A Brief History of Photofile

‘A Brief History of Photofile’, Photofile, No. 50, 1997 

Recalled Photofile/Potted Photofile

Photofile now fills three magazine boxes on my shelves and I have been involved with it in one way or another for virtually all of its history. However it was always too precariously funded, too open to the vicissitudes of arts politics and policy, and too subject to the recurring paroxysms of the ACP itself, for it to have ever achieved a stable existence for a substantial period of time. So, despite its relatively venerable age of fifty issues, it has never achieved the consistency to have been a barometer of the changing Zeitgeist, or even an authoritative record of its historical period.

Nonetheless I think it is an invaluable repository of Australian writing from the last fifteen years. If fifty issues of Photofile do not quite make a full blown archive, at least they form a fascinating and densely packed midden. Before I went back to my magazine boxes I tried to list all of the articles in Photofile which I could readily recall to mind. Some had stuck in my memory because I had enjoyed reading them, and they had struck me at the time as interesting models for establishing both a personal and a theoretical relationship to the medium. For instance I remembered an article which Judith Ahern wrote and illustrated, very early on in Photofile’s history, about Sydney’s last commercially practising street photographer. Judith had interviewed Cecil Maurice who had detailed memories of this almost forgotten form of street hawking which uncannily echoed the art practice of street photography, (‘Memoir of a Street Photographer’, Summer 1984). I remembered Anne McDonald’s (now Anne Ooms) Barthesian meditation which teased apart strands of personal memory, colonisation and patriarchy in a photograph taken by her father in New Guinea in the sixties, in which she herself appears in the background as a young girl, (‘Girl Dancer at Rigo Festival’ special South Pacific issue Spring 1988). I remembered Paul Foss’s scrupulously close reading of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Man in a Polyester Suit 1981, which was on display in Australia at the time, (‘Mapplethorpe Aglance’, Spring 1985). And I  remembered several other similar articles such as Roslyn Poignant’s history of a famous photograph by her late husband Axel Poignant—which she methodically tracked from her personal recollection of being there when the photo was taken to seeing it electronically altered on the cover of a conference program decades later, (‘The Swagman’s After Image’, #35). It is clear to me that articles such as these would have never been written if Photofile didn’t exist.

I can readily recall many others Photofile articles because I have had occasion to frequently refer back to them in my teaching. They are still the best reference points for recent Australian photographic history and theory. For instance I still use Adrian Martin’s excellent articles on Bill Henson and then Anne Ferran (‘Bill Henson and the Devil, probably’, Spring 1885, and ‘Immortal Stories’ Summer 1986); Helen Ennis’s feminist revision of the 1970s Australian photography (‘1970s Photographic Practice a Homogenous View?’, Autumn 1986) and others by Geoff Batchen, Helen Grace, Catriona Moore and so on. These important articles may possibly have found homes in other magazines or as forum papers, but many would have undoubtedly simply remained brewing on their author’s mind if not for Photofile.

What all these memorable articles have in common for me is that they were all well written, and all directly engaged with specific photographs and practices, whilst bringing an additional point of reference—personal, theoretical, historical, political—to bear.

With my mnemonic experiment completed I methodically flicked through all forty-nine of the previous issues. I detected an overall historical shape to the magazine. And Photofile definitely had clear high points and low points. When it first appeared in 1983 its mere existence seemed, to some, to be achievement enough. However these ‘tabloid newspaper’ issues do not compare favourably with the sense of excitement generated by other Australian art magazines on the market at that time: for example Art Network, which had already done an excellent special issue on photography before Photofile even began; On The Street, which seemed to be on much more intimate terms with its readership than Photofile ever was; and of course Paul Taylor’s theoretically savvy Art & Text.

Although Australian photography had institutionally matured—with curatorial departments, art school departments and exhibition venues all well and truly in place—it was still relatively impoverished and insular as an autonomous discourse. So there is a sense of overdue, but aimless, stocktaking in these early issues: rambling prolix interviews with curators and ‘made it’ photographers; protracted avuncular sermons on overly generalised topics of art, photography and history; descriptive reviews and news; and quaintly colonial sounding ‘letters’ from interstate and overseas. There is also a residual anxiety over the status of photography as a self-sustaining discipline. This was anachronistic in a cultural climate where photography as a medium had become the main arena in which wider debates about representation, simulation, gender, and power were being energetically played out.

Some of the most entertaining writing in these issues is, ironically, by Max Dupain, who was still writing scourging reviews for the Sydney Morning Herald at the time. In these Photofiles, when most articles seemed to have been written off the top of the head, Dupain’s crazy mixed metaphors and passionate declarations of radical conservatism are in their element. See, for instance, his ‘Photography in Australia, A Personal Progress Report 1978-1984’ from the Tenth Anniversary of the ACP issue, Summer 1984.

For me the high point of the magazine so far has been the issues edited by Geoffrey Batchen in 1985 and 1986. Photofile finally caught up with the boat the earlier issues had missed. Important debates were pursued with vigour and rigour from an enlarged and deepened pool of writers who drew on skills from outside the narrow confines of photography qua photography. The letters pages livened up. The magazine went to A4 and reproduced images on a slightly more generous scale. And the magazine quickly achieved a vividness which belied its rather dour black cover.

During the subsequent three years editors Catherine Chinnery and Robert Nery, and a series of guest editors, maintained the essential A4 format. But by the late eighties the single photograph was no longer automatically the  central player in the ongoing drama of cultural politics. And photography as an art discipline was dispersing in all directions under the impact of technological change. Photography’s role in culture became increasingly difficult to describe without access to the vast discourses of the mass media, history, and psychoanalysis. It became increasingly difficult to think about photography as a contemporary visual art without also thinking about film, video or installation. Photofile gamely grappled with this Hydra while attempting to maintain its brief as the journal of the ACP and its obligations to its primary constituency of photographers. (Whose interest in Photofile, it must be said, increased dramatically whenever their shows were, or weren’t, reviewed in it.)

However during this period Photofile managed to publish a loose group of articles which dealt in various ways, with emerging problems of history and the archive, the photograph and the historical document, and the image and time. A highlight of this period was a double issue on the South Pacific guest edited by Ross Gibson, (Spring 1988). In retrospect these diverse articles which appeared spread over many issues, by writers such as Elizabeth Gertsakis, Paul Carter, Ross Gibson, Graham Forsythe and Sylvia Kleinert defined the flavour of these issues—just as the articles on gender, representation and cultural politics by writers like Paul Foss, Adrian Martin and Helen Grace defined the flavour of the previous issues. They formed a strong thread running through these issues which it is difficult to imagine appearing in any other Australian journal at the time.

During this time also Photofile moved haltingly towards limited colour, became more design conscious, experimented with artists pages, and began to use images as autonomous units rather than addenda to a predominant text. However its continuing anxieties of self-definition spun out of control in a disastrous series of issues edited from Melbourne in 1990 and 1991. What appears to be unprecedented access to sponsorship and design know-how was squandered on gratuitous design follies, an attenuated relationship between text and image, and many arcane, obscure or irrelevant articles with little relationship to contemporary Australian photography.

Fortunately subsequent editors, Martin Thomas, Jo Holder and George Alexander re-grounded the magazine, while retaining its contemporary design feel. Looking back over these last sixteen issues one can clearly see, of course, the emergence of cyberculture as a major preoccupation, but also the continuation of concerns that Photofile has consistently covered right from 1985: the body, history and—as a steadily increasing concern throughout its history—race. There is no longer so much of a sense of grim struggle with all the multiplying issues that photography continually brings up and all the continually sub-dividing media which impact on it. Recent Photofiles have, I think successfully, engaged with selected aspects of what is now a general area of visual and cultural discourse, rather than attempting to survey what is no longer a clearly definable medium.

Meanwhile the landscape around Photofile has changed beyond recognition. The art magazine field has shrunk, and has shifted towards the mainstream. General academic journals are now regularly discussing many issues of visual culture, and books and anthologies are being published in unprecedented numbers. Information about art is as likely now to come from the radio, a Saturday afternoon forum somewhere, or your computer, as it is from a mag (although newspapers remain as irrelevant as ever). Photography has become photomedia. Perhaps it’s time for Photofile to become something else too. (After it produces a complete index of itself.)

Martyn Jolly

January 1997

Artist’s Statement, ‘Nineteen Sixty-Three: News and Information’, Photofile, No. 52.

Nineteen Sixty-Three: News and Information

The project:

This project is a development on my recent photographic installations in which I examined my relationship to Aus­tralia’s past by copying small sections out of reproduced photographs. In Wonderful Pictures, for instance, I pho­tographed the upward curving pages of opened Australiana picture books to capture poignant details in thin slices of focus emerging out of blur. That work was exhibited in whole or in part from 1994 to 1996, and a selection of images was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia.

I see ‘Nineteen Sixty-Three’ as an idiosyncratic visual archaeology of Australia’s recent past. I have worked in the Australian Archives amongst a series of some 100,000 pho­tographs which came from the Australian News and Information Bureau. From this vast visual loam I have taken a ‘core sample’ from the period around 1963.1 have chosen this date because it marks the time when my personal organic memory began to intermingle with my mediatised historical memory.

I have sifted through these several thousand images look­ing for sharp visual shards from the past. I have then used a high resolution scanner to isolate and enlarge the selected details from these photographs, which have been visually enhanced in a computer and outputted by a high resolution ink jet printer. I have concentrated on gesture, unconscious body language, the folds and creases of clothing, the juxtapo­sition of patterns and surfaces, the orientation of objects within architectural space, and so on.

I have produced one hundred images each of 200mm by 250mm. They are printed onto smooth rag paper and mount­ed, trimmed to the edge, onto fibrous blocks of rag board several centimetres thick. They will be installed in a loose grid in order to create subtle visual relationships between the images.


The Australian News and Information Bureau existed, in vari­ous forms, from the Second World War until very recently. It promoted Australia overseas and employed photographers and journalists to document aspects of ordinary Australian life, diplomatic receptions, and examples of Australia’s eco­nomic and cultural development. The photographs taken by Bureau photographers have been sorted, indexed and stored chronologically by the Australian Archives. Of the hundred thousand or so in the entire collection, several thousand cover 1963, the year in which I turned four years old, and the year from which my first personal memories—of kindergarten— come. Of course I can ‘remember’ back to a time before 1963, but before that date I must share in the collective memory of all Australians which is technologically retained in pho­tographs and film. And after that date I am never quite sure where my own ‘organic’ memory of Australia ends and where my ‘prosthetic’ memory, which comes from the endless pho­tographs, films and TV I have seen about the sixties, seventies and eighties, begins.

We are increasingly relying on photographs to give us a sense of our past. At one extreme they are turning up, monu-menially enlarged and etched into marble, on public monuments. At the other extreme the style of old Box Brown­ie snapshots or 8mm home movies is being used to advertise more and more products, from home loans to Vegemite. The humble snapshot is becoming increasingly valued within this collective mnemonic process at the expense of the ‘official’ portrait or view. Snapshots seem to be a more authentic, a more direct route to the heart of the past, with less chance for distortion by the power of public institutions. Ironically it is now public institutions, in the form of muse­ums, corporations and advertising agencies, which are trading on the enduring and mesmerising fascination of the snapshot.

And that is what has prompted my fascination with ‘offi­cial’ photographs. The ones carefully preserved by their thousands in Canberra, stored in row upon row of acid-free boxes, are boring in the extreme. Although they are profes­sionally composed and exposed on large format film, they have none of the immediate compulsion to look possessed by even the blurriest snapshot. They were taken not for love, but at the behest of a government policy to promote an ideological view of Australia which has long since fallen into disrepair. The people in them are slightly embarrassed, they have combed their hair and straightened their ties. They just want the photographer to finish his job and leave. But such is the power of the photograph that despite the awkwardness of the encounter some trace element of their personality and their time can still be distilled from the emulsion. The people pho­tographed by Australian News and Information Bureau photographers were caught not ‘just being themselves’, as in the snapshot, but ‘being themselves vainly attempting to be a national cipher’. They are awkwardly suspended between the two and it is along this seam that I have attempted to mine for small nuggets of the past.

I do not want to correct ‘wrong’ images, rather, I wish to find evidence of bodily materiality within the overt message of the photograph, and to find fibres of memory in the skeins of history. I am driven by a kind of prurient fas­cination with these accidentally preserved, yet enigmatic fragments of time, space and bodily presence. To me these fragments are like stolen glances away from the official object of attention, furtive whisperings at the back of the class room. Or else they are like eccentric cinematic cut-away shots from the main drama of history.

Random notes on my practice:

My technique is a very particular one, I am not creating new images. I am not even modifying or manipulating existing images, or ironically recasting them and re-investing them with new meaning like a post modern appropriationist. My practice is a kind of hyper-curating. I am simply identifying and ‘framing’ fragments that 1 like, or which affect me. The task of the viewer is to join with me in mutual recognition.

The viewer needs to deploy particular skills in looking at the pictures in order to ‘get’ them by recognising what 1 have seen, because there are no obvious signs of beauty, crafted facture or compositional skill. In this sense I feel more allied to the picture editor of a newspaper than to the traditional artist. The picture editor regularly calls on the newspaper’s readers to deploy similar semiotic skills of discernment and pick up on the editorial spin given to news photographs by incidental details.

I have been guided in my hyper-curatorship by the twin pole-stars of scopophilia and prurience. I have tried to culti­vate an almost libidinal desire to penetrate the emulsion and touch the flesh of the past. I feel allied in this libidinal quest, and in it being ultimately doomed to failure, to two movie characters: David Hemmings in Airtonioni’s Blow Up, who penetrated the photograph only to find the ultimate unknowability of chaotic film grain; and Harrison Ford in Blade Runner who was able to use digital enhance­ment to overcome the analogical resolution problems of film grain, but alas still did not find real memories, but artificially simulated ones. Like David Hemmings and Harrison Ford I, too, ultimately encountered the intractable resistance of the photographic surface. I too was left frustrated and unsatiated.

In all of my work I have always needed to avoid the twin demons of nostalgia and kitsch. Both haunt my work and need to be eradicated. 1 have used Photoshop to evacuate the images of any atmosphere. They become grainless ink images on paper—non-pannated and non-auratic. I am not interested in a nostalgic chumminess with the past, or an awe filled dis­tance, I want a respectful familiarity.

The Photoshop cleansing has given them a surgical quali­ty. This allows me to present these images as isolated shards or punctums from tlie past. In most cases I have deliberated decapitated figures to exclude the most mesmerising part of the image, the face and the eyes, this redirects attention to the incidental details. In one sense my work is not dissimilar to the American documentary film maker Ken Burns who, in his TV series The Civil War and The West, diegetically animat­ed photographs by putting them on a moving rostrum under an animation camera an tracking and zooming over them to open them out into mini movies. However my details remain mute and enigmatic—like an archaeological fragment.

1 have also extinguished the native title of the original pho­tographers. I know their names, but I have suppressed their auteurial claims. The normal explanatory caption, which

also anchors meaning, has also been expunged. The images have been winkled out of any exegetic carapace.

There are a few themes which run through the collection. One is the bodies of men. 1 think that the bodies of men are actually central to our visual culture- The business pages of any newspapers are filled with large scale pictures of blokes in suits. In part this show is an archaeology of blokeness. I believe that I have discovered that blokes occupied space dif­ferently in 1963.

Another thread is the traumatised toddler. Toddlerdom is where the individual is inducted into the collective. But in addition the toddler images are where the autobiographical significance of 1963 conies in, it is just possible that one of those toddlers could be me.

There are also images of a certain kind of sensuality and eroticism, which I have tried to find in unlikely places. The past is erotic.

MARTYN JOLLY is an artist and Head of Photomedia Workshop, Canberra School of Art.

All images, details Nineteen Sixty-Three: News and Information, 1997.

Nineteen Sixty-Three: News and Information was produced with the assistance of the Australia Council. A selection of the work was exhibited at the Australian Archives Gallery in Old Parlia­ment House, Canberra, as a part of the Canberra Contemporary Art Space project. Archives ei the Everyday. Nineteen Sixty-Three:

News and Information will be presented at the RMTT Gallery Mel­bourne in March 1998 &attheACP, Sydney August 1998.