The Face of Australia

The Face of Australia’, lecture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, with accompanying exhibition floor talk, January 16, 2008.


August Sander wanted to produce an atlas of the German people based on social typologies. The ability to interpret facial physiognomy was crucial to his project, and his landmark book of 1929 Face of the Time explicitly linked the human face to national and historical destiny. Can similar ideas be detected within Australian photography? Although nobody embarked on a project as extensively or methodically as Sander, an incipient desire to photograph ‘the face of Australia’ can be detected in the work of many of our most famous photographers. (We can all readily conjure such a face in our mind’s eye — the weathered skin, the stubbly chin, the tousled hair, the craggy profile, the thousand-mile stare.)

Although such an idea has recently been made even more fraught by debates around multiculturalism, the idea is still implicit in our popular culture. For instance would this famous photograph of a Cronulla rioter be as effective semiotically if the head and face of the boy who is wearing the flag like a cape wasn’t of such a fresh-faced anglo type, if for instance he had dark curly hair, sallow skin and glasses?

Using Sander’s extraordinary project as a model I will try to trace the ‘face of Australia’ through Australian photography in the full knowledge that my attempt, like Sander’s is doomed to ultimately fail. Because I will be taking Face of Time and his unpublished monumental opus Citizens of the Twentieth Century as my models, I will confine my survey to picture books published about Australia from 1930 to the present. I will only be looking at photographs as they were selected and laid out by picture editors at the time, rather than as they have been subsequently excavated from photographer’s archives by today’s curators and dealers.


For my understanding of Sander I am relying on the Getty’s fabulous book August Sander in Focus. The ideas of physiognomy — that a person’s innate character manifests itself and is legible in their features — consistently run through Sander’s commentary on his own photographs, and dominated the critical reception of Face of the Time in 1929. Physiognomy had a long history that had received considerable scientific attention in the nineteenth century from Charles Darwin and other biologists. Social ethnologists also used it as a key principal to describe and document both European ethnic minorities as well as indigenous peoples in the European colonies. It was of broad popular interest in Sander’s time.

Of course genetic science has long since disapproved that there is any biological basis to the idea to physiognomics. And as the twentieth century progressed the thoroughly bogus physiognomic science was about to receive heaps of even more bad press, particularly on the left, through its association with eugenics and racism. Nonetheless, it remains a compelling undercurrent throughout the twentieth century.

Sander seems to have used the ideas in a loose and contradictory way, for him the face showed individual social experience which was layered on top of inherited traits that belong to pre-given ‘types’. In a radio lecture in 1931 he said:

every person’s story is written plainly on their face, though not everyone can read it. These are the runes of a new, but also ancient language. … More than anything physiognomy means an understanding of human nature. We know that people are formed by light and air, their inherited traits, and their actions, and we recognize people and distinguish one from the other by their appearance. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled, for life unavoidably leaves its trace there. … Each group carry in their physiognomy the expression of their times and the mental attitude of their group. Individuals who display these qualities in a particularly obvious manner can be called types.

Sander grounded his monumental physiognomic schema, which he intended to call Citizens of the Twentieth Century, in the peasantry from around his birthplace in Westerwald. In the 1910s many of these peasants had commissioned him to take their individual and family portraits. In preparing the sixty portraits in Face of the Time Sander returned to the portraits he had been commissioned to make earlier and re-used them within his grand typology. He re-cropped them more tightly to create a standardised, ‘anthropological’ format. The cropping emphasised the shape of the head, the arrangement of the features, the outline of the profile, and the set of the expression. This allowed physiognomic markers such as ears, noses, lips and brows to be read and compared and ‘types’ identified. As the introduction to Face of the Time stated:

Just as there is a comparative anatomy which enables one to understand the nature and history of organs, so here the photographer has produced a comparative photography, thereby gaining a scientific standpoint which places him beyond the photographer of detail.

In the 1930s he continued to work on the monumental Citizens of the Twentieth Century which was to contain 500 photographs in seven sections totally 45 portfolios. He planned to preface the work with a ‘portfolio of archetypes’ or a ‘generative folio’ made from the cropped details out of the photographs the Westerwald peasants had been commissioned he take. In 1954 he wrote that he classified all the types he encountered in relation to this basic, generative, type who, by virtue of their strong connection with nature had all the characteristics of mankind in general. These peasants were the physiognomic baseline against which all other social classes and professions would be measured. Sander planned to arrange the portraits in Citizens of the Twentieth Century in a circular system. Beginning with the earthbound farmer the photographs would ascend through all the social classes and professions to ‘the representatives of the highest civilization’ before descending through the unemployed and the vagrant to the ‘idiots, the sick … and the dying’. This arrangement reflected his belief that civilizations develop in circular patterns, an idea popularised by the historian Oswald Spengler in his two volume Decline of the West (1918-22). According to Spengler, who was avidly read by Sander, all great cultures are rooted in the country, gradually evolving to sophisticated urban markets before collapsing in the soulless bureaucracies of rhe city. Accordingly, Sander entitled the final section of his photographic inventory, containing the mentally ill, the physically disabled and the dead, ‘The Last People’. However in contradiction to this idea of a civilization in inevitable decline, Sander also saw all of the occupations he photographed as arranged into a fixed hierarchy, a kind of  ‘estate’ or ‘guild’ system.

Sander’s own brilliant photography undermined his classificatory project. For instance his photographs of bohemia provided vivid proof that social identities in Weimar Germany were far more complex and fluid than any typology could contain. They began to undermine his classificatory system, by resisting precisely the certainties that his ‘types’ were supposed to provide, namely that people could be documented, classified, and thus understood. Sander’s project recognised that physiognomy was mobile.


So there’s a magnificently fraught, dangerously ambitious, massively contradictory model as our guide. Let’s now turn to Australia.

A photographer who was imbued with many of the same interests in physiognomy as Sander, and who came form a similar cultural background, came to Australia in 1930 in order to shoot a travel book about Australia aimed at the English and German markets. He was E. O. Hoppe, and his time in Australia has recently been researched by Erika Essau.

Born in Germany Hoppe emigrated to England in 1900 at the age of 22, and by the 1910s had become a famous society photographer. He kept up a strong connection to German culture and also became interested in physiognomic typologies. In his autobigraphy he wrote:

I became interested in the psychology of the by-products and offshoots of the social order and spent much time looking for and photographing character types.

He contributed  character studies of the lower strata of society to the sociological book Taken from Life, 1922 by J. D. Beresford, and in 1926 published a book called London Types. He produced luxury travel books on England in 1926 and the Unites States in 1927  and came to Australia for ten months in 1930 on commission from a German publisher. The resultant book, The Fifth Continent, came out in German and English in 1931.

Hoppe shot many Australian types during his 10 months here, focussing in on their heads in a physiognomic manner. However the German Picture editor saw  it as primarily a travel book and concentrated on scenery, as well as having a concluding section on Aboriginal culture. However five ‘types’ did made it into the book: The Man From Outback, Mine Host at Eden, NSW; a 90 year Young Fruit Grower; Old Miner, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia; Young  Axeman, Pemberton, WA. In accordance with Spengler’s circular historical schema of civilizations rising from the agrarian and declining into the metropolis, the types from the young country of Australia reproduced in The Fifth Continent are all connected to the land. In the introduction Hoppe wrote:

The character of the Australian is a surely moulded as much by the sun as by his Northern ancestry. In a land of almost perpetual sunshine he is inclined to invest his life with a roseate hue and push troubles aside in a gay impersonal way which is the prerogative of abiding youth. Although he may not be strongly addicted to the discipline of long hours at routine work, he has none of the indolence of the languid East.

Hoppe sees the Australian character as being formed by the impact of a new landscape on a predetermining racial substrate.


The subsequent history of photographic Australiana is fascinating, though largely unwritten. For instance from the 1930s to the 1970s the editor and publisher Oswald Ziegler produced lavish publications such as This is Australia, 1946 or Australia from the Dawn of Time to the Present Day, 1964[i]. These massive picture books were often sponsored by various governments, and compiled from photographs supplied by their publicity departments. The photographs were cut and collaged together, by European-trained designers like Gert Sellheim or Douglas Annand, into modernist graphic friezes that leapt across each double-page spread. It is hard to know now who were the intended audience for these books. Like all government publicity they were probably largely unwanted by those who were forced to gratefully receive them, either as official gifts, or patriotic presents from well-meaning relatives.

In Ziegler’s books people were mere actors in national scenarios of industrial and agrarian development, and the photographers themselves mostly anonymous. The sequence of chapters told a story of European development which was briefly prefaced with a chapter on Aborigines and the geology of the continent itself which were seen to be inertly waiting for the colonists to arrive. They then rapidly followed in a sequence with industrial and pastoral development, ending with modern city, sport and culture. There is little or no interest in physiognomy or typology. In these books the Australian character doesn’t reside in the people themselves who are still regarded as being innately nothing more than another variety of British citizen. Rather, national personality and character is generated by the landscape and the climate. Accordingly, the nationalistic panoramas in which Australians themselves do predominantly feature are those panoramas to do with aspects of the country that had already been established as ‘character forming’, those to do with the outback, or the beach, or sport, or, most significantly, war.


The explorer photographer Frank Hurley firmly attached the imprimatur of his name to his enormously successful series of Camera Study books, which ended up selling 168,500 copies by the time of his death 1962. In the 1950s Hurley was a household name because of his expeditions to Antarctica, New Guinea and both world wars. To market the books he leveraged his youthful explorer’s reputation for journeying into the unknown into the returned man’s patriotic touring of each state and territory of the commonwealth. But in Hurley’s books Australia is still the star, not Australians. People are the spear-carrying extras, the scale markers placed in the picture in order to be dwarfed by the grand proscenium arches of cliffs, valleys, buildings and factories.


An interest in Australian character types hadn’t entirely disappeared from Australian photographic publishing, however. In the 1930s the visual image of the ANZAC soldier began to take predominate in Australian visual culture as memorials were built in every town. In 1937 Charles bean capped of his monumental twelve volume official history of the Great War with a volume devoted entirely to official photographs. It was the biggest selling volume of the series, and featured photographs of typical diggers, dressed in informal workman like uniforms, or stripped to the waist and engaged in strenuous work. These images were meant to be photographic proof that the heroic, knockabout digger Bean had describe din his histories actually did exist.


An interest in typological character portraits persisted in the real of commercial and pictorial photography as well. In 1947 Ziegler published an annual of photography drawn from 700 submissions from amateur and professional photographers, and selected by himself, Hal Missingham, Max Dupain, Athol Shmith and Russell Roberts. The gold plaque was awarded to Axel Poignant’s, Mary (Since re-titled Aboriginal Mother and New Born Baby) and his Head Stockman was also reproduced. Both were shot in 1942 on the Canning stock route where he had documented other Australian types. A digger type from George Silk, Man of Crete, was also reproduced in the annual. As was a typological character study by Olga Sharpe.

THE 1960’S

Ziegeler and Hurley’s panoramic style of Australian picture book, which had dominated the market for twenty years, changed dramatically in the mid 1960s. Many factors came together at this point. There was a burgeoning of overseas interest in Australia because of our involvement in the Vietnam War, and the use of Sydney as an R & R base by American servicemen. There was also a massive increase in the publishing industry because Australian publishers could use Asian presses for cheaper printing, and aggressive overseas publishers like Paul Hamlyn entered the market aiming books at a popular supermarket audience. An explosion of interest in all things Australian —Australian history, Australian wildlife, Australian touring holidays (think Bill Peach and the Leyland Brothers) — combined with the effects of postwar immigration, the baby boom, the increase in wealth, and the shift in our allegiance from Britain to America, to put questions of national identity and national character on the popular agenda. Examples of this popular discussion were the publication of Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country in 1964, the massive popularity of Michael Powell’s film They’re a Weird Mob in 1966.

Some of the new, overseas printed, picture books, such as Rigby’s 1966 book Around Australia on Highway One, simply updated the old panoramic formats of Ziegler and Hurley. And in 1964 David Moore shot widely for an assignment on Australia and New Zealand for the LIFE World Library.


But the watershed book came in 1966. Called, significantly, The Australians, it was the first true coffee table book in the Australiana genre. A ruminative, fifty-thousand word text by the novelist and journalist George Johnston supported an extended photographic essay shot over two years by the American National Geographic photographer Robert Goodman. Their stated objective was,

[T]he fair and unpropagandised presentation of the Australian in his unique and many-faceted setting. The essential image, if you like, of a race apart from the others.’[ii]

It had a budget of $200,000, fronted up by twelve of Australia’s biggest companies such as BHP and QANTAS, and ended up printing ninety thousand copies, which sold in the shops at the upmarket retail price of $8.95.[iii]

The book’s chapters followed a similar trajectory to Ziegler’s, from the ‘land’, to the ‘land’s people’ (meaning white settlers, more than Aborigines) through to ‘the economy’, ‘science’, ‘the arts’, ‘sport’, and culminating in ‘Anzac’. But its photographs home in on the faces of Australians, who look out from the pages in frank close-up. Their faces are enlarged right up into full-page or double-page spreads, often bleeding to the edge in the contemporary style of picture-magazine layouts. The cast of characters was cosmopolitan. There was the familiar dusty-but-lithe stockman, the craggy farmer, and the sweaty worker, but also the winsome office girl, and the intense artist.

The centrality of art and artists to popular accounts of Australian identity in the sixties might come as something of a surprise to those of us who have got in to the lazy historical habit of identifying the beginning of the renaissance of post-war Australian culture with the signal ‘It’s Time’ campaign in 1972, prior to which everything cultural was cringing. In The Australians, Johnston confidently asserted that there were already:

… more good painters in Australia than there were good jockeys’. ‘Australians’, he claimed, perhaps a tad over-optimistically, ‘who like to think of themselves as easy-going people, rough and ready, physical rather than cerebral, who are deeply suspicious of the longhair and the intellectual, also pay the greatest respect, homage and even, of late, cash, to their artists. There is no country in the world, not even in Scandinavia, where the easel painter of even reasonable competence can survive as comfortably as in Australia.[iv]

A few pages on, spread across both pages in full and virulent colour, Russel and Maisie Drysdale lean toward the camera. One of Drysdale’s desert-red canvases is behind them and, because of the book’s advanced six-plate colour printing, their blue eyes seem to pop out from behind their extravagantly rimmed glasses as they warmly smile at us. There’s a cigarette jammed between Drysdale’s fingers and a can of Resch’s slammed on the table beside the crumple of Masie’s hankie, house keys, cigarettes and matches.

The most powerful spread in Goodman’s book is a chiaroscuro tableau of anxious faces called ‘Immigrant arrivals, Sydney Harbour’. These shipboard faces don’t engage the reader’s gaze, as Russell and Maisie Drysdale do, but search the unknown space of the dock beyond the reader. (A very similar, and now much more famous, copycat photograph was taken in the same place the following year by the Australian photographer David Moore, whilst on assignment for the National Geographic article ‘New South Wales: The State that Cradled Australia’.[v] )


Other books followed Goodman’s lead. In 1967 Donald Horne collaborated with the photojournalist David Beal on a book called Southern Exposure, which in its acerbic treatment of Australia was almost like a pictorial version of The Lucky Country. Horne wrote in the book’s introduction:

Neither of us — photographer nor writer — could be bothered producing the ordinary kind of picture book on Australia. There are no photographs of koala bears in gum trees here. We are trying to get down in pictures and words the Australia we see — a nation in which more people live in big cities than happens in any other nation, but which is set in a largely empty continent, a continent which seems very strange to non-Australians. In this nation people lead a life not quite the same as the life led anywhere else, but they are so indifferent to it that they hardly care what kind of life it is that they lead. … We have a special theme — to suggest some answers to the following question: What happened to European civilization when it came to Australia?

The chapter headings don’t follow the usual triumphalist trajectories of most over picture books, but capture the text’s acerbic tone: ‘A transported Civilization’; ‘Deserts of Disaster’; ‘The Same but Different’; ‘Boxes of Brick’; ‘Mates’; ‘Non-Mates’; ‘Bosses’; ‘The New Australia’; ‘Existential Australia’.


In the following year Jeff Carter’s Outback in Focus a travel book aimed at the rising market of tourists and campers was nonetheless not shy in commenting on Australian civilization in general. In the book physiognomic close-ups are arranged across the pages for comparison. The dryly cynical captions to some of his sequences include:

This Wailbri Tribesman is amongst the last generations of Aborigines still capable of a nomadic life;

This man could still live in the bush, too, but looks to the ways of the white man for a better life

This Alice Springs policeman works as a white man, but is not paid as a white man or treated like one.


Occasionally younger photographers attempted to modify the mould that had now been well established for picture books about Australia. For instance in 1971 Rennie Ellis and Wes Stacey self published a small 81-page book about the effect of the R & R day on Kings Cross called Kings Cross Sydney. This book takes a deliberately cosmopolitan, bohemian approach to the idea of an Australian type.


In 1969 the commercial photographer David Mist produced a kind of Playboy guide to Australia, punningly titled Made in Australia, it claimed to be:

… a book of Australia’s bird life (of the non-feathered variety).

And it saw Australian women as a multiracial cocktail.

The beauty of Australian woman is unlike that found in any other nationality, yet its unique style is a combination of the characteristics of every nation. Beginning with the elegance of the English and the tranquil dignity of the Aboriginal, we have since added Italian vivacity, Slavic warmth, German discipline, Greek joi de vivre, Asian serenity and American ingenuity — what emergesis ‘Australian’ — a look that has claimed the Miss International and Miss World titles.


Five years later a rejoinder came with the feminist A Book About Australian Women with photographs by Carol Jerrems and text edited from interviews with various women by Virginia Fraser. Fraser wrote of her interviews:

They can’t represent the whole experience of all women in Australia. There is not just one way of being a person. They are some individual experiences of being a female in this society, dominated by a culture that sees biological gender as a decisive difference between people, instead of one aspect of human possibility and individual uniqueness; in which the institutions traditions and mythology are defined and controlled by men, out of their experience and in their interests.


Despite these counter-cultural efforts even in subsequent mainstream picture books the city largely remains a dystopian place and true character still lies out in the bush. For instance on Friday March 6 in 1981 seventy top international photojournalists joined thirty Australian photographers to shoot Australia across a 24 hour period for A Day in the Life of Australia, but the pattern of coverage has not significantly changed in 20 years.

However these books did solve the problem of picturing the character of a multicultural Australia by gridding photographs up into mosiacs. However they still persisted in locating bush types as the baseline against which to contrast shifts in identity.


To my knowledge there have been no significant picture books about Australia since then. The resurgence of the film industry in the 1970s, and the continuing dominance of television, have taken over the task of visually defining and redefining what might be our national character. But our bookshops are still awash with biographies of Australian heroes and anti-heroes. But the interest in the face, captured in the frame for scrutiny, remains. In 1998 the National Portrait Gallery opened in Canberra with the vision to:

increase the understanding of the Australian people – their identity, history, creativity and culture – through portraiture.

The inaugural National Portraiture award attracted nearly 1500 entries.


Are there any remnants of a Sanderesque typology in any of this? A group, which in Sander’s words carries “in their physiognomy the expression of their times and the mental attitude of their group. Individuals who display these qualities in a particularly obvious manner can be called types.” Let’s see. In Australian Photography 1947 Laurence le Guay published a studio portrait of the film actor Chips Rafferty, craggy, unshaven, staring off into space. Rafferty made his name playing lank ANZACs in films like Forty Thousand Horseman in 1940 and the Rats of Tobruk in 1944, and a drover in the Hollywood film The Overlanders in 1946. Twenty years later Chips Rafferty played the cranky patriarch in They’re a Weird Mob who begrudgingly allowed the Italian migrant to marry his beautiful daughter.  For me Chips is an ur-type for a distinct lineage of men that travel through Paul Hogan, to Les Hiddens the Bush Tucker Man, up to Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter (Whose portrait now hangs in the NPG). What are the physiognomic characteristics of this type? I think they are:

  • A no-nonsense non-cosmopolitan haircut
  • Laugh-lines or sun-creases around the eyes
  • A weathered complexion — freckles, sunburn, etc
  • A clear-eyed, open gaze
  • A sinewy, lanky body

In essence these are the characteristics which make the face and the body a synecdoche and an analogue for the continent of Australia itself. It is a type where the weather seems to have indexically inscribed itself onto the face to turn it into its own Australian landscape. And they are also the characteristics which physically materialize the supposedly decent, frank personality of the Australian.

Significantly, even though this type obviously had its origins in some kind of Aryan racial ideal, beneath even its digger and drover manifestations, I think it has now transcended it. In the sixty years since it emerged it has now crossed ethnic, racial and even gender lines. Steve bequeathed it to Bindii. And I see the net-baller Liz Ellis as very much of the type. I’m even going to go out on a limb and include Ernie Dingo in my category.

Unfortunately I think the type is being debased. I was startled to see Jack Thompsons face being used by the Byron Bay Chilli Company on their new range of BBQ sauces. Our Jack is no Paul Newman, and there is something about the implied sexual rapacity of his unruly beard which undermines he fundamental decency of the type.

As yet I haven’t been able to think of any celebrities who represent  migrant communities, although I think somebody from the South-East Asian communities must be ready for it. For instance Ahn Do has certainly captured the larrikin aspects of the type, but he is too metropolitan and lacks the embodiment of the outdoors and the bush that is there even in the suburban girl Liz Ellis, via the netball court.


Perhaps there are other types that I could have explored, for instance the stolid, indomitable woman — the middle aged woman built on a sturdy framework of bone, and with a secure layer of subcutaneous fat. Dupain and Moore specialized in this type, though I can’t think of any current examples.


Now of course these types aren’t really types in the old nineteenth century mode at all. They now no longer grow up from the national soil, but are constructed by the national media. Yet I think that they are more than just superficial media stereotypes as well. While there is a level of self-parody in many of these figures, there is still a way in which in their very physiognomies they persist in embodying a material, physical history that goes back a century.

I think also that if we look back at the picture books about Australia we certainly find a very fragmented, interrupted, and meagre history. But nonetheless it is one that has been totally ignored until now, and it demonstrates that photography played an important role in the popular conversation around national identity well before the recent art photography boom.

Martyn Jolly

[i] Oswald Ziegler (Ed.), This is Australia, Oswald Ziegler Publications, 1946; Australia from the Dawn of Time to the Present Day, Oswald Ziegler Publications, 1964.

[ii] George Johnston and Robert Goodman, The Australians, Rigby, 1966, p292.

[iii] John Currey, ‘Australian Books Are Selling FAST!’, Walkabout, March 1970. (My thanks to Gael Newton for this reference)

[iv] p 214, p210.

[v] Howell Walker, ‘New South Wales: The State that Cradled Australia’, National Geographic, November 1967

Spirit Photography and Passing

‘Full-Body Spirit Materializations: Mediums, Spirits, Séances and Believers in the Nineteenth Century’, paper at Passing Symposium, Research School of Humanities, ANU, February 29, 2008.


In 1878 an enthusiastic Spiritualist from Melbourne assembled a carte-de-visite album, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Spiritualists believed that the human personality survived beyond death, and that departed spirits were seeking to communicate with the living via specially endowed people called mediums.

The album included photos of celebrity mediums, including the most famous medium of all, Kate Fox, who as a girl was the first to apparently hear raps from the Beyond in New York State in 1848. It included cartes of the British trance medium J. J. Morse, as well as his spirit guide, Yun Sen Lie, who is present in the form of a photographic reproduction of a portrait-drawing based on the detailed self-description of the spirit, who ‘controlled’ and spoke through the medium while he was entranced.

It also included a spirit photograph of the Melbourne Spiritualist, Dr Walter Richardson, the first president of the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists (and, incidentally, the basis of the character Richard Mahony in the novel by his daughter Henry Handel Richardson.)  The photograph was taken during a visit to London in 1873, when Richardson visited the spirit photographer Frederick Hudson for a photographic séance. Hudson captured the transparent spirit of Richardson’s departed sister on the plate, perhaps by previously coating the plate with another layer of collodion and exposing it with an accomplice before Richardson arrived, or perhaps by double printing two negatives in the darkroom as Richardson waited for his carte-de-visite.


Hudson also made a voluptuous photograph of the young London medium Florence Cook swooning in a trance whilst a solid spirit-figure rose above her. Cook was a ‘materialization medium’, she was supposedly able to physically materialize spirits themselves. Cook had been operating as a medium since 1871, when she was fifteen. At her séances sitters would usually gather round, ‘like a party of grown-up children waiting for the magic lantern’ according to one visitor, while Cook supposedly sat entranced in her cabinet, a curtained off section of the room which supposedly concentrated the psychic energy. Eventually, after some hymn singing, the curtains of the cabinet would part, and a fully materialized spirit called Katie King would step out, swathed in orientalist drapery. Katie was supposedly the daughter of John King, a sixteenth-century pirate. John King was Spiritualism’s most glamorous celebrity spirit. He was materialized by many different mediums, including Charles Williams, who had mentored Cook. In the Melbourne album there are two Frederick Hudson cartes, one a portrait of the Spirit of John King, another of Charles Williams and another Spiritualist with a shrouded spirit-form superimposed on the plate.

In December 1873, Cook’s mediumship became a popular scandal. At a séance, when the supposed spirit of Katie was moving amongst the sitters proffering her hand to be kissed, one of the sitters suddenly grabbed her around the waist, and exclaimed: ‘It’s the medium!’ The low gaslight that lit the séance was immediately extinguished. Cook’s fiancée leapt up and wrestled the spirit free of the sitter’s grasp and back into the medium’s cabinet. When the gaslight came on again it was found that the spirit had somehow managed to tear off some of the sitter’s beard and scratch his face. Some moments elapsed before the cabinet was opened. Cook was found moaning and unconscious, still apparently bound to her chair with knots sealed with wax, and still in her own black dress and boots. She was searched, but no trace of voluminous white drapery could be found.

After this incident, Cook made the bold step of throwing herself at the mercy of the chemist and physicist William Crookes. Crookes was part of an emerging group of psychic investigators who used the experimental methods of modern science, with their basis in accuracy and observation. A significant number of experimental scientists from the 187os through to the 1920s were also Spiritualist believers and psychic researchers. Perhaps this is because in their research physicists and electricians such as Crookes were routinely thinking across different dimensions of space and time, where electrical impulses were transmitted thousands of miles instantaneously through the telegraph machine; and they were also thinking across different states of matter, where energy became matter through such processes as electrolysis. This made the supposed psychic phenomena they were also researching appear relatively familiar to them. Testifying in front of an 1871 Dialectical Society investigation into Spiritualism, one of Crookes’ colleagues perfectly united his physics and his psychics by using a startling image drawn from practical nineteenth-century technology. Trying to explain how previously unknown psychic forces could penetrate our world from the other side via a medium, he used the scientific analogy: ‘An iron wire is to an electrician simply a hole bored through a solid rock of air so that the electricity may pass freely’.

Florence Cook invited William Crookes to establish the facts for himself. At his home he strung a curtain between his laboratory and his library, turning his library into an improvised cabinet. Like all sympathetic investigators Crookes agreed to the usual seanceconditions that spirit and medium should not be touched without permission. However he established ‘test conditions’ to his own satisfaction by sealing the doors and windows with wax and thread, and binding the medium’s hands and feet.

Crookes constructed a lamp out of a jar of phosphorized oil, which gave him a source of light which was faint, but amenable to the spirit. At one séance the spirit Katie invited Crookes into the cabinet itself so that he could establish that  she and her medium were two separate entities. Kneeling, Crookes held one of the medium Cook’s hands and passed the lamp along her entranced body as it lay in the cabinet, and then he turned and passed the lamp up and down the standing spirit’s whole figure. He declared himself thoroughly satisfied that it was the veritable Katie King who stood before him, and not a phantasm of a disordered brain. Eventually the desire to touch the spirit became too much for Crookes and he respectfully asked her if he could clasp her in his arms. She agreed, and Crookes was able to establish that, at least temporarily, she had become a material entity, and in addition was not wearing corsets. In subsequent physical examinations of both spirit and medium he established that the spirit materialization was taller and fairer, and had smoother skin and longer fingers than her medium, her ears were unpierced, her luxuriant tresses auburn not black, her pulse a rhythmic 75 not a skitting 90, and her lungs sound, not afflicted with a cough, as were the medium’s.

Crookes had begun the test séances with a professed commitment to the objective scientific recording of observable phenomena. But within the crepuscular hush of the séance he was as beguiled by the spirit’s ethereal, yet palpable, beauty as everyone else. It was clear that a strong current of seduction had begun to flow through the seances:

[P]hotography is as inadequate to depict the perfect beauty of Katie’s face as words are powerless to describe her charms of manner. Photography may, indeed, give a map of her countenance; but how can it reproduce the brilliant purity of her complexion, or the ever-varying expression of her mobile features…

Rumours started to flow that Crookes, whose wife was expecting their tenth child, was having an affair with Cook — described at the time as a ‘trim little lady of sweet sixteen’. Sitters also continued to remark on the dissimilarity between Katie and her medium at some séances, and their similarity at others. Some started to ask why simpler and more explicit methods couldn’t be used to establish that Katie was really a separate entity to Cook, such as marking Cook’s forehead with indian ink. Others remarked that it would indeed be easy for the medium to smuggle a long white muslin veil into the cabinet secreted in her underwear, and under cover of the hymn singing remove her outer garments and arrange them over some cushions to look like a supine form, then drop the veil over her white underclothes ready to emerge from between the curtains.

Amidst all this damaging speculation the spirit Katie suddenly let it be known that she only had energy to manifest on the material plane for three years, due to expire on 21 May 1874. After Katie’s last farewell Crookes’ experiments with Cook petered out, but he publicly acknowledged his debt to her:

I do not believe she could carry on a deception if she were to try, and if she did she would certainly be found out very quickly, for such a line of action is altogether foreign to her nature. And to imagine that an innocent school-girl of fifteen should be able to conceive and then successfully carry out for three years so gigantic an imposture as this, and in that time should submit to any test which might be imposed upon her [and] should bear the strictest scrutiny … to imagine, I say, the Katie King of the last three years to be the result of imposture does more violence to one’s reason and common sense than to believe her to be what she herself affirms.

Crookes now channelled his energies into more orthodox researches. He began to experiment with the cathode-ray tube, a vacuum tube with an electrical terminal at one end. If an electrical current was run into the terminal a faintly luminous ethereal glow resulted. In another experiment a wheel suspended inside the tube slowly turned, although nothing visible touched it. Crookes concluded that these uncanny effects were produced by the cathode terminal emitting rays of electrified ‘radiant matter’, a fourth state of matter, neither solid, liquid or gaseous. It was up to later physicists to establish that the rays were not of material particles as Crookes had supposed, but of electrons ionising residual gas in the tube. But nonetheless his work eventually directly led to the discovery and use of x-rays, television picture-tubes and fluorescent lighting. In his report on these electrical experiments to the science journal Nature in 1879 he made claims that could just as easily be applied to his psychic research of 1873 when he said, ‘we have actually touched the borderland where matter and force seem to merge into one another, the shadowy realm between the Known and the Unknown which for me has always had peculiar temptations.’


The carte-de-visite album also includes a carte of two other materializing mediums Miss Wood and Annie Fairlamb, who came from Newcastle in the north of England. Hudson has photographed them with the spirit of the Indian, Syna. The pair did automatic writing, trance speaking, and materializations. By  1890 the two had quarrelled and Miss Fairlamb was working alone. The Edinburgh photographer J. Stewart Smith photographed her with the partially materialised Cissie, the spirit of a little African girl who was one of her spirit guides. Shortly afterwards, after several embarrassing exposures, Fairlamb left on a tour of New Zealand and Australia, married a J. B. Mellon in Sydney, and set up as a professional medium, charging ten shillings a sitting.

Now working under the name of Mrs Mellon, she not only materialized Cissie, but also Josephine, a beautiful young woman, and Geordie, a gruff Scotsman. On her visit to Sydney the prominent Theosophist Annie Bessant was impressed by one of Mellon’s séances at which, Sydney’s Sunday Times reported, she exchanged flowers with Cissie and conversed with Geordie. The Sunday Times participated in a series of experiments with Mellon, which attempted to establish the truth of her materializations by clearly capturing both a spirit and the medium at the same time and on the same photographic plate. The séances were held at the home of the prominent Sydney spiritualist Dr Charles MacCarthy, who had already photographed Josephine by herself in 1894. They were conducted under test conditions, which meant Mellon’s clothing was searched by two lady Spiritualists beforehand; and, rather than wearing white underclothing, she wore coloured flannels which would remain recognisable under a thin drapery of muslin.

Rather than the near-darkness usually required, the séances were conducted in daylight for the camera. Daylight may have been necessary because artificial light was still expensive and experimental in Sydney at the time.

Normally spirit materializations took place in very dim light. The mediums conveniently claimed that anything other than a very brief ruby light damaged the sensitive spirit materializations, and caused them great pain. But because Mellon’s photographic séances for the Sunday Times had to be conducted in daylight for the camera, rather than darkness, the sitters were requested to sit with their back to the cabinet because, Mellon claimed, in the daylight their direct gaze would bore holes into the spirits. Although the first test was photographically inconclusive, two sitters managed to obtain a clear view of the materialization by surreptitiously using hand mirrors to look over their shoulders. At the second test-séance all the sitters came equipped with mirrors. As a result, two whole hours of hymn singing failed to produce a single spirit, and only the gift of some valuable jewellery mollified the offended medium afterwards. Four days later, on 9 August 1894, while the sitters sat with their eyes tight shut, the camera which had been pre-focussed on the curtains of her cabinet, photographed her standing beside the partially materialized, flat, form of Geordie.

Mellon reported that during materializations she felt a chilling and benumbing sensation as the psychoplasm came out of her left side and from her fingertips. The vapoury mass first fell at her feet in waves and clouds and then slowly assumed a distinct human shape. She became weaker, and as the form reached completion it staggered as though it would fall.

The telepathist, clairvoyant and mesmerist Thomas Shekleton Henry had been working with the editor of the Sunday Times in the photographic tests. He was initially a devotee of Mellon’s, writing an ode to Josephine’s beauty and becoming possessed himself by Geordie’s spirit as he held the spirit’s photograph in his hand. He said he was planning to write a pamphlet about Mellon’s abilities to be called Mysteries in our Midst. However he began to become suspicious of the constrained movements the spirits made, the doll-like appearance of their faces, the sewn hems visible in their psychoplasmic drapery, and the fact that they could not leave footprints on the sooted slates he placed under them. At a séance in Mellon’s own house, after the singing of hymns, a form appeared and nodded when it was asked if it was the deceased niece of Mrs Gale, one of the sitters. Sobbing with great emotion Mrs Gale came forward and kissed the spirit on its forehead. Later, after more singing and more apparitions, the form of the child-spirit Cissie appeared between the curtains of the cabinet. Henry suddenly got up and seized Cissie, crying: “light up!” An accomplice immediately struck three matches. Henry had hold of Mellon who was on her knees with muslin over her head and shoulders, black material over her face, and her skirt turned up over her stockingless legs. The matches were blown out. The accomplice struck another, which was also blown out. Finally, struggling against several male Spiritualists, Henry managed to light the gas jets above his head. Henry was set upon by several other spiritualists in the audience, and Mellon’s husband, who at all of her séances was always at the back of the room regulating the gaslight, rushed forward and grabbed him by the throat. Mellon hid what she could under her petticoats, though some more muslin, a false beard, and a flat black bag with tapes attached to it was glimpsed insider her cabinet. She scrambled back into the cabinet and squatted on top of her properties. Surrounded by three female Spiritualists who drew the cabinet’s curtains, she pushed the beard down between her breasts and pinned something up between her legs, under her petticoats.

In a subsequent interview with the Sunday Times Mellon explained the confusing scene thus: she said that as the delicate spirit form had been interfered with, the science of materialization dictated that either the spirit form must be reabsorbed back into the medium, or the medium be absorbed by the form. Because the form was held fast by Henry, her remaining matter had to be pulled forward off her chair and had shot into the spirit form. The spirit drapery then rapidly dissolved in a steam off her. Since the psychoplasmic matter had initially been drawn from the lower part of her body her legs had shrunk, which had caused her shoes and stockings to fall off. The black bag was a duster for her music box.

Henry’s planned paean to Mellon became the triumphal record of his exposure, the pamphlet: Spookland ! A record of research and experiment in a much-talked-of realm of mystery, with a review and criticism of so called Spirit Materialisation, and hints and illustrations as to the possibility of artificiality producing the same.

The Spiritualists quickly replied with A Counterblast to Spookland, or Glimpses of the Marvellous which ridiculed the erratic and volatile nature of his Henry’s own mediumship, lampooned him as a snake in the grass, and produced voluminous counter-testimony from Spiritualist adherents.


The theory of spirit photography, like the Spiritualist imagination generally, was very much part of contemporary developments in technology and science, particularly physics and biology. What force was it that was able to form the inchoate yolk of an egg into the claws, feathers and beak of a chicken? Could an analogous force to this ‘life force’, a ‘psychic force’, pass through the labile body of the medium and form it into a spirit entity. Simiarly, it was proposed that spirits who normally have a kind of etheric or radiant body could, like molluscs that extract the material for their shells from water, be able to temporarily utilize the terrestrial molecules that surround them for the purpose of building up a material body capable of manifesting itself to our senses.

To other scientific Spiritualists this combination of biology and chemistry even provided a possible scientific explanation for the elaborate classical drapery the spirits wore, to augment the usual eschatological explanation. Alfred Russell Wallace, the prominent Spiritualist, naturalist, and co-developer, along with Charles Darwin, of the theory of evolution, mused that drapery must be easierand more economical to materialize than the complete human form. The copious drapery in which spirits were almost always enveloped was there to show only just what was necessary for the recognition of the spirit’s face and figure. ‘The conventional ‘white-sheeted ghost’ was not then all fancy’, Wallace said, ‘but had a foundation in fact— a fact, too, of deep significance, dependent on the laws of yet unknown chemistry.’

At the cusp of the twentieth century, nobody could predict what was going to be a scientific dead-end and what wasn’t. For Crookes and Wallace it was impossible to disentangle their physical and psychical research. Identical analogies and metaphors structured their thought in both areas. And identical passions and lusts, for prestige, power and discovery, drove them. During this period of radical change in the fundamental underpinnings of physics, a certain amount of credulity was necessary for every scientist, to loosen the bounds of his pre-suppositions. And the inevitable incredulity of the public and their colleagues was to be expected, and had to be overcome, before any new idea was accepted, in either psychics or physics. The only clue to the future was that physics was progressing but psychics, which subscribed to the same modern ideology of progress, wasn’t — although it did continue to pile up mountains of tantalizing evidence.

The circuit of desire in Spiritualist investigation— to see, to know, to believe — was closed when the young ingénue medium gave the eminent investigator the phenomena he craved. This generated an intense emotional energy that suspended conventional scepticism, propriety and objectivity, and induced all kinds of extraordinary visions to appear. These visions shifted and slipped between the hermetic theatre of the darkened séance room and the minds and imaginations of the excited sitters. And, in a scientific period where entirely new and extraordinary physical phenomena seemed to be manifesting themselves everywhere, some of those visions even appeared to be able to slip themselves onto the photographic plates of the spirit photographer.

Prizes! Prizes! Prizes!

‘Prizes, Prizes, Prizes’, Photofile 83, Australian Centre for Photography, pp 56 — 59, 2008

This year there will be well over $100,000 up for grabs in the fifteen or so photography prizes running across the country. It seems everybody loves a good competition, and as the most democratic of art forms photography readily lends itself to the format. Entries can be submitted digitally for easy short-listing, and artists and amateurs can both have a go on roughly equivalent terms. No matter what you think of the judge’s final, painfully arrived at decision, a bit of controversy never hurt anyone, and anyway, there’ll be a different judge next time. For the lucky photographer who does eventually come up trumps there is the professional recognition of the prize, plus the thrill of actually winning something — cash or just a camera — and the opportunity to have their image and name reproduced in newspapers and journals around the country. For those that only get short-listed, there is still the extra line on their CV. And for those that hopefully sent off their jpegs along with their entry fee and didn’t even get a guernsey, well, there’s always next time.

Some photographers make the conscious decision to spend a lot of time and money entering as many art awards as they are eligible for, in the hope of eventually striking it lucky. The stats can be discouraging though. Almost 1500 people paid 25 dollars to enter one of the country’s most recent and richest prizes, the National Portrait Gallery’s National Photographic Portrait Prize, but only about 1 in 20 could get short-listed, and of course only one photographer could win the $25,000. For its part the gallery got a feisty show that’s sure to be popular, where unknown amateur photographers cheerfully rubbed shoulders with the big names, and serendipitous happy snaps added zest to monumentally posed portraits.

Some photographers make the conscious decision to spend a lot of time and money entering as many art awards as they are eligible for, in the hope of eventually striking it lucky. The stats can be discouraging though. Almost 1500 people paid 25 dollars to enter one of the country’s most recent and richest prizes, the National Portrait Gallery’s National Photographic Portrait Prize, but only about 1 in 20 could get short-listed, and of course only one photographer could win the $25,000. For its part the gallery got a feisty show that’s sure to be popular, where unknown amateur photographers cheerfully rubbed shoulders with the big names, and serendipitous happy snaps added zest to monumentally posed portraits.

(And if you want this punter’s opinion on the judging committee’s decision to choose Robert Scott-Mitchell’s portrait of his wife, Lindy Lee — Birth and Death as the winner, well, I can understand why they would have eventually plumped on this portrait because it safely covered so many bases: it included other family portraits in the frame, it was collaborative, it was intercultural, it was spiritual, it was about conjugal love, and it was of a glamorous art world figure. But in plumping for this merely competent image they passed over many, much more visually compelling and interesting photographs, such as George Fetting’s David Gulpilil {although he had already won the Tweed River Regional Art Gallery’s Olive Cotton Award}, Ruby Davies’ Water as Life: The Town of Wilcannia and the Darling/Baaka, Petrina Hicks’ Rosemary, or even as a roughie Vasili Vasiliaskis’s, Peter Robinson, Lingerie Importer. Still, there’s always next time.)

Prizes can make a lot of sense for smaller galleries and museums too. Regional galleries with limited resources but big ambitions can use a prize to efficiently sample the national scene. For 25 years the Albury City Regional Art Gallery has been running its biennial National Photography Purchase Award (won last year by Anne Zahalka) with a $10,000 acquisition fund, and has built up a formidable collection of contemporary Australian photography. The Gold Coast City Art Gallery has been using the Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert Photography Award (won last year by Paul Ferman) to similar effect, and it was been joined in 2005 by the Tweed River Regional Art Gallery with the Olive Cotton Award (won last year by George Fetting), and in 2006 by the Monash Gallery of Art (which already had a substantial photography collection) with the William and Winifred Bowness Photography Prize (won last year by Ray Cook).

Prizes are also a good option for galleries to negotiate with philanthropists, particularly in a straitened cultural climate, because what the philanthropist is being asked to sponsor is not this or that particular photographer or image, but on ongoing process based on access and merit. The sport-like fun of the competition provides an entertaining show for the local community, and the announcement of the winner gives the gallery a national presence. Prizes are always great shows to visit. There is always the judge to disagree with, and even though curators work hard to corral the entries — each one clamouring for individual attention — into a coherent hang, inevitably some of the scandalous geo-politics of the nineteenth-century salon remains. For example, which image, which looked good as a jpeg but disappointed when it was unpacked, ends up next to the fire extinguisher? Or which image, which arrived bombastically enlarged and in a tacky frame, ends up in an under-lit corner?

Although no individual institution should be begrudged its photography prize, the fact that they are increasingly dominating the photography scene is unprecedented. By their very nature photography prizes have to be superficial. In most, though not all, cases only one image is selected from each short-listed photographer, despite the fact that the photograph’s natural home is as part of a group or a series. Photographs usually need proper contextualization, but many prizes hang photographs with no supporting material at all to explain the work. Others include short artists statements, which in their naivety sometimes do a disservice to the photographer. Some prizes are specifically designed to encourage particular genres such as landscape, portraiture, or documentary. But, probably because they are all organised along similar lines, the open prizes seem to be taking similar snapshots of the photographic scene. For instance last year the Bowness Prize, which I saw at the Monash Gallery of Art, wasn’t substantially different in terms of entrants, styles and themes, to the show I had selected and judged at the Gold Coast City Gallery for the Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert Photography Award.

Sometimes I wonder what the opportunity costs are for the worthy efforts photographers, galleries, and sponsors put into prizes. Everybody would agree that they are no substitute for a curated, researched and contextualized show, or a strategic collection policy, and of course from the point of view of individual institutions their prizes are thought of as complementing, rather than replacing, their other stirling curatorial work.  But perhaps the looming presence of prizes in the consciousness of photographers and viewers alike is beginning to cast a corrosively aleatory temper over the whole scene?

Martyn Jolly

Dr Martyn Jolly is Head of Photomedia at the Australian National University School of Art.  He judged the National Photography Purchase Award at the  Albury City Regional Art Gallery in 1985 and the Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert Photography Award at the Gold Coast City Gallery in 2007.

Pixelation of People’s Faces

People’s faces are being pixelated more often in newspapers and on TV. It used to be that only the suspects of serious crime had their eyes obscured by the familiar black bar, but now lots of people we see on the news have their faces obscured by a circle of enlarged pixels. Even in Google Map’s new ‘Street View’ application the faces of people on the street are automatically blurred to protect their privacy. Privacy itself has also become an increasingly debated term recently, with more and more people claiming that they have a ‘right to privacy’, even when they are in public. In thinking about these issues I decided to experiment with a picture I had clipped from a newspaper. It was a school class portrait in which the newspaper had decided to pixelate the face of each student. I ‘deconstructed’ the conventional composition of this photograph by scanning small portions of the image, of only a few millimetres across, and then re-arranging them in various kinds of grids. With the original news context of the image stripped away, and each face isolated for comparison, I wondered if the viewer might experience the act of pixelation itself differently. What does it do to its subjects, besides preserving their privacy, does it turn them into criminals or victims?

Haunted Australia

‘Haunted Australia’, catalogue essay in Trace Elements: Spirit and Memory in Japanese and Australian Photomedia, 2008, Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery and Performance space edited by Bec Dean. English version, pp 52 – 57 of 142 page catalogue, ISBN 978-4-925204-22-4 C 0070

Every country has its ghosts, every country is haunted by spirits and memories. Even countries who once thought of themselves as being young, but are now realizing that they are in fact old, are finding themselves to be as haunted as anybody else. Thirty or so years ago if you had asked an Australian if there were many ghosts here they would have laughed — compared to England or Japan, no way! Sure, there was a ghost in our most popular national song, Waltzing Matilda — the ghost of a poor, sheep-stealing swagman who committed suicide rather than be caught by the colonial police — but that was about it. Recently, however, we have begun to see a persistent tradition of Australian ghosts emerging.

The swagman’s ghost stayed around the billabong in which he had drowned himself, mournfully repeating the refrain from his once cheerful song to warn and remind passers by of the injustice which had been done to him. And this pattern of repetition, mourning, warning and reminding conforms to many other ghost stories from the nineteenth century. On 16 June 1826 an ex-convict and successful farmer named Frederick Fisher suddenly disappeared, a few days later his ghost was seen sitting on a fence rail and pointing to a spot on the ground.  When the spot was dug up his body was found, leading to the arrest and hanging of his neighbour for murder. Fisher’s ghost survived in colonial society as an urban myth until 1859 when John Lang published an elaborated form of the story as The Ghost Upon the Rail. In 1924 Australia’s pioneer filmmaker Raymond Longford made a silent film of the story, and in 1960 Douglas Stewart wrote a play. Ken Gelder discusses Fisher’s ghost and others like him in The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories.

Fisher’s ghost appeared at the disjunction between the new convict-based settler society of Australia, the old established home of Britain from which the convicts had been cast out, and the prior possession of the land by Aborigines. In Lang’s version, in order to cover up his crime and get his hands on Fisher’s wealth, the murderous neighbour, an ex convict equally as successful in his new life as Fisher, used forgery and impersonation to create the elaborate ruse that Fisher had granted him power of attorney before disappearing home to England. To expose this delusion the spectre does not simply point to his own grave, as in the urban myth. Rather, he is seen sitting on the fence-rail with a gash on his forehead. But the light appears to shine straight  through him, and he is as impalpable to the touch as empty air.  An aboriginal tracker from the local tribe identifies ‘white man’s blood’ on the rail, then follows some faint tracks for nearly a mile to a dark pond scummed with ‘white man’s fat’. At the bottom of the pond is found a bag of bones, the rotting remains of Fisher’s body kept together only by his clothing. He wasn’t a world away in old England after all, but still here in new Australia all the time, demanding that justice be done. In addition, the ancient knowledge of the land held by the radically dispossessed Aborigines is needed to track his rotting body down. As Gelder says, ghost stories are one way ‘in which white settlement in this country is shown to be, in fact, fundamentally unsettled.’ [1] Ghosts are able to bring into conjunction times and spaces which are conventionally separated. They can reveal what was previously hidden, or dormant, or ignored.

In the early twentieth century Australian ghosts took on a greater role in bridging vast distances of time and memory. After 60,000 Australian Soldiers died and were buried on the distant battle fields of World War One an extraordinary cult of the dead grew up amongst those that were left to mourn them, but who had no grave to grieve at. This collective grief became focussed on the Anzac memorials being built in each town, and in the annual ritual of the Anzac Day Dawn Service and Commemorative March. Just before Anzac Day 1925 Melbourne Punch described Anzac Day as ‘that solemn day, on which … the spirits of the nation’s gallant dead come back again for a space, on ‘Home Leave’.’[2] Two years later the famous war artist and cartoonist Will Dyson published his best-known cartoon in the Melbourne Herald. In A Voice from Anzac two ghostly Australia soldiers left behind on the beachhead of Gallipoli draw solace from hearing the feet of the Returned Men marching in Australia. One of them says to the other: ‘Funny thing, Bill—I keep thinking I hear men marching!’.

By far the most popular painting of the period was Will Longstaff’s Menin Gates at Midnight, 1927, which depicted a psychic vision Longstaff had experienced during a midnight walk after the unveiling of the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres, when he saw soldier spirits rising from the cornfields around him. When the painting toured Australia in 1928 and 1929 it was seen by perhaps half a million people, who filed reverently past it to the accompaniment of sombre organ music.[3] To this day the spooky painting still hangs in its own darkened grotto in the Australia War Memorial.

The emotional power of Dyson’s and Longstaff’s  spectral imagery derived at least some of its legibility from Spiritualist photography. Spiritualist ideas were pervasive after the war. The period’s most famous proselytiser of Spiritualism was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the famous detective and arch rationalist Sherlock Holmes. Doyle had been a jingoistic propagandist during World War One, during which he lost his son and his brother. After that war, when virtually every other family was experiencing similar grief, the ‘sight of a world which was distraught with sorrow and eagerly asking for help and knowledge’, had compelled him to use his fame and personal wealth to proselytise the Spiritualist cause in lectures delivered from platforms across the world.[4] In 1920 and 1921 he travelled throughout Australia, eventually speaking to a total of 50,000 people. His most popular lecture was on spirit photography, where he showed lantern-slides of photographs taken by mediumistic photographers at photographic séances. In these images the faces of the dead where captured floating above the living, they seemed to have finally returned to join their loved ones once more within the photographic emulsion. When projected onto the lantern-slide screens of packed meeting halls these photographic ‘proofs’ of the ‘truth’ of spirit return provided implicit comfort to the bereaved families in Australia, whose sons had died thousand of miles away. The Melbourne Age reported:

Unquestionably the so-called ‘dead’ lived. That was his message to the mothers of Australian lads who died so grandly in the War, and with the help of God he and Lady Doyle would ‘get it across’ to Australia.[5]

Since that time the Anzac tradition has developed radically. It has changed from being a collective cult of memory for the dead intensely focussed on the physical absence of fallen soldiers, to being a more generalised set of nationalistic and quasi-religious rituals through which every Australian is meant to feel bonded to their country.

At the same time the mechanisms through which ghosts are conjured has developed and widened. Images of people from the past increasingly pervade the present through the power of photography. In the photographic archive the past lies hidden and buried, whilst always containing the potential for exploration and retrieval. The archive has increasingly become a terrain in which some artists feel as though they can meet people from the past and even, in some sense,  bring them back to the present.

For example in 2003 two Sydney artists, Kate Richards and Ross Gibson, presented Life after Wartime at the Sydney Opera House. The work was an interactive  ‘performance’ of an archive of crime-scene photographs that had been assembled by Sydney’s police force in the decades following the Second World War. The artists sat at laptops and midi keyboards and brought up strings of images which, combined with evocative haikus, were projected onto two large screens. Beneath the screens, The Necks, a jazz trio well known for its ominous movie music, improvised a live soundtrack of brooding ambience. Although not directly picturing spectres, the texts and images generated open-ended non-specific narratives around a set of semi-fictionalized characters and locations in Sydney. These characters became invisible presences occupying the creepy emptiness of the crime scenes. The element of automation, in the way the story engine generated the loose narratives, preserved the integrity, the historical artefactuality, of the original archive. Ross Gibson wrote:

Whenever I work with historical fragments, I try to develop an aesthetic response appropriate to the form and mood of the source material. This is one way to know what the evidence is trying to tell the future. I must not impose some pre-determined genre on these fragments. I need to remember that the evidence was created by people and systems of reality independent of myself. The archive holds knowledge in excess of my own predispositions. … Stepping off from this intuition, I have to trust that the archive has occulted in it a logic, a coherent pattern which can be ghosted up from its disparate details so that I can gain a new, systematic understanding of the culture that has left behind such spooky detritus. In this respect I am looking to be a medium for the archive. I want to ‘séance up’ the spirit of the evidence. [6]

In seeking to be a voodoo spiritualist ‘medium’ for the archive, the work was not trying to quote from it, or mine it for retro titbits ripe for appropriation, so much as to make contact with it as an autonomous netherworld of images. This sense of the palpability of other times preserved in the archive also informs the work of the Sydney photographer Anne Ferran. In 1997 she made a ‘metaphorical x-ray’ of a nineteenth-century historic house. She carefully removed items of the colonial family’s clothing from its drawers and cupboards and, in a darkened room, laid them gently onto photographic paper before exposing it to light. In the photograms the luminous baby dresses and night-gowns floated ethereally against numinous blackness. To Ferran, the photogram process made them look ‘three-dimensional, life-like, as if it has breathed air into them in the shape of a body … With no context to secure these images, it’s left up to an audience to deal with visual effects that seem to have arisen of their own accord, that are visually striking but in an odd, hermetic way.’[7]

Other Australia artists have gone beyond the generalised, enigmatic, uncanny ambience of the photographic archive, and have used archival photographs to directly create ghostly images. But these contemporary spectres — photographically produced apparitions from the past superimposed on the present — are not being invoked in order to console the living, as in the Anzac spectral tradition, but to cajole them, beseech them, or imprecate them, just as Fisher’s ghost did in the nineteenth century.

In 1980 Australia’s most eminent art historian, Bernard Smith, gave a series of lectures under the title ‘The Spectre of Truganini.’ In the nineteenth century, Truganini had been a much-photographed colonial celebrity as the ‘last’ of the ‘full-blood’ Tasmanian Aborigines. Smith’s argument was that, despite white Australia’s attempt to blot out and forget the history of its own brutal displacement of Australia’s aboriginal population, the repressed would continue to return and haunt contemporary Australia until proper amends were made.[8]

As aboriginal activism grew in intensity and sophistication during the 1980s and 1990s, anthropological portraits such as those of Truganini, began to be conceived of not only as the theoretical paradigm for colonial attempts at genocide but also as acts of violence in themselves, technically akin to, and instrumentally part of, that very process of attempted genocide. They began to be used by young aboriginal artists to ‘occult up’ their ancestors. Their reuse attempted to capture a feeling of active dialogue with the past, a two-way corridor through time, or a sense of New Age channelling. In a meditation on nineteenth-century anthropological photographs, the aboriginal photographer and curator Brenda L. Croft retroactively invested the agency of political resistance in the 140-year-old portraits.

Images like these have haunted me since I was a small child … [and] were instrumental in guiding me to use the tools of photography in my work … The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest.[9]

But aboriginal ghosts face a lot of work to do yet before they can finally rest. Aboriginal ghosts are needed to remind Australia that there is unfinished business, that the process of reconciliation with the past is not complete. Rather than laying their ancestors to rest, many aboriginal artists have photographically raised them from the dead to enrol them in various contemporary campaigns of resistance. One of the first Australian aboriginal photographers to receive international attention was Leah King-Smith. Her 1992 exhibition Patterns of Connection travelled throughout Australia as well as internationally. To make her large, deeply coloured photo[compositions she copied anthropological photographs from the State Library of Victoria, liberating them from the archive to be superimposed as spectral presences on top of hand-coloured landscapes. For her, this process allowed Aboriginal people to flow back into their land, into a virtual space reclaimed for them by the photographer. In the words of the exhibition’s catalogue: ‘From the flaring of velvety colours and forms, translucent ghosts appear within a numinous world.’[10]

King-Smith holds spiritualist beliefs of her own. She concluded her artist’s statement by asking that ‘people activate their inner sight to view Aboriginal people.’[11] Her work animistically gave the museum photographs she reused a spiritualist function. Some of her fellow aboriginal artists thought the work too generalist. It lacked specific knowledge of the stories of the people whose photographs were reused, and it didn’t have explicit permission from the traditional owners of the land they were made to haunt. But the critic Anne Marsh described that as a ‘strategic essentialism.’

There is little doubt, in my mind, that Leah King-Smith is a kind of New Age evangelist and many serious critics will dismiss her work on these grounds …But I am interested in why the images are so popular and how they tap into a kind of cultural imaginary [in order] to conjure the ineffable … Leah King-Smith’s figures resonate with a constructed aura: [they are] given an enhanced ethereal quality through the use of mirrors and projections. The ‘mirror with a memory’ comes alive as these ancestral ghosts … seem to drift through the landscape as a seamless version of nineteenth century spirit photography.[12]

While not buying into such direct visual spirituality, other aboriginal artists have also attempted to use the power of old photographs to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from the past. In a series of works from the late 1990s, Brook Andrew invested his nineteenth-century subjects, copied from various state archives, with a libidinous body image inscribed within the terms of contemporary queer masculinity, and emblazoned them with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as Sexy and Dangerous (1996), I Split Your Gaze (1997), and Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr [I See You] (1998). Andrew exploits the auratic power of the original Aboriginal subjects to re-project the historically objectifying gaze straight back to the present, to be immediately reinscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse. Although Andrew was also criticized for using the powerful portraits of the aboriginal subjects without appropriate consideration for their original tribal and geographical identity, these works have since become almost iconic in contemporary Australian art.

Since 1999 the photographer Darren Siwes, of aboriginal and Dutch heritage, has performed a series of spectral self portraits in Australia and the United Kingdom. By ghosting himself standing implacably in front of various buildings, he refers to an aboriginal haunting, certainly; but because he is ghosted standing to attention while wearing a generic suit, he also evokes the feeling of being surveilled by a generalized, accusatory masculinity – exactly the same feeling that a memorial Anzac statue gives. Like much other contemporary aboriginal photography in Australia, Siwes’s photographs are mannered, stiff, and visually dull, but they have proved to be extraordinarily popular with curators in Australia and internationally. It is not the intrinsic quality of the art that is so persuasive, but the rhetorical force of the spectres. As overwrought and histrionic as they are, ghosts are still able to directly address historical and cultural issues of broad contemporary concern.

In their book Uncanny Australia Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs use Australian ghost stories to describe the uncanniness of Australia’s relationship to aboriginal spirituality. Although it is supposedly a settler country, in many ways Australia remains ‘unsettled’. In Australia both aboriginal and non-aboriginal relationships to the land have to co-exist, while its often violent history of possession, displacement and oppression underscore both relationships in different ways. For over two hundred years generations of non-aboriginal, settler Australians have forged strong spiritual bonds to the land, but aboriginal claims for the full recognition of their prior occupation of the continent, and for the precedence of their sacred relationship to the land, often give non-aboriginal Australians the uncanny feeling they are ‘foreigners at home’. In these postcolonial terms Gelder and Jacobs see hauntings as a productive occurrence, a means of acknowledging the inherent postcolonial contradictions in modern day Australia:

‘Ghosts’ simply could not function in a climate of sameness, in a country which fantasises about itself as ‘one nation’ or which imagines a utopian future of ‘reconciliation’ in which … all the ghosts have been laid to rest. But neither can they function in a climate of nothing but difference, where the one can never resemble the other, as in a ‘divided’ nation. A structure in which sameness and difference solicit each other, spilling over each other’s boundaries only to return again to their respective places, moving back and forward in an unpredictable, even unruly manner—a structure in which sameness and difference embrace and refuse each other simultaneously: this is where the ‘ghosts’ which may cause us to ‘smile’ or to ‘worry’ continue to flourish.[13]

Ghosts have re-emerged because both white and black Australians are now spiritually immersed in their country in a way which goes beyond the mutually exclusive binary of possession versus dispossession.

The haunting experiences of everyday Australians are explored by the historian Peter Read in his book Haunted Earth. He uses oral history interviews with over forty non-aboriginal and aboriginal Australians to explore their relationship to what he calls ‘inspirited places’. These are places defined by the nexus of place and history, time and spirit. For Read ‘inspiriting’ is a reciprocal process between the Earth and humans, where both old and new Australians bring inspiriting mythologies, rites and beliefs with them to the land they inhabit, just as particular landscapes are experienced by the humans who inhabit them as ‘haunted’ with a kind of soul or essence. Like many contemporary cultural historians Read is trying to go beyond hackneyed ‘paranormal’ explanations for some people’s intense experience of spiritual presence. He wants to understand these uncanny feelings as something more interesting and complex than the self-limiting notion that they are just the ‘epiphenomena of an excited or deluded brain’.

He recounts the vivid experience of people living in the suburbs built on the sandstone ridges north of Sydney which were once intensively occupied by Aboriginal people. He meets three separate families who believe they have either seen or felt the direct presence of Aboriginal spirits. ‘To the haunted families, the land itself, and the memories that the land holds independent of humans, carry profound meanings clearly related to invasion, dispossession and violence.’ However this haunting is not something to be banally expiated. If all the ghosts were ever to be exorcised then something would be lost to our contemporary experience. As he comments, ‘Those untroubled, those unhaunted, by the ghosts of the past have missed something profound.’ [14]

Australia has a long and persistent history of haunting. And its ghosts are a long way from being laid to rest, indeed more seem to be accumulating. The means through which we make these ghosts appear might have changed — from the genre of storytelling, to drawing and painting, to photographic superimposition. And the uncanny, unsettled worlds between which the ghosts communicated may have changed — from distant countries sundered by space, to not-so-distant pasts sundered by historical forgetting. But in all their over the top kitschiness, in all their histrionic posturing, ghosts have always continued to contribute to our sense of ourselves.

[1] The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories, selected by K. Gelder, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. xi.

[2]  R. McMullin, Will Dyson: Cartoonist, Etcher and Australia’s First War Artist, London, Angus & Robertson, 1984, p226.

[3]  A. Gray, Will Longstaff’s Menin Gates at Midnight, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, nd, np.

[4] N. Fodor, Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science, London, Arthurs Press, 1933, p106.

[5] ‘Conan Doyle in Australia’, Light, December 18, 1920, np.

[6] R. Gibson, ‘Negative Truth: A new approach to photographic storytelling’, Photofile 58, 1999, p30.

[7] A. Ferran, ‘Longer Than Life’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 1, 1, 2000, pp166 -70.

[8] B. Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: 1980 Boyer Lectures, Sydney, Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1980.

[9] B. L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, in Portraits of Oceania, ed. by J. Annear, Sydney, 1997, p9, p14.

[10] J. Phipps, ‘Elegy, Meditation and Retribution’, in Patterns Of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992, np.

[11] L. King-Smith, ‘Statement’, in Patterns of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992, np.

[12] A. Marsh, ‘Leah King-Smith and the Nineteenth Century Archive’, History of Photography, 23, 2, 1999, p117.

[13]. K. Gelder and J. M. Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation, Melbourne University Press, 1998, p42.

[14] P. Read, Haunted Earth, Sydney, University of New South Wales, 2003, p59.

Bill Henson

Op ed, Canberra Times, 2008

You can call Bill Henson’s photographs many things: melodramatic, perhaps; overwrought, perhaps; repetitive, perhaps (he’s been shooting the same kind of brooding, heavy-lidded adolescents for decades). But one thing you can’t call them is pornographic. Contrary to the claims of the activist, Hetty Johnston, whose single complaint led to the police raid on the Roslyn Oxley 9 Gallery and the subsequent charges, a photograph of a naked teenager is not automatically pornography. And I’ve got news for Kevin Rudd, who finally fully revealed his own narrow-minded prudery by joining in with the baying of the pack, photographs of naked teenagers are not automatically disgusting. If they are not sexually titillating for viewers, as is the case with Henson’s images, and if, as in this work, they are covered in a heavy cloak of metaphorical significance produced by the model’s faraway expressions and the scene’s stygian lighting, they are not pornography they are art. Good enough art to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale, the cultural equivalent of the Olympic Games. Good enough art to pull 65,000 people to the Art Gallery of New South Wales without a single complaint, and good enough art to have been on the high school syllabus for years. Judging by their blog entries the high school students who visited Henson’s many previous exhibitions responded to his work with far more intelligence and thoughtfulness than our politicians.

Commentators such as Clive Hamilton, formerly of the Australia Institute, have recognised this, but have nonetheless accused Henson and his gallery of naivety. In the current cultural climate where corporations are sexualising children of younger and younger ages to sell them clothes or pop music, and where paedophiles are finding more and more images to feed their lusts by trawling the internet, how could Henson not expect there to be a backlash, Hamilton asks. Henson should have known better, he says. But why should artists pre-emptively buckle to pressure groups and media-manufactured witch-hunts? Maybe they have something important to say, which needs to be said. Maybe we should even respect artists and the international reputations they have built up over decades of hard work and hard thinking.

Girls don’t become women, and boys don’t become men, overnight. It is a time of magic, beauty, confusion, and yes, vulnerability. This simple cultural and biological fact has been the subject of art and poetry for millennia. But by now prohibiting the picturing of this period in life, when innocence mixes with knowing, who in fact is being protected? As has been proved time and time again, when things aren’t talked about, celebrated and discussed, that is the time when they become most vulnerable to exploitation. “This photographic exhibition violates the things for which we stand as Australians and indeed as parents”, Brendan Nelson brayed . Speaking as a parent, I refuse to be conscripted into a supposed army of the outraged. “I’d like to see the parents [of the models] well looked into”, demands the self-appointed guardian of our children, Hetty Johnston, “what parent in their right mind would allow their 12- or 13-year-old to strip off and display themselves all over the internet?” Well, if a photographer of Henson’s calibre and integrity approached me as a father, I just might.

Dr Martyn Jolly

Dr Martyn Jolly is Head of Photography and Media Arts at the Australian National University School of Art

Collateral Damage – Denise Ferris and Martyn Jolly

‘Collateral Damage’ (with Denise Ferris), Art Monthly Australia, July, 2008, pp3—5

Now that the nightmare is finally over for Bill Henson, and the dust is settling, what will be the residual damage to Australian culture?

Photography plays a complex role in our culture, it produces direct evidence of reality, but at the same time it deals in social symbols and metaphors, and creates personal ideals and icons. The attack on Bill Henson cut through this complexity with a syllogism devastating in its fundamentalist simplicity: nakedness is always sexual, and photographers always exploit their subjects, therefore photographs of naked children are always exploitative child pornography. This equation efficiently short-circuited any other mechanisms of representation, or expression, or interpretation that until now were assumed to be intrinsic to photographing models posing for the camera. In her strident way Hetty Johnston from the lobby group Bravehearts put it best. When she heard that the DPP had finally dropped the charges she declared: ‘We are just handing our children on a bloody plate to paedophiles. This is a disgrace for this country, absolutely shameful.’

In this formulation, not only are all photographs of naked children always equivalent to paedophilia itself, but they also condemn the whole society. As the Sydney academic Ruth Barcan pointed out in Nudity a Cultural Anatomy, ‘Images of children and youth function as mirrors to an adult society eager to verify its own moral state. This might help explain why representations of children can be subject to idealization, but also why both the effect of images on youth and the representation of youth in images can become concentrated sites of social unease and regulation.’

Any attempt to resist an over-regulation of photography driven by such social unease is immediately met with the ultimate foreclosing reply: child protection. In supporting the initial raids of his police officers the NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said, ‘the most important thing here, the thing we cannot lose sight of, is we have to protect our children’. As more police started to raid art museums, rifling through their racks looking for thirty year old art works, Hetty Johnston agreed,  ‘Nobody is above the law, not artists, they just can’t be, children are suffering as a result.’

But how might actual children suffer as a result of Bill Henson’s photographs? Perhaps a paedophile might see one and be so erotically inflamed they may abuse a child. But there is plenty of real child pornography available on the net, and no proof that the mere existence of further images of naked children in artistic scenarios and artistic poses will exacerbate a paedophile’s behaviour. Perhaps a child might see one and become ‘sexualised’ too early in her emotional development. But an image of a normal pubescent child simply standing there is unlikely to provoke body-image confusion in other children, who must also be regularly seeing their own friends’ bodies. Perhaps his models may be traumatised by the experience of posing for him, even if they don’t yet realize it. But no Henson model has yet reported that they found posing for him anything other than enjoyable and creative experience. Or perhaps the ‘innocence’ of a child is ‘exploited’ by Henson making money from it. But child actors have long delighted us with their precocious presence in popular films and TV shows, so why should art be any different.

Whilst the DPP was considering whether or not to charge Henson, other police were spending their time more usefully by using actual child pornography to track down real paedophiles. The images they traced, which were downloaded at least 1500 times to Australia, were quite unlike Henson’s, being images of actual sex-acts. Although police operations like Operation Centurion have established that the circulation of pornographic images is an important part of paedophilic behaviour, no research conducted anywhere has been able to establish any causal links between images of the type produced by Henson and aberrant behaviour.

Nonetheless, we have arrived at a time when the naturalist’s slogan ‘nude ain’t rude’ seems historical and quaint, and when talking about nakedness as being just the way we were born sounds like old-fashioned hippy speak. The British sociologist Frank Furedi has described this as a ‘culture of fear’ where ideas of social change (including how we see ourselves represented) are experienced as risks, not opportunities for new orientations. This exaggerated sense of risk is driven by a powerful ‘cognitive illusion’. As the Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has argued, we estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples. And examples of abuse are continually made forcefully present to us through the media. The incentive structure of activism and opinion markets adds to this — no one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better.

Potential risks inevitably lead to potential victims. Every photographic act is now more readily viewable through the prism of victim and abuser, than artist and subject. And so Hetty Johnston is able to claim that, ‘the liberties the art world take … harm the whole cause of child protection.’ Even more authoritative commentators such as Clive Hamilton, the campaigner against ‘corporate paedophilia’, says that Bill Henson and Roslyn Oxley should have known better, and have only themselves to blame. They should have realized that they would suffer collateral damage from a society finally waking up to the fact that it has let its children become sexualised too early. But Henson isn’t the only artist to be sustaining collateral damage. For example in April 2007 Polixeni Papapetrou’s photograph Olympia Wearing Her Grandmother’s Jewels was withdrawn from the Gosford leg of the Australian Centre for Photography’s touring show Changeling: Childhood and the Uncanny after complaints from the public. And in 2005, just prior to the opening of Ella Dreyfus’s exhibition, two of her images of soccer players in her son’s team were withdrawn from display, four were withdrawn from sale, and two remain covered over in the catalogue.

Do these few examples really matter? Why bother with those who think they can definitively tell right from wrong, and who set themselves up as experts who know what’s good for all of us? Because these harmful helpers also wantonly mishandle exactly what adults are entrusted with — the social and cultural future of our young. Their self-indulgent disgust and uncorroborated fantasies of harmful art will have significant long-term effects on the world our children will inherit.

Their world would drop a visual veil over our children until the age of eighteen. The marvellous extended process of a child becoming an adult would take place in the dark. The transition period when children are most vulnerable to exploitation (from somebody they know and trust in 85% of cases) would take place largely unseen and unspoken about. The complexities, doubts, fears and dreams of puberty would be left to the tabloids, the television and the advertisers to articulate with their banal sexual dichotomies and overheated social scenarios. The psychologically supporting network of loving looks and mutual regard we want our children to grow up in would be ripped away. The complexity of children would become publicly invisible — except for the photographs that sell products to them.

Their world sees only two possible contracts between adult and child, either one of parental or pedagogical authority, or one of sexual exploitation. All other contracts based on mutuality, creativity, fun or play, are suspect. The chance these teenagers had, through symbolically representing ‘youth’ for Henson (with mum and dad’s permission and with their own free will) to briefly pretend to be someone different, and collaborate on producing something mysterious and beautiful and powerful, would exist no more. By all accounts Henson’s models down through the years still value the experience, some even hang the resulting photographs on their walls for their own children to admire.

The world of the over-anxious sees no social role for art, or creativity or expression. Hetty Johnston sees Henson’s art in only two lights, it is either to make him money by selling images of children, or for his ‘personal satisfaction’. For her, art seems to be a furtive personal activity closely allied to pornography in any case, and without wider social or cultural benefit. ‘If we keep allowing artists to do whatever their whim allows, whatever they want to do, what’s the next boundary that’s going to be challenged by the likes of Bill Henson’, she demands. In her view, and in the view of her cheer squad in our parliaments and in the media, art is a habit a small section of society has, a personal indulgence rather than part of a larger conversation.

Moral panics rise and fall. Eventually this one, too, will subside. But after it has there will have been a tectonic shift in the attitude of the public and the law to what we can and can’t see, what we can and can’t make. The deadening effect will hang like a pall over all of us.

Peace After War and Memories, 1918

‘Peace after war and memories’, catalogue essay in Harold Cazneaux: Artist in Photography, 2008, edited by Natasha Bulluck, Art Gallery of New South Wales. PP136-137 ISBN 978-1-74174-022-6

Cazneaux was a photographer of taste and restraint. His reputation was built on understated images with elegant compositions and carefully modulated lighting effects. Which is not to say that he didn’t tackle big topics, his central theme was the process of historical change itself, the gentle overlapping of one epoch with the next. However, a few images stand out as intriguingly different in Cazneaux’s work. One example is Peace After War and Memories, 1918, exhibited at the London Salon of 1920. Unlike most of Cazneaux’s pictorialist work it is not a generalised view of this or that backstreet of Sydney, or this or that picturesque by-way in the countryside. Its title and date refer to a specific historical event, the end of the Great War. The main figure is presumably a soldier settler, one of the thousands who were given small blocks to farm as a form of repatriation, and in order to build up the Australian nation by forging the returning diggers into a class of agrarian yeomanry. (Although, even in 1918 as a severe drought began to bite, it was becoming clear that the utopian dream of the soldier settler schemes was destined for failure.) The horse-drawn plough of the farm is a familiar enough Cazneaux trope — an anachronistic technology teetering on the edge of nostalgia — but it is the dusty smoky paddock it ploughs that is the most arresting. It is a strange, uncanny landscape, a doubled landscape, at once an image of a precarious attempt to make the harsh Australian land productive and a visual echo of the blasted landscape of the Front returning. The bare trees in the background would have reminded contemporary viewers of the skeletal trees of the Somme, stripped of their leaves by bomb blasts; and the drifting smoke from the burn-off would have reminded them of the newspaper pictures they had seen of the bombs themselves. The dispersing clouds are also a familiar pictorialist convention, but the shafts of light beneath which the soldier/farmer bows his head now seem to directly offer divine benediction to his reverie. Cazneaux has clearly felt compelled to lard all of these extra symbols into his image in order to express his personal reaction to the historical cataclysm that was the most epoch changing event of his time. Although he was a sentimentalist, this mannered symbolism was new terrain for him. However similar images were occurring regularly in lower-brow culture, and Cazneaux drew on this visual vocabulary for his own salon image. For instance in 1915 Melbourne’s Weekly Times Annual printed a montage of a digger on guard duty in a bare battle field, leaning over his rifle and dreaming, in a photographic thought bubble, of his mother waiting for him back home. And in 1919 Frank Hurley was to exhibit The Dawn of Passchendaele at Sydney’s Kodak Salon, in which he montaged a holy-card sky above a terrible battle scene. By the 1920s Cazneaux was back to making sleek images for classy magazines like The Home. It wasn’t until World War Two, when he rechristened his 1937 photograph of an ancient gum tree tenaciously clinging to a dry creek bed The Spirit of Endurance, that he made another of his images resonate in a similar way. That nationalist allegory was more enduring and remains popular to this day.

Weekly Times Annual, Melbourne 4 November 1915, The Mothers Daydream, The Son’s Lonely Vigil, pp12-13

Alex James’s Landscape Photographs of Time and History

‘Photographs of Time and History’, book foreword in The Twilight of Mr Kemp: Landscapes 1797-1897, by Alexander James, unpaginated two pages. ISBN 0-9532458-4-5

In that period after the sun sets below the horizon, but before the landscape sinks into complete darkness, Alex James works like a demon. With a view camera he urgently exposes sheet after sheet of large-format film. As the gloaming intensifies, his exposures lengthen, from several seconds to many minutes. Eventually he is focussing only on the beam of a torch, and the chemical phenomenon of reciprocity departure has curdled the colour of the last remaining glow of sky a sour yellow.

James is photographing sites where, perhaps, tragedies once occurred. As Europeans moved across the landscape they sowed the ground with such stories. There were not only the massacres and dispersals they perpetuated on the indigenous population, but also their own random mishaps and misadventures — their drownings, their shootings, their shipwrecks, their bungled escapes and their disappearances.

Not for James the antiseptic, suprahuman wildernesses of, say, a Peter Dombrovskis. Against those anodyne microcosmic or macrocosmic spectacles James counterposes a large-format landscape photography where places are entangled with stories, light seems to grow up and out from the ground, and the landscape is not there to be consumed by the viewer, but instead sometimes threatens to engulf the viewer themself.

James is born and bred in south eastern New South Wales and has a profound affection for the place. Since he was a child he has skied, bushwalked and surfed from the Snowy Mountains to the South Coast. [M1] He also loves the process of large-format photography, the muscular physical challenge of getting his camera to the spot, the forensic accumulation of detail, and the dilation of time during the exposure. Like many locals a starting point for establishing a deeper connection to his land and its uncomfortable past began with various local histories. As a genre, these popular local histories are often not much more than patchwork compilations of picturesque anecdotes from various sources which, their authors enthusiastically presuppose, have somehow combined to form the unique character of the region and its current inhabitants. However by re-attaching them to specific landscapes, James has used these local stories to produce a sophisticated visual experience.

In one such history he found an account of a twelve-year old boy who had drowned in the Molonglo River in 1843. This story, complete even with a spooky premonition by the boy’s mother, is typical of the hundreds of such stories from the nineteenth century which testify to the disquieting sense of unbelonging which underscored colonial expansion and settlement.

James returned to the site — now, probably, just below the dam that forms Lake Burley Griffin — to photograph a shallow watercourse choked with weeds and swallowed up by scrubby trees. The receding surface of the water is crawling with worm-like tree-flowers and striated with reflections from the trees, while the vertical plane of the photograph is criss-crossed by a latticework of falling branches which further repel the eye. The threads of light which do manage to penetrate this suffocating space are stained an eerie, indistinct colour — a colour which we know has not been dialled up in Photoshop, but is the chemical and optical result of the process of photography itself at this time of day.

Another oral-history story, which almost has the metaphorical resonances of a fable, concerns a horse which, in the 1890s, escaped a cruel owner on Montagu Island by swimming back to the mainland nearly nine kilometres away — not once, not twice, but three times. In James’s photographs of a low rock platform sloping away into the sea (the only place on the island where the horse could conceivably have entered the water to begin its epic swims) the waves have dissolved under his long exposure into an etheric vapour, and the horizon-line appears like the impossibly distant edge of the world.

Various views of South Coast beaches and headlands are gathered under the title Spring 1797. The date refers to the months when a group of shipwrecked sailors attempted to walk up the coast towards Sydney from Victoria. Despite considerable help from the local indigenous tribes the group progressively died of starvation until only three remained to be found, near death, a few miles south of Botany Bay. James’s crepuscular photographs of the regions they passed through turn what could have been pretty postcard views of holiday beaches, or pleasant pastoral scenes from tourist drives, into something like the ominous and brooding landscape the sailors must have experienced as they trudged through them.

An even more scary ambience is created in a series of rainforest views James titles Spring 1830, in reference to a letter sent at that time by a Batemans Bay resident to the Governor seeking his permission to murder a group of local Aborigines who had been spearing cattle. In James’s airless photographs his wide-angle lens appears to have spreadeagled the ground itself, and the serpentine forms of roots and branches writhe and twist away, plunging into the loam beneath the dense leaf-litter. Each of these shadowless scenes is steeped in an identical sanguineous light.

From these low chthonic reaches, James also took his camera higher, up into the airy tops of the High Country and even above the snow line. For instance Spring 1862 refers to Eugene von Guerard’s expedition to Mount Kosciusko accompanying a scientific survey led by the German scientist George Neumayer, where yet again the expedition’s work was interrupted by a member of the party who got himself lost for several days. But in rephotographing von Guerard’s original famous view from Mount Townsend one hundred and forty-six years later James found himself, like his predecessors, dangerously caught out by the rapidly changing weather, and barely able to make it back to the safety of his tent after darkness unexpectedly closed in.

In these images the scale opens out to approach the majestic, but the horizon line remains high and the colours remain cloying. In the summer of 1835 a mounted policeman shot an escaping bushranger who was desperately swimming across the Snowy River, and his body was never seen again. In James’s photographs of the river the surface of the water becomes skinned with a viscous and glaucous blur.

Towards the end of the book the images approach white-out and the spatial stability offered by a horizon line all but disappears. The series Autumn 1983 is based on the story of a settler who was thrown from his horse and drowned after being caught in a freak snow storm while running cattle in the Snowy Mountains. At this elevation stories such as these seem to have created their own small seismic events as they crack the collapsing crust of snow, revealing the basalt bones beneath. Up here, where the delicate balance of the weather defines the look of the landscape, these fracturing, brittle surfaces have an almost apocalyptic beauty.

All of James’s landscapes are entangled and layered. In his vision time is folded into space, and history is folded into geography. His love for his home, the south-eastern regions of New South Wales, has been deepened by his use of local histories and the bizarre range of stories they offer up. But his photographs do not celebrate the bravery and struggle of the white ‘pioneers’ who ‘opened’ up the land for us. Nor, on the other hand, do they dismissively condemn them for the dispossession of those that, some claim, still have the only authentic relationship to the land — the Aborigines.[M2]  Rather, the loose connections he makes between story and place mobilise the imagination of the audience to narrativize the scenes in a provisional, unsettled way. The viewer virtually enters the scenes and animates them by following along the tracks and lines of tree trunks with their eye, or by spreading their gaze out to suffuse them up to the horizon.

These sites are not monuments to Australian history, like Gallipoli Cove or the Burke and Wills ‘Dig Tree’. They are not sites for prescribed acts of historical memory as a form of national allegiance. The photographs are probably not even taken precisely where the event actually took place, even if, indeed, the event actually happened in precisely the dislocated, fragmentary way in which it has eventually come down to us. Nonetheless story and place adhere to each other like a vague haunting, intermixing and catalysing in the imagination of the viewer. These photographs are experiments in producing a new relationship between ourselves and the land we have inherited — for better or for worse, and along with all of its stories.

Martyn Jolly

October 2008

Dr Martyn Jolly is Head of Photography and Media Arts at the Australian National University School of Art.

 [M1]I mainly ski these days so if you could put “skied” instead of snowboarded and “surfed” instead of swum.

[M2]Again use indigenous Australians or indigenous population, or finish sentance after ‘relationships with land’ – whatever you think.