The Returned: Memory and History in Classic Australian Photographs

Media International Australia,  No. 78, November, 1995

In early 1992 the State Library of New South Wales mounted Sydney Exposures: Through the Eyes of Sam Hood & His Studio. The exhibition was the result of its curator, Alan Davies’, almost superhuman labour of cataloguing the 33,000 photographs left to the Library by the studio. The Library’s publicity department chose one of those, The boys on the beach, Bondi, 10 October 1932, to spearhead its publicity campaign. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald preview to the show related how Alan Davies was able to date the photograph to the day by looking with a magnifying glass at a crumpled newspaper lying in the sand in a corner of the photograph, and then going through the Library’s microfilm copies of that newspaper until he found the edition with that front page.(Summer Agenda, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 January 1992, 8)

A few days later, in an article headed ‘Bondi beach boys regroup on a wave of nostalgia’ the paper tells how a Mr Finn had seen himself in the photograph when it was reproduced in the SMH. He first rang up the paper, then three of his mates who were also in the photograph. They all visited the exhibition and were photographed in front of the image.

[…] “I didn’t think my past would ever catch up with me” retired solicitor John Hickey joked.
[…] Mr Hickey’s past has caught up with, and overtaken, him.
The image chosen by the State Library to promote its new exhibition is one called The Boys on the Beach. It appears on posters, handbills, and on the back on many State Transit Buses.
Sam Hood, […] snapped this group of 14 bronzed Aussies […] on Bondi Beach. He recorded it simply as ‘Beach Scene’, […].
[…] Looking straight at the camera, third from left, is John Hickey, who, like the other surviving members of the group, is in his 70s. (Three are dead.)
Four of the beach boys were reunited last week for a tour of Sydney Exposures: Mr Hickey, retired pharmacist Greg Williams (fourth from the right) retired publican Tom Moody (the group’s only blond) and CJ. Finn, who has “Done a bit of everything: (far right).
[…] Oddly enough, none of the four can remember the photographic session which produced this quintessential Sydney image.
They do, however, vividly remember those endless, carefree summers on Bondi Beach.
[…] They were there on February 6, 1938, the notorious Black Sunday, when nearly 200 people were swept off a sandbank at Bondi, and five drowned. “People were being pulled [out of the water] by the hair,” Mr Finn recalled.
Studying the Library’s huge blowups of the photograph, they identified most of the participants, […].
However the group disputes Mr Davies’s dating of the photograph, suggesting that it was probably taken in 1937, when they were 15 to 16 years old.”(Sydney Morning Herald, 18 January 1992, 22)

Oddly enough, none of the four can remember the photographic session which produced this quintessential Sydney image because they weren’t there. The photograph was taken in 1932 and it is not of them. Alan Davies was away on leave at the time, and was unable to defend his forensic method of dating the photograph, which had used the full scientific arsenal of the Library’s archival systems, against the organic, corporeal testimony of the men’s memories. Eventually a total of forty-eight people came forward claiming to be in the photograph, and Alan Davies has now, through proper curatorial verification, been able to positively identify each of the fourteen participants.

Mr Finn and his mates had hallucinated themselves into this quintessential image. The completeness and extent of their hallucination is extraordinary, identifying ‘most’ of the participants in the photograph. The SMH, also, was an active participant in this consensual hallucination, asking its readers, in the face of the evidence of the photograph itself, to believe that the young men in the photograph are only 15 or 16 years old.

What historic and mnemonic processes are at work to cause this mass hallucination? What is it about photography itself which has recently generated the slew of similar stories both in Australia and overseas, all of which involve the unlikely ‘return’ of participants out of classic historical photographs? I have collected ten of these stories from Australia alone.

A classic photograph has a lot in common with a classic painting. They both circulate endlessly throughout our visual culture: on stamps, postcards or T-shirts. They are both displayed as important works of art, or parodied by cheeky young artists and advertisers. They are both associated with art, skill and genius, which is seen to have somehow condensed and embodied a mythic aspect of nation, race or history.

But there are also important differences between a classic painting and a classic photograph. As they grow more famous both the classic painting and the classic photograph grow in power as public testaments. In the classic painting this testamentary power resides more and more in the very painting itself: the fibres of the canvas, the facture of the paint, and the patina of the grime grow in density as history impacts into them and compacts them down. Their aura as artefacts grows. However in a classic photograph the power of the photograph as auratic object increases only slightly (photographs are still no where near getting the same price at auction as paintings) but the power and focus of its referentiality becomes more acute as it becomes more famous. A classic photograph is able to suddenly swoop us down into a direct, personal experience of history, whereas a classic painting never can.

A good example of this occurred on a front page of the Weekend Australian in 1989 where two photographs appear under the heading ‘Snapshot of a Suburb’s Soul Revisited’. The larger photograph was of a woman standing in front of a terrace house with a tower block of flats behind, the smaller was David Moore’s classic Redfern Interior. The caption reads ‘Mrs Dawes Yesterday […] and, below, in bed with her child in the classic 1949 David Moore photograph’.

It is 1949 and a young mother lies in bed cradling her newborn, her husband’s belt hangs in reach “in case the kids muck up” and a hand-made hessian basinet stands alongside.
An old and worried woman stares intently into the future as she leans on the base of a rickety wooden bed while a mop-haired toddler sits at her feet clutching a doll.
The old woman was one of Redfern’s most familiar faces, Mrs Annie Plumber, and the blonde poppet with a dirty face was her grand daughter, Carol Stanley.
The young mother captured forever on film is Mrs Eileen Dawes and her story is a living sculpture of Australian suburban life.
She was born in Redfern—once Sydney’s quintessential Australian Suburb, now famous for its Aboriginal ghetto—in 1915, just weeks before Gallipoli forged the ideal of Australian nationhood.
She was a mother when crime queens Tilley Devine and Kate Leigh fought for influence in Sydney’s underworld.
In the austere post war environment of derelict inner city tenements and rutted narrow lanes, Eileen Dawes gave birth to a baby—one of 16 pregnancies—and  a stranger entered her life.
The stranger was an anonymous photographer brought to the crowded terrace to capture a classic scene of Australian life.
Forty years later Mrs Dawes was to learn that the visitor was a man named David Moore, now one of Australia’s best known photographers, and that her picture had become famous.
[…] Regularly republished in books and magazines the photograph Redfern Interior 1949, has hung on the walls of the world’s great art galleries and the scene has come to epitomise an Australia that is forever lost.
Months of searching for the photograph’s unknown subjects took The Weekend Australian back to within metres of where it had originally been shot so many years ago.
Hours spent scouring yellowing minutes and eviction notices from the now defunct Redfern Council, days of door knocking and false leads were eventually rewarded when Annie Plumber’s daughter, Celie, identified her mother.
[…] This week we went back to Redfern and back to Eileen Dawes, now 74. And the story of her life since the day this picture was taken is a tale of a battler who made it.
Mrs Dawes—nanna to 31 grandchildren and great nan to 16—said: “I remember the photo being taken. I had just had the baby and my neighbour came in and said there was a man who wanted to take my photo.
“I had nothing to lose, but when my Billy came home he went bloody crook for having a man in the bedroom.
“Poor old Mrs Plumber was there too, she had a hard life you know. But then, they were hard times.
“She was a great friend of my mother and her husband, Bert, used to sell rabbits during the depression.”
[…] It is many years since Eileen Butler walked up the cobbled back lane to marry William Dawes at St Pauls Church of England on January 18, 1933, and memories are blurred.
All the Dawes children have left, as has Carol Stanley, the child at the foot of the bed.
Now Mrs Townsend, Carol, 43, is married to a railway worker, has children of her own, and lives in Dapto on the NSW south coast. (Weekend Australian, 17 June 1989, 1)

This, like all of the other ‘returned’ articles, is rich with historiographic intertextuality. A massive historical span is measured in the trajectory from Gallipoli to a contemporary ‘aboriginal ghetto’. The incipient reference to the Nativity present in the original photograph is picked up by the journalist who enlists the photographer himself to play the part of the Three Wise Men as a ‘stranger’ who was ‘brought to her terrace’ and ‘entered her life’. Her nationalistic maternity is played off against the alternative, larrikin femininity of underworld crime queens. Labyrinthine slums are evoked by Dickensian cobbled back lanes, rutted narrow lanes, and tenements.

But what is of interest to me, more than the journalistic poetics, is the elaborate lengths to which the article goes to establish the simultaneous obscure privacy and public iconicity of the participants. Mrs Dawes is only found after an elaborate search by the Weekend Australian. She would have been lost to us entirely except for the chance recognition of a random door knock. She remained ignorant of her fame, and went on to personally spin a web of contingent anecdote around herself—tediously elaborated in the article with names, ages, and dates—whilst at the same time her image was congealing into an icon on the walls of the world’s greatest galleries. Yet the two processes seem related, and to affirm and reinforce each other. Although the classic photograph cannot accrete to itself the artefactual aura of the painting, in this case it has been able to discursively generate an aura around its participants. Their memories and bodies measured and recorded an epic time span as they slowly turned into living sculptures whilst their image was elsewhere, simultaneously turning into an icon.

But this mutual exchange between photograph and participant is not always stable. As it drifts further away from the moment when it was taken a classic photograph’s symbolic and iconic reference to an entire national collectivity becomes broader and more inclusive. However at the same time its testamentary and contingent reference to a local moment becomes narrower and more particular. The resultant tension between the classic photograph’s personally mnemonic power and its historically iconic power often leads to a scandal within our complacent assumptions about photography’s historical truth. For instance a few days after the death of Max Dupain in 1992 the Sydney Morning Herald carried a front page article, ‘Exposed: Max’s bronzed Aussie Sunbaker was a lilywhite Pom’, in which Australia’s top corporeal icon is revealed to have been not only palely English, but cultured as well.

It was taken on some empty south coast beach, where a group of friends was camping one summer weekend.
One, glistening from the surf, flung himself on the sand, pillowed his head on a forearm and slept in the sun.
Another of the group, the 26-year-old Max Dupain, photographed him as he lay, and the ensuing image Sunbaker 1937  became an Australian icon.
[…] It was an early example of the photographer’s gift for what friend and colleague David Moore once described as his “rigorous discipline of selection [which] honed the statements to a precise edge”
Its universality and power as icon bestowed anonymity on the Sunbaker —until this week, that is, when the death of Max Dupain 55 summers later brought what is possibly his most widely-known image to the fore.
On 2GB’s breakfast program on Thursday the question was asked: Who was the Sunbaker? A neighbour of John Salvage phoned him at work. “They’re asking about your father,” she said. Yesterday, after an interview at the station, John Salvage repeated the unlikely truth. The classic Australian image was indeed of his father—an English migrant, Harold Cyril Salvage by name. So English was he, his son recalls, that “until the day he died [in 1990], he remained an Englishman. He had a beautiful English accent which used to amaze my friends; but all the ladies used to love him. He had a great love of the arts and of classical music—he was very cultured.”
[…] It was on one of those idyllic prewar weekends that the photographs […] were taken.
[…] The war put paid to the close knit activities of the group. After war’s end, their ways struck out at different tangents, though they remained in contact all their lives.
Harold Salvage went on to become an architectural engineer with the Department of Works, […].
Max Dupain, however, stayed with photography, shaping his images, capturing the fall of light, perfecting his passion for form and the moment.
But more than one million negatives later, Sunbaker remains a quintessential Dupain photograph. (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 1992, 1)

The compulsion to spend several days of one’s time searching yellowing council files for Redfern Interior, or to ask ‘who was the Sunbaker’, seems intimately associated with the nature of photography itself. Asking similar questions of classic paintings, like ‘who was Shearing the Rams?’ or ‘is the Victory Girl a grandma now?’ doesn’t have the same imperative. Obviously the ontological nature of the photograph, its celebrated optical and chemical causality, allowed 2GB to ask the question. It is only a classic of Australian photography that can be commemorative on both an iconic and an evidential, a connotational and a denotational, a semiotic and a material, level. But even if photography allows such questions, why do they appear to be compelled? What is it about history and memory which demands those questions of the photograph?

Throughout Modernity, history and memory have increasingly come to be defined in dialectically oppositional terms to each other. For instance in ‘The Storyteller’ Walter Benjamin complained about the loss of traditional, ‘organic’ memory within Modernity. To Benjamin the experience of past and distant events which was once passed collectively, “mouth to mouth”, was being transformed by the technological dissemination of information. This was replacing the epic story with the commodified novel, experience and wisdom were being replaced by information and reportage, collective memory was losing way to explanatory history.(Benjamin 1973, 83-109)

On one level these newspaper stories take simple delight in reasserting the popularly mnemonic in the face of the institutionally historic. This leads to the tongue in cheek, but nonetheless triumphal, ‘exposing’ of a mnemonic scandal within historic iconicity. Mostly, however, both photographer and subject are presented as unwitting innocents equally caught up in the whirl of the past. For instance in a 1993 the SMH, under the heading ‘A ‘sticky beak’ seeks out the man who shot her in Corfu St’, three photographs appear: one of Henry Talbot’s Woolloomooloo Girl, taken in the 1950s, and two of its subject, Miss Janet Barlow, with the photographer forty years later.

Janet Barlow’s face has aged, but there is still that direct gaze which caught the eye of the photographer Henry Talbot 40 years ago and became a classic Australian image.
The photograph, Woolloomooloo Girl, can be found in the National and NSW Galleries: a snapshot of a young girl, aged 9 or 10, leaning over a fence on Corfu Street and staring down at the camera unabashed.
[…] The photograph became Talbot’s best known and one of his most cherished, although he never knew the girl’s name.
That is, until this week when, after 40 years, Janet Barlow and Henry Talbot came back to Corfu Street.
Their meeting was prompted after Miss Barlow’s niece received a birthday card with the Talbot photograph on it and recognised her aunt as the Woolloomooloo girl. […]
[I]t took only a search of the phone books by Miss Barlow before photographer and subject agreed to return to the scene.
Soon they were recalling how that photograph happened.
[…] “we went walking, looking for good photographs” […] “I saw the girl lean over the fence, thought that would make a nice picture and snap snap…”
For Miss Barlow, a neo-natal nurse from Russell Lea who turns 50 this year, the memory is even clearer.
“It would have been a Sunday because we washed our hair Sundays after we went down to the Domain to hear the soap box speakers,” she said. “I was getting my hair washed and I heard someone was taking pictures and just stuck my head up [over the fence].”
“It was just a sticky beak and I was the biggest sticky beak around.”
[…] Mr Talbot always thought the Woolloomooloo Girl was a photograph from 1956, but Miss Barlow said her family left Corfu Street in 1954 when she was 11, putting the photograph at ‘52 or ‘53. Either way, the photo, like their memories, essentially is timeless.(Sydney Morning Herald, 28 August 1993, 3).

The memories of photographer and subject are not commensurate, but any possible scandal is averted by them both accepting equally serendipitous roles in what are presented as the larger workings of time, history and the medium. Their lives briefly came together with the lightest of touches and then parted, only to meet again as if by fate when the infinitely complex historic and mnemonic interactions of the mass distribution of birthday cards and the sharp eyes of nieces inevitably intermeshed. They now willingly submit their memories to the “timeless” hegemony of history.

An important element in all of these stories is the crucial role of a media institution, either a radio station or a newspaper or magazine, as a mediator between memory and history. The media’s panopticism, its ubiquitous presence across time and space, is what completes the circuit and allows individuals to ‘return’ to the realm of lived memory from their iconic imprisonment in history. The front page newsworthiness of such transubstantiations lies as much in the newspaper’s celebration of its own power and custodianship over memory and history, as in the event of the coincidence itself. The SMH  obviously has a stake in implicating itself into the very substance of this memory/history fortuity. Although these stories could be seen as mere puff pieces, through them and similar faits divers (which in fact take up a large proportion of the paper) it may well be constructing itself as an ancient, capillary, historical and mnemonic presence in all our lives.

One plausible explanation of these stories is that the press is preparing its readers for a crisis in faith in its photographs brought on by computer digitalisation. In a future where the photograph, previously regarded as ontologically ‘truthful’, is realised as a infinitely mutable file of mathematical data, the newspaper’s curatorial process of archiving and publishing will become more important to a photograph’s ultimate authority than its diminished denotational power. Each of the stories emphasises the discursive nature of the classic photograph: analysing the nature of the photographer’s genius, performing sophisticated semiotic readings of its connotational procedures, and charting its role in our visual culture. These stories could therefore be encouraging us to invest faith not in the ultimate ontological authority of the photographic image, but in the ubiquitous systems of recuperation and transmittal represented by a new kind of social contract between the newspaper’s archive and its readership. For instance after the recent Papal tour the SMH, in an ad headed ‘Were you photographed with the Pope?’, invited its readers to come in to the Fairfax Photo Library and view the photographs taken by its journalists on the off chance that they had captured an accidental souvenir. Their photo libraries are one authoritive advantage the press still maintains over TV. TV uses ephemeral video tape, its news programming valorises instantaneity and brutal denotational effect, and the rest of its scheduling displays a notorious disregard for the orderly progression of time and the temporal particularity of events. To TV, the past can only be recalled in generalised, experiential, and imagistic terms.

In the article “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire” the French historian Pierre Nora elaborates on Benjamin’s originally ambivalent complaint by claiming that as a result of modernity there is now an unprecedented rupture of the present from the past. Modernity is obsessed with memory, but in a commodified, localised form. Because of the media we now ‘know’ more about recent and current events. But this has replaced a memory entwined in the intimacy of a collective heritage with an ephemeral, filmic knowledge. Memory which was once organic, natural and ubiquitous, must now be preserved in lieux de mémoire  which are “sites of memory, because there are no longer milieux de mémoire, real environments of memory.”(Nora 1989, 7) Because there is no longer natural, spontaneous memory, we must deliberately create archives, maintain anniversaries, organise celebrations, and pronounce eulogies. Since our connectivity to the past can no longer be experienced from the inside it has to be experienced from the outside, via its outward signs. Memory is absorbed and reconstituted in the archive which becomes a prosthesis-memory. Because this new historical memory is no longer a collective practice we tend to interiorise and individuate it. Everyone goes in search of their own memory, or that of their ethnic, class, or professional group—hence the recent boom in genealogy. The past becomes a skein of jealously maintained genealogies rather than a nurturing environment in which we all live. Memory also tends to become retinal, televisual, cinematic and narrativised because this is how we understand the present. In present day Australia the conjunction of the genealogical and the retinal is attaining its epiphany when nieces recognise aunts and sons recognise fathers in classic photographs.

Although not always seen in the apocalyptic terms of Nora, the memory history dialectic has been a key talking point within recent historiography. (Hamilton 1994, 9-32) Oral historians are well aware that history affects and changes memory, bending and mutating it to fit in with itself. Researchers into the experiences of Australian women on the Home Front during WW11 are confidently told by their subjects that they will learn every thing they need to know from watching The Sullivans. (Darian-Smith 1994, 137-157) Alistair Thomson’s book Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend chronicles the often traumatic reorganisation of memory under the rule of mythic history.

[T]he apparently private process of composing safe memories is in fact very public. Our memories are risky and painful if they do not fit the public myths, so we try to compose our memories to ensure they do fit with what is publicly acceptable. Just as we seek the affirmation of our personal identities within the publics in which we live, we also seek affirmation of our memories. […] [O]ur memories need the sustenance of public recognition, and are composed so that they will be recognised and affirmed.(Thomson 1994, 11).

At the same time, of course, popular memory does constitute a relatively autonomous form of history; and history itself is constantly maintaining and refreshing itself with strategic injections of memory. However, even if there is a cross infection of memory and history, it is still useful to think of individual memory and institutional history as fundamentally mutually opposed terms. In this light these stories can be seen as attempts by newspapers to establish themselves as Lieux de mémoire, as mediators between the combative forces of history and memory.

The other sites where such a mediation is required are in public processes of national commemoration and monumentalisation. The task of monuments and commemorative ceremonies is precisely to reconcile personal memory with public history. The builders of monuments, like newspaper journalists, also see benefits in searching for nuggets of memory in the mullock of history. In 1990 a small article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald headed ‘Search for image to typify Vietnam War’:

In an attic or in a garage, among cherished papers or letters, could be the photograph that captures in one frozen image the essence of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. A search is under way to find it and use it as the central figure of the new Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Canberra. The photograph should evoke Australians in Vietnam, just as cameraman Damien Parer’s image of a wounded digger with bandaged eyes, leaning on his mate and crossing a New Guinea river, caught Australians in World War Two.[…] “It will be a tall order but I believe that between what is available in Canberra[…] and what is stored, probably in someone’s keepsakes, we will find something.” The committee is looking at photographs from the Australian War Memorial but is hoping that veterans, their families or other members of the public will submit photographs never before seen. “It could be a picture taken by a soldier hurt and killed in combat that only the parents or loved ones have that fits the bill.(Sydney Morning Herald,18 July 1990).

As it turned out, the mnemonic forces ritually invoked by this article didn’t work, no quintessential photograph manifested itself in a shoe box, or an attic, or a garage. The committee had to sift thorough an official collection to find the photograph they eventually used—a Kodachrome slide taken by an official photographer which had been part of the displays in the Memorial itself at least since the early 1980s.

Photographs are not only playing an increasing role in physical monuments and memorials, they are also becoming the set pieces in rituals and festivals of remembrance and commemoration. A SMH article, headed ‘Time to embrace a great moment of love over death’, about the photograph chosen to be the logo for the ‘Australia Remembers’ celebrations commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War 11, had all of the elements discussed above.(Sydney Morning Herald , 31 December, 3.) But now, rather than being a newsworthy ‘scandal’ discovered within history, contingent memories were explicitly invoked in order to be institutionally re-colonised by history. In The Women’s Weekly of April 1995 another ‘found!’ article appeared, in this case also linked to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the end of WW11

Found! The dancing man. After a fleeting but unforgettable encounter on the day World War 11 ended, Freda Osborne and mystery man Ern Hill have been re-united at last.
[…] Ern, 67 […] was the young man pictured doffing his hat and whirling past two bemused young women, one of whom was Freda, and two soldiers.
That image of the “dancing man”, more than any other, symbolised the outpouring of joy which gripped Australia on August 15, 1945.
But although footage of the young man’s uninhibited display has been shown hundreds of times, his identity was unknown until The Women’s Weekly reproduced the picture as part of its “Australia Remembers” tribute to World War 11 last month.
[…] The Department of Veteran’s Affairs wanted to find the “dancing man” to help promote  the “Australia Remembers” celebrations […] It asked various service organisations for help, but without success. It was even thought that the “dancing man” could be dead.
[…] When Sydneysider Sue Butterfield saw the photograph she instantly recognised her father, Ern Hill, as the famous “dancing man”. Ern, now retired, reluctantly agreed that indeed he was the man in the picture.
[…] In last month’s issue, Freda Osborne told how she was with her friend Clarrie, when the “dancing man” twirled past. Then, when The Women’s Weekly told Freda that the “dancing man” had been found, she said she would “just love” to meet him.
[…] She told him that, as he whirled past her that afternoon, he shouted: “Come on luv, the War’s over so let’s dance.” Then she said Ern asked for a kiss. She remember laughing and telling him he was “a cheeky devil”.
“Strewth, I don’t remember the kiss bit,” Ern said. “But anything could have happened that day. Even though I hadn’t had a drink, we were all pretty much out of it.” […](Australian Women’s Weekly, April 1995, 18-19)

Again we have the triumphal, but somehow inevitable rescue of sticky mnemonic contingency from sublime historical symbolism. And again we have The Women’s Weekly, surely a much greater institution in any case, succeeding where the Department of Veterans’ Affairs had failed. Subsequently this article produced its own scandal when two other claimants—Patrick Blackall, who has taken out a statutory declaration saying “I’m the genuine dancing man”, and Mr Frank McAlary QC—came forward to challenge Ern’s right to his iconic memory. (Sydney Morning Herald, 29 July 1995, 3)

In all these accounts we have the strange figure of the return of the lost identity from some kind of incarceration in history, as though they were POWs finally released from History. These released Prisoners of History stumble out in a confused, jostling rush. They bring with them not only extra news and further poignant details from their memories—which may occasionally contradict, but generally reinforce our historical knowledge—they also bring the material testimony of their own selves, their weathered bodies and tangled pasts. But, just as glorious, contingent, unmotivated memory is liberated from history it is re-imprisoned to serve history once more. Just as memory fades under the retinal rule of modern history it is recuperated to be used once more to cast a final, auratic glow back onto that which is extinguishing it.

Benjamin, Walter 1973, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’, in Illuminations, Fontana, 83-109.

Darian-Smith, Kate 1994, ‘War Stories: Remembering the Australian Home Front During the Second World War’, in Memory and History in Twentieth Century Australia, ed. Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 137-157.

Hamilton, Paula 1994, ‘The Knife Edge, Debates about Memory and History’, in Memory and History in Twentieth Century Australia, 9-32.

Nora, Pierre 1989, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, 26, Spring, 7.

Thomson, Alistair 1994, Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend , Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 11.

Ruby Davies Photographs 1987 – 1995 Stills Gallery

‘Cinematic Distopias’, Ruby Davies review, Art Monthly, November, 1995

The empire of the city has risen and fallen in a little over two hundred years. The great cities of the world—Paris, New York, London— are on life support systems, relying on ‘urban renewal’, ‘inner city rejuvenation’ and ‘infilling’ to keep them alive. They were once the political capitals of empires, the psychological capitals of civilizations, and the imaginary capitals of entire centuries, now they are pathogenic trouble spots. Once towering metropolises, now they have collapsed into corroding sprawls.

But as ruins never have the great cities of the world been so romantic, even if their romanticism has changed from the days of their glory. The streets of the great cities are no longer filled with insouciant sophisticates parrying the many shocks and jolts of modernity, today’s urban flaneur must go off on a dedicated, lugubrious search for entropic events, imploded spaces and sunken monuments.

Ruby Davies’ photographs capture this feeling perfectly. They were shot on small format over the last eight years or so on various trips to St Petersberg, Tokyo, Berlin and New York (and there’s a couple shot back home in Sydney). For her recent exhibition at Stills  Davies went back to her contact sheets and scanned them once more. The images she chose to enlarge and exhibit tended to be long exposures, and often taken at dusk or night with lighting coming from diverse artificial and natural light sources. The combination of Fuji negatives and Fuji paper has produced chromatically intense images, but the saturated colours produced by the bright lights of the big city appear thickened and coagulated, as though tainted and by some foreign chromogen.

Davies was interested in the massive geopolitical changes her photographs spanned, but also in the intimate association of space and personal memory they embodied. The status of Moscow and Berlin, exactly what they are capitals of, has changed dramatically during the short period of her photography. But she was also interested in the spatialisation of experience which every traveller remembers and sometimes relives through photgraphs. As Benjamin pointed out in his Moscow and Berlin diaries of the 1930s, and Francis Yates pointed out in her classic The Art of Memory, cities are a way of thinking. They are a way of ordering and storing experience, sorting and retrieving personal and political data. Cities are mnemonic machines, on everything from an individual to an epochal level.

Davies’s was a critical tourism, combining a tourist’s eagerness to see the sights, with a traveller’s willingness to drift across the city and discover her own personally meaningful precincts and monuments. Her exhibition maps what the Situationist Guy Debord would call a ‘psychogeography’ of the city. Her cities are not made up of broad clear thoroughfares providing commanding views of citizens bustling about their business. Her’s is a fragmented city, made up of oblique and occluded glimpses—stilted, vaguely threatening portraits; details of lights, shadows and advertising signs verging on the undecipherable; and fleeting views down strange alleys.

Her photographs have the curious effect of solidifying people and desubstantiating architecture. The people she photographs monumentalise themselves, they appear stilled or temporarily absent from their bodies. The Russian soldier stiffly standing guard in Berlin in 1992, the potentially aggro black American soldier on R & R in Tokyo in 1988, and even the posing rock’n’roll singer in New York in 1988, all seem as uncannilly otherworldly and distant as the spotlit and familiarly heroic Lenin statue, which nobody had bothered to topple, photographed by Davies in St Petersburg in 1993. The Japanese girl asleep on the train to Mt Fuji 1988 has left behind her body to dream, as she leans her head against the steel window frame the dark interior of the carriage seems to absorbed her into itself.

In contrast, most of the solid monuments and buildings Davies photographs appear as though they are melting into sodium-vapour lit air. For instance a statue of General Sherman on horseback with attendant angel was photographed in Central Park in 1990. Shot from below and upwards towards a crepuscular blue sky the statue seems to move above us in ghostly procession, the brassy golden burnish on angel’s wing, horse’s head and general’s cloak melding into a slow motion feathery blur. Curtains at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersberg hang in beautiful, but wet looking scallops of cyan blue and orange. We look through the flourescent green stone columns of St Petersberg’s Kazanskii Cathedral towards a tiny figure, standing alone in a square of tungsten yellow light.

The exhibition space of Stills, with its two-and-a-bit tiny terrace house rooms, actually works to Davies’ advantage in her hang. Where it has all but destroyed many an exhibition there, the hanging of work up and down stairs, over light wells, and so on, helps to create a sense of fragmentation and distopia in this case. The disjointed hang made it clear that the influence of cinema has also been important to Davies, looking through the installation the cinema of distopian filmmakers such as Wim Wenders or Martin Scorcese, with their extended point-of-view Steadicam sequences, came to mind.

One key image in the show confirms a cinematic connection. It is an enlarged frame from a Super 8 film taken in the New York Cafe, Newtown, Sydney, in 1987. The painting is of the archetypal Manhattan skyline. It is the oldest image in the show and inaugurates the artist’s drift across the great metropolises of the northern hemisphere and modernity. The lure of New York painted on a cafe wall in Newtown shattered into thousands of images on photographic contact-sheets from which memory, spatial experience and history were recombined into a personal psychogeography. An image taken two years later, and used for the invitation, was of another commercially painted image representing the desire to traverse. This time it was photographed off the rear roller door of a delivery truck in Central Tokyo’s Tskiji Markets. A samurai crouches over the mane of a wild-eyed white horse which appears to be rearing slightly as it advances. Both rider and horse stare intently into the distance, out of the Tskiji Markets, out of Tokyo altogether, and into an impossible place.

Martyn Jolly

The viewer/observer/user an archaeology of interactive multimedia

‘The Viewer/Observer/User: an archaeology of Multimedia’, paper delivered at the Queensland College of Art, and Queensland University of Technology, September, 1995

The promise of multimedia is that it will profoundly change spectatorship. We will no longer be passive viewers, or distant observers, instead we will be users, or players, or the neologism ‘interactors’. The history of technologies of vision and display over the last several centuries has been seen to be one of a continual seduction, a gradual attractive force which the image has exerted on the viewer, drawing the viewer ever closer, until now we seem to be on the brink of being drawn into the image itself. Key scenes from films such as Videodrome or Poltergeist described this fatal seduction even before William Gibson’s final pioneering break through into cyberspace. The imbrication of the body of the spectator and the technology of the display has produced a multimedia/multisensory ensemble of machine and body, a perceptual cyborg. Of course the most dramatic image of this visual prosthesis is the person in the VR suit, but the ensemble is just as complete, if less anthropomorphic, in the computer based ‘multimedia interactive’. From the outside this cyborg looks fairly prosaic, nothing more than somebody siting in a chair in front of a computer with their arm outstretched to a mouse on a mouse pad. People have trouble making this ensemble look as interesting as it is, so in TV shows like the X Files computers are always used in dark rooms so they cast an exaggerated glow onto the face of the users, some of the computer screens seem to be also equipped with lenses that actually project the letters and words of the screen onto the face of the user. The promise of this immersion in the image can have both positive or negative connotations, there has been a spate of ads lately where people drive their cars or burst with their skateboards through billboards into a better life within the image, conversely the fear of cyberporn has gripped the imagination of the press, with some articles even reporting on the physical spiriting away of hapless children by strangers on the Net.

The homunculus of this new cyborg is simple too, a closed circuit system of screen/eyes/hand/mouse/cursor/screen/eyes/hand/mouse/cursor/screen etc. But within this charmed, circular apparatus, of course, there are wonders: an infinite, fluid space without boundaries because it folds in on itself; a world without gravity, or friction, or acceleration, or deceleration, a world whose only horizon seems to be the temporal lacunae when the cursor is replaced by a watch symbol and you can hear the disc spinning in the machine. A world without perspective, where distance is contained within the limits of a given resolution.

The viewer is immersed, but they also travel: they fly over terrains, follow branching pathways, move through rooms, navigate through labyrinths, explore rhizomes, etc. The viewer interacts. The new multisensory computer/user cyborg is dependent on immersion and interaction.

In this talk I want to do two things. First of all want to examine the precise nature of the ‘newness’ of multimedia. I want to historicise its newness. Secondly I want to examine the relationship, and possible tensions between immersion and interaction in multimedia.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the figure of the camera obscura was used in a very similar way to the ways in which multimedia or new technology are used today. The camera obscura was certainly a particular technology, a series of objects which were developed and refined during those centuries, the camera obscura also defined a series of specific cultural and social practices, artistic styles and ways of looking, but the camera obscura was also a philosophical model, a scientific and metaphysical metaphor for states of being and ways of knowing. The camera obscura was an assemblage, both a technical object and a discursive model. It is the fact that multimedia is also such an assemblage that makes it fascinating.

At the beginning of the 17th century Kepler used the camera obscura as a model for the functioning of the eyeball. The lens was like the pupil, and the retina was the piece of white paper or ground glass screen. He couldn’t work out, however, how the two images made their way from the retinas into the mind to produce a single image of the world. Later Descartes developed Kepler’s model of vision into a model of visual cognition by introducing intellectual understanding as a crucial complement to the cold image projection of the iris, the perceiver read the mini-movies that were being continually projected inside the skull in an equivalent way to the way they read the other signs of the world which were brought by the other senses, or which could be induced by thought. Descartes therefore elevated the camera obscura to a model of understanding itself. But in the camera obscura the viewer’s body is bracketed out, because the viewer is inside the machine the machine can take no regard of the viewer, all that matters is the punctal lens and the objective image which the viewer perceives with sober, detached scrutiny. As Descartes said “perception, or the action by which we perceive, is not a vision … but is solely an inspection by the mind.”(Crary 43)

Jonathan Crary, in his book Techniques of the Observer, claims that there was a monumental shift to this paradigm in the early 19th century. The body, which was bracketed out of Cartesian perception, became the very site of perception for 19th century scientists. The eye, which had been a cold dead optical instrument in the 16th and 17th centuries suddenly flowered into a febrile, quivering organ in the 19th century. Scientists and philosophers like Goethe, Schopenhauer introduced a temporal dimension into perception with their investigation of the phenomena of the persistence of vision (on which the apparatus of the cinema depends), others desperately tried to draw and catalogue the various varieties of afterimage before the faded, one blinded himself staring at the sun, other scientists furiously rubbed their eyes to create impressions of light and colour with no optical stimulus, others discovered the blind spot, other scientists discovered that any given nerve will give the same sensation no matter what the stimulus—optical, electrical, chemical or physical

Perception is not the sober inspection of some inner cinema, instead inside and outside mix so intimately that the cannot be distinguished. Perception is incarnated.

A whole range of apparatuses were developed as simultaneous amusements, tools of scientific investigation and epistemological models. Examples like the Thaumatrope, phenakisttiscope, zootrope and kaleidoscope are well known. I want to concentrate on the stereoscope and the phantasmogaoria.

There is no stereoscopic image, it is never stably projected anywhere for sober contemplation, instead it is formed by an exertion of the mind, nor is the stereoscope a replication of natural vision, it is an artificial simulacra of vision. It gives the temporary illusion of b binocular vision, not binocular vision itself. The virtual stereoscopic image is like a stage set, the planes appear recede like flat disjointed cardboard cut outs with a vacuum between. The stereoscope also announced for the first time the prosthetic interlocking of body and machine, though artificial, it is a thoroughly corporealised vision. But it also had the effect of taking vision out of the body, which is left behind, and producing a kind of phantom, body which travels through a virtual space.

Oliver Wendell Holmes writing in 1859 described this new form delirious navigation through virtual reality: “The first effect of looking at a good photograph through the stereoscope is a surprise such as no painting ever produced. The mind feels its way into the very depth of the picture. … Oh infinite volumes of poems that I treasure in this small library of glass and pasteboard! I creep over the vast feature of Rameses, on the face of his rockhewn Nubian temple; I scale the huge mountain-crystal that calls itself the pyramid of Cheops. I pace the length of the three titanic stones of the wall of Baalbec — mightiest masses of quarried rock that man has lifted into the air; and then I dive into some mass of foliage with my microscope, and trace the veinings of a leaf so delicately wrought in the painting not made with hands, that I can almost see its down and the green aphis that sucks its juices. I look into the eyes of the caged tiger, and on the scaly train of the crocodile, stretched on the sands of the river that has mirrored a hundred dynasties, I stroll through Rhenish vineyards, I sit under Roman arches, I walk the streets of once buried cities, I look into the chasms of Alpine glaciers, and on the rush of wasteful cataracts. I pass, in a moment, from the banks of the Charles to the ford of the Jordan, and leave my outward frame in the armchair at my table, while in spirit I am looking down upon Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives” (The Stereoscope and the Stereograph)

Stereoscopy, not surprisingly, quickly became associated with pornography in a similar way in which the Net and VR have instantaneously suggested porn to today’s press. Baudelaire railed against it in his famous diatribe against photography of the same year: “The love of pornography, which is no less deep rooted in the natural heart of man than the love of himself, was not to let slip so fine an opportunity of self-satisfaction. And do not imagine that it was only children on their way back from school who took pleasure in these follies; the world was infatuated with them. I was once present when some friends were discretely concealing some such pictures from a beautiful woman, a woman of high society, not of mine—they were taking upon themselves some feeling of delicacy in her presence; but ‘no’ she replied. ‘Give them to me! Nothing is too strong for me.’ I swear that I heard that but who will believe me?”(Salon of 1859)

The stereoscope was a kind of corporeal/visual labour on the part of the user, who is no longer a passive cartesian viewer, but an active observer, quite aware of the nature of the apparatus, which was transparent to them, and willingly submitting themselves to the surprise of the illusion, the production, within their corporeal selves, of a artificial shock, as Baudelaire’s scandalous lady say ‘nothing is too strong for me!”

The stereoscope was primarily a domestic technology, for armchair travellers or masturbators. Other technologies produced corporeal illusions in a public space, to observers who were logged into the cybernetic visual system, not through stereoscopes attached to their faces, but through having their bodies immobilised in auditorium chairs. These were dioramas, wax works, phantasmogaorias,  magic shows and early pre-narrative cinema.

It is one of the founding myths of cinema that the first audience for the Lumieré’s Arrival of a Train at a Station in 1896 caused panic amongst its audience because they thought they were about to be run over by an actual train. However recent film historians such as Tom Gunning have disputed this seductive myth. For one thing, audience in Europe were used to being astonished by mechanical and optical apparatuses. They were not a naive audience who assumed the apparatus to be transparent, Gunning claims that the astonishment of early audience was at the apparatus itself, and not at what it purported to represent. The apparatus tested the limits of an intellectual disavowal: I know, but yet I see, and that was its pleasure. This pleasure is an aesthetics of astonishment, where the viewer does not get lost in the fictional world of the film’s dram, but remains aware of the act of looking. Films with great titles like The Railroad Smash-Up, Photographing a Female Crook, Demolishing a Wall, and Electrocuting an Elephant, were exactly what the said they were. Safely ensconced in their seats the audience experience the pleasure of a discontinuous series of bodily shocks, which they know is being brought to them by the technology of cinema—a cinema, which in its structural logic is similar to the machinery of the factory, or the experience of a tram-ride through city streets. Critics in the 1920s and 30s, such as Benjamin, Kracauer and Jünger saw these shocks as a kind of training of the body, a hardening of it, to be able to accept the increasing jolts of modernity

This cinema of attractions persists throughout the history of cinema, even when another kind of psychological absorption into the diegetic narrative of the cinema is developed by DW Griffith and Hollywood through the combination of 19th century narrative modes and shot/reverse shot psychological identification with characters. Again, pornography is the most obvious examples of the sub-subterranean persistence of the cinema of attractions, but even Hollywood cinema retains elements of it. Recent mainstream films contain elements of the Ride Film, where the viewer’s body is subject to a series of vertiginous affects, optically and directly, not through psychological identification. Often, as in batman, these films are associated with real theme park rides, and the technologies of actual transport of the audience through real space, along a roller-coaster, and their virtual transport, via projected imagery, have been merging. Again this has precedents in the dioramas and panoramas of the 19th century where audience seating were mechanically moved from scene to scene.

My reason for elaborating all of these precedents to multimedia immersion is not simply to point out that it is all not such a new thing after all, and definitely not to celebrate multimedia as the inevitable culmination of centuries of striving for a ‘better’ vision. Rather I want to shift attention from the newness of the particular technologies—computers and their programs—to the ensemble of viewer/machine. I want to look at what is happening in the two feet or so of space between the user and the screen, and for that a kind of archaeology of the interface may be useful.

Within today’s interactive user of a computer interface there sits another historical figure, the corporealised observer of astonishing optical phenomena which are produced, or perhaps incarnated, within the observer themself, and within that figure lies another figure, the decorporealised cartesian viewer, soberly understanding the language of the outside world. I think we need to call upon all three—viewer, observer and user—to understand what is going on.

One of the most popular films of the ‘cinema of attractions’ was the phantom train ride where, instead of the train threatening to come out of the screen at the audience, a camera was mounted on the front of the engine and the audience was endlessly plunged through space along the camera’s central perspectival axis. The audience seemed to be carried forward not by the train, which was invisible, but by the thrust of vision itself.

Today, of course, the connection between lines of sight and ballistic trajectories has been firmly established by smart bombs. And in today’s VR environments or multimedia interfaces, it is not the train which is a phantom, but the user themself has a phantom double, which is recognised by the machine. The key rupture between old and new immersive environments is that in new immersive environments, the apparatus recognise us, as much as we recognise it. This can extend all the way from the computer responding with a new window when we point and click at a button with our simple cursor arrow on the screen, which is our punctal double in the program’s interface, to the shoot-em-up VR games where if your opponent sees you before you see them…they gleefully shoot you. Between are all the possibilities of interactivity, and all the possible architectures of the virtual environment: the hierarchical, the labyrinthine, the rhizomatic.

However the two qualities of today’s multimedia seem to have an inverse relationship to each other. Maximum effects of immersion rely on minimal interactive choices, more complex choices and hypermedia pathways rely on dense and complex interfaces which demand more of a sober Cartesian intellection than a spasmodic corporeal reaction. For instance most flight simulators, although being highly immersive, only allow the viewer to gradually inflect the trajectory, the paths are quite tightly constrained, and the machine needs time to process new data. In any case, how can more complex, meditative, cartesian decisions be made in a complex labyrinthine interface when the body is hurtling through virtual space. When there is no split between mind and body, when they are vertiginously thrust together by the G forces of immersion, can cartesian ‘choice’ be exercised in the same way? In real situations the body’s reactions are a matter of the somatic memory of relentless training and habitual corporeal drilling.

Most information rich multimedia actively work against the natural immersive seductions of the medium, interfaces which are discussed in terms of being user friendly, or ‘transparent’ seem to me to be on the contrary to act as speed humps. The provide a series of already recognised objects signifying sober selection, books on the shelf, doors along a hallway, pictures on the wall, on which the user must click. Acting like a virtual sphinx these interfaces say, pause before you choose.

There may be a very fundamental metaphoric flaw here. All the hypertext/hypermedia hype rotates around the metaphoric figure of exploration, the breath taking discovery of a new fact. The sudden, unprecedented surprise. The instantaneous enlightenment of dark continents. The Eureka! But all our post-colonial writers have told us that exploration was never like that, frontiers never moved across the face of the globe with the inexorable certainity of the dawn. Exploration was always preceded by speculation, myth, hypothesis, the new was always read through established models of what otherness should be. And of course, on the other side, the side of darkness there is always resistance, evasion, dissimilation and mimicry. Quite simply exploration is never simply spatial or territorial, it is also textual, incremental, layered, accumulative and a process of exchange, however out of balance.

I think that the tension between immersion and interactivity must be a very delicate one to balance, because, from my position solely as a user, multimedia producers seem to very often get it wrong. Astonishment fails, information exchange does not take place between computer and user, the user skims over the interface, checking to see that something, it doesn’t seem to matter what, happens as buttons are clicked. They interact with the interface, rather than the program. The multimedia exhausts itself when its interface, rather than the program itself, has ‘played itself out’. Boredom and impatience are spectres that haunt every multimedia developer.

Is this why the most psychologically engaging immersive interactivity practices are text based, not image based. MUDs and MOOs have a low data bandwidth, but a high informational bandwidth, courtesy of the English language. To my knowledge the only reported psychological trauma from a rape in cyberspace was textual and occurred in LAMDAMOO (?).