography which has become so overgrown with rhetoric that its principle product is not crops or livestock or minerals, but admiration. And via recreational parks such scenic wildernesses are inserted into a system of economic usefulness.

With this historical background in mind we can see Ian North’s juxtaposition of an Ansel Adams photograph with a painting by Georgia O’Keefe as a comment on the gender politics of the Western Landscape. The hubristic monumentality of Ansel Adams, twentieth century inheritor of the sublime machismo of the nineteenth century geologists, wilts somewhat in the face of the voluptuous experience of Georgia O’Keefe’s fleshy envelopings. (Such a startling juxtaposition gains even more meaning when one reflects that both artists, in their turn, are claimed by two distinct types of contemporary greenie: the rugged Paddy Pallin wilderness trekker, and the nurturer of intimate Earth consciousness.)

North flanks these already rhetorically productive diptychs with a tourist postcard image and a landscape photograph taken by himself (which he describes as ‘the artist’s pursuit of what might be his own eye — or a simulation thereof) and reminds us that a famous piece of scenery is just as much caught up in the problematics of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction as a famous oil painting.

And finally, by embedding all four jostling, argumentative images in a museal slab North refers us to the role of institutional sanctification in our ‘natural’ knowledge of Nature.

If that was all it would be enough, a bit didactic perhaps, but enough. However the series is taken far beyond this clear-headed investigation of the relationship between topography, landscape and scenery by the brush marks which the artist has urgently applied across all four images. Or, rather than taking us beyond, perhaps this brushwork takes North himself inside those historical and rhetorical relationships.

The trenchant critique created by the juxtaposition of the four types of landscape image — Adams, O’Keefe, postcard and North himself — is both amplified and distorted by the seemingly delinquent vandal­ism of North’s brush. The paint makes visual rhymes and puns, it fictionalizes events within the images and fabricates connections between them. The textural immediacy of the brushwork returns North to that jutting promontory of rock. Yet now he is no longer an imperious, disincarnated eye gazing over either a Vale of beauty’ or ‘detrital plains’. The gestural brushmarks re-embody him, they glance across the landscape and reintro­duce the duration of lived time into the moment of perception. The flux of somatic humours record themselves in scudding sweeps and juddering dabs.

These works claim that in appreciating a landscape there is no retinal instant, no unmediated visual epiphany; rather there is a necessary dilation of the event of looking and an intrinsic rhetorization of sight. Perhaps, in these terms, sublimity is a measure of the inadequacy of rhetoric to its task.

In this sense the brush marks are a residue of the act of looking. They follow the con­tours of the image, annotate it, or act in counterpoint to it. At times North’s brushwork reminds me of somebody conducting an imaginary orchestra which they are listening to on headphones. By hapticly reinscribing the act of perception back into the scenery itself the brushwork complicates the proscenium space of the view. It is now a warped and anamorphosistic space, one could almost say a baroque space, in the sense that it incorporates within itself the subjective contingency of its very perception as space.

North introduces doubt and duration into these traditional images of the Western Landscape and renegotiates a place for himself within the received rhetoric of looking, a provisional and insecure place to be sure, but a place from which he can appreciate the scenery as equally a geological and a cultural topography.

Martyn Jolly

References:

Alan Trachtenberg, “Naming the View”, Reading American Photographs: Images as History Mathew Brady to Walker Evans, Hill & Wang, 1989.

Ann-Sargent Wooster, “Timothy O’Sullivan Reading the American Landscape”, Afterimage, March 1982.

Martin Jay, “Scopic Regimes of Modernity”, Vision and Visuality, Hal Foster (Ed.), Bay Press, Seattle, 1988

What can the magic lantern teach us about today’s ‘right-click culture’

My paper for the panel, The Mobility of Images in the Digital Age, convened by Professor Sue Best and Dr Jess Berry, Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference, University of Westrn Australia, December 2017.

I have a very untidy computer desktop. It’s littered with PDFs, word files and jpegs. If I right-click on a jpeg, I can choose to open it with one of fifteen different applications, or I can share it on one of eight different online platforms. If I move from my desktop to the internet and right-click on an image, I can perform twelve different operations on it, one of which is saving it back to my desktop.

We are all familiar with the latest statistics, with their proliferating number of zeroes at the end, telling us how many photographs are taken and shared every minute. Much ink has been spilled, some even by me, on the implications of all of this for photography. Usually the talk is of rupture. Even if it is recognized that photography was always a medium of reproducibility, the contemporary theorist usually puts the word ‘exponential’ in his or her sentence to signify some fundamental rupture.

But, guess when the evocatively exponential number of ‘a billion’ was first deployed in relation to photography? It was way back in 1859, when Oliver Wendell Holmes mused that the Coliseum and the Pantheon had, just by existing, been ‘shedding’ their own images, their visual forms, ever since they had first been built. With the invention of photography this ‘image shedding’ could be conceptualized as billions of lost photographs.

 

There is only one Coliseum or Pantheon; but how many millions of potential negatives have they shed,—representatives of billions of pictures,—since they were erected!

Holmes also realized that these captured image-forms were less substantial than the real thing, but the trade off for this decrease in substantiality was an increase in transportability.

Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. [soon] [m]en will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave the carcasses as of little worth. … The consequence of this will soon be such an enormous collection of forms that they will have to be classified and arranged in vast libraries, as books are now.

153 years later Hito Steyerl was making pretty much the same point in her discussion of ‘the wretched of the screen’, those digital ‘poor images’ that are low-resolution derivatives of the original first-level images which Holmes had originally discussed as derivatives of matter itself:

The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates it deteriorates. It is the ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.

Both Holmes and Steyerl saw a technological trade off of decreased materiality for increased motion: for Holmes from matter to image, for Steyerl from high-res image to low-res image. Both also concluded that this trade off of substance for distribution was, in fact, ultimately constituting a new ‘reality’.

I evoke these historical bookends — Oliver Wendell Holmes, the plump nineteenth century Boston doctor, and Hito Steyerl, the glamorous twenty-first century German video artist — because they both squared up to and embraced the realities of reproduction, and I want to argue about ‘the digital’ not from the point of view of its rupture, but its continuity. I don’t want to perform a teleology, but an archaeology

In an essay from the mid 1990s, Foucault described the period of 1860 to 1880 as a ‘frenzy for images’, when all of the emerging reproduction technologies such as chromolithography and photography began to interact with traditional painting.

… there came a new freedom of transposition, displacement, and transformation, of resemblance and dissimulation, of reproduction, duplication and trickery of effect. It engendered a wholesale theft of images, an appropriation still utterly novel, but already dexterous, amused and unscrupulous. …. There emerged a vast field of play where technicians and amateurs, artists and illusionists, unworried about identity, took pleasure in disporting themselves. Perhaps they were less in love with paintings or photographic plates than with the images themselves, with their migration and perversion, their transvestism, their disguised difference. … To them there was nothing more hateful than to remain captive, self-identical, in one painting, one photograph, one engraving, under the aegis of one author. No medium, no language, no stable syntax could contain them; from birth to last resting place, they could always escape through new techniques of transposition.

Foucault’s description could also apply to the practice of the magic lantern, which was blossoming and becoming culturally pervasive during exactly the same period. The apparatus of the magic lantern began in the Netherlands in the mid 1660s and it ends up there, on the ceiling of this seminar room. Traveling entertainers carried magic lanterns on their backs around Europe for over century before the technology became incorporated into a theatrical illusion designed for metropolitan audiences called The Phantasmagoria. Later in the nineteenth century this technology began to be industrially manufactured and marketed directly to the middle classes and the intelligentsia. Photographic magic lantern slides began to be produced after 1850 and by the end of the century audiences around the world were laughing at ingeniously animated hand painted slides, and at hand coloured photographic slides that told moral stories or illustrated sentimental songs. The ARC project I lead, Heritage in the Limelight, has already assembled a database of five and half thousand of these slides.

At this time, at the height of modernity, the strange couplet ‘magic’ and ‘lantern’ was at its most compelling, the word ‘lantern’ projected the rational illumination of knowledge, whereas the word ‘magic’ harked back to the psychological affects of deception, illusion and diabolical darkness. The strange couplet was still in use well into the twentieth century when, after bequeathing its grammar of narrative syntax and visual effects to film, it stayed on as part of the cinematic apparatus showing theatre advertisements and illustrating songs. It also entered the home, the school-room, the church hall and the university, slowly transforming into the 35mm slide and eventually the Powerpoint slide.

The magic lantern was an apparatus of reproduction, distribution and recombination. There was no such thing as an ‘original’ slide, they were copies of illustrations, paintings, prints or other photographs. There is no such thing as a single slide, each slide was produced as part of a set, and stored, distributed and exhibited as multimedia sequences. There are thousands of amateur slides, but millions of mass-produced ones which were retailed in shops around the world. But the consumers at the end of the production chain were also producers. Lantern slides have to be projected to be realized, and it was up to the lanternist to decide which combination the slides were projected in, and with what musical or spoken accompaniment.

The magic lantern was a ubiquitous visual presence, yet the silos of scholarship have all but ignored it. For art historians there are no genius artists to biography, no rare objects to analyse, no conceptual innovations to name, no radical styles to track. For the art market there is nothing to sell, nothing to buy, nothing to appreciate. For film historians the magic lantern is just ‘pre-cinema’, an imperfect version of ‘the movies’, waiting to be superseded. For the photo historian the glass slide disappears behind the primacy of the paper print with its physical relationship to the traditional work of art.

However, even as the traditional historical disciplines were doing their best to to ignore the magic lantern, the lantern itself was at work, secretly transforming them from within. Because of the lantern, the immediate object of art history became not the art-work itself, but the photograph of the art work. After the lantern, all of art history became merely a subcategory of photography. Disguised, but nonetheless crucial dates in the development of the discipline of art history are: 1854, when the British Museum appointed Roger Fenton as their first Official Photographer; 1884 when John Ruskin borrowed a magic lantern from a London theatre to project his watercolours at a lecture (Fawcett 453); and 1909 when the South Kensington Museum started to catalogue its fast-growing glass slide collection (Fawcett 456).

In Berlin, the Professor of Art History, Hermann Grimm, began to use the magic lantern scientifically, like a microscope in reverse, isolating and enlarging the art work so the viewer could apprehend it in its essential totality. In keeping with other scientific demonstration of the period, the lecture room became a kind of laboratory stage, or an experimental theatre. (Karlholm p208).

Grimm’s successor, Heinrich Wölfflin, elaborated on this theatre. A student recalled that Wölfflin removed himself from the lectern to the side of the audience. When a new image appeared on the screen, he would resist the temptation to speak for a while, building audience expectation within a tangible silence. Then, as if listening to the work itself, be would begin to slowly put words and sentences to the image, to converse with it, creating the impression that the art work, literally, spoke to him. (Karlholm 209-210)

Wölfflin further developed his use of the magic lantern by using two lanterns to project two images side-by-side. One projector showed the ‘key note’ throughout a sequence, while the other showed variations, details or exceptions. Other German art historians in the same period, such as Adolph Goldschmidt, were also using double projections to make it easier for students to compare two different art works, both flattened to a equivalent black and white monochrome, without having to retain one in their memory. These magic lantern lectures were thus a side-by-side comparison as well as a one-after-the-other progression. Thus, the students mesmerized in the dark beheld art history manifested not in the museum, but in their imaginations. (Nelson 430).

In 1912, at the Tenth International Congress of Art History, Aby Warburg performed his famous iconographical analysis of a renaissance fresco in a lantern-slide lecture, which he referred to as a ‘cinematographic spotlight’. (Michaud 38). Warburg’s ‘iconology of intervals’ which paid attention to the montaging of multiple images, and his discovery of what he called a ‘pathos formula’ of poses that travelled across history, geography and cultural difference, was entirely dependent on an archive of photographic reproductions, and an apparatus of both narrative and comparative conjunction, provided by the magic lantern.

Recently Georges Didi-Huberman has revived interest in Warburg, and interdisciplinary scholars like Philippe-Alain Michaud have seen Warburg’s famous Mnemosyne Atlas, produced in the late 1920s, as part of an emerging ‘cinematic mode of thought’ (Michaud 278). But they too have forgotten the power of the magic lantern to structure thought. More than just being a proto-film, Warburg’s panels were really a physical materialization of the two-lantern magic lantern lecture. The ideal space of the darkened auditorium is reproduced in the black cloth with which he covered the sixty-three panels to which he stapled his reproductions, and the transport of the lecture is reproduced in their sequential installation. Like the lectures, the pictures on the panels are both side-by-side and one-after-another, both paradigmatic and syntagmatic.

Contrary to the claims of Michaud, the media form which Warburg’s unfinished masterwork prefigured was not only the movies, but also today’s Google Image Search or Pinterest Board. So I would like to conclude with some other examples, not only from the magic lantern’s impact on the exhausted discipline of art history, but from the vernacular practice of the magic lantern itself, to make the archaeological connection between magic lantern practice and the ‘right-click’ culture of contemporary media.

Enter the words ‘Ned Kelly’ into Google image search and you’ll be met with an array of images: nineteenth century photographs of the bearded man himself, woodcut illustrations from 1880 newspapers of Ned in his armour, images of Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger acting in their respective Kelly films, and kitsch souvenirs. If you visit the National Museum of Australia’s online catalogue and enter the same words you will return a not dissimilar grid of images — 77 Ned Kelly magic lantern slides which were purchased as a set in the early 2000s. You won’t find Mick or Heath, but you will find film stills from Australia’s first Ned Kelly film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, as well as images copied from books about Kelly.

The images in the slides themselves aren’t rare, most of them were frequently reproduced as the Kelly myth grew and grew. But what is of interest is the unknown person who assembled them in the 1940s. Whoever they were, this amateur iconologist was obviously a bushranger buff preparing a show, perhaps for a public lecture at an historical society, or perhaps just for their family of friends. They have made the lantern-slides by copying the huge array of bushranger imagery already circulating through contemporary sources. Each slide has been extensively labelled and relabelled, and each has been placed into its own sleeve improvised out of old bank deposit envelopes. Perhaps our lanternist had a personal interest in Kelly’s crimes, perhaps he was a bank teller by day and a bushranger buff by night? In the spidery handwriting of an aged person captions and prompting words for a live commentary have been added to the envelopes, such as RED BLAZE FLAMES, for a slide of Glenrowan pub on fire. This slide has also been hand coloured, so the burning of the Glenrowan pub, tinted red in Australia’s first feature film, is tinted red again in this lantern slide. Other images come straight from the siege. For instance the set contains the famous image by J W Lindt of the body of Joe Byrne strung up an a door. However, this image was copied out of a book, perhaps Julian Ashton’s autobiography published in the 1941.

This obscure collection is significant because it prefigures today’s casual ‘right click culture’. Magic lantern slides were a way of ‘saving as’ existing images, duplicating them, reformatting them, shifting them and recontextualising them. The Museum has preserved here not just a comprehensive databank of bushranger iconography, but a complete individual practice, a new way that had been emerging for decades for everyday people to use popular images to say new things about their history.

Another example is Nothing To Do, a set in the Heritage in the Limelight collection. We are pretty sure this set was assembled in Australia. The slides illustrate a poem written by the Reverend Walter John Mathams who visited Australia between 1879 and 1882, when he was a minister at the South Yarra Baptist Church. The poem warns that those who turn a blind eye to poverty, drunkenness or violence because ‘there is nothing to do’, will be condemned in the afterlife. Nothing To Do was published in Mathams’ book Bristles for Brooms, as well as various Australian newspapers after 1888. In 1943, sixty years after it was written, the socialist writer Mary Gilmore republished it yet again in her column ‘For Worker Women’ in the union newspaper The Australian Worker. This set of slides would have been assembled around the 1890s, and may have been performed in protestant churches or at union events. (Gordon Bull does an excellent performance of the poem on the Heritage in the Limelight website.) The ‘life model’ slides which make up most of the images in Nothing to Do were manufactured overseas by companies who posed models against painted backdrops, photographed them, hand coloured them, and then distributed them, as a multimedia packages along with a printed reading, throughout the Anglophone world. But this set has been bricolaged from other sets. Images that were originally made for other sentimental songs, pious poems, or melodramatic stories have been repurposed. These have been mixed with conventional travel slides to illustrate some of the poem’s more trenchant points.

How do we know that the bricoleur was Australian? Because another set from the same period, which uses the same printed labels, attempts re-territorialize a set of America ‘song slides’ for the Australian market. The song is called He Carved His Mother’s Name Upon the Tree, and the slides were made to ‘illustrate’ a live performance of the song in theatres, therefore increasing sales of the sheet music which is how musical content was distributed before the mass production of gramophone records.

However in the set shown in Australia, tiny rectangles of black tape has been used to modify the opening slide, which is a photographic reproduction of the cover of the sheet music. The identity of the American song illustrators has been erased, and the original Tin Pan Alley music publisher has been replaced with a Melbourne sheet music retailer. In addition, tape has been used to cover the words “A sympathetic song from life” at the top edge of the slide. We see in this example physical evidence of competition between emerging global territories for technologized content, which is so much part of our contemporary media environment.

These three examples may appear minor, but they are just the tip of a very big iceberg. Once the last art historian has been strangled with the entrails of the last film historian, who has been strangled with the entrails of the last photo historian, media archaeologists can begin to look at the totality of our visual culture, including its technological substrata, and gain a richer understanding of the new reality being constituted by the ‘picture forms’ which the things in our lives are continually shedding.

Martyn Jolly

‘Developing the Picture: Wölfflin’s Performance Art’, Dan Karlholm, Photography and Culture, 2010, 3:2 207-215

‘The Slide Lecture, or the Work of Art ‘History’ in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Robert S. Nelson, Critical Enquiry, vol 26, no 3 Spring 300 414-434

‘The Stereograph and the Stereoscope’, Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Atlantic Monthly 1859, June

‘Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion’, Philippe-Alain Michaud, Zone Books, New York, 2004.

‘Visual Facts and the Nineteenth Century Art Lecture, Trevor Fawcett’, Art History, Vol 6, Issue 4, pp442-460

Hito Steyerl, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, The Wretched of the Screen

Michel Foucault, Photogenic Painting, 1994

Celebrating Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis’s book ‘Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross

For Vivid Ideas, Vivid Festival, Sydney. ‘Kings Bloody Cross, Surface Glitter and Underground Guts’, at The World Bar, Saturday 3 June, 2017 (I’ve stuck the power point slides in amongst the text)

Today I want to sing the praises of a small and obscure photography book published in 1971. Australia doesn’t have a particularly big tradition of photobooks, perhaps our population has always been too small to sustain local publishers who specialise in photobooks. So it’s pretty hard to call to mind any important Australian photobooks, whereas European ones like Brassai’s Paris by Night, or American ones like Robert Frank’s The Americans, spring readily to mind. Nonetheless there are a few Australian photobooks that, in their own way, are significant and integral works of art as well as being important cultural documents. And it pains me that they are not remembered, particularly by today’s young Australian photographers who all profess to be into photobooks, but only it seems if they are imported from Europe or the US. Of course Mathew Sleeth’s Tour of Duty from 2004 is a classic, and there are a few others which are celebrated perhaps. But remembering Australian photobooks from their heyday, the period from the mid 1960s until the early 1970s, when they were part of mainstream culture as well as being sites for experimentation, is particularly important.

In the history of Australian photography it is not the 1960s, but the 1970s that is commonly celebrated as the watershed decade where, following the 1972 election of a socially enlightened Labor government, there was a creative flowering entailing both a renaissance in the Australian film industry, and a ‘photography boom’ consisting of new photography galleries, new photography collections, new funding opportunities, and a new role for a younger generation of art-school trained photographers.[1] However, if attention is paid to the many photobooks that were produced, distributed, bought and read in large numbers before the magical date of 1972, the picture we can form of not only Australian photography, but also of Australian culture as a whole, deepens considerably.

There were two absolutely cracker books published in that period, one was Southern Exposure published by David Beal and Donald Horne in 1967, and the other was Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross published by Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey in 1971. And today I want to celebrate the latter.

 

Southern Exposure, 1967

Kings Cross Sydney, 1971

During this period Australian photobooks tended to be coffee table tourist souvenirs. They were the kind of book an aunt you never saw during the year might give you for Christmas; or you would send back to your grandparents in the UK or Greece; or you would put in you bag after a few weeks of R&R ion case you needed a souvenir for someone. But during this period some photobooks began to be published which attempted to go beyond the standard Australiana tourist genre. They began to be timely, about Australian society as it was at the time, rather than timeless, about a generic Australia; and they were quite explicitly about the new Australian identity that was emerging in the post war period. Driving this change was unprecedented wealth flowing from a mining boom, continuing mass migration from Southern Europe, and a geopolitical realignment towards the US, evidenced by an escalating commitment to the Vietnam War from 1966 onwards and, in the case of Kings Cross, the presence of a quarter of a million American servicemen in Australia, who spent seventy million dollars on their R&R leave between 1967 and 1971.

 Significantly, the Australian film industry did not undergo its renaissance until the 1970s. There were only a handful of feature films made in Australia during the sixties, and most of those were made by overseas directors. A good example of this is They’re a Weird Mob. Featuring Kings Cross, it was based on an extraordinarily popular Australian novel, and starred some of Australia’s best-loved actors, but it was made by an English director. [2] However, although Australian feature films were few in number in the 1960s, at least sixty significant Australiana picture books were published during the same period.

The sixties also saw a radical increase in the number of independent, start-up publishers, historically analogous to the internet startups of today. The value of Australian publishing increased eight fold between 1961 and 1979; and from 1961 to 1971 membership of the Australian Book Publishers Association increased from thirty-seven to sixty-seven, of which nearly forty were Australian owned.[3] Many of these publishers, such as Rigby, Lansdowne, Nelson and Jacaranda were substantial, while others were more like today’s internet start-ups and were literally kitchen table operations. Horwitz, whose books sold for less than a dollar, catered to the lurid pulp fiction market. However not all of Horwitz’s books were pulp fiction. Some, such as the gritty Vietnam: The Cruel War by Anthony Syme, which sold for 65 cents, engaged with the politics of the period.

Other start-up publishers who also focussed on the cheaper end of the market, such as Sun Books, explicitly addressed the burgeoning of intellectual interest in issues of Australian history identity.

In many ways these book publishers formed a continuum with the magazine publishers, who published middle class travel magazines like Walkabout, domestically oriented magazines such as the dominant Women’s Weekly, and barbershop magazines such as Australasian Post, People or Pix. From 1965 this suburban newsagent’s range was joined by a burgeoning of inner city street magazines which focussed on satire, sex and radical politics. These included Oz, which reached a circulation of 30,000, but also magazines like Kings Cross Whisper, which reached a circulation of 100,000, and the quickly banned sex magazines like Sexy, Searchlight, Obscenity, Ribald and Censor, as well as student magazines that dealt with radical politics like Honi Soit and Tharunka.[4]

Jozel Vissel, Paper Seller, Kings Cross, From Life In Australia, edited by David Beal and Craig McGregor, 1968, p228

Kings Cross was already featuring in this explosion of Australian publishing. It already had, since at least the 1920s, become a media trope within Australia. It was a locus of a powerful kind of ‘aspirational anxiety’ within Australia. Louis Nowra has described Kings Cross as:

a piece of urban DNA where the two spirals interweave the safe and the dangerous, the Australian and the foreign, the old-fashioned glamour and trashy sexual exploitation, the underworld and city professionals, the seedy and glamorous, the hetero and gay, sexual freedom and commercial sex, the underclass and the rich, the beautiful and tawdry.[5]

And, as an emerging  popular media spectacle, Kings Cross was similarly a place of Bohemian artiness and Parisian boulevards, at the same time as it was a place of crime, drinking and sex. It was where airy aspirational fantasies of Australia finally graduating as a cosmopolitan country were mixed with deep atavistic fears of rampant sexuality and lawlessness.

Max Dupain, Soul of a City, published by Oswald Ziegler

The popular iconography of the Cross had been developing in the 1940s and 50s. Max Dupain contributed photographs of women in pretty print dresses strolling under the plane trees of Macleay Street to many Sydney books during those decades. But it really took off in the 1960s — on a broad visual front. The Cross not only featured in the film They’re a Weird Mob, it also became the staple location for Horwitz pulp fiction novels, and in 1965 was the subject of a Channel Nine TV documentary called The Glittering Mile.

The Glittering Mile in many ways sets a template for subsequent Cross iconography. It starts with a bit of history: the convict windmills and colonial villas on the ridge above the town reached by an aboriginal track through the scrub which eventually became William Street, and so on. It interviews what had already become a familiar cast of characters: the 1920s flapper Dulcie Deamer, the witch Rosalee Norton, the manager of the Pink Pussycat Last Card Louie, and so on. But it also adds a new character, a stunning looking Carlotta barely out of her teens, and before her sex change, who was interviewed backstage at The Jewel Box, a predecessor to Les Girls. And, like many other documentaries it takes us through a twenty-four hour period in the life of the Cross: from the the day when we surveil the same pretty print dresses we had seen in Max Dupain, to the night where we track strippers rushing between jobs. We are shown, on our TV screens in 1965, strippers performing inside strip clubs, and men soliciting prostitutes. It might have been these brief glimpses which led to calls for the TV documentary to be banned.

The Glittering Mile, Channel Nine, 1965

In 1965 the first book to be devoted entirely to the Cross was also published. Life at the Cross featured an anodyne text by Kenneth Slessor. Slessor had popularised ‘Bohemian Sydney’ in 1933 with his book of poems Darlinghurst Nights, and in the post war period had become the go-to laureate for poetical musings on Sydney. He was 64 by this time, and phoned in a text which is yawningly behaved. The book had an introduction by the Lord Mayor, so there is no imagery of prostitution, as there had been in The Glittering Mile, but nonetheless Robert Walker’s by now familiar imagery of ‘Parisian’ streets is spiced up with some tasteful strip club imagery, and even some drag act imagery. But all the stripper photographs are printed very small, and visually recuperated into images of suburbanites having a touristic fun night out, which are printed larger and dominate the pages.

Life at the Cross, Kenneth Slessor and Robert Walker, 1965

There is an obligatory excursion to the Cross in my other pick for best-Australian-photobook-ever, an acerbic take down of Australian complacency called Southern Exposure published in 1967 by Donald Horne, author of the excoriating book The Lucky Country, and the photographer David Beal. Their book which, as we can see from the cover, is dedicated to inverting Australian complacencies, also breaks down the unspoken wall between day and night which all previous visual representations of the Cross had adhered to in order to sustain the aspirational anxiety it represented — to keep separated the Cross’s twin helixes of cosmopolitanism and sleaze. In previous Cross representations the daytime is for Parisian boulevardiering, the night-time for frenetic excess. However in the double page spread of Beal’s obligatory Cross photos a fashionable young coffee drinker suspiciously glowers at the camera through narrowed eyes, wordlessly telling us to f… off, and we get a portrait of the Pink Panther’s garbage bin primly sunning itself in the bright morning.

Southern Exposure

As the sixties progressed the idea of youth — young people as a distinctive cultural category — began to occupy inner city iconography. Some young people began to bring a kind of hallucinogenic approach to inner city Sydney. For instance in 1968 the thirty-five year old left-wing writer and social analyst Craig MacGregor had got the job of writing the text for the tourist souvenir book To Sydney With Love. McGregor attempted a very personal beat-poetry howl on Sydney. He opened his text, meant to be read by ordinary Australians, with a cosmic experience of Sydney he had late at night standing on the roof of a block of flats in Potts Point looking into Woolloomooloo:

I know this city, I comprehend it utterly, my guts and mind embrace it in its entirety, it’s mine. It was a moment of exhilaration, of exquisite and loving perception, my soul stretched tight like Elliot’s across this city which lay sleeping and partly sleeping around me and spread like some giant Rorschach inkblot to a wild disordered fringe of mountains, and gasping sandstone, and hallucinogenic gums.

While the Cross sprouted these ecstatic visions, middle class Australia continued its fascination with it from a distance. For instance the tourist magazine Walkabout did a Cross story in 1969, adding yet another member to the cast of characters: Ted Noffs from the Wayside Chapel, which had been established in 1964 and had become a Cross institution. The following year Walkabout did yet another Cross story, this one by Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis and called ‘Wild Night in Big Bad Sydney’. Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey also contributed Kings Cross photographs to The Bulletin and The Sydney Telegraph.

Walkabout, 1969

Walkabout, 1970

Their contributions to these magazines were to become part of a larger project, a whole book aimed at a new market made up of the traditional market for Australiana, R&R servicemen, and the emerging hipster class. When the book Ellis and Stacey had been shooting finally came out in 1971, published by Nelson, it was badged as Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross. It was going to be their vision of the cross in photography. The blurb on the dust jacket capitalizes on the edginess of the project:

Over a period of six months the authors made frequent forays in the Cross armed with their cameras and a tape recorder. It was only by becoming known to the locals that they were able to record some of the remarkable scenes in this book. Nevertheless, there is much that they learned about the Cross which can only be hinted at. The laws of libel and the threats of bashing ensure a diplomatic silence. As one of the authors put it: ‘When a guy pulls a pistol on you and says that he’s going to shoot you, you know that it’s time to put away your camera and retire gracefully.

The young photographers, in their early thirties, took the reader right into the strip clubs and hippy pads of the area, using graphically dynamic and tight picture groupings and pungently personal text.[6] Their book had a decidedly hallucinogenic feel to it. Most significantly, the focal length of their lenses changed, while Robert Walker had been shooting with a something like a telephoto 135mm lens, Stacey and Ellis were shooting wide angle at 35mm. Walker’s strippers are seen from the back of the room, Stacey and Ellis take us into their dressing rooms

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

Ellis’s text for the book begins with a picaresque personal memory from 1958, when he came to the Cross after leaving a Melbourne grammar school. There he and his mates meet Babs. She is ‘training to be a strip-tease artiste’ and gives the boys a show they will never forget. From this mnemonic deflowering Ellis takes us back to the obligatory history of colonial windmills and villas, before plunging us into the present day, 1970. Like a Beat poet he introduces us to the people themselves:

Hippies and heads and spades; dog-walkers and cat-feeders; witches, warlocks, painters; poets, philosophers, pensioners, painters, prostitutes, perves; soldiers and sailors; strippers; gamblers and gunmen; camps and conmen; craftsmen, chefs, shopkeepers, foreigners, bikies, jewellers, junkies, nuns, schoolkids, tourists; princes and paupers and chicks on the make, cops on the take and even an Irish Jew or two. p6

For me this exhilarating list has echoes of a similar list Carol Jerrems made three years later in her Book About Australian Women, where she said she had photographed:

“…….artists – painters, sculptors, writers, poets, filmmakers, photographers, designers, dancers, musicians, actresses and strippers. Others included women’s liberationists, Aboriginal spokeswomen, activists, revolutionaries, teachers, students, drop-outs, mothers, prostitutes, lesbians and friends.”.[7]

Carol Jerrems, Virginnia Fraser, A Book About Australian Women, 1974

Although we meet the same cast of characters introduced in previous Cross publications, including the aging flapper Dulcie Deamer, and the aging witch Rosalee Norton, Ellis’s text take us down onto the street where his own libidinal gaze is roused:

The streets are busy with shoppers, especially determined little old ladies with straw hats and gloves and, in summertime, perhaps a parasol, and itinerant kids brushing from one to another killing time or maybe stretching it out. The girls are extraordinary nymphets—cascades of hair, bare feet, and erect nipples denting T-Shirts over faded Levis or perhaps they wear long tie-died dresses or Indian gear. For most, the bra is passé. They amble along the street, breasts jiggling like delicious jellies, features open to the world. The boys are hairy and hip. They look like ancient warriors and act like troubadours. p8

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

On pages like this we see the ambition of the book, but also its graphic naivety. Unlike all previous Australian photobooks, Ellis’s text is linked closely to his images of the same experiences, which are often printed on the same page as the text. The book’s design attempts to break out of the staid stolid design of the previous decades, so occasionally it creates centrifugal layouts of small images across double page spreads. These small images are also run along the top of the pages which carry his text, but they are a bit too small to be seen properly by the reader.

On other pages Ellis indulges in long Beat-style riffs that encapsulates not so much a visually captured scene, as a personally experienced moment:

Keep your eyes and your mind wide open and you’ll see it all— the passing parade, a perennial Mardi Gras with no threat of Lent to follow. Across the road—hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare hare—there are eight of them, the men with shaven heads, except for a tuft on the crown, the girls pretty and gentle with long plaits over their shoulders, all in flowing robes, their foreheads symbolically marked in white. Together they sway from foot to foot, a devoted chorus line of the Hare Krishna movement chanting their mantra to a drum beat and a hand clap— hare krishna hare krishna—it’s an infectious rhythm and people stop to stare, and wait for something to happen, while others join in and chant. Some hurry past as if it wasn’t really happening at all. Several Japanese businessmen leave a restaurant and climb into a long chauffeur driven car. They glance momentarily at a curvy girl in a Superman T-shirt—rama hare rama rama—while another with a gold-lettered satin sash across her shoulder walks past, handing out Whisky a Go Go invitation cards: ‘$2 includes food and drink for the sock-it-to-me happy hour and quarter and admittance all night until 3 a.m.’. People accept them indifferently. The hairy ones in their Levis are floating past, stalking shadows and followed by chunky-nippled girls in two and threes and solo, oblivious, I think, to the heads they turn. One girl in a crocheted top actually has her brown nub poking through the open knit like it’s coming up for air. You try not to look too hard and glance at the Back to Godhead magazine which you have been given—hare krishna, hare krishna—and before you’ve recovered another nymphet comes into view, beautiful and blonde, her stomach bare, her friend a willowy black soul brother bebopping along just like he was on 125th Street. Then, revving big Trummpies, a couple of Very Heavy bikies glide past, their leathered and crash-hatted ladies hunched on the back, defying the world. There are tourists in bermuda shorts with sunglasses and Instamatics and snappy little hats and next to me this jet-set guy with film star good looks and tinted hair, and his girl chain-smoking her unbelievable mauve cigarettes, and back in the street the ubiquitous little old Cross ladies tottering along all dressed up under ritzy white summer hats. And there goes Caddy, that white haired leprechaun with the side levers who carries the strippers’ bags and knows all their little secrets. Girls for a private show? Go see Caddy—hare hare rama hare—Hey man! Leonie, Jill of all trades, master of the quick con and sweet, sweet lady, mouths greetings, her snakey tatoo showing an inch above the neckline of her black satin shirt. Kerry the dog girl is shopping, and the Black Prince, with lovely young Veronica, is off downtown to flog his silver roach clips. Pilly the Dill and Fearless Fred the Drug Squad stalwarts cruise past, eyes piercing the crowded streets; Michael and Roger—Mimi and Ruth— triss by on their way to their favourite camping spot, and a thousand other people go about their daily shopping. On Thursday afternoon the scene will be the same but different, if you know what I mean. p30

It is no wonder that the following year Ellis said:

Much of my pleasure in photography is not in looking at the photographs, which I find boring, but my involvement in the actual situation of taking the shots, of preventing the moment from escaping forever.[8]

On other pages Ellis gives us extraordinary intimate vignettes:

At her home in Victoria Street, Michele, one of the strippers, talks about her job. She is English, very likeable and in her own style intelligent and articulate. She sits in her bra and pants on the couch under an Uncle Sam Wants You for The US Army poster and plays with her kitten. ‘Well actually I arrived in Australia with only $6 so I caught a cab, told the driver I danced, he told me he knew where I could get a job and took me to the Paradise Club and I started the next day waitressing and stripping. I used to do tables, jump up, get my gear off, then back on the tables. It was quite hard work really. But I liked it in the Cross. Compared with places like Soho and the Reeper-bahn in Hamburg it’s much more friendlier, not so vicious. It’s closer knit. Everyone knows everyone. And the bosses, the big guys, are more approachable here, you know, more like people. ‘Quite a lot of women come in to the shows. Sometimes they’re in long dresses after some fancy ball and they giggle and hide their faces. It’s funny to go up and shake your fanny around and embarrass them. And we have lots of middle-aged married couples up from Melbourne. Then there’s these downright perves who just sit there having wanks. It’s awful. They come in and sit in the front row, they’ve got glassy eyes, and they just pull it out and away they go. It’s so embarrassing. I look at them as I dance past and say “put it away you filthy bastard” and they just look at you blankly. They’re miles away in a sexual fantasy of their own. Mostly they’re young guys. Then there are the old regulars of course, great characters who think it’s great if the girls talk to them.’

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

At other times Ellis reports from within his own experience, like a gonzo school boy.

The Whisky a Go Go claims to be the Biggest Night Spot in the Southern Hemisphere. … You walk in under an explosion of neon in William Street, past a couple of tuxedoed and handsome dandies who scrutinise each and everybody. The last thing the Whisky wants is trouble, buddy. You pay your $2 and then, like jumping through the looking glass, you’re plunged into a maelstrom—a total environment that impinges on the senses like an electrical storm. Partly it’s manufactured by the management—light balls whirling in the dark, incredibly sexy go-go girls performing in chained and mirrored cages, forty near-nude waitresses, and the thundering amplified sounds of a rock group— and partly by the people themselves, shaking and shimmying on the dance floor as if they’re caught up in the electronic vibrations that burst out in waves from the huge speakers. The Whisky has been a big favorite with R & R boys, especially the Negroes. And black girls too. And they form their own turned-on little clique, dancing like mad with their big lit up spade smiles, flowing limbs and a knowing sensuality that stirs the loins. In contrast the rest of the Whisky oozes with a sort of contrived, but nonetheless effective, sexuality. The waitresses in a kind of bikini-sarong outfit, bend over your table and their boobs just about fall out all over you. The go-go dancers in their cages, reflected all angles several times over, are curvy ladies too, and they know how to make the curves work. In g-strings and bras they writhe away for ten minutes then take a twenty minute break. Six nights a week, six hours a night they work like convulsed marionettes.

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

Race is one issue that the book is completely uninhibited about displaying. The other issue is the changing role of women in Australia. Although Ellis’s libidinal gaze is never far away from the book, and although we see him developing this pervey gaze in the 1980s in the extraordinarily popular books Life’s a Beach and Life’s a Parade, in fact the experience of women becomes a focus for the Kings Cross book in a way which is totally unprecedented in other published Australian photobooks of the time. It is there in Ellis’s text. But also there in some of the striper shots, where they are pictured a adrift in a lonely void.

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

A stripper hurries across the road from one club to another. Her red panties are three inches lower than her mini skirt and as she walks they seem to flicker like a danger signal. Under her arm she carries the inevitable record that will set her in motion once she hits the stage. As she enters the door, Freddy the midget wrestler comes out and they exchange a nodded hullo. Freddy pushes his way through a knot of people who are staring across the road at a young woman and her baby. She is barefoot and in short shorts and carries her little boy on her hip. He is naked, save for a singlet that just covers his navel. Suddenly she places a square of newspaper on the ground and sits him on it while she stares into a shop window, resting her forehead on the glass. Then she’s off again. She stops and starts, stares at windows and a weighing machine, places her baby on the ground and picks him up again. Those who know drugs know she is tripping. Her shorts are very short and you can see the cheeks of her bottom grind together as her impatient steps take her from one manhole cover to the next. Each time she reaches her goal she stands stock still, staring and seemingly unaware of the impression she’s making on the crowd. Some are watching her because of the naked curve of her bottom. Others show genuine concern for her condition and for her baby, especially when she walks out into the traffic. But no one tries to help.

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

Like every account of the Cross, ever, Stacey and Ellis’s book ends on a Requiem for a lost Cross of the past, a Cross they experienced, but we can’t, we were too late.

Requiem: And so it goes on. Everywhere there are signs — Summit, Westfield, Mainline, Bank of NSW, Palisades, Home Units — proudly announcing the new projects. Many others are on the planning boards and in a few years time the Cross we know today will be unrecognizable. In place of the village will be a new satellite city. And much of the atmosphere that suggested this book will have vanished with the brick dust.

Kings Cross Sydney didn’t sell. It was an experiment that failed. In many ways it is a transitional publication, halfway between the tourist photography of the 1950s and 60s and the personally inflected photography of the 1970s. In 1974, just three years later, Morry Schwartz’s Outback Press published Carol Jerrem’s A Book About Australian Women with text by Virginnia Fraser, and Robert Ashton’s Into the Hollow Mountain, about Melbourne’s Fitzroy which combined text and poetry. The next Australian photobook to feature Kings Cross was thoroughly embedded in radical politics, it was Marion Marrison and Peter Manning’s Green Bans, which covered the fight to save Victoria Street, and was published by the Australian Conservation Foundation in 1975. Ellis submitted some more junkie pictures to an Ilford Photographic competition called Concern, and then opened up a photography gallery in Melbourne, and further honed his libidinal gaze to produce the extraordinarily popular books Life’s a Beach and Life’s a Parade in the 1980s.

Marion Marison and Peter Manning, Green Bans, 1975

Concern, 1972

Kings Cross Sydney is certainly is a flawed book. The layout seems extraordinarily amateurish to us now, but at least we can begin to see the photographers wrestling with the problem of deploying images across a page, although they can never seem to make up their minds what to do design-wise from page to page. We also see Ellis himself trying to work his photographs and his writing together. The book has disappeared to history almost completely, and though it is great that Ellis’s individual photographs are coming back to us through the work of the Rennie Ellis Archive, I think that Stacey and Ellis’s book project also is very important for the history of Australian photography. This is becasue, in the book Stacey and Ellis:

identified a market that might straddle both existing mainstream genres as well as newly emerging beat/hippy/gonzo modes;

shot the project in an unprecedented embedded process over a defined period of six months;

tried (and failed) to produce a designed book package integrating text and image;

all at the crucial historical juncture of 1970 as the R&R days of the late sixties were rolling over into the counterculture of the 1970s.

So I think it’s good.

 

[1] Gael Newton, Shades of Light : Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Canberra: Australian National Gallery: Collins Australia, 1988. Helen Ennis, Photography and Australia, London: Reaktion Books, 2007. Anne-Marie Willis, Picturing Australia: A History of Photography, North Ryde, N.S.W.: Angus & Robertson, 1988.

 

[2] Examples include: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Leslie Norman, 1959; They’re a Weird Mob, Michael Powell, 1966; Age of Consent, Michael Powell, 1969; Walkabout, Nicolas Roeg, 1971; Wake in Fright, Ted Kotcheff, 1971

 

[3] Frank Thompson, ‘Sixties Larrikins’, Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia 1946-2005. Ed. Craig Munro, and Robyn Sheahan-Bright. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2001.

 

[4] Dominic Bowes, Exposing Indecency, BA (Hons) thesis, University of Sydney, 2012

[5] Louis Nowra, Kings Cross: A Biography, 2013)

[6] Rennie Ellis and Wes Stacey, Kings Cross Sydney; a Personal Look at the Cross, Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1971

 

[7] Virginnia Fraser and Carol Jerrems, A Book About Australian Women. Outback Press. 1974 Outback Press was founded by Morry Schwartz, amongst others. Morry Schwartz is currently owner of the Black Imprint.

[8] Concern, edited by Harry Marks, Nelson, p48

Portraits of Survival at the Sydney Jewish Museum

 

My catalogue essay Portraits of Survival about Katherine Griffiths for the Sydney Jewish Museum’s exhibition ‘Closer’

Touch and vision are closely intertwined in photographs. The super-sensitive surface at the tip of each finger is intimately linked, perceptually if not physically, to the sensitive retina at the back of each eye. Just look at Katherine Griffiths’ photographs, as you look your fingertips will begin to almost tingle at the touch of the objects the survivors are holding. Recently this interest in ‘haptic vision’ has burgeoned amongst artists. In his widely influential book The Eyes of the Skin, Juhani Pallasmaa argues for the primacy of touch over all the other senses. ‘Touch’, he says, ‘is the sensory mode that integrates our experience of the world with that of ourselves.’ But not only does touch filter the outside world into our bodies, it also connects us directly to other humans, and to history:

The skin reads the texture, weight, density and temperature of matter. The surface of an old object, polished to perfection by the tool of the craftsman and the assiduous hands of its users, seduces the stroking of the hand. … The tactile sense connects us with time and tradition: through impressions of touch we shake the hands of countless generations.

Touch and the act of holding have long been integral to the history of photography. In early photographic studio portraits sitters were given leather-bound books or other items of social or religious significance to hold. These objects held symbolic power, but they also enabled the sitter to ‘perform’ their hands, their firm grip expressed the solidity of their place in the world. If touch connects us to identity, it also directly connects us to memory. In the nineteenth century bereaved mothers were frequently photographed holding photographs of their deceased children. Part of the emotional impact of these strange images is the paradoxical multiplication of time. The time of the child and the mother were split apart by death, but they are brought together again in the frozen instant of the photograph, which we, as viewers from the future, look mournfully back into. But their power also comes from the tragedy of touch. Instead of cradling the soft warm flesh of her child the bereaved mother can only grip a cold hard frame propped on her knee. In our contemporary mass media it is commonplace to see all types of victims gripping photographs of the dead, the missing, or the imprisoned in public acts of commemoration, mourning, or defiance. Some clutch their photographs protectively to their chests, others hold them up high and proud. Even in these press images it is the act of touching which again becomes the fulcrum of the image, pivoting between inner personal experience and outer public declaration.

It is therefore a rich tradition Katherine Griffiths has entered. But her photographs are not mournful, not defiant, and not ‘heavy’. Instead they are warm and even friendly. The survivors are photographed against an ordinary portrait studio backdrop, with ordinary portrait studio lighting. These are not stark mug shots of monumentalized faces, nor are they gritty evidence of the pathos of elderly people. Instead we see a rapport and collaboration between photographer and subject, all of whom look comfortable, neatly dressed, and … well … nice. They have been through a famously unrepresentable period in history, and hold objects freighted with an unbearable weight of pain, yet they look … well … ordinary. But it is a marvelous, rich, wonderful ordinariness.

Eddie Jaku delicately uncurls a thin, crumbling leather belt — the belt he wore through four prison camps — as though it was a timorous animal curled up in his hands. The viewer’s sense of the texture of the belt’s splitting tongue against his fingers, and the weight of its buckle on his palm, powerfully reconstitute the experiences he endured and the now absent trousers the belt once held up. Egon Sonnenschein looks directly into our eyes as he holds out to us a postcard whose surface is covered with the coloured marks and inscriptions of its ricocheting around Europe. The wings of this ephemeral butterfly appear to have been delicately caught in mid-flight by the tips of his fingers.

When they are held in the birdlike hands of survivors, the yellowing passports, certificates, and identity papers from the past — the slips of paper that enabled the wheels of historical fate to turn — take on a higher charge. This is especially so when a photograph is found amidst the bureaucratic hieroglyphs. Helena Goldstein, aged 97, looks straight down the camera at us as she presents her identity card. Amongst the inky stamps and smudged signatures we find her ID photograph where, aged 24, she once again looks straight at us with a clear-eyed smile. The same looks travel to us in close parallel, though separated by oceans of time. In a reversal of the normal roles of mother and daughter Ilse Charny cradles a tiny image of her mother in the form of an identity photograph within a Shanghai Jewish refugee document. She holds more than just banal data but a direct, even fleshy, connection to history as we recognize family resemblances in both faces.

George Gronjowski holds up his concentration camp tunic for us to see, but his red-rimmed eyes are looking off into the past. This faraway look is also in the eyes of John Gruschka as he fans out, between the parchment-like skin of his fingers, the desiccated pages of the letters his mother wrote to him from Prague, as he sheltered in England, before her murder in Auschwitz. Joe Symon stares frankly ahead as he confidently flips up for us a photograph of his fifteen year old self, while Lotte Weiss, wearing her hair done elegantly in a salon, freshly applied lipstick, golden earrings, pearls, and a warm, open expression, holds her shaven-headed mug shots from Auschwitz across her chest while matter-of-factly displaying the identification number tattooed on her arm.

Peter Rossler gazes into our eyes as he shows us his Aunt’s Jewish star, clasped by its topmost point. It’s a badge, now a tentative emblem of pride, which perfectly plays off the school-crests stitched across his neatly tied neck-tie. In a similar way, Jaqueline Dale holds a model of a wooden ship, an incongruously bulky internment camp souvenir, against her pink top and pearls.

Although they are all humble, not all these precious objects come from the dark days of the Holocaust. Some contribute to other narratives, such as the broader history of migration to Australia. For instance Yvonne Engel ‘brings a plate’ to the exhibition, it was brought from Woolworths in 1949 as a humble wedding gift for the first marriage of child survivors on Australian soil. The weight of the decoratively cut glass Yvonne’s holds out to us makes us think of all the savouries and sweets this plate has carried to social functions over the subsequent decades as the couple put down their roots in Australian society.

The touch and feel of the domestic is a powerful thread throughout these survivors’ lives. Paul Drexler cradles the blanket which comforted him during the war over his knees as he looks off to one side in quiet, inner contemplation. Olga Horak also holds a blanket, this one made of human hair. Here we once again experience the transforming power of touch. Typically, human hair is beautiful on the head, but abjectly disgusting when detached from the head. But under the transformative power of Olga’s soft touch and equally soft eyes the blanket is no longer just a curious museum object, or historical evidence of cruelty and suffering, it becomes a beautiful warm, comforting, familiar thing.

In these portraits a photographer has collaborated with her subjects in the safe, respectful space of the studio. The photographs, although dealing with memories of historical cataclysm, approach the subject through touch — the most ordinary, the most intimate, and the most marvellous of all the senses.

Martyn Jolly

Katherine Griffiths, George Gronjowski, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Gerty Jellinek, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Ilse Charny, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Jack Meister, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Lena Goldstein, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Lotte Weiss, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Olga Horak, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Peter Rossler, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

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.