Spirit Photography and Australia

A Spiritualist’s carte-de-visite album’, paper delivered at  Spiritualism and Technology in Historical and Contemporary Contexts, a AHRC funded conference at the University of Westminster, London, September 26, 2009.

In 1878 by an enthusiastic member of the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists assembled a carte-de-visite album, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Victorian Spiritualists, like Spiritualists everywhere at the time, 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. In the nineteenth-century they combined this modern religious belief with a progressive social agenda that included new ideas about education, social organization and gender roles.

Like every carte de visite album, this one is a collection of cartes of distant celebrities, social acquaintances and close friends. For instance the album includes a stiffly formal carte of the American A. J. Davis, who wrote one of the foundational texts of the movement. It also included cartes 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, 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 included portraits of the English slate writing medium, Henry Slade, who visited the Colony in 1878 to demonstrate how spirits were able to write messages on sealed slates in the darkness of a séance. (Although a Sydney surgeon Dr Samuel Knaggs secreted a mirror into one of his séances and by holding it between his knees saw Slade remove his foot from his kid slippers, and write on the slate under the table with a pencil held between his toes.) It included portraits of the well know platform proselytisers, William Denton and James Peebles, who in 1878 also visited Melbourne from the US to lecture to halls packed with Spiritualists.

The album also featured portraits of Melbourne’s own Spiritualists, including William Terry, the founder of the Association, who had arranged and financed the tours. It also included a spirit photograph of another Melbourne Spiritualist, Dr Walter Richardson, the first president of the Victorian Association. 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. (Incidentally, Richardson died of Syphilis back in Melbourne in 1879, and was the basis of the character Richard Mahony in the novel by his daughter Henry Handel Richardson.) At about the same time Hudson had used the same technique to photograph two London Spiritualists, Samuel Guppy and the Medium Charles Williams, with a spirit, which is also in the album.

We can see the same ornate chair as in Richardson’s carte in Hudson’s voluptuous photograph of the young London medium Florence Cook (although this image is not in the Victorian album). Cook was a materializing medium, meaning she would entrance herself in a ‘cabinet’, a curtained off enclosure, and behind the curtain supposedly materialize a fully embodied spirit which would step out from behind the curtain while the medium would supposedly remain entranced in the cabinet. In 1874 the London physicist William Crookes photographed Cook’s spirit, Katie King, by incandescent lights driven by galvanic batteries. This very rare photograph is not in the Victorian album, but an image of Katie King’s spirit father, the 16th century pirate John King, is in the album.

How did these cartes find there way to Melbourne and into the album? Some were probably brought in Melbourne during tours, some exchanged with fellow Spiritualists, and some perhaps purchased through the London magazine The Spiritualist. Georginia Houghton, for instance, who worked with Hudson over an extended series of photographic séances, financed the sittings by retailing his photographs of her though the magazine. (The VAPS also acquired a set of Houghton’s spirit paintings, which she had painted during the mid 1860s in various trance states.)

The 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.

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 exchanges 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. Big studios such as Charles Kerry, for instance, had used galvanically driven arc-lights for portraits at a ball, and magnesium flares in Jenolan Caves, but artificial light worked best in large open spaces because of the smoke, and was hard to control. So although twenty years earlier Crookes, as Britain’s leading physicist, was able to construct his own galvanic batteries and incandescent lights for the documentation of Katie King, and 15 years later, in 1909, a materialization at a séance in London was photographed by the light of a burning magnesium ribbon, for the Sydney séances the Sunday Times was compelled to use daylight as illumination

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, that 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, he 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 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. As 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 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.

In the kafuffle Mellon’s husband hastily agreed to give a test séance in the offices of the Sunday Telegraph under the paper’s own conditions. The paper built a wire cage in their offices. Mellon was searched and seated herself on a chair inside the cage, which was then padlocked and the curtains drawn. After half an hour of hymn singing had produced no manifestations Mellon was discovered prostrated in a swoon.

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.

However Mellon continued to practice well into the twentieth century. At a Melbourne séance a doctor from Darwin called Dr Haworth saw “a spot of mist on the carpet which rose into a column out of which stepped a completely embodied human being who was recognized.” (Fodor 239)

Thus in these two Australian instances — an 1878 carte-de-visite album and a 1894 pamphlet — we have photography being used in three ways by spiritualists:

  • The international exchange and circulation of carte-de-vistes bound Spiritualism together as a global movement, and expanded the role of the personal album as a keeping place where friends, peers and celebrities all surrounded and supported the album’s unknown compiler, only in this case some were living and some were dead.
  • We also see photography become a kind of performance, a way of expanding on the ritual of the séance and providing an emulsive arena where the living and dead can be re-united once more.
  • Finally, we have the photograph’s veracity used forensically, satisfying a public curiosity about mysterious phenomena, and providing supposedly incontrovertible truth that the dead live.

Alfred J. Gabay, Messages from Beyond: Spiritualism and Spiritualists in Melbourne’s Golden Age, Melbourne University Press, 2001.

T. S. Henry, 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, (Sydney: W. M. Maclardy and Co, 1894)

Psyche, A Counterblast to Spookland, or Glimpses of the Marvellous, (Sydney: W. M. Maclardly & Co., 1895)

Remarks for practice-led research forum

‘Practice-Led Research’, forum panel as part of Beginning, Middle and End, new media festival, Australian National University, September 18, 2009

A place at the university table

When it comes to university research, we in the creative arts, and particularly the creative media arts are the new kids on the block. Certainly the other disciplines generally welcome us, but they don’t need us in their universities. Rather it is us who needs them we need them. University teaching and research paradigms were fine and complete before we began to get amalgamated with them twenty years ago. We need a place at their table and a slice of their pie. So we have to inevitably argue for our case on their terms. And this is what we have done, reasonably successfully over the last fifteen years, so exhibitions now more or less smoothly into translate to publications, studio practice translates to laboratory experiment, audience response translates into new knowledge. We can argue about the exchange rate, but the basic principles are accepted. This process has led to the pretty much global bedding down of the concept of practice led research. That is that the activities of a studio practice undertaken within the established forms, processes histories and goals of the creative arts can be the prime motive force of a research program, both in terms of method and outcome.

At the same time as this has been happening each university as a whole has being put under ever increasing pressure to measure itself and quantify its value to society in order to compete with other universities for funds. There is no doubt that this has put enormous pressure on us over the last decades, and that the creative arts are under more pressure than other areas of the university. But I don’t think we can argue with this. We can’t say our students shouldn’t be accountable. We can’t say that the things we do as practice based academics on our rare ‘research days’ shouldn’t be measured by the people who pay us to do them.

Nonetheless there have been some extraordinary over the top reactions to this process of migration of art schools into universities. For instance in a recent Broadsheet (and I’d like to thank Peter Fitzpatrick for drawing it to my attention) John Conomos argues that the radicality of contemporary art is being killed off by university orthodoxies about teaching and research. This is particularly a worry for the creative media arts he says, where the ‘intricate multi-dimensional media environment in terms of new digital technology and their intricate links between mediation, connection, immersion and community’ are under threat of a blanding out, becoming ‘decorative, ahistorical ‘wallpaper’ entertainment, journalistic lifestyle spruiking for the status quo and the academy.’

This all sounds like a mighty fine rallying cry, but the problem I have with John’s argument is that the alternative systems to universities for supporting radical contemporary art practices which challenge the status quo — the market, arts funding, patronage, the creative industries — aren’t much better. But, despite my reservations with his argument, John does indicate that the complexity of creative media art practice makes the process of the translation of art based processes and outcomes to university based processes and outcomes that much trickier. This is because the creative media arts are dispersed across various disciplinary fields and technological paradigms; they are in a state of perpetual emergence; a cycling flux between innovation and recuperation, the new and old, the latest invention and its instant redundancy, digital and analogue, this or that history, and so on and so on.

For instance I have great respect for my colleagues in say, Painting. I think they are great.  But their research — of working in a studio for a year and producing say twelve paintings each on stretchers which each engage with the long-established history of painting, which has also formed the core of the established university discipline of art history for a hundred years, and which all go off on their identical stretchers to be exhibited together in a gallery along with a glossy illustrated catalogue— I think that process is easier to translate into ‘publication’, ‘experimentation’, or ‘new knowledge’ than, say, somebody who is writing code to create a new environment for a platform that hasn’t quite been invented yet, for a purpose that is only just emerging as a possibility. I think both are equally exciting and important, it’s just that in one case the holes are slightly less round and the pegs are slightly less square.

On the other hand, it must be said that media arts has the advantage that it is still incredibly sexy, cool and groovy, and somewhat mysterious, so we have an advantage there. But some of this sexiness might be wearing off as university administrators realize that it is also incredibly expensive, and continues to be expensive, every two to three years.

Media arts have a voracious appetite for money, and at the same time a more complicated process to negotiate in order to produce the high yield research outcomes universities crave in order to justify their budgets.

The problem of logocentrism.

The currency of universities is words. Our currency is pictures, or sounds, or things. Therefore our research — our art — has to be accompanied by words. Personally I don’t think this is a big ask. We have successfully established that these words are exegetical, that’s why the written bit of a practice based research thesis is called an exegesis. In a creative arts thesis nobody should be asked that they ‘explain’ what the work means. It is quite clear that the exegesis describes the process of meaning production, not the meaning itself. It should describe the theoretical context for the process, not substitute verbiage for poor art. If you don’t get that you don’t get practice based research, and if you can’t do that then don’t come to university. I think all these issues are being handled quite well within the various PhD programs, and if they aren’t in individual universities there are plenty of ways that they can be sorted out.

However what I do think is exciting about the concept of practice based research goes beyond the defensive posture it sometime adopts, you know, the posture of: “oh, why we have to do all this painful stuff just so we can get a seat at the table which is our right anyway, how dare you do it to us, can’t you trust us to know what’s best for us, oh it’s all too much”. What is exciting is the new research tools it brings to the academy. I think that is really exciting.

As has been well documented, in the humanities there has been a ‘pictorial turn’. In the last couple of decades, humanities disciplines like anthropology, archaeology, english, and cultural studies have embraced the visual. When that pictorial turn in the humanities meets practice-based research from the creative arts it gets really interesting. This is because other organs come into play: looking becomes a critical practice in and of itself, not just a means of providing sense-data to be written about, the same goes for hearing and touch. This is what is really exciting and positive about practice led research, and for me it’s happening in our PhD programs across the country, particularly where candidates from other disciplines or other backgrounds incorporate ‘our’ methods into their ‘methods’. When, for instance they are given permission to look and do — rather than look, describe what they think they saw, then do something based on that description — new methodological tools become available.

Again, I think the creative media arts are crucial here, and are naturally at the forefront. Although, as I have said, they are in a state of perpetual emergence, they are also intrinsically discursive. They are multi-sensorial, they are multi-user, they deal with data-sets, iterations, automated procedures, interactions. All this makes well know forms of academic process — like the essay, the conversation, the dialogue, the experiment — absolutely intrinsic to the creative media arts, rather than something which can be applied to them. You can have a conversation about a traditional art-work, you can have a conversation in creative media arts. You can write an essay about a conventional art experience, you can make an essay within a creative media arts piece.

So, paradoxically, although the creative media arts don’t fit in with some paradigms of the measurable research output, they do fit in with other paradigms of academic discourse.


For me the concept of practice led research comes down to the resistance of things. When I try to take a photograph it doesn’t all get in the frame or all in focus. When I exhibit something, people don’t think what I want them to think. Reality is obdurate and intractable. The fact that REALITY RESISTS US defines our lives, and for me only practice led research gets right down onto that interface. It’s not only a ticket to the small crowded table of university funding, it also helps me work out for myself, why isn’t the world exactly the way I want it to be.

Martyn Jolly

The Face of Australia NPG


In this talk I want to look at a neglected aspect of Australian photography, that is the photo books published about Australia. I think these ‘Australiana’ picture books, which have been published in a steady trickle from the 1930s till the present, are particularly interesting. In particular these books had their heyday in the 1960s and 70s. These books generally aren’t high quality art books. They were often cheaply printed and poorly designed and they were usually the product of several authors, not only the photographer, but also the publisher, book designer and writer. Many of the photographs were radically cropped and resized, and many of the photographers works for which they are now best known weren’t published at all. Nonetheless they provide us with a rawer and more immediate access to the visual culture of their time.  They were what picture editors and photographers thought their readers wanted at the time the photographs were taken. They only reproduce photographs as they were selected and laid out by picture editors at the time, rather than as today’s curators and dealers have subsequently excavated them from photographer’s archives.

Secondly, the photographers, writers, designers and picture editors on many of these books took it upon themselves to either implicitly or explicitly attempt to explain and document for their readers what kind of society Australia was, and what typical Australians looked like. These books, which had titles like This is Australia, or The Australians were, in a period before the burgeoning of Australia’s TV and film industry, were often the only forum Australians had to picture themselves to each other. Many of the books saw themselves as on a social mission to describe ‘the face of Australia’.

I hope to prove to you that they were largely successful because we can all, now, 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 very fraught by debates around multiculturalism, the idea is still a live one 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?

THE 1960s

Mny things changed in Australian visual culture in the 1960s. 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, and the unpopularity of Wake in Fright from 1971.

Some of the books were aimed at Australians who were loading up their Holdens and Falcons and heading round Australia. Examples are Rigby’s 1966 book Around Australia on Highway One. Others were aimed at an overseas audience, for instance in 1964 David Moore shot widely for an assignment on Australia and New Zealand for the LIFE World Library. The writer for the LIFE book, Colin McInnis describes the Australian type thus:

Certainly the Australian male is tough — very tough — and in appearance lean-eyed, hatchet-jawed, relaxed and slightly ungainly. The girls generally come in two types — either a rather stringy, small-breasted leggy girl with a sun-baked complexion, or else one with a large-hipped figure and an easy grace of posture.


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.’[i]

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.[ii]

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.[iii]

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’.[iv] )


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 emerges is ‘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. And the interest in the face, captured in the frame for scrutiny, remains. In 1998 the National Portrait Gallery opened in Canberra with the vision that at least in part took up where the Australian picture books left of, the gallery’s mission was 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.


Is there still such a thing as a ‘typical Australian’. 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, as, perhaps was Fred Hollows. I’m even going to go out on a limb and include Ernie Dingo in my category.

The type is always susceptible to self-parody. Jack Thompson first appeared as a drunken kangaroo shooter in Wake in Fright, but I was startled to see Jack Thompson’s 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. Max Dupain and David 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] George Johnston and Robert Goodman, The Australians, Rigby, 1966, p292.

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

[iii] p 214, p210.

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

When in Venice…

‘When in Venice…’, review of Venice Biennale, Art Monthly Australia, July, pp24-26

Venice Biennale

‘I will not make any more boring art’ reads the giant banner slung across the front of one of the palaces on the Grand Canal. It’s there to greet the 300,000 visitors who are expected to visit the Venice Biennale this year. The text has been extracted and enlarged from a 1971 work by John Baldessari, who, along with Yoko Ono, won the Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement this year. Originally Baldessari had written it out multiple times for a video work as though he was a school child being punished. He was wittily commenting on the serial nature of art at the time, and pre-dating Bart Simpson’s nightly exercises by eighteen years. Now turned from a conceptual art piece into a single slogan for the Biennale it announces that we are entering the globalised, corporatised world of the international art fair, where scale, impact and the grand gesture define the moment.

The Biennale consists of a large curated exhibition, this year called Making Worlds and curated by Daniel Birnbaum; 77 national contributions, either within purpose-built pavilions or elsewhere; 44 collateral events and exhibitions; and other events which although not officially part of the Biennale are timed to ride its bow waves. (For instance the billionaire art collector and owner of Christie’s, Francois Pinault, timed the opening of his private museum in the newly restored Venice Customs House, the Punta della Dogana, to coincide with the Biennale.) The Biennale proper takes place over two main areas — the Arsenale, originally Venice’s Military precinct, and the Giardini, located in nearby parkland — as well as numerous other venues throughout Venice. All up it includes about 800 artists and runs until November 22 this year.

Daniel Birnbaum’s Making Worlds exhibition was dedicated to the notion that ‘the artist makes worlds, not objects’. In the Arsenale section of Making Worlds the show led the visitor for hundreds and hundreds of metres down a long cavernous space, then outside into the Arsenale’s gardens where more works were tucked away in overgrown nooks and tumbledown buildings. The exhibition continued in a more labyrinthine form in the old Italian Pavilion in the Giardini which has been enlarged and renamed the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. The spirit of Fluxus and the post war avant-gardes reigned over the show. As Birnbaum said: ‘not every artist who is new or who is doing something interesting is 27 years old’.  Of the over 90 artists in the show many were senior, such as Yoko Ono and John Baldessari, and thirteen were, in fact, dead  — such as the Brazillian artist Lygia Pape who died in 2004 (at the ripe age of 77). She opened the Arsenale arm of show with a breathtaking installation of delicate square columns of copper thread stretched between floor and ceiling which she completed just before she died; and she was also in the Palazzo with a work from the late 1950s consisting of elegantly cut and folded cardboard sheets telling a creation story in austere abstract geometry.

The show had plenty of familiar old stagers from the circuit, such as Joan Jonas (who was at last year’s Sydney Biennale) who restaged her Reading Dante project; as well as wonderful lesser known surprises from the older generation, such as Hans-Peter Feldmann, the German collector/artist who presented Shadow Play, a frieze of flickering shadows made by shining lights across his collection of dolls and toys as they rotated on turn-tables. His complete corpus of artist’s books was also on display in the Book Pavilion. Yoko Ono’s ‘instruction pieces’ were a simple pleasure, but so too was a display from Gutai, the Japanese avant-garde group formed in 1954, most of whom have either now died or are well into their eighties. They re-presented coloured water suspended from the ceiling in plastic tubes, wooden boxes you could listen to, constellations of light bulbs embedded in sand, torn paper walls, and other avant-garde delights which were as fresh today as they were fifty years ago.

This spirit was given a contemporary spin by plenty of the younger artists, such as the Chinese artist Chu Yun. His Constellation consisted of a darkened room that, when you first entered, appeared to be an Aladdin’s cave full of flashing jewels, which you soon realized were the LED lights from scores of ordinary household appliances, passively waiting without function.

A lot of the works Birnbaum selected for Making Worlds were shot through with the elemental constituents of the act of fabrication: primary colours; cuts and collages; stackings and scatters; drawn charts and maps. However post-colonial politics, a standard theme for the global art circuit for at least the last ten years, was also strongly present. For instance Pascale Marthine Tayou, born in Cameroon but based in Belgium, constructed an African village crammed with video projectors projecting scenes of everyday labour from around the world onto every available surface; while Haloba Anawana, born in Zambia but based in Norway, built The Greater G8 Advertising Marketing Stand, where tins of third world products could be opened so they played personal stories of pain and displacement from speakers hidden in their lids.

Engineered construction, reconstruction and architecture were other themes. A steel and glass sculpture by Palermo built for the 1976 Venice Biennale was reconstructed in the same room for this Biennale; Simon Starling designed an elaborate steel film-projector where the 35mm film snaked through a spiral of rollers at the end of a twisting column of stainless steel arms, and projected the images and sounds of its own construction in a factory. At the other end of this spectrum of fabrication the Barcelona artists Bestué/Vives constructed a hilariously kooky costume out of paper, cloth and string which allowed them to transform from man, to motorbike to horse and back again whilst running through some wasteland under a flight path.

The after-effects of relational aesthetics were also still present. Att Poomtangon from Thailand, but now based in New York, used Thai engineering to construct a hanging garden which was meant to be watered by visitors treadling on pumps. However the wooden treadles were already broken and the plants were dying. The Golden Lion for Best Artist went to Tobias Rehberger who painted out the cafeteria walls, floors, ceilings and furniture in a World War One vintage ‘razzle dazzle’ camouflage pattern, to subject the weary visitor to yet more shifts in perceptual orientation as they ate their lunch.

The show took great pleasure in deliberately slipping and sliding between mediums. The American artist Tony Conrad called his pleasant drippy-black painted rectangles from the 1970s ‘movies’ because their cheap paper and paint yellowed over time; while the Silver Lion for most promising young artist went to Nathalie Djurberg who made a nightmare dungeon out of large-scale wet-looking ceramic sculptures of cacti and succulent plants which crowded round video projections of her stop-frame animations in clay, where priests and cardinals committed unspeakable acts of perversion, degradation and cannibalism on naked and pinkly-frightened young women.

The national representations in the various pavilions in the Giardini and elsewhere were a far cry from being an ‘art olympics’. The German curator selected for the German pavilion the British artist Liam Gillick (who ended up making a pretty boring work consisting of an installation of kitchen benches and an audio track), while Denmark and the Nordic countries (Finland, Norway and Sweden) collaborated on what was the highlight of the pavilions. Their project, called The Collectors, was a collaboration between 25 artists curated by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset who installed works by each artist throughout the two pavilions, which are side by side. The various works from the artists — which were wall pieces, installations, sculptures and photographs — combined to construct two huge, comprehensive and integrated domestic scenarios of contemporary excess in wealth, consumption and taste — all the way from the kitchen, to the dining room, to the bedroom. The scenario in one pavilion, ‘A. Family’, told a story of marital break-up, while the scenario in the pavilion next door, ‘Mr B.’, told a story of homosexual murder, or perhaps suicide.

The themes established in Making Worlds seemed to find echoes in the national pavilions. There were more collections, for instance Jussi Kivi’s vast and orderless collection of everything and anything to do with fire for Finland, or Jef Geys’ scientific survey of medicinal plants found in urban situations for Belgium. There were lots of gardens and cultivations. The grain of the human voice was often heard, not only throughout Making Worlds in the work of artists like Joan Jonas for instance, where ordinary people read from Dante, or in Tamara Grcic’s bright-red life rafts floating in the Arsenale dock from which the overlapping voices of ordinary conversations could be heard; but also in Krzysztof Wodiczko’s video installation for Poland where migrant workers told their stories as we appeared to see them outside of the pavilion blurrily washing its windows, or in Katarina Zdjelar’s videos about language and identity, where for instance a Korean woman struggled again and again to pronounce the artist’s name.

The viewer’s ears were also fully engaged in the British Pavilion, which had been darkened into a cinema for scheduled screenings of Steve McQueen’s two-gun video work Giardini. The work, another highlight, was filmed in the Giardini during winter, the off-season between Biennales. Snails crawled over leaves, buds dripped cold water, and confetti leaked its dye into the icy gravel, while dogs nuzzled through rubbish and occasionally the distant roar of a crowd from the soccer stadium which is behind the Giardini, on the tip of Venice itself, penetrated the microcosmic aural world of drips and rustles. Then, slowly, two male figures emerge from the darkness, silently regard each other across the two screens, and disappear together into the bushes.

The other common sounds of the Biennale were loops of music propelling the various video and film animations, and the slowed-down bassy rumbles that accompanied the more stentorian of the videos. This was the sound in the Australian Pavilion as Shaun Gladwell’s helmeted road warrior figure climbed out of a reconstruction of Mad Max’s car in slow-mo and stood atop with arms partially outstretched as it drove down an endless, red, outback track towards an infinite horizon. The car itself had been shipped out to be parked outside the pavilion, giving it a bit of a trade show feeling, while a motorbike was slammed into its side. This was the motorbike on which, in Apology to Roadkill, the same helmeted figure collected dead kangaroos from the side of the road, cradling them Pieta-like, before carrying them off camera. Downstairs, in a more interesting piece, a skull slowly rotated around a mini video camera that had been inserted inside it so it could film the cranial cupola endlessly turning.

The other Australian presence was located in a prime piece of Biennale real estate, a former convent located between the Arsenale and the Giardini. Once Removed (so called because each artist has been displaced in one way or another) didn’t come across as an integrated show so much as three separate installations. Only the installation by Claire Healy & Sean Cordeiro, Life Span, really took command of the space. It was a huge basalty block of plastic that sat directly under the ceiling fresco of the chapel, almost obscuring the altar, and pushing the viewer back against the wall. The work was built from a total of 175,218 VHS video cassettes the collective running time of which is, apparently, 60.1 years, which was also, apparently, the average life span in 1976 when the VHS system, now a redundant technology consigned to the rubbish heap of history, was first released. Vernon Ah Kee’s installation, Cant Chant, perhaps suffered from too many indignant metaphors and references to Australian racism which ended up competing with each other. It centred on a three-gun video projection where cool and confident aboriginal surfers reclaimed a beach by riding, to the pound of a rock sound track, on surfboards decorated with indigenous designs and, on the underside, the faces of their ancestors. Elsewhere in the video other surfboards were lynched and massacred. Their corpses, wrapped in barbed wire, were hung in the convent’s courtyard. Ah Kee’s familiar text paintings also crowded the walls. In the final room Ken Yonetani’s comment on environmental degradation, Sweet Barrier Reef, previously installed at the Adelaide Biennale, was a boxed-in Zen-style garden made with raked sugar which surrounded the ceramic forms of bleached coral. The whole thing was lit with a wavy blue theatre light as though under water, which for me gave it an artificial, stagy feeling at odds with its elemental materiality.

Elsewhere, the Russians had a strong presence with a spectacular series of bravura agitprop sculptural works in their own pavilion called Victory Over the Future, and a collateral event from the Moscow Museum of Modern Art called Unconditional Love which featured a massively operatic nine-gun projection from the Russian group of artists AES+F. Called The Feast of Trimalchio it featured gangs of models performing languid tableaus of leisurely excess against the CGI background of a fantasy resort island.

The Middle-East also had a strong presence, with the long walk of the Arsenale leg of the Making Worlds exhibition finally disgorging into the United Arab Emirates pavilion which, perhaps wisely, had decided to perform a 1980s style deconstruction job on the whole machinery of Biennales, as well the UAI itself with its tightly controlled displays of wealth.

Martyn Jolly

Down Turn

‘Downturn’, book foreword to Downturn, 2009. edited by Lee Grant, unpaginated one page ISBN 978-0-646-51556-4

Documentary photography’s prime responsibility is to take the abstract and make it concrete, to put a ‘human face’ to broad historical events, and create from raw actuality something understandable and legible. Documentary photography came into its own and consolidated its central precepts during another global turn down, the Great Depression of the 1930s, when photographers such as Dorothea Lange shot the key icons of the style — emotionally charged images of hapless individuals caught up in global currents they could barely comprehend that tugged at the heartstrings of sympathetic viewers.

Our own global down turn is even more abstract than the Great Depression, which is its only comparator. It has no time for the plangent majesty of the phrase ‘the great depression’, instead it goes by a brisk acronym: the GFC. It started only last year when a chain reaction was suddenly triggered in the interlocking money markets, and it may be even be over by the end of this year. I have hardly felt it effects at all, I haven’t lost my job and in fact the cost of my mortgage has gone down while I have received two refreshing splashes of cash. Yet I know that it has been historically catastrophic in some way or other, because I have seen the jagged red lines plunging downwards again and again, on my TV screen and in my newspaper. And I’m vaguely aware that perhaps it has directly affected people I might know. Perhaps some of my students have found it harder to get shifts at wherever they have to work to pay their way through uni, perhaps the relatives of some of my friends might have lost their jobs, perhaps….

So there is a task here for documentary photography. And there is particularly a task for young documentary photographers. Young people are continually being accused of being disengaged from the world, insulated from social responsibility by the upholstered solipsism of youth. Yet, as they are also being constantly reminded, it is they who will inherit and have to solve the seemingly intractable problems we have created for them.

How then, do they respond to the assignment of documenting the GFC? Each in their own individual way, of course. But some themes do emerge. For instance there is a persistent concern with stuff — the end residue of that urgent impulse to consume that drives the modern economy. Why do we need all this stuff, what are we going to do with it, what does it look like? And notice how it hangs around even after we ourselves have gone and have no use for it. Another visual trope is the threshold, the spatial barrier of the gate or the fence that either separates people or forces them together. Fences, gates and walls define spaces, and many photographers in this book are sensitive to the nuances of space — both the social space of the street and the private space of the home. Those spaces are where people are forced to live together, and with economic down-turns edges get sharper and surfaces get rawer as people rub up against each other. So we have the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ studiously ignoring each other on the street an in other public spaces, while developers continue to push the suburbs out further and further by building individual houses separated from each other by darkness. Meanwhile within those houses people continue to just about manage their lives in congested and claustrophobic rooms.

Having seen these photographs I now feel I know just a little bit more about the great economic downturn of our time.

Martyn Jolly

Head, Photography and Media Arts

ANU School of Art

David Wills

Made up of over eight thousand photographs and seven hundred fragments of overheard conversations — all meshed together by nearly a thousand keywords — Turnstile is an extraordinary cultural archive. David Wills has spent the last four years trawling through our contemporary urban environment like a human drift-net. He has developed a finely attuned radar for cultural objects that are so marginal, so detrital, that they barely register as artefacts at all. He taxonomizes and cross-references this ‘cultural mulch’ using an acute historical sensibility that mixes irony with a passion for his world, as well as nostalgia with a love for the contemporary, in equal parts.  The interlacing of the threads of images and information forms an on-line network vast in scale and microscopic in detail, but unified in structure.

He has not only constructed his own world, but has also produced a thoroughly compelling document of our time, which depicts the early twenty-first century not so much pictorially as granularly.

The archive is a key motif of photography, from nineteenth century ethnographers, through twentieth century artists such as Gerhard Richter and Hans Peter-Feldman, to today’s sardonic flaneurs such as Martin Parr. And of course online archives such as Corbis or Flickr already allow us access to numbers of images at an astronomical scale. But only Turnstile combines the automatic logic of a search engine with the personal sensibility of a singular artist.