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

Australian Photography Commissions

Talk at Australian Parliament House 20 June 2014 for Anne Zahalka Parliament House commission forum

Australian Photography, Corporate Commissions and Australia’s Parliament House

When Parliament House was being built the scene for art photography was very different to the scene now. Now photography has become just another imaging-option within art, and it really only gets public profile as a medium in its own right through a set of annual photography competitions, in which anyone — amateur, professional or student — can take their chances. But, twenty-five years ago, photography was still relatively ‘hot’ as an art medium and, as well as being seen to be publicly accessible, it was also associated with the young and innovative. Rather than today’s large photographic competitions, which are largely funded by the entry fees of photographers themselves, in the eighties corporate sponsorship was very important in offering new photographers their first break, and offering established photographers further opportunities. Companies such as Polaroid and Kodak sponsored photographers, but the biggest sponsor of the period was the cigarette company Philip Morris, who aligned itself with the National Gallery of Australia and, through its director James Mollison, purchased 700 photographs by over 100 photographers between 1976 and 1980.

Other industries also saw the advantage of using photographers to not only document their activities, but also to gain a corporate shine from being seen to be with-it philanthropists to a young and exciting art medium. Of course photography has always been completely bound up in industry. From the early twentieth century onwards photographers and factories were close acquaintances. Photographers such as George Lewis, who features in the current NGA exhibition of Indonesian photography, was exemplary in importing the visual logic of the portrait studio onto the factory floor. Even before the industrial photographer unpacked his camera gear the machinery had to ‘photograph itself’ by momentarily pausing in its ceaseless whirring so that it would register solidly on the film rather than become a liquid blur. Workers, machinery and lighting were then choreographed, as in a portrait studio, to give just the right impression for the client.

George Lewis 1902

George Lewis 1902

As was the case globally, Australian photographers have also always been associated with industry and architecture. Harold Cazneaux undertook a commission for BHP in 1935; and in 1973 the publisher Oswald Ziegler used Max Dupain’s photographs for one of his celebratory and commemorative volumes, Sydney Builds and Opera House. This exemplifies what could be called a modernist-heroic genre of architectural photography, celebrating industry and architecture primarily, and including workers as a function of the industrial process. Workers are certainly present and even celebrated, but they are a figured within the machinery of construction, a human accent to the formal architecture of the image. In this heroic mode it is the historical force of modernity itself which is the generative power, producing the ‘sculptural forms’ of the architecture which define the photograph, which in turn are ministered to by the supplicant workers who provide a fleshy torque to the composition’s hard architectonics. This heroic genre was getting a fair bit of profile twenty-five years ago. For instance in 1976 David Moore reprinted some photographs taken by Henri Mallard of the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for an Australian Centre for Photography travelling exhibition. Perhaps the last example of this heroic mode is David Moore’s own documentation of the building of the Glebe Island Bridge, published in 1996.

1976

1976

1973

1973

Sydney Builds an Opera House

Sydney Builds an Opera House

Sydney Builds an Opera House

Sydney Builds an Opera House

However, in 1978 one company, CSR, saw the advantage of uniting the benefits of the corporate philanthropy of Philip Morris with the opportunity to directly document the variety of their industrial activities. The story goes that they originally contacted the Australia Council to help them find a painter to celebrate the centenary of their Pyrmont refinery with a great big painting of the refinery. The council steered them toward getting more bang for their twelve thousand bucks by spending the same amount on a group of six photographers. The project, auspiced through Christine Godden, director of the Australian Centre for Photography, went on for a further four iterations. The project was structurally very similar to the future Parliament House Project, it commissioned emerging photographers, but also featured established photographers ‑ even towards the end getting Max Dupain to reprint some images originally taken in the 1950s. The emphasis was on a variety of approaches, from the traditional fine print to the more art school trained style of creative photography. Thus in 1978 Sandy Edwards broke the masculinist mold of the previous heroic mode by photographing the multicultural women on the production line. Micky Allan also broke the heroic mold of picturing workers as a mere manifestation of the Modernist imperative by incorporating noise andvibration — stilled in previous industrial photography — in her production line photographs. Even Bill Henson enveloped the younger workers in his trademark entropic twilight, making them not the vigorous propellers of progress, but the romantic bearers of a lugubrious weight. David Moore even assembled portrait-rows of them, matching the leatheriness of their multicultural faces with the marks on their multifunctional gloves. Also notable in the CSR collection was some of what was called at the time ‘constructed photography’, exemplified by Debra Phillips, who a decade before photoshop blended two separate photographs into the one experiential landscape; or Merryle Johnson who made multiple-viewpoint scenes of ordinary life. However the CSR commission also gave the opportunity for photographers like Grant Mudford to explore the formal properties of the medium using industrial materials and gravel.

Debra Phillips on CSR catalogue cover

Debra Phillips on CSR catalogue cover

Sandy Edwards 192 Cubes 1978. AGNSW Collection

Sandy Edwards 192 Cubes 1978. AGNSW Collection

Micky Allan 1978. AGNSW Collection

Micky Allan 1978. AGNSW Collection

Grant Mudford 1981. AGNSW Collection

Grant Mudford 1981. AGNSW Collection

The Parliament House commission had a lot in common with the CSR commission, and many photographers who worked on Parliament House had previously worked at CSR. However some, for instance Bill Henson, who worked on the CSR commission unfortunately did not come back for Parliament House, I wonder what he would have done if he had? Many of the twenty-eight photographers who shot on the site around the year 1986 worked in a hyper formalist style. One example amongst many is Tony Perry who revelled in the mud and hard shadows, and formally played the white of the concrete off against the dark patterns of reinforcing mesh. For others, like Steven Lojewski, on-camera flash often flattened space, and horizon lines were often pushed way up to force a tension between the 3D space depicted in the image, and the 2D surface of the print. To anybody who lived through this period this is all very, very, familiar, but scrolling through the images now the viewer feels the clench of a claustrophobic air. But nonetheless this style dominates the collection. Other examples in black and white are: Fiona Hall, Glen O’Malley, John Elliot and Charles Page ; and in colour: Douglass Holleley and Ed Douglas. In many of these shots workers are excluded entirely, and in others, such as Fiona Hall’s, they are reduced to tiny ciphers.

Steven Lojewski C1986 Parliament House Collection

Steven Lojewski C1986 Parliament House Collection

Only some photographers seem to capture the full scale and spatial weirdness of the building, most notably Gerrit Fokkema who gave his photographs his trademark surreal irony; and Debra Phillips who seems to have begun her photography by responding to the spaces she entered, rather than imposing her own pre-determined formal sensibility, like a net, over the spaces she looked down into— which many of the other photographers seemed to do.

Gerrit Fokkema C1986 Parliament House Collection

Gerrit Fokkema C1986 Parliament House Collection

Debra Phillips C1986 Parliament House Collection

Debra Phillips C1986 Parliament House Collection

This was a national commission, photographers went anywhere in Australia from which Parliament House’s construction materials were sought, but there was a politics here too. Take for example the sourcing of timber: Anthony Green photographed the dense Huon pine forests of Tasmania as though it was just another formalist exercise, and Richard Stringer’s photographed in the jungles of Kuranda, in far north Queensland, as though it was a postcard; but Gillian Gibb took individual tree portraits in Tasmania, baptising each one with their proper botanical name.

Gillian Gibb C1986 Parliament House Collection

Gillian Gibb C1986 Parliament House Collection

Anthony Green C1986 Parliament House Collection

Anthony Green C1986 Parliament House Collection

Workers are not excluded entirely: Mark Kimber did Sanderesque portraits of them, while Richard Woldendorp and John Williams photograph them emeshed in their environment. (It is only after a little while that we realize with a shock what is missing from these twenty-five year old images of workers, where are the hi-viz vests, today’s instantly recognizable symbol of labour worn by everyone from the prime minister down— here totally absent?). Merryl Johnson, one of several overtly feminist photographers who were chosen, places them as part of a dynamic environment.

Mark Kimber C1986 Parliament House Collection

Mark Kimber C1986 Parliament House Collection

Merryle Johnson C1986 Parliament House Collection

Merryle Johnson C1986 Parliament House Collection

Standing out from all of the rest of the work is Sandy Edwards, who photographs workers not ‘on the job’, but involved in the controversial de-registering of the Builders Labourers Federation. She took photograph of three union members and other union activities in saturated colour. Beneath the images she placed labels filled with her own querulous first-hand experiences. I was around when this collection was first exhibited, and I’ve forgotten most of it, but I still remember the shock of seeing Sandy’s photographs. What comes through is her own tentative self-questioning, a self-conscious awareness of the fragility of the temporary relationships she forged with the unionists and strikers she photographed, and an acute awareness of the politics of the commission itself. (But now, encountering them 25 years later I can’t help but see them through the filter of all the all massive iconography of Thatcher’s Britain that has come out, particularly in cinema, since then. As always, it’s a tragedy that so much of Australia’s visual heritage remains hidden and dormant, while that of other countries spreads across the world.)

Sandy Edwards C1986 Parliament House Collection

Sandy Edwards C1986 Parliament House Collection

Sandy Edwards C1986 Parliament House Collection

Sandy Edwards C1986 Parliament House Collection

Sandy Edwards C1986 Parliament House Collection

Sandy Edwards C1986 Parliament House Collection

So, in these collections we can see larger political dramas — between feminism and patriarchy, between environmental consciousness and the perception of nature as imply a ‘resource’, between the historical project of modern development and the human experiences caught up in it — directly played out in the dialogue between the photographs.

Zahalka has inherited all of this. She, like photographers before her for over a century, has imported the logic of the studio into the workplace. Make no mistake, hers is an industrial photography. She, like photographers before her, has had to work out where to find the ‘dignity’ of labour. Not in the heroic tradition, where a worker’s labour and therefore their dignity is merely a product of a historical project far greater than the individual; and not either — at least in this case — in an oppositional tradition where the worker is cast as an actor in another historical drama of oppression resistance and rebellion. But rather, somewhere between them.

Martyn Jolly

 

 

Rupture, Generation or Continuity? The 70’s and an ’80’s Photography, 1984

Rupture, Generation or Continuity? The 70’s and an ’80’s Photography (A Speech from a Rostrum)

After the Artefact: An exhibition of Contemporary Photographic Practice

Wollongong City Gallery, 1984

At the end of 1983, as part of its normal exhibition programme, the Department of Photography at the Australian National Gallery held an exhibition ‘A decade of Australian photography 1972-1982’. The exhibition was drawn from the Philip Morris Arts Grant Collection, a corporate sponsorship programme that oriented itself around the work of ‘young bold and innovative artists’. The show was the latest of a succession of exhibitions and publications drawn from that collection, the largest and most significant collection of ’70’s Australian photography. It was not the exhibition’s intention to offer a significant reappraisal of the period’s photography, more to provide a curatorial summation of the collection itself. For these reasons the exhibition would have been largely familiar to anyone acquainted with recent Australian photography and the Philip Morris Arts Grant.

Yet something did distinguish this exhibition from previous Philip Morris Arts Grants exhibitions and publications: despite the fact that some works of quite recent execution were included, one couldn’t help but get the sense, when viewing the exhibition, that what was once a ‘now’ photography had become a ‘then’ photography, what was once ‘our’ photography had become ‘their’ photography.

The exhibition seemed to arouse little interest within the ranks of Australia’s newer photographers. This apparent disinterest in the work exhibited revealed, once and for all, that the photography ‘explosion’ of the early ’70’s, which had stopped the clocks for six or seven years, was now no longer even an echo. From the viewpoint of 1983 the ’70’s was, for photography at least, a long summer that didn’t so much turn into autumn as disappear over the horizon.

Not only were many of today’s emerging photographers ignorant of the emergence of their predecessors in the ’70’s, they were also disinterested. They seemed to find the work uninspirational and easily locatable within the larger histories of photography that they had been taught. To them, art-historical chapter-headings such as ‘formalism’, ‘expressionism’, ‘street photography’, or ‘feminist pedagogy’ accrued all too easily to the work exhibited.

Though they may have been ignorant of the photographers, they were not ignorant of the photography. They thought that they had seen it all before.

The exhibition revealed a distinct sense of rupture between the ’70’s and the ’80’s photography. This is, of course, only to be expected: historical rupture is a central tenet of Modernism, against whose bosom photography has always snuggled. (Postmodernism will be referred to later in this essay.) Yet if we closely examine Australian photography since the boom of the early ’70’s, we find that this rupture is more readily identifiable within the institutions of Australian photography than in the photography itself.

For instance the dealer photography galleries of Melbourne, to which the eager young photographers of the ’70’s came with their portfolios under their arms, have either closed or appear to be on the verge of doing so. The Australian Centre for Photography, which opened as a separate gallery and workshop in the heart of Sydney’s dealer gallery belt, has restructured in a single building on Oxford Street, intent on broadening its basis in both the general and photographic communities. The privileged pedagogy of one or two ‘leading’ art colleges, with its concomitant valorization of the guru-like teacher, has been expanded into a whole range of educational opportunities right across Australia. The photographic climate seems to have changed so much that a one or two person show at a dealer gallery, so highly valued on the CVs of the ’70’s, seems to almost have an air of presumption in the ’80’s, when photographers are just as willing to join together to hold group and theme shows at a variety of institutional spaces. (Witness the present exhibition.)

Hence we have those terms I have used so freely thus far—the 70’s and the ’80’s. But although the institutional changes within Australian photography clearly indicate such a distinction, it is not nearly as clear within Australian photography itself.

In fact the continuities of theme and practice are just as evident as the discontinuities. The phallocentric juvenilia of the 70’s—the soppy shots of nude girlfriends, the sepiaed ‘studies’ of nature, etc., etc.—has thankfully shriveled. The serendipitous snaps of ‘streetwise’ photographers, which certainly had more to offer, have been banished in the face of popularly read critiques of the single, coherent photographic image and its place in hegemonic visual culture (in particular liberal-humanist press, film and TV discourses). It is tempting to suggest that disdain for the single image is the mark of ’80’s photography, but it is not a mark that distinguishes it from the ’70’s. Many of the most important photographers of the ’70’s worked with serial imagery (e.g. John Rhodes) constructing narratives at various levels of interpretive ambiguity. Others (e.g. Carol Jerrems) constructed directorial, almost fictionalised spaces, implicating the photographer in, and therefore deneutralizing, the act of photographing itself. Other photographers (e.g. Micky Allan) overtly compromised the photographs glassy, windowlike surface with sophisticated, gestural handcolouring techniques. The cataloguing imperative, as a structuring process that defines the photographer as a self-conscious investigator of the limits of the photograph as an informational and aesthetic unit, is also common to both decades. It is not difficult to see the diachronic lines of continuity, influence and individual career that are deeply scored across both the ’70’s and the ’80’s. The rupture between the decades is a contextual and an institutional one, rather than a formal, stylistic, or thematic one.

But this fails to explain why newer photographers tend to find the work of their predecessors boring. The reason is, I think, in large part because they feel they have seen it, or else work very much like it, ‘all before’. To them it remains, for all intents and purposes, virtually indistinguishable from similar work produced by European or American photographers.

The only thing that does, ultimately, divide the two decades is that, during the 70’s, any regionalist problematic that may have disturbed, or even affected, Australian photographers was swamped by the sheer newness of their activity. The question of sustaining any artistic photographic practice at all usurped the question of sustaining any particularly Australian photographic practice. The commonality felt by the Australian photographers of the 70’s was a commonality of time, of nowness, rather than a commonality of place, of hereness.

The young photographers of the 70’s probably felt entirely untroubled by regionalist problematics as their eyes scanned the magazine racks for the silver cover of Creative Camera containing this month’s collection of portfolios by their fellow young photographers in Europe or America. Likewise, overseas visitors were invited to Australia for pontificate visits and treated with a fraternal familiarity when they arrived. ‘One could say that photography in Australia is on the same plane as elsewhere’ claimed the editorial of the inaugural edition of Light Vision, ‘Australia’s International Photography Magazine’.

Thus, although there are, of course, differences identifiable in retrospect between photography in Australia and elsewhere during the 70’s, any sense of continuity between the 70’s and ’80’s amongst Australian photographers themselves tends to be dissipated in the sea of ‘global photography’ to which they blithely subscribe. Because the difference between the practices of photographers in Australia and photographers elsewhere are scrupulously effaced there seems nothing in particular for one generation of Australian photographers to contribute to the next. Collections such as the Philip Morris Arts Grant appear to become vitiated by their look-alikeness before they are even complete.

The 70’s and the ’80’s, having lost hold of each, other, seem to be carried along independently by the currents of global photography with its global histories. (This is not to elevate ‘global photography’ to the status of a hegemonic bogey.

 

Neither is it to call for a parochial tradition of ‘Australian photography-Australian art has already gone through several re-runs of that episode. Nor is it to call for the invention of a paternalistic relationship between the two ‘generations’.)

However, if a sense of continuity could be established for Australian photography, going all the way back to when the boom began in the early 70’s, then perhaps a more complex, stronger Australian photography would result, one that felt more confident in itself and had a more substantial basis from which to contribute to the current upheavals in Australian culture generally and Australian art in particular. Australian photography still inhabits the peripheral: the longer it continues to construct itself as a series of youthful nowness, the longer it will maintain the familiar problematics that have accompanied it throughout its history. These problematics centre around the right, or ability, of photography and photographers to participate in the art discourse at all. And if so, at what level.

It is in the face of these weary, but continuing problematics that this call for continuity is made. Because, from the point of view of art in the ’80’s, to make a call for photographers to re-examine, or even just examine, such a thing as the 70’s for a sense of continuity may seem reactionary in the extreme. After all, the leitmotif of ’80’s art is, under the rubric of Postmodernism, precisely the ruptures and foliations of synchronic sets of cultural nownesses. But to regard such a call as reactionary or misplaced is to ignore the discursive formation of photography within art.

Quite simply there was little art photography of any consequence in Australia before the 1970’s. We have to go back, probably to the 1930’s, before we can again find photography locating itself in the art discourse. Nor can photography be conveniently counted as just another component of ’80’s Postmodernism, the site for which is, primarily, still the traditional art mediums. Photographic reproductive processes may be crucial to much Postmodernist art, but art photography is not; nor, on the evidence is it dead. (Again, witness the present show.) Although a good deal of current photographic activity, some even from this show, can be inscribed into Postmodernist discourses (as broad as they are becoming), much photography, some even from this show as well, could not.

Furthermore, most probably because of those very problematics of photography within art, photography still resolutely refuses to become institutionally integrated into art, or to die out. Despite the devout prayers of photographic and art practitioners alike it remains a discipline all too readily identifiable by that one word —photography. Although photography was warmly welcomed by art in the 70’s, the fact that it is still regarded from a safe distance is readily apparent when one examines the geography of the hanging of recent Biennales and Perspectas; photography’s representation and presentation by dealer galleries; the course structures of art schools; the books and magazines in which photographic writings appear; and even shows such as this one, the motivational rationale for which is, simply, that all the ten artists exhibiting use photography. The photographic medium, rather than the photographic practice, is still the fundamental criterion for evaluating and categorizing photographers.

Thus we are left with the situation of photography being a medium which, like it or not, is left largely to itself to determine its own status, write its own histories, and inscribe its own formation within art. It is from this position that a call for continuity can be regarded as properly made.

And it is shows such as this one, with its casually random mixture of the ‘older’ and the ‘newer’ photographers—photographers who were collected during the 70’s along with photographers who contributed to the institutional changes of the ’80’s and photographers who have only recently graduated from art colleges, which may be a very useful point from which to begin to establish a continuity stretching back further than just a year or two. In this way, part of the boom of the 70’s could be profitably recouped for the ’80’s.

Martyn Jolly March 1984

Robyn Stacey Presents, 1985

Robyn Stacey Presents

Mori Gallery, Sydney October 8-26, 1985

 

Photofile, Autumn 1986 page 30

 

Robyn Stacey’s photography has always been concerned with self-perception of self-image. Her handcoloured portraits portray an individual’s sense of their own special character as they present it to her camera.

 

Her first one person exhibition, held at The Australian Centre for Photography in 1983, approached this problem in a more casual, informal and ‘documentary’ manner than her recent show at Mori Gallery. For her first exhibition she photographed a range of social types, from topless barmaids to Aborigines, to Punks and Rockers. The portraits were generally taken in their subject’s ‘natural’ environments, then enlarged and delicately handcoloured with colour pencils. In this first exhibition, as in the second, her subjects confidently posed for their portraits. However, this self-contained display of self-image generally took place within a particular social environment. All of her subjects were immediately inscribed within a specific social relationship.

This often contradictory interaction between a self contained personality and the surrounding social landscape gave the images a poignant, bitter-sweet accent, as self-image played off social position. For instance in the Queensland Out West series, purchased by the Australian National Gallery, there is a memorable image of three Aboriginal youths clowning for the camera. One proudly wears a tee-shirt bearing the tragically ironic words ‘Shaddup You Face’, from the mock-Italian pop song of the time. In another series of photo­graphs, purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a punk father tenderly plays with his baby, who sports a mohawk haircut almost as impressive as his dad’s.

Robyn Stacey, Body and Soul I, 1985 colour print

Stacey’s sensitive handcolouring, with the fibres of her pencil strokes just breaking through the photographic surface, added to the emotive power of these images. Their immediate charm may lie in the fact that they fall safely into a long photographic tradition — the documentation of social and cultural phenomena in which the photographer acts as a hyper-sensitized reporter, sending poetic dispatches back from the periphery of society. This tradition has

been celebrated since Robert Frank, at least.

In her latest exhibition, subtitled Well Known Unknowns, Stacey confidently steps out of this tradition and onto the slippery, constantly sliding surface of mediatized imagery and personalised fantasy. In these portraits she retreats from a particular social environment into the non-specific cultural potentiality of the studio. Her subject’s self-perception of self-image becomes the therapeutic acting out of an inner fantasy. Character collapses into characterization as she photographs her friends as mermaids, devils, boxers and Film Noir heroes. She becomes complicit in their manifest imaginings. Quite another photographic tradition is being reinterpreted now, the tradition of the studio portrait, the

glamour photograph, and the fashion spread.

In the sense in which fantasy is important to us all, these image still function as portraits of ‘real’ people. However, Stacey does not sink into that well worn mode of portraiture in which fantasy is used to describe an interior ‘psychological’ space. These portraits are dislodged from a particular psychologi­cal reality, as well as a particular social or cultural environment. They freely float across a thoroughly mediatized field made up of an array of conno-tatively redolent costumes, props, colourful cutouts and dappling projections.

Her images have a disarmingly eccentric, 2D feel. Even the picture surface itself seems to participate in this retreat from the specific and the real. Some of the images, for instance Fantasy at 20,000 Fathoms, axe hand-coloured photographs that have been copied onto colour film; others, such as Water Baby, axe copied 20 x 24 inch Polaroids. These techniques give the photographs a sort of elusive non-presence which oscillates between two kinds of materiality: neither photo­graphic nor graphic, neither true not false, both handcrafted object and technological product.

The referent of these images is no longer a particular personality, rather it becomes popular culture as personal possession. Stacey’s photographs are portraits of chimeric individualities constructed from the dislocated fragments of lovingly remembered postcards, posters, cartoons, films, videos, toys and art works — all the things that comprise Western popular culture.

However, these images are not a commentary on pop culture, they are not reducible to the kitsch or the camp, or even to the second degree. They are to be believed in, Body and Soul. They have been made as serious and well meant additions to the field of mediatized imagery. Ultimately, they are more than just the fun and games of a particular inner city milieu. As portraits they function as images of a personal disavowal. Liberal-humanist notions of cultural and social determinancy are repudiated, and a global regime of univalent, non-denotational imagery is embraced.

However, in this delightful oscillation between personality and image there remains a Taste of Terror which finally gives these images their edge: these images so cunningly and wittily eschew the normal photographic referents of the ‘real’, the ‘psychological’ and the ‘commentary’, they are so self contained, yet so elusive, that they appear to be in danger of spinning Outta Sight all together.

 

Martyn Jolly

 

Photography’s Critical Stance? 1986

‘Photography’s Critical Stance?’

The Critical Distance, 1986, edited by Virginia Coventry, Hale and Iremonger. ISBN 0 86806 223, pp132-140

 

How is such a thing as the critical practice of photography possible? How does the specific nature of photography, its inherent characteristics and uses, define its relationship to critical cultural practice as a whole?

Photography and society and politics

Firstly, what is this thing called ‘the critical practice of photography or, as it is sometimes termed, ‘oppositional photography’? Oppositional photography is, first and foremost, a conscious photographic practice, a practice that takes a particular stance in relation to photography as a medium as well as to the society in which it operates. Oppositional photography demands a conscious stance because it sees both these things as structures that define the ways in which ‘our world’ is comprehended and the ways in which individuals behave in it. These structures are regarded as fundamentally oppressive – in need of critique and in need of change. Critical cultural practice assumes that forms of communication and representation – photography, film, newspapers, TV, and even art – cannot be j separated from the society in which they exist.

In the theory of ideology developed by Marx, the material basis of society, its eco­nomic functionings, produced a set of implicit assumptions and beliefs that masked its inherent contradictions. To Marx, the basic contradiction of capitalism was that economic wealth accrued to capital rather than to labour Ideology was« kind of false consciousness, the perfect reflection of the contradictions of capitalism. It is interesting to note that one of Marx’s own metaphors for this ‘wrong thinking’ was a camera-obscura, which makes upside-down images of the world in am darkened space.1 This metaphor relies on assumptions that are perhaps not so easy to maintain in the 1980s — assumptions of a’ real’ world, a’ false’ ideological image, and the distorting lens of simple class contradiction.

Within the Marxist tradition, theories of ideology were intensively developed dur­ing the twentieth century, when it was realised that classical Marxism had historical limits. It was more applicable to the nineteenth century capitalism which produced it, than to the increasingly subtle and complex forms of capitalism which developed during the twentieth century. An important theoretical develop­ment was the granting to ideology, society’s ‘superstructure’, a ‘relative autonomy11 from the economic base. The superstructure of society – culture, beliefs, etc.8 has a materiality of its own and is therefore as important an arena for revolutiona struggle as is the struggle between labour and capital. As the site for revolutic struggle has expanded, so has the cast of possible participants; no longer jud those directly oppressed by capital — the workers — but also those oppressed within other configurations of power — women, blacks, gays, the unemployed and those in the Third World.

Power is not simply direct economic oppression. Power can be technical, en­coded in social regimes or architecture.2 Power can be immanent, residing in f assumption that things are the way they are because of simple, ‘commonsense’ reasons. Power is pervasive. As much cultural as economic, it is best described as being hegemonic. Cultural and political power is derived from the assumption that this is a ‘natural’ ‘normal’ society. It is fundamentally oppositional practices that6 gage themselves with this assumption.

Photography is one of the most important and pervasive mediums for construe ing this ‘normalcy’ because it weds an apparently undeniable reality, an unassailable ‘piece of the world’, with specifically constructed, culturally determined, messages about that world. Photography is an essential part of the phenomena of the mass media. In the 1930s Walter Benjamin discussed the ways in which pho­tography, through the mass media, stripped reality of its unique and specific meanings for us as individuals and substituted a homogenous mass meaning, defined by the predominant interests in our society.3

Recently, such ideas have been developed further: the media is no longer simply seen as facilitating communication between individuals and sections of society, and thus passively reproducing capitalism’s contradictions, but rather as transact­ing in the signs of communication in the way capitalism transacts in any other commodity – as simply consumption for its own sake. Thus we can speak of an ‘economy of signs’ in which information is consumed and paid for as part of the same process as the consumption of products. Commodities and signs dissolve into each other. We are therefore robbed of the possibility of any real response to society because simple attack or transgression still circulates within the economy of the sign.4 Photography lies close to the heart of this process because, in a sense, it commodities the world. It turns pieces of ‘reality’ into messages that can be transacted within the economy of signs.

Photography’s privileged relationship with ‘the real’ has been dealt with by a variety of theorists, though not with the terminological coherency of straight politi­cal theory. Virtually all the writers who have discussed what I will call ‘the photo­graphic effect’ have been forced to use individualistic, quasi-metaphoric modes of speech when dealing with photography’s intoxicating, corporeal effects of im­mediacy and palpability.

Within the photographic tradition Walter Benjamin is celebrated as one of the first to theorise photography’s technological supremacy over all other imaging mediums. In referring to photography’s ‘magical value’, its ‘tiny spark of accident, the here and now’, Benjamin attempted to define the optical and chemical caus­ality of the photograph, its essential nature that not only characterises it as a medium but also absolutely distinguishes it from all other representational mediums.5

The semiologist Roland Barthes divided the photograph into layers, each of which, through different sign systems, carries different aspects of ‘the photo­graphic message’. One of these distinct, but inseparable layers of meaning, con­notation, carries specific cultural messages through the learnt codes of lighting, pose, composition, content, etc. The other layer, denotation, is a message sent without a code, undeniable reality resolutely recorded by the camera. This layer was for Barthes, as for all of us, the source of photography’s fascination. Thus Benjamin’s ‘flying spark of the here and now’ transmutes into ‘a message without a code’ for Barthes6 For Barthes, photography’s photographicness is not simply the bare bones of a linguistic/visual message lacking art, interpretation or even an enunciative creator; rather it is a potent, seductive and wily force naturalising and rendering innocent specific (bourgeois) messages within a brutal denotative/connotative alliance.

Through the mass media, with its increasing reliance on electronic, filmic, and mechanically reproduced photographic images, photography has assumed more and more of the very substance, the flesh, of our culture. Photography can thus also be said to play an increasingly important function within culture’s hegemonic structurings. Moreover, a direct correspondence can be made be­tween the ‘hegemonic’ and the ‘photographic’ structurings of our ‘reality’. The pho­tographic process, in its flawless and unquestionable conflation of a constructed, cultural message with ‘reality’, can be seen to operate in exactly the same way as the social hegemony at large, with its construction of a particular political and social order as the only commonsense ‘natural’ one. Marx’s metaphor of the camera-obscura can be revived and expanded: the cultural hegemony is like a photograph, it presents a particular order as the only conceivable order. But this relationship goes beyond being merely a metaphoric illustration: photography, or the ‘photographic effect’ (which spreads itself all the way from the video screen to the daguerreotype’s tarnished surface) can be seen to form part of the very body of our culture. Although, of course, linguistic,7 photography is not simply a mode of speech, not simply a cultural enunciation, it is a breath and a sound – the breath and the sound of the cultural hegemony.

In any oppositional practice the first thing that must be interrupted, therefore, is the even flow of the photographic breath. Oppositional photography of recent years has thus had a primary encounter with photography’s own ‘body’ – the pho­tographic effect. The Critical Distance not only implies a stance in relation to poli­tics and culture in Australia, but also a critical stance in relation to photography itself. The work collected under this title has concerned itself as much with disen­tangling itself from the photographic embrace as it has with social critique. Indeed it has not only had to deal with the two as thoroughly imbricated functions, but also as two absolute determinants of oppositional speech.

It is for these reasons that oppositional photographers characteristically break into their medium, rupturing it, tattooing it with texts, colouring and cutting it. These processes are of course historically relatable to the Modernist practices of mon­tage and collage, but it remains characteristic of most oppositional photographic discourses that one of the first things to be problematised is photography itself.

‘Photography and . . .’

 ‘. . . and  Photography’

Because of photography’s pervasive nature, because of its ethereal yet palpable presence in our day to day lives, it proves very difficult to come to terms with as medium or as a cultural practice in itself. Put simply, what we mean when we say the word ‘photography’ is never fully resolvable. Usually the word is used in con- j junction with some other term. It is always Art and Photography’8 ‘Photography and Pnntmaking’,9 ‘Photography and Language’.10 ‘Eros and Photography’,11 ‘Postmodernism and Photography’12 or ‘Photography and Politics’.13 Yet photography I persistently retains its identity no matter what it does and no matter what it is associated with. It is generally seen as an indivisible whole which merely displays I ‘aspects’ of itself for attention, aspects identifiable through their congruence with j other cultural discourses. Though there may be art photography, historical photography, erotic photography, and even political photography, somehow pho­tography always remains the dominant term. The ‘photographic’ sets all the images which it characterises into a firm gelatinous mass. The medium of paint­ing, for instance, is variegated, developing, changing and ruptured and can oil in some art discourses, be unified by such transcendent notions as ‘human expression’ or ‘artistic endeavour’. Photography, on the other hand, is fundamentally unified at the ontological level by its ‘photographicness’ and can only be divided and distinguished within itself on the discursive (historical, sociological, artistic) ‘ level. Photography remains predicated on the photographic, that intoxicating, corporeal effect of immediacy and palpability. The over-riding fact of photography, the unstoppable progression of the photographic effect, has always been the defining term of its various discursive formations.

Photography has thus played a problematic role within art and critical discourses,] yet this does not mean its role has been only marginal. Photography has existed close to the very centre of politics and art since its beginnings. It has always 1 dwelled close to the heart, if not the soul, of Modernism in art; by which it has been alternatively embraced or spurned, often as merely emblematic of the ‘spirit of the age’. In addition, it has shared many of its central figures with Modernism (e.g. Alfred Stieglitz or Man Ray). Whether sympathetically or not, photography has been evoked by Modernism as something either to react against or react with. ‘You know exactly what I think of photography’, Marcel Duchamp wrote to Alfred Stieglitz, 1 would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.’14

Photography is similarly evoked by traditional oppositional cultural practices in ambivalent, contradictory ways – as simultaneously a potent instrument of op­pression and a potential instrument for demystification. (In traditional oppositional discourses photography is usually seen to demystify by either ironically or parodically deconstructing society’s cultural manipulations [photomontage, etc.] or by acting as an ‘alternative’ photography, a separate voice against the dominant ideology [documentary, etc.].)

Thus, although photography itself is central to the cultural hegemony, photo­graphic theory tends to be marginalised within critical discourses. For instance, photographic theory is rarely taught as a distinct area of study in Australia’s tertiary institutions. Articles specifically concerned with photography rarely appear in books or magazines that deal with cultural theory or practice and photographic publications often find themselves begging texts from writers whose main con­cerns lie in other areas. While it is absurd to call for a separate entity called ‘photo­graphic theory’, the lack of a coherent or sustained theoretical discourse around photography in Australia is at least partially indicative of its ambivalent role within possible critiques of politics and culture. In addition, photography is often deployed within discourses of art and oppositionality as a vague shadowy presence, an evocation of the ‘photographic effect’ rather than a direct engage­ment with the set of images and practices that go to make up photography.

Some of the most successful art of the late 1970s and early 1980s, that of the ‘second degree’,15 relied implicitly on the photographic effect; but only as an evo­cation, an informant, a presence of itself. Photography as such is not significantly compromised by this art’s references to media images and media imaging. Else­where there are remarkably few artists who use photography in a deliberately self-referential or quotational way, and even Sherry Levine or Cindy Sherman use photographs already over-determined by either art-history or popular culture. It is the specifics of their over-determination, rather than the photographs themselves, that is the principle subject of these artist’s work. Since photography and the photographic effect form such a fundamental part of the very substance of our visual culture there is little leverage left for the operation of the semiotic second degree, for the necessary ‘detachment’. Photography cannot be as easily foliated from culture as painting; it runs through the veins of culture and hence cannot slide across its surface.

The revival, under the rubric of New Expressionism, of the ‘traditional’ primacy of painting has similarly illuminated the still problematic role of photography within art. ‘Has the time come’, a recent article in Art in America asks, taking its lead from Duchamp, ‘to despise photography . . . Expressionism on one level is the effort to transcend the photographic state of mind, and achieve a new philosophical out­look, a new freedom of understanding. It is resistance against everything pho­tography stands for, including the mechanistic society.’16 Arguments like this, of course, fall neatly into the art/photography rhetorical paradigm that has accom­panied photography since its beginnings (and incidentally supplied much of the engine-power for its art-historical development). But this argument, in the present-day context of a supposedly heterogeneous art discourse, does more than simply revive old issues, it throws into sharp relief the basic unease with which pho­tography still rests in the bosom of self-conscious cultural production.

Photography stands in a particularly strained and artificial relationship to cultural

theory and practice: its body is untouchable and its effect is demonic – both seductive and repulsive. Photography is still generally seen and used, even in the most ‘aware’ of cultural practices, as a single, albeit multifaceted, object. An object unassailable and unsplittable, without fractures or faultlines, an object whose vari­ous histories and cultural uses are conflated, through the agency of the photo­graphic effect into a single word — ‘photography’. This word bulges with associations, potent effects and mysterious powers. It is most often used as a rhe­torical trope standing in for an amorphous amalgam of photographic effects. It re­mains for many cultural producers simply an unstructured and awkward obstacle.

The oppositional photographer therefore has to deal with a photography that is constructed along at least two dimensions within society and its oppositional dis­courses. One dimension of photography is the very existence of itself as a set of continuous imagery stretching all the way back to 1839 and all the way up to the heights of connotational ineffability – a bank, or perhaps more appropriately, a body of imagery that must necessarily subsume any new photographs into itself. The other dimension is of the photographic effect, the ‘photographic’, which ani­mates the body of photography with the electricity of contiguity, immediacy and palpability — the electrical spark that leaps between ‘reality’ and the photograph. Both of these dimensions are absolutely implicated in, and compromised by, the hegemonic structurings of our culture and society.

Some critical practices and the ‘and’

What approaches are possible, therefore, for oppositional photographers as I have defined them. Historically, political photography has its roots in the represei tation of the ‘real’. The illustrative documentation of social conditions for the pur­pose of social change goes back almost to photography’s beginnings.17 The efficacy of these images resided primarily in the raw photographic effect. As ex­poses and revelations they were intended as much to stimulate emotion as pro­vide information. These direct, gritty, ‘confrontational’ images therefore acquired an aesthetic of their own. Explicitly intended to be unaesthetic and non-artistic, even to overtly repudiate artistry with its bourgeois associations, they nonetheles quickly became inscribed within the art-historical photographic discourse. Their implicit reliance on the transparency, and even purity, of their medium has much in common with Modernist notions of integrity to medium. Within the art-historicc photographic discourse the fully-fledged’Documentary Movement’arises at the same time as, and is directly relatable to, the purism of such photographers as Edward Weston or Paul Strand. Both took on the quasi-mystical values of truth ai truth-to-medium. Both were constructed within the paradigm of the transparent, incisive, unmarked18 photographic image.

The Documentary Movement thrived as much in Australia during the 1940s and 1950s as it did elsewhere.19 It was never able to develop a sufficiently coherent ideological or political base, or to fulfill its own expectations, and it rapidly becarr institutionalised as Photojournalism. Photojournalism’s propagandistic triumph, the Family of Man touring exhibition organised by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art, has become the quintessential example of all the wronc assumptions documentary photography made about the transparency of pho­tography, the universal language it spoke, and the humanist commonality to which it had access.20

The notion of documentary photography still has significant currency, however, within the socialist movement and its publications, and cannot be so easily dis­counted. The Photojournalism of the 1940s and 1950s has been merely shifted I the right in the traditional political spectrum as much as it has been subjected to fundamental criticism. This process has not significantly problematised the notii of ‘documentary’ itself, which still forms the backbone of the oppositional photography of the 1970s and 1980s. (For instance, during the late 1970s and early 1980s the European Worker Photographer movements of the inter-war years were excavated and used as models for current practice. Although these movements, which consisted of workers using simple, direct photographs to document their work and social environments, were assuredly an unprecedented form of worker unity and opposition at the time, their efficacy and relevance to contemporary practice was open to considerable doubt.21)

Documentary photographs are still generally seen as relatively unencumbered enemy agents within the oppressive structures of society itself. They still have cur­rency as ‘infotographs’ as one Canadian practitioner styles them.22 Emphasis is placed on the possibilities of their enunciation by the oppositional texts in which they are embedded, rather than by any oppositionality inherent to them as con­structed images. Such photographs are thus asked to ‘speak back at society; their voice is assuredly the voice of the hegemonic media, but it attempts to speak against it. Hence these photographs almost purposely delimit themselves; like the proletariat themselves, they have ‘working lives’.23 They share the same aspirations and structures as advertising or news photographs, only their functions are seen to be different. A little naivete, a little suspension of judgment, is thus almost es­sential to a current reading of these images. Although initially assuming an un­marked status, perhaps they eventually assume the mark of ‘the good fight’. As images they must be read along both the metaphoric and metonymic semiotic dimensions. It may be this metaphoric dimension which allows them to maintain the illusion that they can speak within the economy of signs against that very economy. Though they may give voice to certain sections of society, they must not be confused with attempts to destructure representation itself. Only by attacking the forms of representation (even oppositional representation) can the relentless circulation of statements within the oppressive economy of signs be disrupted.

Thus documentary photographs, in their emphasis on exposing the ‘realities’ of society and demystifying its veil of ideology, are most informed by the classic Marxist base/superstructure model of culture within society. With the development of more sophisticated analyses of ideology, and the dissemination of more sophisticated theories of representation and reception within those discourses, at­tention has shifted, as I have indicated, to the photographic medium itself. Notions of truth and the oppression of truth have ceased to be conceptual predicates. Knowledge is no longer assumed to be a separate entity which can be dis­covered, learnt and communicated by language, but instead is seen as some­thing that is embodied in language itself. Similarly, reality is not an ‘out there’ clearly or unclearly perceived through representation, but rather something per­ceived within representation.

Montage and collage, both with a long history in photography, have been resur­rected as ‘serious’ practices. Oppositional montage is based on the determination of meaning by medium and reinvents the formerly ‘transparent’ surface of the pho­tograph as a site for the playing out of the contradictions of capitalism. By juxta­posing two or more formerly transparent images on the surface of the photograph or photographic screen-print, the montage or collage creates a new meaning which has lost its transparency, but which in its overt and self-conscious recon­struction of that meaning gains force in reaction to the normal assumptions of photographic transparency. By cutting against the grain these images reveal and use the structure of that grain.24

The concept of truth remains vital to montage and collage, but it is transformed from being the central rationale, the substance of the image, to being a shifting term. No longer ‘the truth’, but ‘their truth’. A term to be dislocated from its construc­tion within the real and relocated on the surface of the photographic image as a manifestation of the image’s representational mechanics.

 

The subtlety of these juxtapositions is the index of their efficacy. Because they are codes constructed in the second degree they rapidly become exhausted of any­thing but rhetorical oppositional meaning. Their efficacy also depends on the significatory force of their original components. If these are exhausted of real potency within culture, or are simply rhetorical symbols of it, the ‘new’ meaning is rarely anything but similarly rhetorically oppositional. (This can be said of all those colourful, Heartfieldesque posters of bombs and Uncle Sams, so popular as decorations for living-room walls.)

In parallel with the oppositional use of montage and collage, texts have become increasingly integrated into the photographic image; even intruding across the photograph’s rectangular boundaries and onto its glassy surface. Rather than being merely a linguistic base which enunciates the photograph as simple evi­dence for the expositional progressions of newspapers, magazines or books, cap­tions and inscriptions are also used to compromise the photograph’s transparency and integrity as an unassailable unit of information. In addition the textual tattoo often serves as an expressionist rhythm with which to drum out the beat of an individually-proclaimed oppositionality, and thus to inscribe the work more legibly within the art discourse.25

The use of text and image also opens up the space in which to deploy an array of visual and verbal puns and parodies. Advertisements are obvious targets for parody since they rely on the ‘natural’ acceptance of certain cultural role and be­haviour models. Their construction subtly multiplies a range of visual and verbal correspondences and contrasts into specific messages for particular target groups.26 The transparency of an advertisement is different to that of the ordinary photograph. Although the narrative space of advertisements is explicitly fiction­alised, their transparency lies in the common language of consumerist desire and its potential fulfillment which both the advertisement’s actors and the advertise­ment’s subjects (ourselves) are implicitly assumed to share. This process natural­ises the process of consumption within capitalism. Puns and parodies, in laying bare the construction of the advertisement, draw attention to this process of naturalisation.

In a similar, but more complex way, captions can be used to dislocate the safety unified speaking and reading positions of the image and viewer respectively. They can fracture these unities along the faultline of gender, for instance, splitting what would appear to be a ‘woman to woman’ voice into a voice of the male op­pression of women.27

Handcolouring serves to give the photographic effect a specific, authorial voice; but not the one normally associated with oppositionality. The handcolourist’s voice is generally not a strident and discordant one to cut through the smooth soporific hummings of the cultural hegemony; rather it is one that speaks from within the history of art. Handcolourists, in their use of colour and in their employment of the gestures and skills of the painter, specifically evoke the artist’s traditional roles of privileged perception and concern. But a tension is thereby created because the site for this evocation is shifted from a neutral ground to the surface of the photo­graphic print. Both the role of the artist as one whose perception is somehow ‘in tune’ and the role of the photograph as a natural, unambiguous reflection of re­ality, are compromised by their conjunction on the one surface. The traditional op­position of ‘art’ and ‘photography’ remains, but now each exists on the other’s terms. Handcolouring profitably orchestrates the ‘authored’ and the ‘unauthored’ image into a whole which is not subject to the assumptions or expectations of either of its components.28

In conclusion, those phrases ‘photography and . . .’ or ‘. . . and photography’ can be seen to encode the basic formation of photography within most cultural discourses. Within oppositional discourses attention has been, and must continue to be, focused on the equating ‘and’ of these phrases. This ‘and’ is not the pivotal point of the equation, it is not even a point as such; rather it is the name of an im­plicit agreement, an agreement which subsumes the fundamental imbrication of photography within the cultural hegemony into a simple relation — merely a sys­tem of cause, effect and comparison between entities. Whatever their individual character, the words on either side of this ‘and’ retain the fact of their simple struc­tural relationship. It must therefore be this ‘and’, this artificial relationship which ob­scures the fundamental symbiosis of the photographic body within the hegemonic body, this subtle naming, placement and placation of photography within a relationship, that must be the object of attack and disruption. The smooth photographic speech must be given a stutter.

Martyn Jolly

 

  1. Cited in Sylvia Harvey. ‘Ideology: the base superstructure debate.’ Photography/Politics: one. Terry Dennet and Jo Spence (eds). Pho­tography Workshop, UK 1979.
  2. Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality. Dis­cipline and Punish. Madness and Civilization. Vintage Books, USA.
  3. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zahn, UK 1974.
  4. Jean Baudrillard, ‘Requiem for the Media.’ For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Translated by Charles Levin. Telos press, USA 1981.
  5. Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Pho­tography.’ Translated by Phil Patton. Artforum. February 1977, USA.
  6. Roland Barthes, ‘The Photographic Mes­sage.’ Image-Music-Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. Fontana/Collins, UK 1977.
  7. Roland Barthes, ibid.
  8. Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography, Penguin 1968.
  9. Gerry Badger, Photographer as Printmaker. Arts Council of Great Britain 1981.
  10. Lew Thomas (ed.), Photography and Lan­guage, NFS Press, USA 1979.
  11. Donna-Lee Phillips (ed.), Eros and Pho­tography. NFS Press, USA 1977.
  12. Michael Starenko, ‘Whafs an Artist to do?, a Short History of Postmodernism and Phc-tography.’,4fte/7mage. January 1983, USA.
  13. Terry Dennet and Jo Spence (eds), op. cit.
  14. Quoted in Donald B. Kuspit. ‘Rejoinder: Tired Criticism, Tired Radicalism.’ Art in America, April 1983.
  15. Paul Taylor, Australian “New Wave” and the “Second Degree”.’ Art & Text. Autumn 1981.
  16. Donald B. Kuspit, op. cit.
  17. John Thomson, London Labour and the Lon­don Poor. 1851. Illustrated with woodcuts from Richard Beard’s daguerreotypes.
  18. Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology. Translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. Hill and Wang, USA 1967, pp. 76, 77.
  19. Gael Newton, Silver and Grey. Angus & Robertson, 1980.
  20. Allan Sekula, ‘The Traffic in Photographs.’ WOPOP Australian Photography Conference Papers, 1980.
  21. For instance ‘Der Arbeiter Fotograf.’ Creative Camera. May/June 1981, UK; or Pho­tography/Politics: one. op. cit.
  22. Alan Wallach. ‘Info/tograph, the Art of Demystification.’Otoscura. Vol. 2, No. 5, Canada 1983.
  23. Helen Grace. ‘Working Pictures.’ Australian Centre for Photography exhibition notice, 1983.
  24. For instance see works by Ruth Waller.
  25. For instance see Virginia Coventry’s ‘Here and There: Concerning the Nuclear Power Industry.’
  26. Judith Williamson. Decoding Advertisement Marion Boyers, 1978.
  27. For instance see Sandy Edwards’ A Narrativi with Sexual Overtones.
  28. For instance see Micky Allan’s Botany Bay Today.

PERSPECTA 1989: DEEP WATER THICK SEDIMENT

PERSPECTA 1989: DEEP WATER THICK SEDIMENT

 

PHOTOFILE WINTER 1989 p 30

Amongst the various works in this year’s Perspecta, and amidst the pluralist ‘strategies’ and ‘tendencies’ so politely described in its introduction, two related types of painterly surface recur with a frequency that can’t be accidental.

Both types of surface are layered. The first is a kind of palimpsest in which transparent images are superimposed with varying degrees of deliberation. For instance in Fiona Macdonald’s An Untitled Illustration, Man’s Mind. I the ground plan of a Renaissance cathedral is laid over the fleshy portrait of a Renaissance man in order to describe a particular historical Ideal. Similarly, in Gordon Bennet’s aboriginal counter-myths, Triptych — Requiem, of Gran­deur, Empire, an overlay of Renaissance perspectival schemata re-enacts the colonization of an originary land­scape as signified by historic photographs of aborigines. Mark Titmarsh superimposes the merest outline of one historical picture onto the fading afterimage of another, creating a kind of painterly depiction of the act of cultural recollection. For Pat Hoffie the effects of Cultural Converg­ence are best represented by a random shuffling together of images from diverse Pacific nations, using equally diverse technologies of reproduction.

The effect in these instances is rather like peering through layers of tracing paper that have been alligned on a drawing board in order to show the various ‘levels’ of a historical construction. Or else it’s like a gel placed onto an overhead projector which suddenly connects a previously confusing pattern of dots. Similarly, but perhaps with less pedagogical intent, other surfaces from other pasts float deep within the paint of Su Baker’s Sustained Sensation. Looking at her work is like fathoming verv deep, but very clear water. Debra Dawes’ paintings are also optical events in which different Modernist formal sources create interfer­ence patterns which alternatelv absorb and repel the eye at a highly modulated frequency.

The second type of painterly surface which recurs in Perspecta is a kind of sedimentation: a historical precipita­tion rather than a system of overlays. For instance Andrew Arnaoutapoulos’ Industrial Surfaces on Large Canvases represents the grittv accretions of factorv walls. The mutual erasure of workers’ graffiti connotes, according to its essay, the impenetrable meanings of ancient runes on a cave wall. Similarly Chris Fitzallen encrusts laminated newspapers with brutal, dripping blocks of paint, encoding not so much expressionist zeal, as the residue of a past industry — in this case whaling at Albanv. Robert Kinder constructs metaphors for ‘state power’ by assembling its refuse — charred timber, torn text, tortured metal. He predicts Threat by constructing a surface which bears the scars of its aftermath. Likewise, Bernard Sachs’ dark, dreamy surfaces, with their pathetic artefacts attached, capture filaments of both cultural and personal memorv within the powdery fallout of his charcoal.

These two types of surface — one created by the superimposition of diaphanous screens, and the other by the sedimentation of gritty thicknesses — are obviously attempts to personallv mediate the intolerable burden of the past (or at least a good Millenium’s worth of it). But their recurrence in Perspecta, more than the collective intentions of any group of artists, signals a change in the nature of the past. These surfaces do not support an image of the past, nor do they contain an image from the past, rather they are meant to somehow embody the very workings of history itself. They present us with a site for visual archaelogy. These surfaces are either deep or thick, but they are also obscure and impenetrable. No matter how hard we strain, we just can’t see through to the bottom layer, we can’t reach down to feel the smooth texture of the primeval surface.

This enticing implacability tends to conflate the processes of personal memory and social historiography. Both remembrance and history are seen to erase, occlude, modulate and veil, just as they also uncover and preserve. Neither process is seen as empirical or innocent, both are contingent and motivated.

Of course. But this artistic strategy of vertical juxta­position isn’t quite the same as collage, or appropriation, or any of the other familiar strategies of postmodern quotation which reveal the contingency of subjectivity*. Quotation implies a quoter and a quoted, and therefore a distance between them. But within the virtual depth or thickness of these surfaces there is no distance or perspective, no possibility of reference or intertextuality, only an in­creasingly opaque accumulation, or an ever deepening pool in which artist and viewer swim. This is an archaelogy without location, it’s history without geography.

These surfaces implv the possibility of a dilated memory, a personal memory with a historical dimension. But in so doing they also forget. Their textural conflation nullifies the material difference between signifving surfaces — the photographic, the painterly, the textual. But not only, as we have been taught, do these signifying surfaces have different codes and histories, they also have different ontologies. So not only, as Tony Bond points out in his introduction, is “history …. [in Perspecta] …. used as a source of spectacle and is more often generalised as a non-specific otherness than as a specific historical mo­ment”, but also the very ‘substance’ of historv is homoge­nised.

I can handle the capitalization of individual histories into capital ‘H’ History. The proliferation of Doric Columns and Renaissance scroll-work is generally OK because there is always the artist’s cool stance of knowing ironv to at least rescue the image from banality. But the concomitant transformation of historical materiality into historical ambi­ence is harder to take. It means that the artist’s stance in relation to history has collapsed in a longing for historical-ity. The Perspecta’s hyper-historicality is seductive. But in its relaxing, lulling environment even a critical strategy such as irony tends to become merelY a vaguely troubling memory itself. It ends up as just another spectre in the uneasY dreams of the artist.

 

 

Handmade Media

‘Handmade Media’, Return to Sender, exhibition catalogue, University of Queensland Art Museum, 2012, edited by Michelle Helmrich, pp 61-80, ISBN 978-1-74727-050-0

Only now, when you re-visit this work about twenty years after it first became familiar, do you realise, with something of a shock, that our attitude to images in general, and photographs in particular, has changed profoundly.

It is impossible to think about the art and photography of the late 1980s and early 1990s made in any city in Australia – Brisbane, Melbourne, but most especially Sydney – without also thinking about the pervasive presence of ‘theory’. The semiotic theories of the image, developed by people such as Roland Barthes in the 1960s and 1970s and widely read in Australia in the 1980s, imagined the image as a complex machine. In semiotics, images produce meaning through the interaction of layers of denotation and connotation. They became personally significant through the pricks of a personal punctum that pierced the skin of the image’s public studium. These devices of visual linguistics were linked in with other written texts through further mechanisms of ‘anchorage’ and ‘relay’. Within the psychoanalytic theories that were also widely read at the time, images mainlined larger political power structures directly into our deepest desires via yet more processes of ‘the gaze’ and identification.

By the 1980s, too, theorists such as Paul Virilio or Jean Baudrillard had amped up Marshall McLuhan’s universal theory of the media from the 1960s to an apocalyptic, millenarian fever pitch. Baudrillard’s lectures, which took such grand titles as ‘The Precession of Simulacra’ or ‘The Evil Demon of Images’, were translated into English and published in Australia.1 To Baudrillard, images had ‘a force of seduction in the literal sense of the word, a force of diversion, distortion, capture and ironic fascination’. To him, images contaminated reality, so that the real could no longer exist in and of itself, but was always preceded by the image. This had short-circuited representation as such. Baudrillard declared that the ‘image has taken over and imposed its own immanent ephemeral logic’ on reality.2

In retrospect, the millenarian manifestos of the postmodern media theorists of the 1980s appear shrill in the face of the more recent orders of image exponentiality brought about by social media and the internet. Today it feels slightly absurd to endow the individual images, which congeal themselves out of the mist of pixels we now inhabit with anything like the ‘force’ they once seemingly possessed. We are now less concerned with their ability to compromise our experience of the real itself. But, in the period treated by this exhibition, the hyperbolic language of theory gave images a strange prestige. Such theories endowed the artists who engaged with them a sense of power and centrality that seems, at least to me, quite distant now, when artists appear less concerned with breaking images down, or pulling meanings apart, than turning images to account once more. In retrospect, also, artists from this period seemed relatively untroubled by qualms about engaging head on with the big issues of national identity, historical memory and gender politics. They did this without recourse to autobiography or personal anecdote, which nowadays might be necessary to permit or authorise such an intervention.

Australian art of the late 1980s and early 1990s assumed that the viewer came to the artwork armed with a set of conceptual tools – borrowed from political, psychoanalytic, feminist, semiotic and media theory – with which to discern the mechanisms of representation and simulation that lay dismantled before them for their connoisseurial delectation. What was on display to such an audience member, cum media critic, was the elegance of the artist’s dismemberment, the nicety of their dissection, and the finesse of their excoriation.

In order to dismantle the image it often had to be refabricated as an auratic sculpture. New objects were built from old images in a loving labour that turned visual codes into physical artefacts, semiotic procedures into sculptural events, and human performances into pantomimed tableaus. And what I love about these works is how handmade they often are. Many, while taking the requisite ‘critical stance’ towards our mediatised landscapes, were nonetheless handcrafted in the sense of the word that entails all of its loving, nurturing connotations. Media images appeared to be undergoing a technological apotheosis during this period that gave credence to the millenarian temper of the times. TV had been regularly beaming its glowing images instantaneously around the globe since the 1960s. But, in early 1991, Desert Storm in Kuwait was the first war to be televised instantaneously into our homes, complete with its celebrated ‘slam-cam’ footage transmitted from the nose cones of smart bombs. As well, thick, glossy, art, fashion and lifestyle magazines continued their reign, and in Australia were sliding off the printing presses in slicker and thicker wads at unprecedented numbers. But to the young artists on their subsistence budgets, the resources they had at their disposal remained the conventional ones long used in the twentieth-century atelier. In 1990, Adobe’s Photoshop was still at version 1.0, and years away from becoming the commonplace verb it is now; while readily accessible video compositing software such as After Effects, and photographic-quality digital printing,  let alone the World Wide Web, lay a good five years over a still-distant horizon. So, in this period, even those images targeted at the very hypercentre of the mass-media experience had to be made by hand.

Thus Robyn Stacey made black and white prints, which she hand-coloured using techniques that had been employed for decades in commercial photographic studios before they were re-discovered by the feminist photographers of the 1970s. She then, crucially, copied them onto medium-format transparency film and printed them onto Cibachrome paper. In the pulp-fiction series Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 1985, this extended process of hand application and mechanical reproduction created a generalised sense of the mass media’s generational memory. But when, in the series Redline 7000 1989, the hard metallic surfaces of the Cibachromes are bonded onto acrylic sheeting, the rush of a wide-screen cinematic experience seemed to be literally freeze-framing and materialising in the viewer’s presence.

Cibachromes are now a virtually extinct process, remembered with wry nostalgia by old darkroom hands for their unforgiving optical characteristics and extreme chemical toxicity. Then they were the epitome of mass-media aura made physically manifest. They appear again in Rosemary Laing’s work Untitled 1992, encased in Perspex boxes pierced by a giant steel needle. Works such as these are not concerned with the mise-en-scène of mass-media images, but with the constituent parts of their visual mechanics that have been stilled, re-dimensionalised, and made auratic in a gallery. To be effective, Laing’s works have to look as though they have been technically produced, rather than handmade in a studio, but, nonetheless, they revel in the same artisanal qualities employed in fabricating shop signs or hand-moulding surf boards.

Collage and juxtaposition were other studio techniques aimed at deconstructing the diabolical image. While Robyn Stacey might have materialised a cinematic cross-fade in Cibachrome and Perspex, Fiona MacDonald wove the body of one photograph, sliced into strips, into the body of another, creating a tessellated surface of colonial miscegenation. Tracey Moffatt and Lindy Lee used strategies of seriality and repetition straight out of a conceptual artist’s tool bag. Moffatt resurfaced a historical image of Aboriginality with the sheen of contemporary glamour. Lee revisited the unsolvable modernist conundrum of mobile image versus unique historical artefact by emphasising the auratic facture of the mechanically reproduced image with shifting washes of paint over fused Xerox pigment. In contrast, Jeff Gibson’s cheap and cheerful screenprints mined pop-cultural archives to create semiotic perpetual-motion machines by juxtaposing different, but formally related, images articulated across a double-jointed caption.

The Super 8 film format, originally developed by Kodak for the home movie market, also proved a remarkably versatile medium for the collating and colliding of mass-media sounds and images. Both pre-recorded and live TV could be filmed directly off the domestic television set — along with lashings of electromagnetic snow, colour oversaturation and cathode ray distension — and manually intercut, repeated and layered, either in the camera or through an editing splicer. In the hands of Super 8 filmmakers like Gary Warner the tiny frames of Ektachrome emulsion, each half the size of the fingernail on your little finger, and the film’s thin magnetic sound-stripe, became like a sedimentary repository for the powerful but evanescent electronic images and sounds that encircled the globe. In his Resistance Today of 1987 Australia’s role in the American Alliance was satirized through a mash-up of television footage that mixed the kitsch Hollywood genres beloved by other artists such as Robyn Stacey with contemporary news footage.

This aesthetic was also present in the video work of Mark Titmarsh and Ross Harley where the layering, repetition and juxtaposition produced by video’s phantasmagoric electronic effects once again presumed a contemporary viewer primed to recognise ideological cues and read mass-media codes, rather than psychologically invest in narrative exposition or original mise en scene.

Finally, performance and masquerade were other tactics used by the Davids of the studio to subdue the Goliath of the media image. Stacey’s friends dressed up and enacted historical pop-media typologies for her art-directed scenarios, while John Gillies and the The Sydney Front, again through repetition and juxtaposition, broke down the body’s universal demand to express itself into a disjointed language composed of isolating hysterical gestures.

Using this clever array of studio-based tactics, efficiently applied at an economical scale, these artists plunged into the centre of the maelstrom of mass images that obsessed the late 1980s and early 1990s, and re-fashioned them to address head on the biggest issues of the day: history, identity, and the mechanics of meaning itself.

In the decades that followed, the works produced by emerging Australian artists got bigger, bolder and brassier as newer and cheaper technologies allowed them access to much the same tools as were used in the mainstream media. But as the scale, definition and seamlessness of their works increased, perhaps their focus shortened. In general, it seems to me, younger artists increasingly feel that they need the passport of personal identity or autobiography to enter the territory of images, or that the paraphernalia of  ‘media production’ is needed to reinforce the denotational power of their works, rather than deconstruct it. So when looking at the works of the parvenu artists in this exhibition, produced after their arrival in the metropolises of the south, concentrate not only on their craft, but also on their ambition.

Martyn Jolly

  1. Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Precession of Simulacra,’ trans. Paul Foss and Paul Patton, Art & Text 11 (1983): 3-47; Jean Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images, trans. Paul Foss and Paul Patton (Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts, 1987).
  2. Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images, 14–15, 23.

Australian tableau photography in the 1980s

‘Australian tableau photography in the 1980s’, National Gallery of Australia photography symposium, 21 May, 2011.

1980s Australian Art Photography

Three formal techniques characterize 1980s Australian art photography: hand colouring, collage and tableau. I want to argue that these three things were determined by one underpinning factor: that the new art photographers of the 1980s were very aware that they were a new generation, succeeding preceding generations. I will also argue that these three techniques were infuenced by several key theoretical ideas which were widely influential at the time.

GENERATIONS

Let’s pick a date at random: 1984. The Australian Centre for Photography was one decade old. It is now almost four decades old. Specialist magazines like Photofile were widely read, and other magazines like Art Network regularly discussed photography; museums like the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery of Australia regularly exhibited photography; and corporations like Phillip Morris, CSR and Polaroid all had Australian photography collections.

A previous generation of photographers, lets call them the ‘1970s’, had succeeded in establishing this infrastructure of art photography. In the decades before the 1970s — the 1960s — Australian art schools didn’t teach art photography much, commercial galleries didn’t sell art photography much, museums and collectors didn’t buy it much, and art magazines didn’t review it much. But in the 1980s they did.

The decade of change — the 1970s — was a decade dominated by the 35mm black and white snapshot. Of course there are some exceptions. Some conceptual and performance artists such are Robert Rooney, Tim Johnson [Johnson SLIDE] or Robert Owen did use photographs as a kind of ‘neutral’ recording tool for their performances or for their conceptual stratagems. And some photographers did work in colour or alternative techniques during the 1970s. Nonetheless the dominant paradigm was the snapshot. [Jerrems SLIDE]The snapshot was the way the 1970s generation defined themselves against the previous generation or primarily commercial and journalistic photographers. In 1978 the Australian’s reviewer Sandra McGrath took up the cause of the 1960s generation of commercial photographers who had been disenfranchised by what she termed ‘the great camera art explosion’.

‘’He’s a commercial photographer’ has overtones of — well he’s not that creative, or his work isn’t personal, or maybe it isn’t arty enough. It all seems a bit unfair. The usual photographic exhibitions in recent years have been obsessed on the “snapshot” generation, who in turn have been obsessed with photographing their pregnant girlfriends, party antics, bed-sitters, friends making love, shooting up or drinking beer. Everything has been photographed very casually, very intimately and very informally. It may be more appropriate to call this younger generation the Narcissus generation.’

If that was the 1970s, look how it had changed by the 1980s. The title of a project show curated by Gael Newton in 1981 summed it up. She called it: Reconstructed Vision: Contemporary Work with Photography. [Install SLIDE]The titles of other key books and exhibitions from the period continue this them, such as Kurt Brereton’s Photodiscourse from 1981 or the Virginia Coventry edited book, The Critical Distance, from 1985.The automatic vision of the snapshot was under interrogation, it needed to be broken down, rebuilt, and deliberately worked with. This new generation were not narcissists casually inhabited the medium, but self-conscious camera workers breaking their vision down from the outside.

IDEAS

What tools were used to reconstruct vision? Several potent ideas were circulating in Australia at the time, which were distilled from a much wider body of writing collectively called ‘theory’. In the art world of the 1980s these ideas, which were often quite simple, and extracted from larger and more complex, circumspect and philosophically embedded texts, gained an almost autonomous status as free-floating short-hand ideas, charged with contemporaneity and ready to be appropriated and applied to a wide variety of creative circumstances.

The Gaze

Laura Mulvey’s 1975 article Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema, which was widely anthologised at the time, took the scopic structures of classical Hollywood cinema as the paradigm for the more general act of looking within patriarchal culture at large. Hollywood cinema gave pleasure to both men and women, but the pleasure it gave through the filming of its beautiful stars actually had encoded within it patriarchal ideology itself.

‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly.’

Cameras therefore bore a gendered gaze, a look which turned women from active subjects to passive objects. This power was insidiously built into the very structure of camera vision. To resist patriarchy you must also resist the gendering power of the camera’s look. [Rrap SLIDE]At the opening of the decade Julie Rrap’s installation Disclosures: A Photographic Construct brought her own performed body directly in the line of fire of the camera’s gaze to provoke, ricochet, expose and deconstruct it’s role. As George Alexander said: Julie Brown-Rrap’s work is both a physical ordeal as well as a visual experience. As she acts out objectification, she displaces it.

[Hewson/Waker SLIDE]

Semiotics:

The semiotician Roland Barthes’ two key articles The Photographic Message and The Rhetoric of the Image from the early 1960s were translated into English and published in 1977, and were widely influential. Barthes mapped the science of signification from the linguistic realm onto the visual realm. Photographs became texts that could be interpreted and analysed, but only with a set of tools available to the cognoscenti. They now had two layers, the layer of denotation, still attached to the real, but on top of that, another layer, a layer of connotation, which was attached not to the real, but to culture and politics. A photograph of somebody was no longer just a photograph of somebody. It was a piece of that actual person transferred onto the paper, on top of which the rhetorical language of their pose, their clothing, their gesture, their background, their lighting, and the angle with which they’d been shot were all added. Moreover, the bottom layer of denotation worked to make innocent (Barthes’ potent word) the top layer of connotation. The cultural and political messages of various powerful interests were thus surreptitiously slipped into photographs that, if we weren’t careful, might appear to be reality itself! Luckily ordinary people had art photographers to protect them from the pernicious influence of these messages.

Precession of the Simulacra

This hyperbolic reading of the power of images was ramped up further by Jean Baudrillard. In 1983 one of his articles was translated by the Australians Paul Foss and Paul Patton and received its first global publication in English in Art & Text  magazine. In Baudrillard’s formulation the simulacra was not an inferior copy of an original and unique real, rather it is part of an infinite chain of simulation which the real itself had now become part of. The real was not the beginning point off this chain of simulation, it was now produced by simulation — the ‘precession of the simulacra’ of the article’s title. In this millenarian fantasy the real itself was so corroded by images that it had become, in Baudrillard’s words, a desert! Baudrillard said:

‘It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself, that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short circuits all its vicissitudes.’

What is produced by these significatory operations is hyperreality — a physical reality sheltered from any distinction between the real and the imaginary. The following year Baudrillard himself visited Sydney to a celebrity’s reception. At about the same time the Italian theorist Umberto Eco also visited Australia to a hero’s reception. His book Travels in Hyperreality was published in English 1986. It was a collection of old newspaper essays which took a playful anthropological look at various ‘hyperreal’ phenomena, particularly in America, like wax works and Disneyland.

The simulation machines of the 1980s were not only the wax works, theme parks and automata which Eco loved, but also: glossy magazines; movies; television (particularly live television broadcast via satellite); xerox machines and billboards. This media landscape was not dissimilar to the media landscape which had been the background of pop art in the 1960s. However forms of electronic and live media were becoming increasingly important, and the age of the personal computer was just on the horizon. The photograph was a cheap, efficient way to evoke and engage with all of these industrialized forms of simulation at the domestic scale of the photo artist.

Heady, apocalyptic theories such as these had a big effect on young impressionable photographers. In 1985 one of them overdosed on Baudrillard, and gave himself Marinetti-like delusions. He wrote:

We no longer feel any joy in camera vision. We no longer delight in the eye. Photographers were once ever alert to the new, the revealing, the penetrating. Not any more. No more vertiginous camera angles, no more witty compositions, no more frozen moments, no more timeless landscapes… Now our photographer’s eyes are numbed. The stroboscopic ‘shocks of recognition’, provoked by ‘decisive moments’ in time, have reached the frequency of a TV’s pulsation. … The photograph was once the function of a vertical thrust – a probing lens, a straining eye. Print clarity, lens resolution and artistic perception were all indices of this depth. …. All the photographs in the world have congealed to form a global, gelatinous skin. Photography is now not so much a window on the world as an oily film which coats it. …Current photographic practice has ceased to be defined by the vertical thrust entailed in the act of taking a photograph. It is no longer a series of individualistic probes. Now it is defined by the horizontal slide of the photograph’s infinite displacement and endless proliferation through reproduction. (A reproduction in which the mechanical and electronic exponentially multiply the photograph’s inherent reproducibility.) Now we blindly feel our way across the global, mobius surface of photography with the expectation of revealing nothing new. … We abandon vision in favour of the surface, penetration in favour of the survey. We invite the quotational, parodic and ironic to play across the photographic field.

Who wrote that? I think it might have been me. I wrote it for a sheet that accompanied a show called Killing Time at Mori Gallery which was curated by Bruce Searle and included Jacky Redgate, Anne Zahalka and Kendal Heyes, amongst others.

Aura

Another key philosophic term which was dislodged from it’s original context and made available for re-use in the 1980s was Walter Benjamin’ concept of aura. In 1936 Benjamin had argued that the magical value of the old fashioned authentically hand-made, original and unique work of art, it’s aura, which had worked away over centuries to kept the masses enthralled to the cult of art, was being stripped away in the modern epoch by mass-consumed and mechanically-reproduced photographs and films. Yet photographers in the 1980s remained enthralled by the aura. Supposedly a redundant bourgeois value, it nonetheless remained fascinating and seductive, particularly for those working in mechanical mediums. Could an aura be remanufactured, or at least simulated, within the very medium that was supposed to destroy it?

Despite the power of these ideas of the gaze, the simulacra, hyperreality, the aura and visual rhetoric, the photographers of the 1980s continued to be very interested in the Real. Not the real directly — the personal narcissism of the 1970s snapshooters in their bedrooms and at their parties — but the overarching narratives of reality. I will show that the narratives which most concerned them were identity narratives, particularly Australian identity, subcultural identity, and gender identity.

TOOLS

Three techniques were used in response to these ideas: handcolouring, collage and tableau. Each was reconstructive, each signalled a generational break with the snapshooters of the seventies, while also signalling an allegiance to both longer histories of critical resistance and to larger bodies of ‘authentic’ art production.

Collage

Collage bore the most explicit allegiance to social and cultural critique. We had all been taught about John Heartfield’s anti-Nazi montages at art school, and the German collage artist Klaus Staeck, a second generation Heartfield, was exhibited at the first WOPOP conference in Melbourne1980. [Staeck SLIDE]

Collage directly intervened in the smooth media flows of books and magazines. All you needed were scissors and glue and a retouching brush. Significantly, these were the first tools to be the most frequently used from the Photoshop palette when it finally came along ten years later in the early nineties.

In 1980 Anne Zahalka played with kitsch images of Australiana in her series Beautiful Australia, [SLIDE] as did Midnight Oil four years later when they used an apocalyptic collage by the Japanese artist Tsunehisa Kimura for their album Red Sails in the Sunset. [SLIDE] Zahalka also used collage to reinscribe received Australian historical narratives. [SLIDE] In The Immigrants she used family snapshots to write the post-war migrant history of her family into McCubbin’s anglo-colonial painting The Pioneer. In collaging iconic imagery, works such as these appropriated some of that iconic imagery’s residual political and cultural power.

Handcolouring

Less explicit, I think, were the historical links that handcolouring had to women’s practice in the industrial photo studios of the earlier part of the twentieth century. But in Robyn Stacey’s hands handcolouring went from a feminizing, hand crafted application of nurturing care directly onto the surface of the print as object, [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] towards a more hyperreal mediatised space, as she used punkish flouro colours [SLIDE] [SLIDE], or reshot her handcoloured images and reprinted them on glossy Cibachrome paper. [SLIDE] [SLIDE] The handcolouring was therefore shifted from the personal register, where it had been in the 1970s, to the mediated register. From the physical to the virtual.

This technique introduced another element into the mix, historical genre. Historical genres were amateurised and domesticated, taken from the control of industrialized media production and overarching historical narratives and given idiosyncratic and personal meanings. Other photographers, such as Fiona Macdonald, also produced series, without hand colouring, which nonetheless recreated familiar media genres in a deliberately lo-fi way. [SLIDE] [SLIDE] To a certain extent there was an element of retro-hipsterism in this play with genre, but also a recognition that genre meant power and that there was a politics in you controlling genre rather than it controlling you. Robyn Stacey’s retro handcolouring looked great on the covers of Died Pretty records, [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] but it could also construct historical allegories when, for instance, it was reproduced during 1988 the Bicentennial year in the book Island in the Stream in a work called Modified Myths. [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE]

The Cibachrome print with its hard metallic duco was the perfect print-medium for the period. It was as far as possible as you could get from the Kodak tri-x film D76-developer print of the 1970s, and as close as you could get to glamour and spectacle and artefactual ‘aura’ on a tight budget. It did, however, restrict the scale of the print; and scale, how to get as much of it as possible, was something which all photographers at this time struggled with. Sometimes the need for scale drove photographers back to black and white to get the size they wanted, for example in Jacky Redgate’s magnificent cornucopia image, which seemed monumental at the time. [SLIDE] When the Polaroid corporation brought out their massive Polaroid camera that took 50 x 60 cm unique polaroids, photographers such as Fiona Hall, Anne Zahalka, Robyn Stacey and Debra Phillips got the opportunity to make giant polaroids. [SLIDE]

Tableaus

But of course the leitmotif of the period was the tableau. [Zahalka SLIDE] No other visual tactic sums up the period as succinctly as the tableau. At the time I think the tableau artist were largely unaware of the long history of tableaus in photography and lantern-slides, except for the famous examples of Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson. Their tableaus leapfrogged these more immediate histories and gave them access to visual rhetorics drawn from the history of western painting that had been absorbed as a kind of collective unconscious into mass media imagery.

Tableaus and techniques like handcolouring could be used to manufacture a kind of photographic aura. As Catriona Moore wrote in the catalogue Pure Invention, a show of women photographers, including Robyn Stacey and Jacky Redgate that travelled to Japan, faking aura could be a form of feminist empowerment:

Our feelings are prompted by the attention these photographs give to technique, stage-craft, masquerade. This work has an almost tactile, artisanal or sculptural quality, built through an association with cinematic, painterly or theatrical forms. Mechanical reproduction here paradoxically invests an almost carnal aura of hitherto denigrated or low-life popular cultural signs. The complicitous spectator appreciates this ‘faked’ auratic quality. We too take centre-stage to feign a [past] connoisseurial glory, an immersion and abandonment to the seduction of palpable surface effects and stylish mise-en-scene. We recognise well-known codes and gambits of glamour, and appreciate our own informed sensibility.

[Ferran SLIDE] Tableaus referred both to the weight of western visual patrimony via the prestige of painting, as well as to the dominant media for the twentieth century imaginary, cinema. As Adrian Martin wrote in an article about Scenes on the Death of Nature in a 1986 Photofile, tableaus could slow down the heady onrush of media imagery:

Tableau based work is curious and paradoxical: we witness films slowing down to, desiring to emulate the still photograph, and literally trembling with the tension required: and we gaze at photos in a perpetually frozen moment of torsion as if trying to animate themselves in order to take their place as simply passing frames in some unknown, imaginary film.

As well they could evoke supposedly timeless myths:

the question today is… what can you know with the movable (not immutable or originary) structures of myth? Modern culture is full of strategic ‘drifts’, from the rewritings of mythic fiction…that choose not to adopt the regressive mode of ‘return’ to a before-and-beyond. Myths told in the present are (whether they know it or not) of and for the present.

Anne Ferran herself agreed. She said:

The idea was not to claim any power of resistance for these images but to go the other way, to make them overtly passive and unresistant to see what effect that would have. One of the problems to be dealt with is whether these pictures are literally passive and compliant or whether they are (instead/also) somehow about passivity and compliance. Whether they are exactly what the pretend to be or something else as well.

Not all tableaus of the period relied on a manufactured aura, or shifted questions of desire into a rhetorical space. Some, such as Judith Ahern’s magnificent Cowboygirl were, while being allegorical, also just as immediate and painfully autobiographical as well. [Ahern SLIDE]

Other tableaus more explicitly referred to film. In 1985 Kendal Heyes, Anne Zahalka, and two others (Joy Stevens and David James) held an exhibition of Cibachromes at Artspace. To our eyes now these Cibachromes look quite small. They were shot in a studio with a rear projected 35mm slide, with the figures in the foreground also being lit by slide projectors. In a period before the self-equalizing digital image the projector’s hotspot gives each image a wonderfully groggy, gluggy, overheated feel.

Anne Zahlka’s Tourist as Theorist (Theory Takes a Holiday) [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE]  used the artificiality of the tableau and it’s seqentiality to visually ‘theorize’ the hyperrerality of tourism —where the simulacrum of the glossy colour brochure precedes the real experience of jostling crass crowds. Zahalka wrote: ‘In an attempt to possess, to appropriate, the tourist photographed the sight, was photographed with the sight, brought souvenirs and postcards, but was never able to fully accede to its pure presence’.

Kendal Heyes’s series From a Shipwreck [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] [SLIDE] was made up of: ‘philosophical fragments, metaphorical figure by some of my favourite authors, brought together in ‘set pieces’ from a hypothetically completed text, a movie.’

As I concluded in my catalogue essay to the show:

‘Photodramas’ does not attack photography or film. It is not avant-garde, nor revolutionary. Rather it seeks to both loosen and rupture traditional cinematic and photographic modes of reading. The viewer is invited to inhabit the fissures and travel the faultlines of these ruptures, to read the stories without being their subject, to view the photographs without being the camera’s eye. In fact, to be the worst possible audience — interested but obstreperous.

COMPARISON BETWEEN NOW AND THEN

[Mental as Anything SLIDE] How are we different to those strange creatures from long ago, back last century in the 1980s, those ancient photographers with their crazy ideas and theories of everything. I would like to conclude by making some extremely broad and sweeping generalizations, to which you will all be able to immediately think of exceptions I know. But I will make them anyway.

They were historically conscious. We aren’t.
They were concerned with the past as a presence and a force in the present. We aren’t.
They were interested in photography as a discipline and a medium. We aren’t.
They read books that seemed to be of the moment and attempted to put what they read into action. We don’t.
They thought of themselves as a new generation, not necessarily avant-garde or radical, but definitely a new generation succeeding the previous ones. Our young photographers no longer do.
They thought of themselves as Australian, not in a parochial or nationalistic sense, but in the sense that they were concerned with the problem of Australian identity, or with the problem gendered, racial and sexual identities within an Australian context as much as a global context. We no longer worry about ‘Australianness’ in that way.
They were more suspicious than we are.
They were suspicious of pictures of the body. There are very few bodies in this period. With the obvious exception of Bill Henson few photographers photographed bodies. The body was generally displaced during this period. [Fereday SLIDE] It is often evoked through metonymic substitutes for it, folds of red drapery being a favourite. [MacDonald SLIDE] When bodies did appear, such as in the work of Julie Rrap, it was in a clinical laboratory of the gaze for the purposes of auto-critique. [Rrap SLIDE]
They were suspicious of public spaces. They didn’t go out much with their cameras. Public spaces and landscapes were often displaced into the studio. [Zahalka SLIDE] The kept to their studios and handled a lot of the issues of the day not directly, but by proxy.

Thank You

Martyn Jolly

Exposed Fictions

‘Exposed Fictions: Anne Zahalka, Robyn Stacey, Tracey Moffat’, introductory essay for slide kit, 1992

Third Draft (Tertiary Version), Exposed Fictions, Three Australian Photographers

Introduction:

The three artists represented in this slide kit — Tracey Moffatt, Anne Zahalka, and Robyn Stacey — all grew up in Australia in the 1960s and 70s. And they each began to make art in the 1980s.

During the 1970s Australian art fragmented into a wider range of art practices. For example, artists became involved in community arts projects, performance art, political poster collectives, crafts and, for the first time, photography. Feminism played a key role in this assault on the traditional primacy of painting and sculpture. Younger artists saw mainstream disciplines as redundant, outdated and male dominated, and they began to be interested in Australia’s burgeoning mass media and popular culture.

In the 1980s many artists, particularly women artists, began to see these new ‘media environments’ or ‘cultural landscapes’ as sources for their most urgent subject matter. The image field of magazines, TV, films, and advertising was alluring and pleasurable, but it was also powerful and controlling. It was the site where what you were, or could be, as an Australian of a particular gender, race, class, age or ethnicity, was defined.

It’s not suprising, then, that in the 1980s, and through to the 1990s, some of the best Australian art was produced using photography, and that the most challenging photography is done by women. After all, the roles assigned to women within Australian culture, and their identities as defined by the mass media, are most fluid at this time. They have the most at stake in the image field to which photography is central.

The strategy of appropriation

Each of these photographers re-uses imagery which is already circulating in our media or culture. Robyn Stacey, for instance, directly copies images off the video screen to construct her works.  Anne Zahalka, in the seriesThe Landscape Re-presented, 1982, copies and collages Australian painting ‘classics’. But images from the past do not have to be directly copied to appropriated, their surface appearance, visual style, and dramatic genre can be mimicked. The photographed tableaus in Tracey Moffatt’sSomething More, 1989, for instance, look like enlarged film stills from a Technicolor melodrama film that might have been made in the 1950s. While Robyn Stacey’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, 1987,  evokes the 1940s Hollywood gangster genre of of the 1940s. In Resemblance, 1987, Anne Zahalka takes portraits of contemporary people, but in the manner of Dutch painters from the sixteenth century. And, in Some Lads, 1986, Tracey Moffatt’s portraits of young, spunky, Aboriginal men contain within them the visual memory of nineteenth century anthropological studies of Aborigines photographed by white colonisers. Tracey Moffatt said about this work: “Aborigines have been continually represented as ethnographic or documentary subjects. The idea behind my Some Lads series is an attempt to dispense with the seriousness and preciousness…which a lot of photographers…have cloaked us in…The images are intentionally posey and sensual. These are traits rarely assigned to Aborigines and rarely sought out and captured within photographs.”

In some cases these artists are using appropriation as a political strategy, a lever to prise apart things which are normally assumed to be glued together. For instance, the ‘golden summers’ paintings of the Heidelberg School, which celebrate the pastoral wealth of turn-of-the-century British colonisers, are often still used in advertising and the media as images of ‘Our Australia’. But where does this leave other Australias? Aboriginal Australia for instance? Or Migrant Australia? Or even Australia as a cultural satellite of the USA? In The Landscape Re-presented Anne Zahalka’s collaged interventions into these seamless Australian arcadias ask these questions on the level of the ‘truth’ of the image itself. At first the image appears familiar, then we notice a subtle alteration. Our momentary confusion forces us to re-think the familiar message of the original painting.

At other times appropriated visual genres are used as a powerful, shared language in which to talk about the artist’s personal emotions and desires. In a way we are all, as members the same culture, pre-programmed with a shared knowledge of the visual codes and rhetorics of the past. For instance the dramatic characters and spectacular scenarios of Robyn Stacey’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Redline 7000, 1989, and All the Sounds of Fear, 1990, immediately seem familiar to us because they are condensed and refined out of the phosphorescent soup of media images, genre types, character poses, cityscapes and special effects in which we are all electronically emersed. But not only do we recognise them, we also directly feel them because, to a certain extent, our shared experience of the media has helped to form us all as the kind of people we are. Robyn Stacey has said: “By reducing or abbreviating the imagery to the very skeletal aspects of narrative, I could concentrate on the more sinister, or more potent aspects of each symbol … I was fascinated by the fact that now, so litle information is needed to tell a story. It is sufficient to simply signpost sitiuations because viewers bring their own associations to images … I wanted to leave space in the work for this to happen.”

In Something More Tracey Moffatt provisionally occupies the narrative space of that ‘familiar story’ of an ‘outsider’ girl leaving a brutal home for the big city. But she does not just re-tell this story one more time, rather she uses it as a kind of allegory for the dislocation, loss, desire and oppression felt by all colonised peoples everywhere.

Anne Zahalka’s Dutch-style portraits in Resemblance  are of real people, but her portraits don’t claim to ‘plumb the depths of their souls’ in the way a traditional portrait might, rather we see her subjects as individuals constructed out of a present permeated by the past. As in all of her portraits, their individuality is not an inborn kernel of being, but is dependent on their social environment. The viewer is aware that Zahalka is re-using a particular visual rhetoric to construct a particular, provisional ‘portrait’. Another rhetoric could be used to construct another portrait of the same person. “In the nineteenth century it was thought that a good portrait should depict the character and being of a historical period. Such judgement assumes the objectivity of facts and the possibility of true perception. But in our time the solid historical reference points are threatened with dissolution, without exception. Time without a past, in which one can break off masonry from the ruin ‘history’ to adorn oneself in accordance with one’s own history and need.”

Similarly, in Bondi: Playground of the Pacific, 1989, Zahalka has documented Bondi, but she hasn’t documented it as a simple ‘place’, rather she has photographed Bondi as an ensemble of myths, histories, memories and prior images.  And this ensemble, which is seen to somehow ‘reflect’ Australia, is always under contention. She has again used staged tableaus to show the provisional nature of such enactments of nationhood.

Our shared language of images

The relationship between the artist and the viewer in this kind of art is a special one. The viewer is not asked to ‘experience’ the art work as some kind of magical distillation of the artist themself; nor does the viewer simply read and ‘understand’ the image as though it was a direct copy of reality; rather there is a pleasurable complicity between artist and viewer. Both artist and viewer delight in the shared exploration of visual languages and in the enpowering thrill of role playing and masquerade. Both artist and viewer delight in raiding the citadels of history and trespassing on the gardens of culture.

But in the best examples of this kind of art such playful transgression has a very serious purpose. For women, for instance, it might have a political purpose. Women have usually been the subject of history and culture, not its object. That is, they have been the models and muses, rarely the artists or creators. They have been those who are desired, rarely those who desire. In short, women have usually been asked to ‘dress up’ as themselves for others. In these art works they ‘dress up’ as others for themselves. These artists do what they have always been asked to do — become seductive, spin a web of illusion — but now they do it on their own terms. “Feminist photographers … aim to unfix the pre-given truths of social and cultural discourses. They work on the assumption that woman has been excluded from any control over the truth and language of these texts in the first place. Therefore they have nothing to lose by destabilising the feminine performances of allegory, muse and model that have provided woman’s conditional access to social and  cultural truth.”

The new reality of the mass media image world

This kind of art also takes a new approach to ‘reality’ itself. In looking at these pictures we take an almost connoisseurial pleasure in the ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of the mediated image. We almost palpably savour the Technicolor gloss of Tracey Moffatt’s large Something More images, or and the Renaissance nobility of Anne Zahalka’s detailed Resemblance  tableaus, or the ‘cheap ‘n’ nasty’ inkiness of Robyn Stacey’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang series. Her All the Sounds of Fear  incorporates the temporal dimension of the media flow into the images graphically: “Horizontal panels replace the jump cut linear sequence of television crime drama…”. Her computer generated and manipulated Infinity Gardens 1 & 11, 1992, seem to imply an entirely new spatiality of the image, no longer a perspectival projection of the world, but now a cold enveloping and undulating surface which electronically generates a virtual space all around us. “Each work becomes a ‘screen of knowledge’, the illusion of a well ordered, highly rational world. But this is merely staying on the surface of events and things; it is a window on the world that keeps distancing and making observers of us, rather than active, inventive participants.”

All this draws our attention to the mediated image as a new kind of fact. It is now an artefact from an image world which perhaps is becoming just as substantial as the physical world.

Our common sense notion of reality is that there is a real physical world which we are able know through our own visual perceptions of it and the representations of it in painting, photography, film, video etc. We think: “the world comes first, then we know it through representations of it, and the two together make up reality”. This art, however, argues that in fact the two now interpenetrate each other. It suggests that there is no prior truth — of the person, or of history, or of culture, or of gender, or of sexuality, or of desire, or of science — which we reach through representation. Rather, these artists claim, what we know as the truth is produced within representation, not revealed by it. Therefore the truth at any one time is always affected by its social political and historical context, so it is always under negotiation, and it is always up for grabs.

That is why the field of the image has become an important site for these artists to talk about their own reality. They are not so much exposing fictions as revealing the multiple truths within fiction.

Martyn Jolly

July 1992