Counter morphologies of the male body in Australian photography

‘Sorely Tried Men: The male body in Australian photography’

paper delivered at the Art Gallery of New South Wales photography symposium, 27 July, 2013.

Powerpoint accompaniment:

Counter morphologies of the male body

Powerpoint gallery:

I love ANZAC biscuits. I usually make my own, but when I was in Woden Woolies last April I couldn’t resist buying this tin of ‘limited edition’ pre-made biscuits. The tin would be so handy, I thought, I could put my own biscuits in there; and it was so handsome, adorned with a photograph of a tower of soldiers, stripped to the waist and embossed into the lid. It’s a long journey from the Borneo of 1945 to the shelves of Woolies in 2013, but these men had taken it, and I couldn’t help thinking it was the nature of their bodies which had sent this photograph on its way.

Almost seventy years later, the male body remains central to our culture: from the affectless cyborg of the blue-tied corporate type, to our future Prime Minister in red speedos, to the blurred body of the drunken footballer caught on CCTV. But it has long been argued by historians of Australia’s visual culture that it is the modernist male body, epitomized by the ANZAC Soldier on my biscuit tin lid, against which all these variants are now defined.

The interwar period, from the 1920s to the 1940s was crucial in creating the template of the nationalistic Australian body, both male and female. The best analysis of the construction of the male body in photography during this time is Isobel Crombie’s wide-ranging analysis of Max Dupain’s photography in her important book Body Culture. In this period the national body of Australia as a whole and the individual bodies of each Australian were seen as one. Australia, it was claimed, was becoming not only a sovereign nation within the British Empire, but also a distinct race. The race was Anglo-Saxon, and was defining itself by both looking into the past, and into the future. The emergent Australian type could be recognized when it seemed to conform to either ancient classical ideals, the Apollonian upright ‘noble’ figure, or modern streamlined forms, made pneumatic with sexual energy. During this period metaphors of health, vitalism, purity and fitness, along with their opposites — contagion, vitiation, pollution and degeneracy — constructed the body at three interpenetrating levels, the physical level of individual bodies, the national level of the Australian race, and the spiritual level of human connectedness with larger life forces.

At the background of all these metaphors were strong currents of social Darwinism, which threw up two specific sciences: eugenics, the deliberate selection for breeding of the fittest and purest part of the population in order to aid the evolutionary advancement of the race; and anthropometrics, the diagnostic measurement of the human body. Because their simultaneous popularity with the Nazi regime in Germany made them suddenly and deeply unfashionable with the onset of World War Two and the Holocaust, it is easy to forget how pervasively popular and mainstream these sciences were in the interwar period. But popular they were: for example suburban surf carnivals mimicked militaristic displays of standardized ideal racial types, and in1926 the corsetry company Berlei in collaboration with physiologists from the University of Sydney undertook an anthropometric study of 6,000 Australian women, some of whom were measured at a special tent erected at Bondi Beach. Termed the National Census of Women’s Measurements it analysed twenty-three different measurements from each woman, which led to the development of the Berlei ‘five Australian figure type’ classification scheme and the ‘figure type indicator’ which was sent out to retailers who would take the customer’s exact measurements and then use them to classify the woman’s figure type for corset selection. As Sue Best has pointed out, the average type was not a statistical average at all, but was a physiologically arbitrary ideal which most Australian women would necessarily fail to live up to.

In the interwar period bodies were things to be sculpted — carved by the ocean, or re-moulded by new corsetry technologies. Bodies were generally seen as moving along one main vertical axis, from degeneracy to regeneracy. The type of body at the top of this axis, the Apollonian body, was most often what was pictured. There are far fewer pictorial examples of the bottom, degenerate end. Crombie illustrates two in her book. She reproduces two 1939 images by Dr Julian Smith from his Pictorialist ‘character studies’: The Blonde, by implication an Aryan type at the top of the racial axis, and ‘Leaf Music’, where the hapless sitter has had his hair styled and has been lit and posed by Smith to imply that he is at the bottom of the axis. The other illustration of degeneracy is A. O. Neville’s well-known and chilling illustration Three Generations, where a happy family portrait is turned into a eugenically genocidal prophecy for Australia.

So far so familiar. I don’t think anything I have said so far would be news to any one here. So I want to spend some time adding some small tangents to this vertical Apollonian axis, specifically in relation to the male body. The force of the ideal male body is upward and outward, a vertical pressure of racial vitality funneled by a tight column of torso muscle and tightly sheathed in a smooth membrane of tanned skin. At its most extreme it is a pneumatic phallus. But even during WW11, just a few years after the classic Modernist photographs of the 1930s, this norm was given surprising new meanings which showed how wobbly the Apollonian axis was.

From 1942 the Civil Construction Core conscripted men between the ages of 35 and 55, who were otherwise ineligible for military service, to work on large building projects in northern and interior Australia. However they quickly began to attract adverse publicity. There was industrial unrest on many projects with workers accusing the management of inefficiency and rorting, and management accusing the workers of unpatriotic union activity. Against this background the Department of Information sent the photographer Edward Cranstone to all the CCC projects. His photographs were published in everything from the communist newspaper the Tribune to the Women’s Weekly, and were eventually formed into a large exhibition, which also included paintings of CCC workers by Dobell and other artists, that toured capital cities in 1944.

As a member of the Communist Party of Australia Cranstone was exposed to a rich source of propagandistic imagery. Soviet socialist photographs were regularly published in the Tribune, and their influence can be clearly seen in Cranstone’s Modernist visual rhetoric — his use of upward looking camera angles, strong diagonal compositions, bright sunlit forms and heroic poses. As one article reviewing the exhibition stated:

The Australian worker—bareheaded, steady-eyed, stripped to the waist—is the dusty, sweating keynote to a display [….] It would be surprising if most people did not take away a warm impression of that typical Australian, stripped to the waist, working on untouched land, levelling it, digging into it or building up from it. In a real immediate way, the show tells the story of how Australia—the country itself— has gone to war.

Cranstone’s men are heroic soldier/worker/pioneer hybrids. The battle they fight is in the industrial workplace and on the colonial frontier. Cranstone has to strive very hard to fit his workers, which were by definition not Australia’s finest, into the Apollonian type. In some images skin is pumped out by muscle, sheened by sweat, and ribboned by shadow as the men vigorously swing crowbars and work machinery, however in other images the visual rhetoric seems too extreme for the men’s actual bodies to live up to.

This may have been what led some commentators to react against their overt visual rhetoric and mechano-machismo, which had been clearly imported from elsewhere and applied externally to their subjects. In Canberra the exhibition was displayed hidden away in the basement of Parliament House rather than in the usual exhibition space of Kings Hall. The Speaker of the House, complaining about the Modernist paintings of William Dobell with their thick fleshy strings of paint, claimed that the show ‘was a grave reflection on the manhood of Australia generally, and particularly the fine types who have discharged essential duties during a critical period in Australia’s history.’ He added, in reference to Cranstone’s brand of photographic Modernism, that a ‘photograph allegedly taken in a quarry made me feel that I was in Dartmoor [Gaol].’ In using an internationalist visual rhetoric to rehabilitate the Australian worker Cranstone had stretched the Apollonian model to breaking point.

Damien Parer was also employed by the DoI, but as a war cameraman. The footage he shot in New Guinea was supplied to newsreel companies to be cut into their weekly newsreels. Parer’s most famous newsreel, Cinesound’s Kokoda Frontline, was essentially a collaboration between himself and the head of Cinesound Ken Hall. Damien Parer appeared as the ‘star’ to introduce the newsreel. After some titles telling us that Parer has already been responsible for some of the ‘classic footage’ of the War and that he is a reliable witness, Kokoda Frontline opens on Parer, in his uniform, in an empty domestic room, leaning casually against a table. The camera slowly moves in on his handsome face as he speaks directly to the camera, attempting to explain to his audience how close the war is:

I’ve seen the war, and I know what your husbands, your sweethearts and brothers are going through.

After this introduction the film cuts to some spectacular combat footage, but most important to the film are the intimate close-ups of the soldiers in retreat down the Kokoda Track with which the film ends. The soldiers either pass in slow procession past the camera, or compose themselves into tableaus as they have their bandages tenderly applied by their mates, or their cigarettes lit. Cut into these sequences are extended close-up shots of the faces of native bearers and Australian soldiers which act as still portraits of various emotions. The hortatory voice over commentary during these scenes contrasts with Parer’s tender pain, but it re-emphasises the theme he established:

This is war, the real thing. The utter weariness of sorely tried men is evident in their faces. […]Half the distance from Sydney to Melbourne men are sweating, suffering, dying in that jungle so that it cannot happen here. Are they getting all the support they deserve, from the mines, from the factories, from the ordinary civilian? […]

In the final seconds Parer’s soft face of concern returns, angelically superimposed over shots of the feet of the soldiers pushing down through mud. He repeats, but now in ghostly tones:

I’ve seen the war, and I know what your husbands, your sweethearts and brothers are going through.

The soldiers in Parer’s films are very different to Cranstone’s workers. The frontline on which they fight is not the domesticated colonial frontier of the purifying, astringent desert, but the dark uncannily wet tunnels of a jungle beyond the borders of Australia. The men are not assertively doing, but passively suffering. Parer’s soldiers are sick, bleeding and blinded. They rely on the tenderness of comrades or natives to survive. Their feet slip through mud as they lean on sticks or each other. They are not symbolic nationalist cyphers like Cranstone’s men, they are individuals, suffering psychological, as well as physical privations on our personal behalf. Parer was a devout Catholic and many have seen spiritual and religious connotations in his work. Many historians have linked Paper’s Catholicism to the composition of one of the final shots of Salvation Army Major Albert Moore lighting a cigarette for a wounded soldier, which is similar to a medieval or renaissance Deposition of Christ painting. The religious analogy is strengthened by the fact that the soldier is naked, covered from the waist down by an army blanket

Through their suffering these men will lead us to redemption. We, the audience of Parer’s newsreels, are feminised: we are wives, mothers or sisters who weakly complain at home and don’t acknowledge the danger from overseas. We see with our own eyes that our delusion and triviality has personally dispirited Parer, when he arrived back he was ‘full of beans’ with ‘the spirit of the troops’ but now he has experienced our complacency, he is worried and upset, his voice drops, and his face tightens.

There is abjection here too, not the auto-phallicisation of man and machine as in the CCC, but a polymorphous blending of mate into mate and man into mud. Australians would have easily recognised this abjection as already part of the ANZAC myth, Australian men similarly suffered together on the beaches of Gallipoli or in the trenches of France.

Parer’s trinity of ‘mother, wives and sisters’ are always present whenever the sacrifice of soldiers is evoked been evoked. For instance the sculptural centrepiece for the memorial which Sydney had built for its WW1 ANZACs was Rayner Hoff’s Sacrifice 1934, in which a symbolic Australian mother, wife and sister hold aloft a lithe, cleansed and perfect male body crucified on a sword, successfully borne up out of the miasma of battle and into a transcendent erotic masculinity. However in Kokoda Frontline Parer is sadly compelled to inform the women of WW11 Australia that, unlike these women, they have abandoned their soldiers to an abject eroticism.

The newsreel’s powerful message is that, in the darkest hour of the War, while their women are still enthralled by false images and trivial concerns, it is up to desperately abjected soldiers, redeemed by the spiritually defined eroticism of mateship, to defend Australia. In contrast to Parer’s psychologically specific homo-eroticism, Cranstone’s internationally symbolic, stylised auto-eroticism attempted, not always successfully, to redeem the home front labours of another potentially unstable category of Australian male — the worker.

Whilst these two types of male body were produced at a particular extraordinary juncture of Australian history and culture I cannot resist the temptation to extrapolate them into later manifestations. The obvious place to look is not the battlefield but the sporting field. In 1963 the Fairfax photographer John O’Gready photographed two captains coming off the field after the Rugby League Grand Final. The coating of mud turned the footballers into bronze statues, while also referring to the battlefield mud of World Wars One and Two, where sublime mateship was forged in abjecting slime. In 1982 the cigarette company Winfield used the photograph for their Grand Final trophy. The enveloping of the Apollonian body within the abject still pervades contemporary sports photography. Many photographs, particularly around the State of Origin games, reprise the abjecting mud and eroticizing intimacy of war, as well as extreme pneumatic auto-phallicization.

If, back in the interwar period, the abject and the rhetorical complicated the simple Apollonian narrative of the supposed Australian race, revealing it as nothing more than a portable nationalistic rhetoric, in the case of Cranstone; or one which could be quickly supplanted by other models of masculinity in extremis — the abject and feminized, in the case of Parer, where there other forces also at work? The Berlei corsetry company had identified five different types of Australian female bodies, were there other types of male body? Two comedians dominated the Australian vaudeville scene in the interwar period. One, Roy Rene, was a slump-shouldered Semitic type in heavy make-up who slyly simpered lewd double-entendres. The other, George Wallace, played a naively optimistic, child-like, working class, everyman character. Wallace had a low-slung body, short legs, and a stomach hanging over his belt, which was a direct contradiction to the upward torso-led thrust of the Apollonian body.

Wallace’s low centre of gravity was perhaps a nascent beer-gut, and the beer grew to become more important in Australian culture as the decades progressed. In the compilation Australian Photography of 1947 virtually all of the bodies are Apollonian, however ten years later, in Australian Photography of 1957, there is a whole double paged spread devoted to humorous or pathetic images of fat people. In another ten years, in the extremely important book Southern Exposure, by David Beal and Donald Horne, the beer gut makes it to the front cover, as a national trope of self indulgence, which is contrasted with an image of interior aridity on the back cover. By then the beer gut had become a perverse image of Australianness, for instance in a 1961 a Tanner cartoon connected it to conservative older generations standing in the way of women’s progress, an opposition homage in 1993 in a Nicholson cartoon where the beer gut was directly contrasted to the proudly black Apollonian body of the indigenous footballer Nicky Winmar. In a further ten years after Southern Exposure the beer gut, which had been used by the young firebrands Horne and Beal to indict Australia, had been adopted by the Australian Government in their national fitness campaign Life Be In It, attached to the archetypally unfit, but loveable Australian — Norm. Lately, however there have been signs of a the beer gut coming in a complete cycle, with men reclaiming their beer guts as an ironic part of a new metropolitan, feminized, masculinity.

In conclusion it is clear that the Apollonian axis, identified by so many historians, is still the dominant one, but it is not the only one, the male body is more complex that that, and has taken up many different morphologies throughout its history from the high points of Modernity, until now.

H.P. Brown,(Commissioner) Inquiry under the National Security Regulations into certain allegations concerning the administration of the Allied Works Council   5 March 1943.

K.K. ‘Australia Portrayed Stripped to the Waist’ Melbourne Herald 3 August 1944, p5.

Massey Stanley ‘Art Critic’ Sunday Telegraph 24 September 1944, p10.

Neil McDonald War Cameraman: The Story of Damien Parer, Lothian 1994, pp157-158.

Leigh Astbury ‘Death and eroticism in the ANZAC Legend’ Art and Australia Spring 1992 Vol 30 No 1, pp68-73.




Professor Ian Edwards’ presentation to the Magic Lantern Convention, Birmingham

I ambled down to my letterbox to find the latest issue of the Magic Lantern Society Newsletter waiting for me. Delighted that there was a report on Professor Ian Edwards and his wife Margery’s presentation to the 9th Magic Lantern Society Convention in Birmingham. (See below). Professor Edwards presented a lantern show at my symposium of last year the Projected Image Heritage of Australia and New Zealand, and he also presented a show at the Australasian Magic Lantern Society Convention. We are working on another event next year, so like our facebook page please.

Professor Ian Edwards at 9th Magic Lantern Society Convention

Professor Ian Edwards at 9th Magic Lantern Society Convention

Cover design of new literary sub-genre — child abuse victim testimony books

Looking for Christmas presents I discovered a new literary sub-genre of which I was previously unaware: the testimony of children who had been the victims of various kinds of child abuse, delivered through the dubious amanuenses of one or two authors who seem to have cornered the market. Each book-cover, like the covers of a sister sub-genre romance fiction, looked remarkably similar: pinks, blues and white (girls/boys/innocence); cursive script (first person testimony); and the downcast, pouty faces of blonde poppets of both sexes shot from a high camera angle. It made me think of the street urchin narratives of the nineteenth century, found in the journalism of W. T. Stead, or the life model lantern slides of Bamworth and Co, or the photography of Charles Dodgson for instance.

Shot in a Canberra book shop, a new sub genre: child abuse victim testimony packaged for the sentimental consumption of sympathetic readers

Shot in a Canberra book shop, a new sub genre: child abuse victim testimony packaged for the sentimental consumption of sympathetic readers

Shot in a Canberra book shop, a new sub genre: child abuse victim testimony packaged for the sentimental consumption of sympathetic readers

Shot in a Canberra book shop, a new sub genre: child abuse victim testimony packaged for the sentimental consumption of sympathetic readers


Shot in a Canberra book shop, a new sub genre: child abuse victim testimony packaged for the sentimental consumption of sympathetic readers

Shot in a Canberra book shop, a new sub genre: child abuse victim testimony packaged for the sentimental consumption of sympathetic readers

Celebrity culture defines the high school formal

In my naiveté I was astounded by the way high school formals have become defined by celebrity culture. After dropping my daughter off to her friends before her end of year formal I found out that we were expected to follow her and her friends in their posh car all the way to the venue. Hundreds of parents and relations thronged the steps. The hired and borrowed cars queued up. As each one disgorged its sixteen-year old occupants a barrage of flashes went off and mums squealed at the kids who posed for the cameras.

Kids arrive at Old Parliament House, Canberra, for their year ten formal

Kids arrive at Old Parliament House, Canberra, for their year ten formal

The Citizens of Canberra, 2013

An installation of Canberra travel brochures for the 1920s to the 1980s, each covered by a sheet of A4 paper in which had been cut a small window strategically revealing a hapless Canberra citizen, unwittingly conscripted to take part in the civic vista of the photograph, which remained obscured.

Canberra Times article on the Canberra Museum and Art Gallery photography exhibition I’m in

New Canberra Museum and Gallery exhibition Lens Love explores the self, subject and environment

Sally Pryor

Canberra Times

November 30, 2013

CT article

Marzena Wasikowska’s Jess, Oskar, Kai and Mia.

It’s one of the most common complaints of modern life – the increasing tendency to photograph life when you should be living it instead. Snapping images of weddings and babies and parties and soon-to-be-devoured meals, as a way of affirming life’s existence when just being there isn’t enough. And why wouldn’t we, when cameras are constantly on hand, be moved to capture every single meaningful moment?

But when photography is more than just an impulsive social interaction, the process of living through images can be much more complicated. A new exhibition at Canberra Museum and Gallery shows how six local photographers have negotiated the porous boundaries between the self, the subject and the surrounding environment.

Gallery director Shane Breynard, who curated the show, says he set out from a cerebral standpoint – photographic film theory from the 1970s and ’80s that focuses on ”the gaze” as ”a concept for that period where the infant becomes aware of themselves”.


Lee Grant, from the series Belco pride.

”They get a shock that they’re an object in the world among other objects – they’re not just a flood of sensation. So I’ve had fun using that as a bit of a thread to select and group works together,” he says.

”Indeed, it’s something that is common among these photographers, that they all have a real sensitivity to the way today, in the modern world, we live half of our lives through an awareness of ourselves in images … we kind of live across time and in the relations of how we might be seen in an image.”

The six artists he chose have ta common anthropological vision of people and their place in the world as well as distinctive preoccupations.


Denise Ferris’s The long hot summer.

Polish-born artist Marzena Wasikowska has three series of photographs in the show, and all relate to her family, including large-scale montages showing her three adult children, and their friends, spouses or children.

The images are immediately striking, and not just because of the instantly recognisable face of her middle daughter, actor Mia Wasikowska, but because of their careful, painterly composition. These are people who have grown up under their mother’s watchful, artistic eye, and their resulting lack of self-consciousness is palpable.

She also presents a study of a recent trip to Poland, her third since leaving her homeland at the age of 11, with images presented in grids that are made all the more poignant through their disconnectedness from each other.


Detail from Martyn Jolly’s ACT Bushfire Memorial Images

Wasikowska’s husband, John Reid, also has works in the show, including his classic Fishman and Walking the Solar System series, both eccentric conceptual forays into the wilderness that immerse him as a subject at the mercy of the elements.

The youngest artist in the show, Lee Grant, is already known for her Belco Pride works – a series exploring her connection to the suburban Canberra of her childhood and adolescence. But her academic past as an anthropologist also shines through in the wary gaze of her subjects, from a group of teenage girls in a fast-food restaurant, to a well-dressed African family lined up in front of their house. Her Korea Project and Oriental Dinnerseries – Grant has a Korean mother – is also an examination of the refracted identity of Asians in Australia.

Head of the ANU school of art Denise Ferris presents works that are as inextricably bound up in the landscape as she is. From where she lives in the Perisher Valley, she has recorded the beauty and the fragility of the often harsh landscape of the mountains, in the midst of winter or the blaze of summer. Her images are sometimes populated with human figures, sometimes partially obscured by snow and thick clothing.

”This picks up on Lens Love, the title of the exhibition,” says Breynard. ”This is a place that Denise adores, and as she’s taking these photographs, there’s something there that she’s searching for and wants to grab and articulate. And it’s not just the landscape without people in it – there’s something about the connection and the way people use the landscape.”

Martyn Jolly has long been fascinated by archival images, and the effect created when he zeroes in on particular details, and removes the surrounding context. His series Faces of the Living Dead uses images from an archive at Cambridge University, images that are today known to be fakes – men and women caught up in the 1870s craze of ”communing” with dead relatives through photographs. The images, which include hazy presences floating around the faces of the grieving hopefuls, are cropped in for maximum and pathetic effect. Jolly also includes his series commissioned as part of the 2003 bushfire memorial – a reproduction of the columns of images he produced depicting the aftermath and recovery. He has used the same technique to crop the images close as a way of highlighting the drama and pathos.

Cathy Laudenbach is fascinated by how stories and experiences interact with particular places, leaving marks that aren’t always discernible to the naked eye.

In one series, The Beauty and the Terror, she has been inspired by the story of Daisy Bates, the Australian journalist who, in the early 1900s, retired to the Australian bush to devote herself to protecting Aboriginal people. Laudenbach includes no people in the images, but a presence is implied through shadows and objects.

”She’s divining, almost, a colonial inhabitation of this landscape,” says Breynard. ”There’s a sense in these photos of something that you can’t grasp – a story unfolding, or a mystery you can’t quite get, or a presence of a spirit.”

Like Jolly, she is also taken by notions of the supernatural, and in another series, The Familiars, she photographs rooms in which people have reported ghostly encounters.

”Today, it’s something characteristic of our time with our smartphones – we point at something and say, ‘That’s a good photo’, and we take it and file it away, and then we look at it again to connect with a time,” says Breynard. ”But these artists, I think, really slow down that time. There’s awkwardness in that, it’s their own searching … They slow you down, and they connect you with the mystery and ineffability of stuff you think you know.”

■ Lens Love, at Canberra Museum and Gallery, runs until February 23.

Read more:

My ‘Soldiers of the Cross’ article has been published

My ‘Soldiers of the Cross’ article has been published in the Journal of Early Popular Visual Culture. Click on the link below to start ratcheting up my downloads!

Pagan Roman's break up a Christian service

Pagan Romans break up a Christian service

Soldiers of the Cross 1900

Title slide

Saul watches as St Stephen's blood pools about his head after a stoning

Saul watches as St Stephen’s blood pools about his head after a stoning

Soldiers of the Cross: Time Narrative and Affect

Magic Lanterns

I’ve purchased two magic lanterns and some nineteenth century slipping slides, lever slides and chromatropes, as well as a large collection of nineteenth century life model slides, from an auction. I’ve got the two lanterns working with LED floodlights that produce no heat or UV light. I’m having a fantastic time playing with these wonderful things. But as practice-led research I have discovered that it is extraordinarily difficult to change and focus the slides,  and manipulate and animate  the slides smoothly. Lanternists in the nineteenth century would have needed to do that as well as keep their patter going in a large hall without amplification, regulate the gas supply to their limelight, and control often unruly audiences. I’m looking forward to spending some time with Trove because I want to read the newspaper reviews of these performances, when Australian audiences were training themselves to sit together in the dark. Below is some of the equipment I’m working with, and a link to a seminar I organised last year.

The Projected Image Heritage of Australia and New Zealand

My 'iron duke' lecture hall lantern

My ‘iron duke’ lecture hall lantern

Rock of Ages hymn slides, as projected outdoors by the Salvation Army in 1894 in Melbourne

Rock of Ages hymn slides, as projected outdoors by the Salvation Army in 1894 in Melbourne

Salvation Army outdoor projection of Rock of Ages hymn slide on the side of a hotel, Melbourne 1894

Salvation Army outdoor projection of Rock of Ages hymn slide on the side of a hotel, Melbourne 1894

A chromatrope

A chromatrope

A chromatrope

A chromatrope

A slipping slide, moving the glass slightly produces a moire patterns from the scratched paint

A slipping slide, moving the glass slightly produces a moire patterns from the scratched paint

Skipping girl slide

Skipping girl slide

The skeleton removes its head

The skeleton removes its head

My 'parlour' lantern

My ‘parlour’ lantern

Digital post-production, the photographic document, and truth

Digital post-production, the photographic document, and truth

The Power of Images, Sir Peter Herbst seminars, 4 September, ANU. 

Earlier this year Paul Hansen’s image of two children killed by Israeli missiles, Gaza Burial, won the World Press Photo contest. The image attracted attention because it had a cinematic feel, as though an expert director of photography from films such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty had lit it with movie lights. A suspicious forensic image analyst called Neal Krawetz, asked to examine the submitted JPEG file, and tracked the history of the file’s Photoshop ‘saves’. He found that, on the day it was taken, 20 November 2012, a JPEG image had been converted from the original RAW file. (RAW is the format of the first readable image file written as the camera uses firmware algorithms to convert the various voltages generated by its CCD sensor into digital data. In the RAW file image information like contrast and colour is stored as separate metadata, rather than saved and compressed within the image itself as in a TIFF or JPEG file.) Then, about six weeks later, and two weeks before the competition’s submission date, a further two images were converted from RAW formats and added to the first JPEG file. This analysis led Krawetz to accuse Hansen of breaking the implied rules of the World Press Photo composition by collaging three different images together.

The photographer replied to this accusation by admitting that he had given the image a post-production treatment similar to a High Dynamic Range photograph, where three different camera exposures of the same scene are superimposed. The JPEG files, he explained, were each ‘save as’ from the one RAW file, giving maximum tonal range and different chromatic saturation in turn to the shadows, mid-tones and highlights, before being superimposed in Photoshop. This had the effect of modulating the otherwise harsh lighting across the whole image, de-saturating the distracting light on the walls, giving the skin of the subjects a smoother, more ‘inner’ glow, balancing the viewer’s attention equally between all of the men in the alley, and heightening the dramatic illumination on the faces and shrouds of the two dead children. The superimposition was then merged. Hansen submitted the original RAW file, which he had neglected to do when he originally entered the competition, to another image forensics analyst, Eduard de Kam, who declared: ‘all of the pixels are in exactly the same place’. So, Hansen claimed, rather than shifting pixels, he had merely modulated each pixel’s colour and intensity in situ, acceptable to World Press Photo rules. An analogy that springs to mind could be to a beauty pageant, which would allow entrants to use make-up to enhance their natural beauty, but not to undergo plastic surgery to artificially create beauty.

Krawetz was not deterred, however, and subjected the JPEG image to a further ‘Error Level Analysis’ that indicated which pixels had been altered to which degree. The outlines around all the figures showed the systematic operation of Photoshop’s sharpening algorithm but also, according to Krawetz, betrayed some localized pixel modification. Meanwhile, an original reproduction of the image, before its submission to high dynamic range post-processing, had surfaced and been brought into the argument, and Krawetz noticed that some pixels had in fact been shifted. For instance the bruise on the right hand corpse’s forehead had been shortened to emphasize the glow of light on her round forehead.

Fifty years ago Roland Barthes identified six different connotational procedures at work in the press photograph, which were working away to inflect the ‘natural’ denotation of the image with cultural meaning. One of these he called ‘photogenia’, defined as: ‘the image itself ‘embellished’ (which is to say in general sublimated) by techniques of lighting, exposure and printing.’ Hansen’s post-production was pure photogenia, sublimating the brutal facts of the Gaza funeral within the elevated cinematic aesthetic that could be called: ‘the universal tragedy of contemporary warfare’ or ‘the nobility of the oppressed Palestinian people’. At the conclusion of his discussion of photogenia Barthes suggests that perhaps in the press photograph ‘there is never art, but always meaning.’ (IMT 23-24) Perhaps if Hansen had used as his photogenic reference point not Hollywood movies but, say, the gritty black and white style of old school photojournalism with its historical connotations of ‘meaningful concern’, his image would have passed without notice — but perhaps, also, it wouldn’t have won.

The furor over this image, and the subsequent digital forensics of Krawetz and de Kam, indicates that my neat analogy of plastic surgery versus make-up just doesn’t hold up any more; and nor can Barthes’ fifty-year-old mutual exclusion between ‘art’ and ‘meaning’ in press photography be sustained either. There is no ‘original’ data, which is subsequently modified in a computer. Even before the image is extracted from a camera’s CCD sensor and turned into a RAW file, firmware algorithms have been at work, sharpening edges and interpolating colour. Programs such as Photoshop provide further semi-automatic modifications along the same line. In this environment there is no single point where pre become post production, where denotation become connotation. Clearly there is a point, somewhere, where the image we see in our newspapers or on-line, in which we may still be happy to invest belief as being ‘true’, becomes just another Photoshop job; but where is that point? Clearly there is also a point where the aestheticization of the image shifts a photograph from the genre of news or reportage, to the genre of personal universalized meditation on the state of contemporary war, from specific referential meaning to generalized aesthetic art; but where is that point?

This make it much harder for people such as myself to stay up on our high horses, looking down on the plebs below unable to appreciate the different valencies and experiential nuances of various photographs. We will have to perform prettier and prettier dances in the future to stay ahead.

Martyn Jolly