Shock Photographs, Monumental Photographs and Haptic Photographs

‘Shock Photographs, Monumental Photographs and Haptic Photographs’, The ANU National Institutes Public Lecture Series, 2003, National Museum of Australia


As I stared more, at images of people in business suits, on picnics, in a taxi, I became frightened. I looked at the people sitting across from me in the subway car for reassurance, but they too began to seem unreal, as if they were also figments of someone’s imagination. It became difficult to choose who or what was ‘real’, and why people could exist but people looking just like them in photographs never did. I became very anxious, nervous, not wanting to depend upon my sight, questioning it. It was as if I were in a waking dream with no escape, feeling dislocated, unable to turn elsewhere, even to close my eyes, because I knew when I opened them there would be nowhere to look and be reassured—Fred Ritchin. 1990.[1]

This attack of ontological paranoia occurred to a New York Times Magazine picture editor called Fred Ritchin in 1990 after seeing his first digitally altered photograph. In his book In Our Own Image: The coming revolution in photography he goes on to worry, after this alarming introduction, that the seamless and undetectable computer manipulation of the photograph would erode a viewer’s faith in the inherent veracity of photography, and compromise the bond of trust photojournalists had historically built up with their audience.

Of course Ritchin’s apocalyptic vision of thirteen years ago now seems silly and hubristic. The digitisation of photojournalism hasn’t led to the deliquescence of reality itself. In fact, rather than dissolving as a distinct medium into generalised streams of digital data, as was commonly predicted a decade ago, photography now seems as distinct a medium as ever. And, I intend to argue, at least in some of its forms the photograph as an object now seems more solid, more substantial than it has been for over a hundred years.

Certainly, within the mass media at least, photography has left its media specificity long behind. We now learn about the world from live satellite video-feeds, rather than wired press photos. Even in our newspapers, most of our most exciting newsworthy images are frame grabs from video, rather than shots taken as stills. All photojournalism is now  nothing more than a temporary freeze-frame, a blip in the continuous flow of mutable data. But, on the other hand, rather than this leading to a loss of faith in photography as a whole, which Ritchin predicted, there seems to have been an increased faith in some photographs, and as well an increase in their specific gravity and artefactual density.

Many of photography’s great theorists, such as Walter Benjamin, held a special regard for the photographs from the first few years of it invention. The long exposure times of the early photographs of the 1840s, combined with the still relative rarity and specialness of the act itself gave them, for Benjamin writing in 1931 at the beginning of the age of the photographic duplication and dissemination, a special solidity which the later invention of the mass-reproduced snapshot destroyed. In his A Small History of Photography Benjamin wrote:

The first people to be reproduced entered the visual space of photography with their innocence intact … photography had not yet become a journalistic tool … The human countenance had a silence about it in which the gaze rested. In short, the portraiture of this period owes its effect to the absence of contact between actuality and photography. … The procedure itself caused the subject to focus his life in the moment rather than hurrying on past it; during the considerable period of the exposure, the subject as it were grew into the picture, with the sharpest contrast to appearances in the snapshot. … Everything about these early pictures was built to last.[2]

My argument in this talk will be that, with our current journalistic tools now no longer being still cameras as much as live video-crosses, and with actuality hurrying on past us now in the form of a tide of digital media rather than a avalanche of snapshots, some photographs are re-aspiring to the solidity and the density that Benjamin imagined he saw in the medium’s incunabula, it originary prelapsarian objects.

I’m going to do a skimming survey of the current state, not of photography as a medium, but of photographs as distinct things. I’m going to make large and abrupt leaps from one small group of photographs to another, to try to identify and explain why some of those photographs have a higher specific gravity than was formally the norm.


Lets start with the digital mass media. The biggest media event this year has of course been the Second Gulf War, the US invasion of Iraq. The coverage bore all the usual hallmarks of postmodern, hyperreal media coverage: it was scheduled into network programming with a precise beginning and end that bore little relationship to the actual status of military operations on the ground; the coverage was treated as a special form of entertainment programming with its own titles, logos and correspondent/stars; journalists weren’t figured as reporters independently covering the action, but returned to the status they had in the first and second world wars of being an integral part of the army structure and therefore also of the army’s logic of military success and public morale; and images were used, as they had been in the first gulf war, ballistically, transmitted into each belligerent’s media space to inflict maximum propaganda and morale damage; and so on.

From where I was sitting there seemed to be a split in the coverage: the moving image TV coverage tended, in terms of its formal characteristics, towards the rawness of unmediated surveillance-camera footage, while still relying on an authoritative exegesis from the well established figure of the grisled war-correspondent. The still photographs in the broadsheet press and the news magazines went in the opposite direction. They were perfectly exposed, perfectly composed, and shot in the same carefully colour-graded palette of many recent war movies. They were generic objects: not grabbed action snapshots so much as finely crafted photo-art objects that quoted the glorious history of twentieth century combat photography — a history seemingly accessed not directly, but through the Hollywood war-movie translation of that body of imagery. There was something about their skillfullness and visual completeness that reminded me of updated academic history painting. These images looked made for the white mat and wooden frame of the gallery wall rather than the newspaper page. They were displayed on the front pages of our bellicose papers not as reportage, or even as spectacles of the new, but as easily recognisable, familiar looking trophies, affective images of our commitment to the coalition of the willing.

Only in a few instances did images break through this generic blanket. When a BBC video cameraman became collateral damage, the footage his camera continued to capture as he lay wounded was broadcast, and still frames were extracted from it and frequently reproduced — particularly one showing a drop of blood on the camera filter. But this seeming irruption of the viscera of reality into the world of the image was, for me, disappointing. It too, seemed generic. The cameras of other cameramen, for instance the Australian Neil Davies, had also kept on automatically filming as they died. The drop of blood seemed too arch after the Blair Witch Project, too much like the ultimate special effect.

Roland Barthes, in his famous article, Shock Photographs, complained that in too many photographs designed to shock the photographer made the mistake of substituting his own feelings into the image, reacting on the viewer’s behalf and thereby divesting the viewer of everything but the “simple right of intellectual acquiescence.” [3]   Now it might be ungrateful of me, but I feel the same about the poor BBC photographer’s sacrifice: ‘no thanks, ho hum, seen it all before.’ His blood on the camera lens immediately and inevitably became semiotic, quotational.

But one photograph did shock me during this period. It wasn’t taken in the official or ‘formal’ war itself (to use the felicitous Whitehouse phrase), but in the informal media warm-up, the ‘Countdown to War’. I opened my paper to find a double page spread. On the left-hand page were the usual generic, perfectly composed photographs I have already described: crazy arabs shouting slogans, and pious Americans getting a quick pre-battle baptism. But on the right-hand page was the image of an Israeli bulldozer which had just run over and killed a young protester as it was going about its business of demolishing Palestinian houses in a refugee camp. Here, to once again quote Barthes from Shock Photographs, was a photograph in which “the fact, surprised, explodes in all its stubbornness, its literality, the very obviousness of its obtuse nature.” This is an image which, again to quote Barthes, seemed “alien, almost calm, inferior to [its] legend.” [4]

The photograph is uncomposed, the bulldozer sits obdurately at the centre of the frame, its blade a dull blank face. But why I think this photograph is for me a shock photograph is because of the surface of the image — there is something like snow or rain across the face of the photograph. It can’t be snow, and it’s highly unlikely to be rain either since the picture taken moments before, also by an unnamed photographer, is in bright sunlight. It’s some kind of visual noise. Is this an old-fashioned film-based photograph, perhaps shot on a cheap disposable camera, which has been scanned for the picture agency which distributed it, Associated Press? Or is this an image snapped on an amateur digital camera at too low a resolution, or a video frame grab, or a jpeg thumbnail pulled down off the web and interpolated, unsharp-masked and anti-aliased up to size but beyond the capacity of the original file? Whatever it is, its surface indeterminacy paradoxically means that for me it is more than just a mere image, it is a document — an object or artefact from a singular point in space and time, with a physical weight or visual heft all its own, a picture with its origins outside the digital data-flows of the media.


I’m going to use my fascination with the surface of this image, which is indeterminate, but nonetheless physical and palpable and dense, to make a huge leap in my survey of the current state of the photograph to the narrow, small little world of art photography. The world I live in.  And one can’t help noticing that within art photography there has been a return to surface, and more specifically to emulsion. For instance the National Gallery of Victoria held an exhibition earlier this year called First Impressions, which featured the work of twelve Australian artists who work in the medium of the photogram. One of the stars of that show was Anne Ferran. You all know her work. She completed a residency here at the Museum last year and she began working with the photogram as a medium in 1995 during a collaboration with the ANU School of art’s Anne Brennan at the Hyde Park Barracks.

Although I am going to be using the current photogram craze in Australia to illustrate qualities I think are present in some other photographs, in fact the photogram is a very different thing to the photograph. The photogram is not like an ordinary photo, it doesn’t consist of the snapping of an anterior scene, its technical assemblage is not one of a shutter-blade vertically slicing through a cone of light projected by a lens, and thereby excising an instant from time and space. It is rather a residue of an event — the optical and chemical event of an object touching photo-paper. The photogram has a different relationship to time and history than the photograph, it doesn’t grant the present information, knowledge, detail or anecdote about the past; rather it is a generalised presence of the past still physically present within the now. Crucially, the photogram isn’t a record of a separate object as a photograph is, it doesn’t even look much like the object that produced it, rather it is a record of a tactile event, and the event of object and shadow meeting on a sensitive surface persists in its record. The photogram is a physical performance which is perpetually taking place in the image.

Other photogram artists represented in the NGV show were Ruth Maddison, who was represented with her photogram self-portrait, and Simone Douglas, where again we get the sense that we are seeing an ongoing performance of light and chemistry rather than a record of someone’s physiognomy as it looked at a particular time.

In the catalogue to the show the curator of the exhibition Isobel Crombie, quotes Helen Ennis, from the School of Art’s  Theory Workshop, from a forward for a special issue of Photofile called ‘Traces’, which she edited on a similar theme. Isobel Crombie writes:

One notable feature of contemporary photograms is the fluid concept of time they embody. A dynamic understanding of what is past and what is present in these works questions our Western notions of linear time. Indeed what we find in Photograms is that the past has often become congruent with the present. As the photography writer Helen Ennis has noted recently: ‘No longer constructed in terms of a rupture between past and present or even fade-outs between the two, time is reconfigured as a continuum. And so, it becomes conceivable that objects, events and experiences from the past have a ‘living presence’.[5]

Contemporary Indigenous Photography

Something of the qualities of ‘living presence’, ‘tactility’, and ‘performance’ which attracts artists to the photogram, also attracts other artists to ‘perform’ images across or within a photographic surface — not a photographic surface conceived of as a slice of an optical pyramid excised from time and dislocated from space, but as a stretched membrane, a semi-conducting diaphragm.

Again, this shift allows the artist to figure time, history and memory very differently. Many contemporary indigenous artists have take part in this shift. Much recent indigenous photography has attempted to call the past forward to bear witness to the present. For instance Leah King-Smith, in an immensely popular exhibition Patterns of Connection from 1992 ‘performs’ two images together onto a single gelatinous surface: archival images of her ancestors which she has liberated from their imprisonment in the State Library of Victoria, and landscapes of her own land. This is an attempt to magically conjure the still living presence of her ancestors into the now. They fantasise that the Library portraits are not just historical images—dead, gone and in the past—but ghosts, still revenant and with agency in the present. As Clare Williamson has described it:

The figures are brought right to the picture plane, seemingly extending beyond the frame and checking our gaze with theirs.[6]

This is obviously a crucial move to make within the context of recent debates in Australia over reconciliation, the debate which raged in the mid 1990s between bleeding-heart black-armband history and bottom-line white-blindfold history about our responsibility to the past. As the indigenous curator Brenda Croft has written:

The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest. [7]

Brook Andrew invests the bodies of his nineteenth century subjects—who he releases from the closet of the past by copying their images from the archive of the nineteenth century postcard photographer Charles Kerry—not only with a libidinous body image re-inscribed within the terms of a contemporary ‘queer’ masculinity, but also with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as Sexy and Dangerous, 1996, I Split Your Gaze, 1997 and Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr, [I see you], 1998. These works attempt to reverse the relationship of subject and object in the nineteenth century colonial portrait around the axis of the trajectory of the gaze, and to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from history itself. The image is turned into a reflective surface which bounces the historical objectifying gaze straight back to the present moment to be immediately re-inscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse.

Darren Siwes has more recently brought this idea of haunting to the fore in his performance photographs. Again, these images aren’t snapshots, but extended exposures where the photographer has exited the scene halfway during the exposure to perform himself as a spectral masculine presence laminated into contemporary Australia.

Monumental Photographs

Something about the way Siwes is standing to truculently surveille a contemporary Australia that seems too self absorbed to recognise him reminds me of all the Anzac memorial statues that similarly haunt Australia with their almost forgotten presence. And this allows me to make another leap to a set of photographs which have also been turned, literally, to stone.

To most theorists of photography the photograph could never be monumental. It was constructed out of time itself, and so can never transcend time. For instance in 1982 Barthes wrote:

Not only does [the photograph] commonly have the fate of paper (perishable), but even if it is attached to more lasting supports, it is still mortal: like a living organism, it is born on the level of the sprouting silver grains, it flourishes a moment then ages … attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes; there is nothing left to do but throw it away. Earlier societies managed so that memory, the substitute for life, was eternal and that at least the thing which spoke death should be immortal: this was the monument. But by making the (mortal) Photograph into the general and somehow natural witness of ‘what has been’, modern society has renounced the monument. A paradox; the same century invented History and Photography. But history is a memory fabricated according to positive formulas, a pure intellectual discourse which abolishes mythic Time; and the photograph is a certain but fugitive testimony; so that everything, today, prepares our race for this impotence: to be no longer able to conceive duration, affectively or symbolically.[8]

But photographs are being eternalised today, to stand as affective, public monuments to duration. Photographs have long stood on mantelpieces in improvised household shrines to remembered dead and acknowledged ancestors, but now historic photographs also have the unprecedented privilege of being the centrepieces of virtually every official commemoration. In these public ceremonies official photographs are performing the same role for the nation, city or town, as the faded snapshot or sepia studio portrait does for the family.

For most of this century the photograph, as a form of media reportage, has traded on the fact that it was able to pluck a fleeting instant out of the rush of time. But in the case of the Kodachrome slide taken by the Australian army PR photographer Sergeant Mike Coleridge of B Company RAR, which was cropped, enlarged to cinematic size, and etched into granite for the Vietnam War Memorial, the evanescent instant captured by the army public relations photographer has been literally turned to eternal stone. Within this commemorative context the shutter blade’s slice of time acquires not only an architectonic presence, but becomes the locus for the same contemplative temporal dilation as a roll call of the dead, or a minute’s silence.

Monumental photographs perform the bodies of their viewers. They either tower over them and physically interpellate them in their nationalist ideological subjectivity, or they compel them to proceed past, or through them, in a spatialised memory/history experience.

Monumental photographs are hybrid objects, between the obduracy of the mute architectural obelisk, and the evanescence of the virtual photographic image. Transformations of scale and material are important to contemporary monumental photographs. They are transmuted into a historically eternalised set of elemental minerals: stone, glass and metal. This takes the organic, perishable, gelatinous emulsive flesh of the photograph and smelts it into the marmoreal, the vitreous, and the metallurgical. Both private memory and public history are equally grist to these civic memory mills—private snapshots are recuperated as avidly as archival record photographs. For instance joining the Vietnam memorial along Anzac Parade are private snapshots which are slumped into glass sheets in the nurses memorial, and a cinematic montage, a cavalcade of archival images full of wipes and dissolves, which is transmuted into a frieze in Robert Boynes’ Air Force memorial.

Haptic Photographs

From the beginning photographs have been used as public talismans of private memory. In the nineteenth century post mortem daguerreotypes were sometimes re-photographed, being cradled by grieving relatives. But lately this private performance has become a public one. Perhaps the aetiology of this public performance of the photograph as a talismanic witness to absence goes back to the Argentinean Grandmothers of May Square, who from 1976 stood in silent vigil with photographs of the Disappeared. In Australia I first noticed the practice with members of the Stolen Generations in the mid 1990s. But over the last couple of years what was initially an occasional semi-private ritual performed in the photographer’s studio, and then a brave public declaration, has become a bit of media stunt, performed at the behest of newspaper and magazine photographers again and again by anybody with a loss to declare. They are now routine public statements, ritualised declarations of loss or trauma. They are mute testimonies, where the intractable visual evidence of the photograph voices the silence of the witness.

Sometimes, as in the case of Australian Aborigines from the Stolen Generation, it is archival, government photographs which are held, re-personalising the public record and performing a grim parody of the anthropological photograph. Sometimes it is already published journalistic images which are cradled, connecting individual and public memory, direct and mediated experience.

The effectiveness of these media images depends on two gestures, two aspects of the way the private photograph is literally ‘performed’ in the public: the quality of touch between the sitter and the photograph they hold; and the expression on their face. Is the photograph cradled, clutched, formally perched alongside, or primly pinched between thumb and forefinger? Is it defiantly held out to the camera, or half hidden beneath encircling arms? Or does the sitter look wistful, lost in internal reverie, or defiant? Despite the clichéd reiteration of these types of images in our press the combination of gesture and expression still frequently produces an effective and moving image, which connects with our anxieties about the instability of contemporary memory and history. The indexical verity of the photographic image which they hold anchors the sitter in history and legitimates their memories. The photographic surface of the haptic photograph becomes a membrane which seals together two images from two times, the past and the present.

Touch, thingness and performance

I’m not the first person to identify the themes in photography that I have been trying to draw out here. A few years ago the photographic theorist Geoffrey Batchen gave a lecture in the Art School’s Art Forum program on vernacular photography, in which he identified the quality of touch as a key aspect of the popular relationship to photography which had been excluded, up until then, from its formal history. And a few months ago the visual anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards gave a talk at the National Library of Australia in which she identified the ‘thingness’ of photographs, their quality as objects and the marks of their use which they bear, as crucial to our full understanding of their meaning and power. As I hope by now is clear, ‘touch’ and ‘thingness’ are crucial to the increase in the specific gravity of some photographs which I have tried to describe here. But I think a third aspect is still waiting for full attention, and that is performance. As can be seen time and time again in the haptic photograph, photographs are also performed into meaning.

Touch and thingness belong firmly to the paradigm of the analogical photograph — a paper print chemically produced from an instantaneous snapshot. Those concepts do not easily map across to the digital paradigm, where, inherently, there is no ‘thing’ to touch. Yet clearly digital photographs will and do perform some of the same ritual functions as analogical photographs. Unlike touch and thingness, I think the concept of performance does map across to the digital. Think of the way you perform images in your computer, the family images you turn into your desktop background, and the downloaded net-porn you nest several folders down in an obscure corner of your hard disk. The net is full of e-mailed jpegs destined to be glanced at and either saved or deleted. The web is full of on-line albums and photo memorials. Notable on-line memorials include the archive of images of those killed on the Cambodian killing fields, and the Argentinean Wall of Memory commemorating the disappeared in Argentina.

A more hokey example of the on-line memorial was sponsored by Kodak and AOL to commemorate September the 11th. Called the Tribute to American Spirit Photoquilt, this corporate exercise deliberately drew on a previously sanctified form of American folk memory — the quilt — to produce, within the user’s computer, the effect of a monumental surface which seemed to stretch epically beyond the edges of the computer screen. The viewer could track across and zoom into this mosaic-like surface, or enter search-terms into a data-base. All the shibboleths of the corporately defined web are therefore combined: screen-space and data-space are conflated, and an on-line community consensus — in this case of grief and shock — seems to be instantaneously produced and confirmed.


I began this talk with two literary images. The first was the fantasised threat, thirteen years ago, of the end of the world as we know it brought about by the end of photography as we knew it. The second was Benjamin’s feeling of 1931 that there was an ontological split between the prelapsarian photo-documents of the 1840s and the mechanically reproducing images of the 1930s. I want to end with a third image drawn from the greatest book ever written about photography, Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes. Written whilst he was in the grim grip of grief for his mother the book is driven by Barthes’ obsession with a small group of dog-eared snapshots from his family’s past. In re-experiencing his mother’s death through these photographs Barthes tries to consolidate the intractable truth of his grief around his own few hidden photographs, and to jealously shelter these photographs, as precious, private artefacts, from the rest of photography and the media, what he calls the brash world of images.

I experience the photograph and the world in which it participates according to two regions: on the one side the Images, on the other my photographs; on the one side unconcern, shifting, noise, the inessential (even if I am abusively deafened by it), on the other the burning, the wounded.[9]

It seems to me that now, after unexpectedly surviving its own death, photography is automatically splitting along similar lines to those drawn by Benjamin and Barthes. Some photographs are now no longer about shutter blades irrevocably slicing up cones of light into decisive slivers of time and space, they are about image surfaces, dispersed fields of reflection or transmission, stretched membranes barely separating two worlds. These scarified skins allow us to transfer touch across time and space. Some photographs are no longer documentary images of elsewhere, but voodoo objects which co-occupy our lives with us. They are arenas in which, and talismans with which, we perform daily rituals, testimony and witness to memory and loss.

Martyn Jolly

August 2003

[1]  F. Ritchin, In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography, New York, Aperture Foundation, 1990.

[2] W. Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’, One Way Street and Other Writings, London, NLB, 1931, pp 244-245.

[3] Roland Barthes, ‘Shock Photographs’, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, Hill and Wang, 1979, p71.

[4] P73.

[5] Isobel Crombie, First Impressions: Contemporary Australian Phootgrams, National Gallery of Victoria, 2003.

[6]  Clare Williamson, ‘Leah King-Smith: Patterns of Connection’, Colonial Post Colonial, Melbourne, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, 1996, p46.

[7]  Brenda L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, Portraits of Oceania, Judy Annear, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997, p9 &  14.

[8] R. Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1982, p93.

[9] p98.

Review of ‘At Home in Australia’ and ‘In a New Light’

Review of ‘At Home in Australia’, National Gallery of Australia publication by Peter Conrad, and ‘In a New Light’, National Library of Australia exhibition, Art Monthly Australia, December, 2003, pp 5  — 10

At Home in Australia, written by Peter Conrad, Canberra and London, National Gallery of Australia and Thames & Hudson, 2003

In a New Light: Australian Photography 1850s – 1930s, curated by Helen Ennis, National Library of Australia, until January 16, 2004.

Gael Newton has conducted perhaps the boldest and most extraordinary experiment in Australian photography for a long time. Rather than writing her own sober and authoritative account of the Australian photographs in her collection at the National Gallery of Australia, or mounting a blockbuster exhibition showcasing their diverse styles and qualities, she instead invited confirmed expatriate Peter Conrad to make a two week excursion to Australia to look at all the photographs and write a 256 page 70,000 word book about Australia through them.

Conrad is the youngest and last in the line of Australia’s celebrity expatriate writers — Clive James, Peter Porter, Germaine Greer, et al — who have made it in the UK, but have still retained a fraught relationship with the country of their origin, making re-appearances from time to time, as if to deal with unfinished business, and then disappearing again.

Conrad’s text begins with the primal origin du monde which has been the elusive font for so many recent accounts of photography: the box of snapshots his parents kept on the family mantelpiece. Conrad left that maternal hearth, and Australia, for good in 1968, escaping conscription on a Rhodes Scholarship. He left home for what he regarded as a return to his cultural centre in England in an adolescent high dudgeon at the banality, boredom and brutalisation Australia had subjected him to. And when his parents eventually died, their box of photographs was one of the few objects which he transferred to his own mantelpiece in England. But, inevitably, these few images, which went back only one or two generations, weren’t up to the task of reconciling the doubly-deracinated Conrad to his natal home. He therefore adopts the National Gallery collection as a surrogate family album, and declares an intention to write about them as if the were our collective family album since, after all, “remembering, which involves making mental photographs, is a collusive, contagious activity, because our memory is interchangable.” And indeed Conrad has been fearless in weaving much of himself and a lot of his own memories through the photographs. The reader is encouraged to empathise with Conrad’s homesickness and dislocation through the mnemonic vignettes he extrapolates out of the photographs. And he has such a facility with the language that this is not hard to do, even when the occasional spleen he vents on those who were obviously his main childhood tormenters — young ocker men and their girlfriends — has tipped his writing over into petulant displays of colonialist disdain. For instance he describes Peter Elliston’s, admittedly complacent and smug, sunbathing Couple on Platform at Giles Baths, Coogee, as ‘cave dwellers’ who have ‘not yet learnt to walk upright’, at home amongst a sprawl of non-biodegradable filth and pollution

Conrad built his reputation on expansive, encyclopaedic books such as his account of the twentieth century, Modern Times, Modern Places, which like many other popular history books at the moment paints a larger picture through piling up telling anecdote upon telling anecdote, significant detail upon significant detail. And in looking at the photographs in the National Gallery’s collection it is the details in the images, the unnoticed ‘punctums’ from which he can spin a felicitous turn of phrase or an intriguing speculation, that he homes in on again and again. His eye for the detail is acute. So acute that often the incidental details his hungry eye had grasped as he was going through the original prints barely survive their reproduction at much smaller scale in the book. For instance most people wouldn’t have even noticed the front wheel and fender of a car reflected in the window of one of the run-down buildings which the fashion photographer Henry Talbot had used to recreate colonial Australia for a Wool Board Fashion shoot.  But Conrad did, and in his fantasy the 1970s fashion models will leap into this reflection and use it to propel themselves back to the future. 

The hundreds of details such as this from which Conrad likes to launch his writing are primarily literary ones, visual puns and rhymes, disjunctions of scale, and eccentricities of pose. Hence photographers who hitherto have been relatively minor members of the canon, like Eric Thake who loved discovering linguistic tropes in the real world, figure prominently in Conrad’s book, whereas well and truly canonised Australian art photographers, such as Bill Henson and Carol Jerrems, with their self-enclosed theatres of private desire, don’t appear at all.

There is no doubt that Conrad is a virtuoso writer, his technique in this book is to riff off each photograph he has selected — the two hundred that are reproduced and as many more that are not reproduced — and to run these riffs together into improvised passages that move roughly chronologically through several different nation-defining themes, such as ‘Tree People’, ‘National Characters’ and ‘Remaking the Map’. Occasionally, experiencing the dexterity with which he works these riffs together is exhilarating and refreshing, particularly towards the beginning of each theme. For instance the 1970s Henry Talbot Wool Board fashion image occurs in the middle of a progression of extrapolations on Australian’s attitude towards ‘display’, which Conrad had introduced with what had previously been a thoroughly inconsequential Pictorialist image from 1928 of a white egret preening itself, for which the photographer had chosen the anthropomorphic title Mannequin.

But the longer he continues his verbal glissades, the more the connections between the images tend to become attenuated and the prose indulgent. Conrad’s reputation is as a polymath, his books and his haute journalism cover an enormous amount of territory with ease. Inevitably a certain necessary glibness goes with the job for all polymaths. Nonetheless, there are many extraordinarily glib statements in this book that quickly begin to rankle with the Australian reader. For instance, spinning out from a 1973 Eric Thake photograph of a poster advertising the Guru Maharaj-ji peeling off a building site hoarding he says, “new countries are touchingly innocent, and vulnerable to such confidence trickters”. Oh yeah, and old countries aren’t? Trying telling that to the high-placed Brits like Fergie and Cherie Blair who got involved with our own home-grown slimming-tea conman Peter Foster.  Further on he talks of the “happy-go-lucky recruits who volunteered to be slaughtered at Gallipoli”. Well being slaughtered at Gallipoli wasn’t exactly in the job description when the Australians responded to recruitment campaigns to join the AIF and defend the empire. In reading the book the cumulative effect of these throw-away lines — the feeling that one is being patronised — is mitigated somewhat by the fascinating historical tit-bits Conrad has also salted into his text, often supplied by the research of Gael Newton. For instance he mentions what must have been a fascinating exchange of letters, larded with classical allusions, between Norman Lindsay and the young Max Dupain in 1935. I’d also like to know more about the contribution Axel Poignant’s photographs of Arnhem Land Aboriginal ceremonies made to the London choreography of The Rite of Spring in 1962. But there are no references for these facts, and not even a bibliography for the work of other writers who Conrad has quoted. For a major publication by a major institution this is bordering on insulting, and doesn’t dispose the reader kindly to the tone of Conrad’s text as it continues its nimble pirouetting from photograph to photograph across the pages.

If At Home in Australia is the nation’s family album then the story Conrad wants it to tell is that of a settler nation, attempting and failing, attempting and failing again, and finally attempting and succeeding, to make a home for itself in an alien land. And it is essentially the limitations of that story which leads to the book’s central problem. Conrad’s colonialist narrative seems to have been developmentally arrested in the 1960s, when he left Australia. He completed his growing-up in England, and the historical frameworks and preconceptions about Australia he has brought back with him seem to still belong to the conflicted adolescent rather than the mature man. His main protagonists are settlers and the land, battling it out in a kind of Old Testament agony to engender the nation. But throughout his narrative the settlers largely remain cast as pioneers, and the land remains distant and obstinate. Certainly, a lot of attention is paid to Aboriginal perceptions of the land, but they are used as the mystical counterpoint to this struggle. Speaking of the nature shown in the 1958 Hal Missingham photograph Child’s grave, Broome, WA, Conrad says in another one of his perhaps too glib lines: “White Australians die into it, whereas Aboriginal people are born from it.” Notions like this might be serviceable when used with the nineteenth century and early twentieth century photographs in the book, which are what Conrad is best at working from, but they can’t carry him into the present. What about urban Aborigines, or those from the stolen generation, or the spiritual belonging white Australians now instinctively feel for their land?

The writers he likes quoting the most are people like Patrick White. Recent writers who we might have thought had taken us well beyond such dichotomies —Paul Carter, Ken Inglis, Greg Denning, Inga Glendinnen, Peter Read and so on — aren’t mentioned at all. Even old faithfuls like David Malouf, who launched the book, are used surprisingly sparingly, and his 1998 Boyer lectures about the Australian character, A Spirit of Play, are mentioned only in order to re-use the title. Of course Conrad liberally uses plenty of other contemporary references, but they are often events like the opening ceremony from the 2000 Olympics or the film Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which attract Conrad precisely because they recast Australia’s familiar colonialist imagery

When it comes to describing contemporary Australia, Conrad is less assured, hesitating to describe anything more than the potentiality for the country to finally become reconciled to its geography, its history and its land. In attempting to update the Australian colonial characteristics which he has previously described with such facility, he is reduced to identifying things like our hedonism as being somehow our replacement twenty-first century national characteristic. He asks: “Is Australia, which began as Britain’s cloaca, now the pudenda of the envious earth?” Surely Australia has come further in a century and a half of photography than a short swing on a perineal pendulum down under?

To illustrate Australia’s supposed national hedonism he had described, but hadn’t illustrated, some William Yang photographs of Sydney parties and the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. But if he had gone further into Yang’s work, for instance into the images from some of his famous slide performances, he would have discovered an important south/north trajectory, from Sydney, through the Queensland cane fields, to China, which counteracts the east/west trajectory of the settler explorers.

To be fair to Conrad his text was necessarily constrained by the images in the National Gallery collection. Numbering eight thousand or so, the photographs in the collection he has adopted as a surrogate ‘family album’ have all been carefully and self-consciously scrutinised and vetted before acquisition. The collection dates from the 1970s, when it began with James Mollison purchasing large quantities of the newly hot medium of art photography with sponsorship from the tobacco company Phillip Morris. Since then a succession of art-museum curators have diligently purchased a good representation of work from the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, but have purchased contemporary work from the eighties, nineties and now more sparingly and erratically. These strengths and weaknesses undoubtedly had their effect on each of the book’s thematic chapters, which become less assured the closer they get to the present moment in our nation.

The National Library of Australia’s collection, on the other hand, numbers over 600,000 photographs, and is still growing apace. They have been collected in a much more wholesale manner for over fifty years, not for arts sake, but to illustrate the life and development of the country. The experienced curator Helen Ennis has selected the first of two major exhibitions from this democratic depository. Ironically it is the Library exhibition, called In a New Light: Australian Photography 1850s – 1930s, with its teeming and complex display of photographs of different sizes and techniques as well as albums, panoramas and stereographs, which foregrounds the auratic material qualities of the images themselves; while the Gallery project has not exhibited the original images at all, but has instead conscripted them to be homogenously embedded in a fast flowing text.

Like Conrad’s book, this is also an exhibition to pore over, straining to reach into the images, to find and grasp the elusive detail. Conrad searched for recognition, empathy, familiarity, and personal reconciliation in the photographs he chose. The National Library exhibition, however,  is not so demanding of its photographs. It lets them be obdurate, obstinate, and disruptive. Ennis has thought of the photographs as nodes of residual historical energy, working both backward and forwards in time. This approach suits a collection that is already so vast that it is a humanly unknowable terrain. It is only when cutated from a collection this big that an exhibition can let a viewer stumble upon a small image that almost takes the breath away in its otherworldy strangeness. For instance a tiny snap taken by James P Campbell at Gallipoli of three diggers looking like the trapped citizens of Pompeii as they sheltered from bursting shells, lies waiting to surprise the viewer like a piece of twisted shrapnel.

Other photographs are also included to deliberately confound the present and the past. Several medical photographs taken by Dr Gabriel at the Gundagai Hospital in the early 1900s are included in the exhibition. The Library had previously published Gabriel’s Gundagai photographs in a handsome volume of 1976. But that book, it now turns out, was a sanitised reflection of the original collection of glass plates. Because it saw itself as a social history of the townspeople, and an account of Dr Gabriel as an auteurial photographer, it hadn’t included many of the photographs he had taken purely for medical reasons. But now in this exhibition we see an aboriginal child with distended belly held up like a puppet for the camera by a starched nurse. We are affronted by the jagged angularity of the ratcheted bed-frame the child is propped on, and the pincer grip of the nurse. But this was originally a thoroughly benign photograph taken, presumably, for the best of reasons of an Aboriginal child receiving the very latest in scientific medical care. Why does it now disturb us so shockingly? Other photographs of Aborigines in the exhibition, say the formal heads of the ‘last’ Tasmanian Aborigines, Truganini and William Lanney, were far crueller at the time because they sarcastically produced their subjects as celebrities in order to be a public valedictory for the dying race. Yet now these images have shrugged off the photographer’s original sarcasm to preserve an enduring nobility. What had happened before, and what has happened since, to invert the values in these photographs?

Ennis’s approach to photographs is an affective one. Rather than forensically plumbing a photograph for clues, she lets its totality as an object work an affect on her, which she then attempts to know. Sometimes this technique makes the text in the exhibition seem over-determined, but it does work when it leads to the assemblage of clusters of images: aboriginal portraits and pioneer portraits, war reconnaissance photographs and soldier’s scrapbooks, for instance, which work off each other in a mute counterpoint.

At a photography forum a few months back a lad got up and told us all in an slightly aggrieved tone that even after doing a course in photography he still didn’t know very much about the development of Australian photography, why hadn’t anybody ever written a history of Australian photography? A panel member helpfully explained that in fact there had been several attempts, one published in 1955 by Jack Cato, and two still serviceable histories published in 1988 by Gael Newton and Anne Marie Willis, which should be in any college library. But, I silently calculated to myself, these books were last available in the shops fifteen years ago, when this enthusiastic young photographer was still probably a toddler.

Since then our major collecting institutions have produced several exhibitions and catalogues cutting a broad historical slice through some aspect or other of Australian photography. For instance, last year the National Gallery of Victoria published a survey of their collection of Australian photography, called 2nd Sight. Those institutions have also managed to squeeze out a trickle of monographs on contemporary and historical Australian photographers. But there has been nothing like the slew of heroic histories that continue to come out of the United States, and nothing giving readers a sense of the full historical scope or national sweep of Australia’s photography collections. But at the same time, never has the scholarship of photography been more lively, albeit dispersed across many disciplines. People right across the country, in cultural studies, anthropology, English, and history, as well as the fine arts, are working in a variety of archives — big and small, public and private — and are amazed by what they are turning up. Some Australian scholars are also writing with élan and vigour on the biggies of photo-history globally — Catherine Rogers on Fox Talbot and Catherine de Lorenzo on Nadar for instance.  Last year the Edinburgh-based editor of the dour academic journal History of Photography asked me why he kept getting so many manuscripts from Australians. Where else can they send them? I answered.

We need some histories of Australian photography to update the existing ones. But it is now clear that they can’t be a procession of the names of photographic auteurs and their styles, and they can’t be a social or political history simply told with the aid of photographs. Our photographic heritage is not simply the work of those who self-consciously defined themselves as photographers, and it is not simply those photographs that belong to recognisable styles, nor is it simply those images that happen to verify other historical narratives. Our photographic heritage has its own ontology, it is deposited in archives big and small across the nation: collecting institutions like the State and National Libraries and Galleries, middens of specialist photographs tucked away in filing cabinets everywhere, the negative-files of individual photographers and, yes, also all those shoe-boxes on mantelpieces. We are well used to the idea of ‘accessing’ these archives, delving into them to find the images we want for whatever our purpose is. Now we now also need to find ways of writing these archives, writing them in their own obduracy and specificity. Both the National Library and the National Gallery have made bold moves in this direction.

Martyn Jolly

 Martyn Jolly is a photographer and a writer about photography. He is head of Photomedia at the ANU School of Art.