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

Art from Archives

‘Art from Archives’

 Shaping Canberra, Humanities Research Centre, ANU, 17-20 September 2013

This is the age of the archive. It is the age when newly discovered collections of idiosyncratic or vernacular oddities are brought to light virtually every week; it is the age of the dataset; it is the age of the digitization and dissemination of vast, previously subterranean, institutional archives in massive labour-intensive projects of scanning and metadata matching; it is an age when those same institutions develop interfaces on their websites to encourage visitors to add their own metadata to the archive; it is the age when institutions, desperate to hit the KPIs of the their funding masters, hire ‘creatives‘ — what an odious term — to do funky things with their archival images in order to attract a younger audience.

Paradoxically, to be contemporary now is to be archival. Archives are everywhere, and in art archival strategies are ubiquitous. To quote from the back cover of the recent ‘Documents of Contemporary Art’ anthology The Archive:

Among art’s most significant developments worldwide since the 1960s has been a turn to the archive — the nexus of images, objects, documents and traces through which we recall and revisit individual and shared memories and histories. … the archive has become central in visual culture’s investigations of history, memory, testimony and identity.

But I want to spend some time sketching out how I think the notion of archive is operating at the moment in Australia, but particularly in Canberra. During the last thirty years more and more contemporary artists have been using archival strategies. They usually work in one of two modes.

The first  mode is to create your own archive. This takes the normal personal declarations of the artist and sublimates them within an archival structure. Instead of composing a work or moulding a form, the artist simply nominates and then assembles a collection of found objects or images in a rudimentary taxonomic structure. Examples of this mode could be the work of David Wills who, for instance, produced a very moving work about grandmotherly love and growing up. Called B3 he brought  thirty-three different Bananas in Pajamas from op shops. All had been knitted from the same Women’s Weekly pattern by different loving grandmothers, and all had eventually been abandoned by their recipients. Wills’ website, Turnstile, is an interactive interlocking database of his own continual process of collecting and archiving through the camera, which the viewer jumps around in via hyperlinked metadata. Another example could be Patrick Pound who collects snapshots from junk shops and places them into idiosyncratic categories.  His po-faced taxonomy draws attention to the profound individuality and uniqueness of the relationship between the anonymous photographer and subject found in each image. A third example could be Maureen Burns, who cruises Ebay and downloads and reprints the photographs people have posted selling items of mid twentieth century design. This becomes a comment on history, design, taste and domesticity. In these cases the art’s meaning or content becomes potential, rather than stated. It  is up to the viewer to navigate the archival structure, do their own aesthetic research amongst the idiosyncratic taxonomies the artist has folded into the collection, and find their own meaning. And in these cases also, the artist’s work borrows some of the prestige of the archive as a complete, autonomous, and somehow authentically ‘natural’ structure which automatically generates meaning independent of overt authorial intention.

The second mode of archival work is to work within an existing archive. There are two distinct approaches within this mode. Some artists  ‘mine’ or ‘sift’ archives to reclaim lost memories or reconnect severed filaments of time. An example of this may be my own 1996 work 1963: News and Information, from where I cropped small samples of material texture and details of body language out of an archive of government propaganda photographs held in the Australian Archives. (When I did this work in 1996 I used the same archive which the National Archives of Australia has subsequently mined for their exhibition Faces of Australia.) Other artists ‘interrogate’ the archive to ask questions of the historical assumptions that underpin its structure. An example of this might be Fiona Macdonald’s 1993 work Universally Respected, where she wove together two archival photographs of white colonists and black labourers in a process of photographic miscegenation.

The mining or sifting approach sees the archive as a positive, generative presence, a material heritage which needs to be refined, distilled or concentrated in order to have its signal to noise ration enhanced, or to tune into the different frequencies which are hidden within it. The second approach, the interrogative approach, takes a more critical stance to the authority of the archive, it sees the archive as a negative presence, a subterranean power that in its very structure reproduces old politics in the present. Yet in both these approaches to working with existing archives, the generative approach or the interrogative approach, the archive remains an almost occult presence. It has its own power, its own personality, its own presence. Far from being inert or passive, it seems to have an almost autonomous agency to conceal or reveal, to generate spectres or exhale miasmic atmospheres.

The most popular photographic archive in Australia by far is the Justice and Police Museum archive of 130,000 police photographs. It has spawned exhibitions at the Justice and Police Museum itself; history books by Peter Doyle; a mens clothing range by Ralph Lauren;  the production design of documentaries like Utopia Girls; and, not least, inspiration for artists. For over ten years the Sydney artist Ross Gibson and Kate Richards have made works based on the collection under the general title of ‘Life After Wartime’, this has included performances with a live soundtrack and generated haikus performed at the Opera House, as well as various computer coded interactive installations and site specific projections in the windows of an old house at the Rocks

Writing in 1999 Gibson acknowledged that he felt a kind of occult power coming from the archive:

Whenever I work with historical fragments, I try to develop an aesthetic response appropriate to the form and mood of the source material. This is one way to know what the evidence is trying to tell the future. I must not impose some pre-determined genre on these fragments. I need to remember that the evidence was created by people and systems of reality independent of myself. The archive holds knowledge in excess of my own predispositions. … Stepping off from this intuition, I have to trust that the archive has occulted in it a logic, a coherent pattern which can be ghosted up from its disparate details so that I can gain a new, systematic understanding of the culture that has left behind such spooky detritus. In this respect I am looking to be a medium for the archive. I want to ‘séance up’ the spirit of the evidence. [1]

In seeking to be a voodoo spiritualist ‘medium’ for the archive, the work was not trying to quote from it, or mine it for retro titbits ripe for appropriation, so much as to make contact with it as an autonomous netherworld of images.

Indigenous Australians have always had the strongest stake in our photographic archives. As early as 1986 Tracey Moffat was entering into direct and explicit dialogue with J. W. Lindt’s photographs in her series Some Lads, where her sexy dancers playfully appropriated and parodied the stiff colonial gaze built into Lindt’s studio tableaus.

However as aboriginal activism grew in intensity and sophistication during the 1980s and 1990s, anthropological portraits began to be conceived of not only as the theoretical paradigm for colonial attempts at genocide, but also as acts of violence in themselves, technically akin to, and instrumentally part of, that very process of attempted genocide. They began to be used by young aboriginal artists to ‘occult up’ their ancestors. Rather than just creating a feeling of active dialogue with past photographs, these new forms of indigenous reuse attempted to use photography to create a two-way corridor through time, a sense of New Age channelling back to the actual subjects of the photographs. For instance, in a meditation on the archive of nineteenth-century anthropological photographs left behind by the Northern Territory policeman Paul Foelsche, the indigenous photographer and curator Brenda L. Croft retroactively invested the agency of political resistance in to the 140-year-old portraits.

Images like these have haunted me since I was a small child … [and] were instrumental in guiding me to use the tools of photography in my work … The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest.[2]

But, rather than laying their ancestors to rest, many aboriginal artists have photographically raised them from the dead to enrol them in various contemporary campaigns of resistance. One of the first Australian aboriginal photographers to receive international attention was Leah King-Smith. Her 1992 exhibition Patterns of Connection travelled throughout Australia as well as internationally. To make her large, deeply coloured photo-compositions she copied anthropological photographs from the State Library of Victoria, liberating them from the archive to be superimposed as spectral presences on top of hand-coloured landscapes. For her, this process allowed Aboriginal people to flow back into their land, into a virtual space reclaimed for them by the photographer. In the words of the exhibition’s catalogue: ‘From the flaring of velvety colours and forms, translucent ghosts appear within a numinous world.’[3]

King-Smith held spiritualist beliefs which she enacted in her photographs. She concluded her artist’s statement by asking that ‘people activate their inner sight to view Aboriginal people.’[4] Her work animistically gave the archival photographs she reused a spiritualist function. Some of her fellow aboriginal artists thought the work too generalist. It lacked specific knowledge of the stories of the people whose photographs were reused, and it didn’t have explicit permission from the traditional owners of the land they were made to haunt. But the critic Anne Marsh described that as a ‘strategic essentialism.’

There is little doubt, in my mind, that Leah King-Smith is a kind of New Age evangelist and many serious critics will dismiss her work on these grounds …But I am interested in why the images are so popular and how they tap into a kind of cultural imaginary [in order] to conjure the ineffable … Leah King-Smith’s figures resonate with a constructed aura: [they are] given an enhanced ethereal quality through the use of mirrors and projections. The ‘mirror with a memory’ comes alive as these ancestral ghosts … seem to drift through the landscape as a seamless version of nineteenth century spirit photography.[5]

A new age spirituality also permeates the recent work of the indigenous artist Christian Thompson. As part of a large ARC project returning digital copies of nineteenth century ethnographic portraits back to the communities from which they came, he was invited to work on the collection of nineteenth century photographs held in one of the most famous anthropological archives in the world, the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford. The curator of photographs at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Christopher Morton, puts the original photographs as artefacts, as distinct from their reproducibility as images, on the same continuum as the actual remains — the skulls or bones — of aborigines. He says:

But in the case of archives – and in particular photographs – those ancestors held in the images remain in the storerooms of remote institutions even after copies have been returned or shared online.The reproducibility of the photographic image means that the surface information it holds can easily be shared, especially in the digital age. But the images of ancestors, as ethnographic studies around the world now show us, are more than the chemical traces of light on a surface – they have a direct and spiritual connection to the person photographed, and so hold significant spiritual and emotional qualities. It is this creative tension, between the archive as a permanent ancestral resting place, and yet as a reproducible, re-codable, and dynamic historical resource, that lies at the heart of Thompson’s concept of the exhibition space as a spiritual zone. (Catalogue essay to We Bury our Own)

For his part Christian Thompson saw his role as an artist in shamanistic terms:

I wanted to generate an aura around this series, a meditative space that was focused on freeing oneself of hurt, employing crystals and other votive objects that emit frequencies that can heal, ward off negative energies, psychic attack, geopathic stress and electro magnetic fields, and, importantly, transmit ideas. …. I asked the photographs in the Pitt Rivers Museum to be catalysts and waited patiently to see what ideas and images would surface in the work, I think with surprising results. Perhaps this is what art is able to do, perform a ‘spiritual repatriation’ rather than a physical one, fragment the historical narrative and traverse time and place to establish a new realm in the cosmos, set something free, allow it to embody the past and be intrinsically connected to the present?

Another example in this mode of intergenerational animism is the drawings which Vernon Ah Kee exhibited last year based on the Tindale collection of aboriginal portraits taken in the 1930s. For many years this archive has been a genealogical resource for aboriginal people trying to stitch back together the torn connections to their sibling, parents and grandparents, but in Transforming Tindale Ah Kee re-drew the photographic portraits of his own family members. Through the loving ministrations of his soft pencil graphite the images were humanized, transformed from ‘ethnographic samples’ or ‘genealogical evidence’ to ‘human portrait’.

While not buying into such direct visual spirituality as Leah King Smith or Christian Thompson, or direct family connection as Vernon Ah Kee, other aboriginal artists have also attempted to use the power of old photographs to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from the past.

Most recently Brook Andrew has worked in the personal archive mode, curating an exhibition for the MCA called Taboo, where racist imagery from around the world was gathered together into a cabinet of curiosities. However earlier, in the mid 1990s, Andrew had made some of the most iconographic imagery re-using archival photographs. In a series of works from the mid 1990s, Brook Andrew invested his nineteenth-century subjects, copied from various state archives, with a libidinous body image inscribed within the terms of contemporary queer masculinity, and emblazoned them with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as , I Split Your Gaze (1997), Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr [I See You] (1998) and Sexy and Dangerous (1996) Andrew exploits the auratic power of the original Aboriginal subjects to re-project the historically objectifying gaze straight back to the present, to be immediately re-inscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse. Although Andrew was also criticised for using the powerful portraits of the aboriginal subjects without appropriate consideration for their original tribal and geographical identity, these works have since become almost iconic in contemporary Australian art.

The iconicity of these archival art works is beginning to feedback into the historical archive itself. For instance, in May this year Sotheby’s put an ad in the paper advertising their upcoming auction of six albums of ethnographic photographs by Kerry and King. Out of all the images they could have chosen from the albums for the ad they chose the same one Brook Andrew had chosen 17 years before. Perhaps, like Andrew, they were attracted to the sexiness of the man; but I think also that the fame that Andrew’s appropriation had given to this man, and his posthumous conscription to the identity debates of contemporary Australia, had changed the value and valency of the original photograph as historical document in a kind of reverse historicism.

These transcultural uses of the archive by contemporary indigenous artists, who put themselves in the front line of contemporary debates around Australian identity and historical obligation, may seem a long way from the genteel streets of Canberra. But nonetheless I think the strong shadows they cast  help to illuminate the way we all relate to the photographic archive, even on a day-to-day level.

Canberra is an archival city. Not only in the sense that it houses some of the nation’s biggest archives, but that an archival presence continually pinpricks our civic space. Perhaps back in some utopian Old World, Europeans like me may have walked down urban precincts with their mixture of old and new buildings and felt a chthonic connection to time and place. But now we need memory markers, picture boards that remind us of what buildings or precincts once looked like. This attempt to create a collective sense of place and time is now no longer performative, but archival. Archival photographs are found, reproduced and irrupted into our streets on sign boards, to be more or less ignored by passers by. Thus, marginalised urban precincts, seen in need of a relevance injection, are embellished with evidence from the archive which hopefully reminds people that they are walking through a lieux de mémoire with a rich and rounded history.

Similarly, in acts of national commemoration the archive is replacing other modes of memorialization, such as symbol, prayer or song. Since the the Vietnam Memorial of 1992, many other memorials such as the Nurses Memorial, the Airforce memorial and Reconciliation and Federation place, have followed its lead in reproducing the momentary slice of time of the photograph within various ageless, either vitreous or lithic, surfaces. Lately, also, Canberra’s national memorial architecture is increasingly becoming a screen for the projection of archival photographs. Charles Bean had always put a library of photographs at the heart of his conception for the future Australian War Memorial, but I doubt that even he could have imagined the outside walls of the Memorial becoming a screen for the projection of Archival photographs in the lead-up to the Dawn Service, as happened this year.

For these reasons it perhaps was inevitable that photographs should feature  in the ACT Bushfire Memorial. Because of my interest in re-using archival photographs I was invited to submit a proposal to design the proposed Memorial, I realized I had no chance of getting the gig until I teamed up with Tess Horwitz and Tony Steele; their public-art smarts combined with my photographic credentials meant we had an unbeatable proposal. We held two sausage sizzle days where victims of the fire came in to meet the artists and look at our maquette, as well as inscribe a brick and show me the snaps they had taken on the day of the fires and in the aftermath leading to their recovery. I got a scan of the photos I liked, and got them to fill out a sheet giving me copyright permission and relevant metadata. One of the textural themes of the Memorial was the humble house brick, so I cut out brick-sized details from my scans and laid them out vertically into five glass columns. The palette ran from earthy and fiery tones at the bottom, up to images of people and incidents at eye level, and then up to the greens and blues of regeneration towards the sky. Captions giving the photographer’s name and a short title were placed in the ‘mortar’ between the images. I still think that this memorial is rather unique because, rather than choosing one image to be iconically embody the whole experience of the event being memorialized, as in the Vietnam Memorial, or doing an impressionistic collage of different elements, as in the Nurses or Air Force memorials, individually tagged and identifiable photographs, albeit details of them, are presented in a grid which retains their individual specificity. I think this approach worked because the victims were all fairly homogenous — middle class suburbanites with cameras — and the event was concentrated and coherent in its narrative meaning — ‘fire comes, community suffers but regenerates’ — with only some minor counter-narratives — of the financial culpability of various governments — around the edges. This approach may not have worked in memorials to more complex disasters, or addressing more heterogenous constituencies.

I’ll finish by talking a little bit about a small installation I have in the show which is opening tonight. In my head I divide the history of Canberra into two periods. There is the utopian period from its foundation to self-government, where Canberra was used by the Commonwealth Government as a model of an ideal Australian polity, and a kind of ideal template for a future Australian city. During this utopian period, which in my imagination peaks in the 1960s,  Canberra was tolerated as a noble experiment by most Australians. Then there is the distopian period from self-government till now, where Canberra is regarded by Australians and governments alike as parasitical, perverse, pretentious, indulgent and ‘out of touch’. In both these Canberras there are no actual people. In the distopian Canberra of today the people who live here are despised as a vitiated, degenerated, foppish sub-category of the real Australian. They are people of literally no account. As Clive Palmer said last week:‘In Canberra they have the best roads, but nobody to drive on them’. However the utopian Canberra was also devoid of actual people, the few people that appear in the photographs are national cyphers, actors in a political fantasy, like the schematic figures that occur in architectural drawings.

So I’ve collected tourist brochures and NCDC publications from the utopian period of Canberra, making my own archive. Using an ‘Office Works’ aesthetic I have covered up the generic photographs with coloured sheets of A4 paper, obscuring the various civic vistas of national potentiality but revealing hapless pedestrians or passers by accidentally caught in the photographer’s camera, thereby pulling them out of their unwitting role as national cyphers, an perhaps returning to them their individuality as people.

My work is cool and ironic, it is a million miles from the fervent spiritual juju of indigenous artists. It is affectionate, rather than interrogative. But nonetheless I think that on some level we are all engaged with the same occultish power of the archive.

Martyn Jolly


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

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

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

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

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

Mark Strizic

‘Mark Strizic’, National Library of Australia Magazine, 2013

Mark Strizic, who died in December last year, was the last of his generation. He was the last of an important group of European émigré photographers, which also included Wolfgang Sievers and  Henry Talbot, who immeasurably enriched Australian photography. These photographers were, in their turn, part of a larger group of émigré artists, craftspeople, designers and architects who immeasurably enriched Australia as a whole. But Strizic was a bit different. After arriving in Melbourne from Zagreb in 1950, and taking up photography in the mid fifties, Strizic’s subsequent fifty-year career was much more complex, diverse and manifold than any of the other émigré photographers. He not only worked in many different photographic styles, but he was also interested in new and experimental photographic techniques, as well as book design and production, architectural murals and tertiary teaching.

Artistic collaboration was fundamental to Strizic’s career, and the two major groups of his photographs in the National Library of Australia come from collaborative projects. In  1960 Strizic worked with the architectural critic, historian and lecturer David Saunders on producing a picture book about Melbourne. Although modestly scaled, the book, Melbourne: A Portrait, is still a charming object even today. Unusually for a book of the period the entire publication is printed using the new offset printing process, rather than the photographs being printed from plates separately engraved to the letterpress text. However Strizic’s softly sunlit, cleanly composed, almost Pictorialist photographs translated well to the pages via offset. As the book’s designer, Strizic was able to freely move the rectangular photographs up and down or across the square pages so that the composition of one visually interlocked with the composition of the next, while expansive fields of blank paper, which sometimes also included floating lines of text, brought each consecutive double-page spread together into a different graphic composition visually relating to the subject matter of the photographs.

Although modestly scaled, and priced, the book didn’t lack ambition, Saunders’ text was repeated in Italian and German, envisaging a global market for images of cosmopolitan Melbourne. Strizic himself acknowledged that the inspiration for the book came from a book called Light and Shade.  which his father, an architect, had published on his home town of Zagreb in 1955. It was clearly to this more contemplative, ambling, European style of the ‘city book’ that Strizic aspired, rather than the strident, commercial boosterism of other Australian photo books of the time, although both kinds of book cast Melbourne in a very positive light. The Book of The Year award which Melbourne: A Portrait won in 1961 duly recognised the integrated design of the complete book package, including a bright and chirpy cover design by Leonard French, that the offset printing, carried out by Adelaide’s Griffin Press, Australia’s premier printer of the period, had allowed.

An architecturally transforming Melbourne continued as one of Strizic’s main themes for the next two decades, and he developed a distinctive style, often shooting straight into the light to produce extreme contrast, with blown-out highlights silhouetting black shadows. The old is often juxtaposed with the new, and hot gritty sunlight often shears across cliff-like facades. The people of Melbourne, caught in a headlong rush hour or in exhausted repose, also feature; but Strizic’s photographs were recording the radical expansion and verticalisation of Melbourne during this period, as skyscrapers pushed upwards and car-choked roads pushed outwards, so Melbournians are often left behind or pushed out of the way, squashed down at the bottom of his shots, or squeezed in by his constricting framing. By the late 1970s Strizic’s Melbourne had changed radically from his gentle1960s vision, it had become thoroughly dystopian, an inhuman place of ugly pavements and tangled wires. Using a process he called ‘photochrome’ he even began to print his black and white negatives on colour paper, as well as experimenting with duplicating them onto colour film with high-contrast lithographic film, electrifying Melbourne with intense, sometimes even psychedelic colours that gave his cityscapes a psychological, even hallucinatory, edge.

In 1967 and 1968 Strizic worked on two other important projects with Sun Books, a start-up publishing company which was experimenting with different ways of taking advantage of the boom in paperback publishing that was bringing book prices down and increasing the popular market for a diverse range of formats and subjects. For one project Strizic worked as a stills photographer on Tim Burstall’s pioneering film 2000 Weeks, and turned the stills into a complete, cheap, paperback-novel sized, photo-roman tie-in for the film, with each page tightly packed with his photographs and dialogue from the film. 2000 Weeks was made in a self-consciously European art-house style, and told the existential story of a young artistic man torn between his allegiance to a still provincial Australia and the lure of bigger career opportunities of Britain.  It bombed at the box office, so presumably Strizic’s book bombed at the bookstore as well. As a filmmaker Burstall changed tack entirely and eventually found success with cheeky sex comedies unashamedly celebrating crass Australia.

As a photographer Strizic worked with Sun Books again on a posh, self-consciously arty, limited edition book called Involvement, edited by the philanthropist Andrew Grimwade. The idea was that Strizic would collaborate with the painter Clifton Pugh and take photographs of the same sitters Pugh had painted over the years, and painting and photograph would be shown side by side. However the book was not designed by Strizic himself, as had been the case with Melbourne: A Portrait and 2000 Weeks, but by the designer Les Gray, who was incapable of graphically handling the juxtaposition of the tipped-in colour plates of Pugh’s paintings with Strizic’s black and white photographs, so each spread had an out of balance, cluttered feel. This, combined with the book’s pretentious leather binding and grandiose text by Geoffrey Dutton, makes for a curiously unsatisfying package. In his portraits, which he took in Australia, the US, the UK and Europe, Strizic answered the angular, chromatic fondue of Pugh’s paintings by developing his own extremely idiosyncratic photographic style. He doubled the speed of his 35mm film with extended development, which increased the contrast and graininess of the images, and shot his sitters against dominating backgrounds, and with intruding out-of-focus foreground elements. This had the effect of amplifying the sitter’s personalities, who appear to be strongly asserting themselves against their environment. The head of the ABC, Sir Charles Moses, is photographed through a curtain of cigar smoke, while Barry Humphries is captured amongst the eccentric antiques of his London flat, leering at us from behind his flop of hair. In 1968 this set of photographs was exhibited, as Some Australian Personalities, at the National Gallery of Victoria, in that institution’s first one-person photography show.

Strizic’s involvement with other artists, architects and designers was significant on many other levels. In 1988 he was commissioned to comprehensively document the works of the sculptor John Davis and the furniture designer Schulim Krimper for their Australia Council funded monographs. Strizic’s relationship with Krimper furniture went all the way back to 1959, when he first documented his work for a National Gallery of Victoria retrospective on Krimper’s work. Strizic was also at home with the technological avant-garde. He knew the abstract artist Asher Bilu, and in 1967 made the only surviving record of Bilu’s pioneering interactive electronic artwork, Sculptron. In this photograph Strizic was able to handle with aesthetic sympathy and technical aplomb the tricky task of lighting and simultaneously exposing for the glowing oscillating patterns on the work’s eight cathode ray tubes, as well as its Perspex flowers, chrome spheres, and electronic control box. (Jones 2011)

Strizic also had a significant career as a muralist, he built his own photographic mural processor to print architecturally scaled murals for numerous corporate headquarters and government offices, which often combined his ‘photochromes’ with his paintings. In 1970 he even collaborated with the important electronic artist Stanislav Ostoja-Kotkowski on a twelve-metre long mural for the architect Gerd Block’s Ciba-Geigy building in Preston. Ostoja-Kotkowski’s colour infra-red photography was combined with Strizic’s ‘photochromes’ in a swirling abstraction of amoeboid forms and laser light refraction. Later, in the mid1980s, he became deeply involved with the industrial ‘Superscan’ process which made large photographic prints on canvas, an analogue forerunner of today’s digitally produced giant inkjet prints. (Do any of Strizic’s architectural murals still exist I wonder, or have they, like Sculptron, also been lost?)

A final important collaboration was with the architect and cultural critic Robin Boyd. In 1970 Strizic photographed and designed Boyd’s book Living in Australia, in which Boyd put forward his own design philosophy to counter the ugliness which both he and Strizic saw as enveloping Australia. Strizic’s graphically compelling photography, in which the exposed wooden beams and large picture windows of Boyd’s domestic architecture are shot in deeply penetrating diagonal focus, reinforces the larger social message of the book. The book has recently been repackaged and republished with additional photography by John Gollings.

Unlike many of his fellow photographers who established their careers in the sixties, Strizic also sustained a busy career as an exhibiting artist, either solo or in collaboration, at key commercial galleries such as Gallery A Melbourne, and Holdsworth Galleries Sydney. In 1988, after a long period teaching in the new photography departments which were starting up in Melbourne art schools and technical colleges as part of the 1970s photography boom, he returned to his early negatives of Melbourne streets for an exhibition at Christine Abrahams Gallery. Since then he has gradually became most well known as a nostalgic photographer of ‘old Melbourne’, or ‘disappearing Melbourne’ or ‘marvelous Melbourne’. But, seen in its entirety, his career is much more complex than that. Through his constant experimentation, and his long-term engagement on many different levels with many different artists and designers, he played an important if under-the-radar role, in much that was new, innovative, and important in Australian culture.

Martyn Jolly

Sources:

NLA Photographers Files

NLA Clippings Files

Stephen Jones, Synthetics: Aspects of Art and Technology in Australia, 1956-1975, MIT Press, 2011, p145

Further Reading

Mark Strizic, Melbourne: Marvelous to Modern, Text by Emma Matthews, Thames& Hudson, 2009

Robin Boyd, Mark Strizic, Living in Australia, new edition, Thames and Hudson, 2013

Text of ‘anecdote’ presented at Art School Anecdote performance by Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich

Aren’t art schools great? I think by law every art school should have a papier maché Statue of Liberty outside, with a plaque saying:

Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door Continue reading

Has the digital revolution changed documentary photography?

‘Has the digital revolution changed documentary photography? ‘, State Library of New South Wales Magazine , May, 2013

Documentary photography is very popular at the moment. Despite the much vaunted torrent of digital images from the 24/7 news feeds, the myriad Youtube channels, or the thousands of photographs uploaded every minute to social media sites such as Flickr, Instagram or Facebook, people still have an appetite for the honed, considered, still image taken by a photographer who has devoted his or her life to the profession. New high-quality books, exhibitions, festivals, blogs, and the iPad editions of newspapers such as the Guardian, are all continuing to use the single ‘decisive moment’ of the documentary photograph, and continuing to attract viewers with it. Yet there are clear signs that the advent of digital photography has put the assumptions of the documentary genre under an enormous amount of pressure.

Digital photography has long since ceased to be new. The apocalyptic scenarios sketched out on its behalf in the late 1980s and early 1990s have proved to be simplistic, self-serving and wrong. Photography hasn’t imploded because, instead of light falling on emulsion to activate chemical reactions, light now falls on charged coupler devices to activate algorithmic reactions. People haven’t lost ‘faith’ in the photograph because photography was always more than just a particular technology, it was an historical convention, a social practice, an entrenched media industry, a personal relationship, and a psychological space. Shifting from film to memory cards and darkrooms to Photoshop wasn’t going to change that.

And, even though the statistics for the number of photo uploads are mind-boggling (for instance Flickr upload rates peaked at almost 2 million a day in mid 2011) we shouldn’t be carried away by the current on-line revolution in photography, either. Photography has always been a numbers game, and its numbers have always been relatively astronomical. For instance, way back in 1861, a little over twenty years after the invention of the medium, the enthusiastic booster of nineteenth century photography, Oliver Wendell Holmes, claimed that he had personally viewed 100,000 stereographs and had 1000 in his collection. By the twentieth century those staggering numbers were beginning to appear puny. In that century, it could be argued, the most important artefact for photography became the filing cabinet, not the camera, as massive archives around the world began to fill with photographs. For instance the filing cabinets in in the Film Preservation Facility of the stock photography agency Corbis, alone, hold eleven million pre-digital photographs. Seen in this light the current numbers of images available on-line are merely part of a trend, an exponential trend certainly, but a trend inherent to the medium nonetheless.

Some commentators talk about on-line photo sharing as though it is a new thing, as though people had never shared photographs before. But photography has always been a medium of interpersonal exchange, too. The very raison d’etre of the most popular portrait form of the nineteenth century, the carte-de-visite, was so that multiple copies could be shared within social circles The carte-de-visite albums of the period were the Facebook pages of their time. And even the millions of postcards, snapshots and albums of the twentieth century were always also specific messages between individuals, as well as a photographer’s image of the world. You only have to turn over any old postcard or discarded snapshot you might happen to pick up in a junkshop to find on the back a hand written message from one person to another, as short and enigmatic as a tweet.

The so-called ‘digital revolution’, therefore, has not fundamentally destroyed, but has only intensified the trends and qualities already fundamentally inherent in the medium. But, documentary photographers have felt these intensifications particularly acutely.

Documentary photographers want to change the world, that is one of the defining precepts of the genre. The folk heroes of documentary are those who have gone in under the radar or embedded themselves behind the lines and brought back images that have changed people’s perceptions of a war or other humanitarian crisis. The icons of the twentieth century, the classic photographs from the Second World War or the Vietnam War that have burned themselves into our collective historical consciousness, were all taken by committed documentary photographers working for governments or news organisations. But the icons of the past ten years, of the Iraq War or the Arab Spring, which have been similarly burned into our collective visual consciousness, were all taken by participants, not documentary photographers. The terrible photographs that ushered in the century, the torture photographs of 2003 and 2004 from Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, were taken by the abusers themselves — the American Military Police. As Susan Sontag was the first to recognize: ‘A digital camera is a common possession among soldiers. Where once photographing war was the province of photojournalists, now soldiers themselves are all photographers — recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities — and swapping images among themselves and emailing them around the globe.’ (Susan Sontag ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’, New York Times Magazine, 23 May, 2004 p27.) These images changed the world, certainly, but the people who took them had no agenda and no photographic ethic, other than boredom and a need to use the camera to feel part of a social group, albeit a perverse one.

In the nine short years since the global shock of the Abu Ghraib photographs, the commonest possession amongst all of us has become a mobile phone with a camera linked to the internet. Now we are all potential photographers almost all the time, and so the stream of revelations continues. The screams of alleged police brutality on our streets, the blood running down the faces of the victims of random terrorist attacks overseas, the surging of crowds at democracy demonstrations, and the drunken scuffles of the dissolute middle classes at night, all the phantasmagorical images of our social and political nightmares have first been uploaded to the internet from the mobile phones of participants, and then harvested from social media websites by mainstream new organisations. (The police themselves are now increasingly using the mobile phone cameras of the general public as a ubiquitous surveillance system, they often use the mobile phone and Facebook postings of participants to identify rioters.)

Yet even in these new circumstances, where the previously separate roles of photographer and subject, participant and observer, witness and victim are collapsing, there is still a role for the documentary photographer. Younger documentary photographers, such as the New Yorker Ben Lowy, are recognising the need to work in both modes, to provide a continual ‘feed’ of images as well as delivering considered, edited essays, in order to survive and remain relevant in this new economy of images.

On their way to being published and consumed by viewers, all digital documentary photographs pass through an environment were computer manipulation, to some degree, is inevitable. In this sense documentary photographs are a lot like contemporary movies, they both have some element of CG in them, even if the audience isn’t aware of it. For a long time we have realized that ‘external’ factors such as captioning, context, point of view, cropping, focal length and so on, dramatically altered the presumed meaning of news photographs, and we have learnt to ‘read’ photographs accordingly. However because they use a workflow that includes digital post-production, newspapers and mainstream media outlets have quickly moved to establish strict protocols that protect the ‘internal’ visual integrity, the documentary ‘truth’ and therefore the news value of their images, from CG infection. For instance in 2006, during the Israel-Lebanon conflict, sharp-eyed bloggers caught out the Reuters news agency who had published images by one of their stringers, Adnan Hajj. He had taken a shot of smoke rising above Beirut after an Israeli bombardment, but he had not been able to resist using the Photoshop ‘clone’ tool to, rather inexpertly, increase the amount of black smoke that appeared to be billowing from the buildings, before selling it on to Reuters. Once the alteration had been identified Reuters quickly dropped Hajj as a stringer, removed all of his 920 images from sale, and sacked one of their picture editors.

However other photographers are experimenting with embracing to possibilities of CG to not so much manipulate a truth, as to tell a story with multiple truths within one frame. For instance the Israeli gallery-based photographer Barry Frydlender still documents real scenes in Israel, but he composites multiple times, and multiple points of view, into the one complete image. These images have to be read differently by viewers, they are not a decisive moment, but rather decisive moments through which the viewer has to carefully navigate, assembling the complex meaning of the scene themselves.

These examples indicate the stresses traditional documentary photography is under, while at the same time it remains vibrant and obviously needed. One thing is certain: as photography continues it exponential change under the impact of the technological revolutions to come, the documentary impulse will continue to be at its very core.

Martyn Jolly

Children and Urban Space

‘Children and Urban Space’, Robert Rooney Seminar, Centre for Contemporary Photography, 24 April, 2013

Powerpoint slides:

 

 In response to Robert Rooney’s extraordinary photographs I want to draw two very thin threads through the history of Australian photography and film.  I’m going to be looking at two separate filaments which have linked together the way children have been used to define or re-define urban space in Australia. The first is the figure of the street urchin, who has been seen as a combination of both the picturesque and the pathogenic. The second occurs in three films, Kid Stakes, 1927, BMX Bandits, 1983 and Deck Dogz, 2005, in which children or adolescents pursue trajectories at a tangent to the normative social geographies of Sydney.

Street Urchins and the Official Gaze

Children have been crucial motifs in the official photographs of urban space. They appear regularly in the photographs documenting the cleansing of The Rocks area following the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in January 1900.

When these photographs were rediscovered in the 1970s the historian Max Kelly recognized that the photographer had also captured a new relationship between citizen and camera, in which the children had also become enmeshed.  He said:

Here people are as they were. There is no artifice. Some are caught unawares, some are apprehensive. Others are just as interested in the photographer as he is in them. Most have only rarely, if ever, had their photographs taken.

The presence of the small, kinetic children, often caught in fleeting movement or play, further activates the deep, wide-angle space of the photographs, while their social status as vulnerable innocents gives the political meaning of the slum clearance an extra symbolic validation.

Children were deployed to a similar effect in the photographs methodically taken over a period of just one week, in 1916, to document all the buildings to be demolished for a widening of Sydney’s William Street. In his 1982 book Faces of the Street, Max Kelly entered this systematic space and enlarged sections from the evidentiary photos, performing a kind of retro street photography within the archive. Once excavated from the scene the child becomes a kind of readymade punctum in the overall scenarios of the official photographs.

This can also be seen in the Melbourne Housing Commission photographs of F. O. Barnett from the 1930s, where the presence of children overlays the spatial structuring of the labyrinthine, enclosed, segregated slum with a temporal dimension of social poverty. Here, children are social pathogens: will they stay poor like their parents, or will they erupt from the slums and threaten the rest of Melbourne?

However, the stern boot-steps of official photographers have always been shadowed by the soft pad of art photographers.

For instance in 1910 Harold Cazneaux wrote an article called In and about the City with a Hand Camera, a record of his own engagement with the streets which, he said, ‘have all the humour and pathos of life’. For Cazneaux he streets contained artistic lighting effects and picturesque subject matter waiting to be discovered by the intrepid Pictorialist. In particular they contained children who could be photographed in such a way as to hark back to the figure of the urchin when, for the nineteenth century viewer, there was an aesthetic and erotic frisson to be had in seeing innocence potentially threatened. But Cazneaux also admitted that the streets were resistant to his gaze. Without any official authority to back him up, a mute stand-off could quickly become outright hostility and demolish the Pictorialist’s personal old world fantasy. As he warned:

A trip down to the Rocks Area and Argyle Cut will convince any worker with Pictorial imagination of what is to be had, but photography is difficult in this neighborhood. To be successful the worker should have had some experience, as any nervousness of manner and lack of tact whilst working here would only end up by being ridiculed. However go by all means and get broken in. Tact and expert manipulation of one’s camera is necessary if you wish to deal successfully with side street work in this locality. Still, the chances are that you may not like to return again.

However Cazneaux did return again and again to the slums. In the late 1940s and 50s — because of a combination of the post war housing shortage, the rise of the Communist Party and Left politics in Australian art, and the ascendancy of the Documentary genre in photography —  ‘slum portraits’ had a popular resurgence.

In 1948 Cazneaux turned the wee little pictorial gems which he had made back in the 1900s, into brand new bromide enlargements.. He also wrote a print criticism column for Contemporary Photography magazine to which aspiring photographer’s sent prints for critique. One of these was David Moore, an ambitious photographer working at Max Dupain’s studio who was assembling a portfolio to take to London to try to break into the picture magazine market. Moore had identified Sydney’s slums as a prime spot to get photographs that could be of interest to overseas picture editors. Like Cazneaux before him he travelled from his comfortable North Shore home to enter the slum in search of urchins. He titled one of his photographs ‘Little Charlie’, perhaps in reference to Charlie Chaplin’s character of The Tramp, and sent it in to Cazneaux, who was sympathetic to the young photographer’s editorial intentions.

Has the photographer been concerned with the sunlight and texture shown on the figure, post and old brick wall, or the slum-like surrounding the boy is growing up in … The photographer has supplied the clue to the motif. His title ‘Little Charlie’ is a definite statement. We can use our imagination and extract a reason. ‘Little Charlie’ seemingly looks forward to the future — and what of his future? Who knows? The fact that the print can thus arouse our interest and sympathy places it on a higher plane of pictorial expression. I make no comment as to how this photograph could be improved.  At the moment we are more concerned with its message.

During this period many other photographers, such as Geoffrey Powell, Henry Talbot, Jeff Carter and Mark Strizic, also shot picturesque documentary urchins around the slums of Sydney. Many of these photographs — both the official ones and the artistic ones — have a very similar composition. They place the figures of the children precariously along the deep vertiginous angles of alleyways and walls, leading backwards and forwards through space. This visually amplifies the metaphorically precarious temporal status of the slum child, moving simultaneously backwards and forwards through the processes of social development and historical progress, as well as potentially across the barrier between the slum and the rest of the city. The ‘deep space’ shot dominates, but sometimes the ‘line-up against the wall ‘shot, which harks back to the graph–like display of poverty in Lewis Hine or Walker Evans, also occurs

It is probably too much of a stretch to tie this thread through to Carol Jerrems’ intensely personal engagement with the young skinheads she taught around Heidelberg in 1975. There are too many differences. She was not an outsider like the other photographers, rather she knew her subjects personally and she found them erotically compelling as individuals, rather than types. In filming the uncompleted film School’s Out she was a precarious guest in the communally enclosed spaces they had created for themselves on the banks of the Yarra. Looking at these extraordinary sequences now, not only does the intense eroticisation of the encounter come through, but also the sense that at any moment the rules that had been set to allow the encounter to happen in the first place, may suddenly be broken.

However Jerrems’ work does allow me to segue to the three films I want to finish with, which are also concerned with getting inside the spaces children create for themselves. Although basically generic kids movies, each film sets up a dominant panoramic view of the city, beneath which, or across which, a group of children move, following their own needs and desires, and evading the higher, clumsier and more inflexible demarcations of hapless adults.

Ludic Trajectories

 

Kid Stakes

The popular children’s film Kid Stakes, made in 1927, contains an astonishing sequence that perfectly, elegantly and poetically, captures the spatial politics of Sydney in the 1920s. Based on a comic strip, the film centres on the slum kids of Woolloomooloo who play cricket and live their lives freely in front of the wharves and ships of Woolloomooloo Bay. Above them lies Potts Point, full of its posh mansions and restrictive mores. Suddenly, out of the rows of grand houses at the bottom of Victoria Street, emerges an upper class boy who yearns for the freedoms of the Woolloomooloo kids. Through the bars of his suburban prison he performs a panoramic sweep of the city across the bay. But this panorama is not a projection into the future, instead he is assaying a potential personal itinerary. He sees the kids playing, and the camera irises in. The Woolloomooloo steps dwarf him as he descends down them like a latter-day Dante, but the steps are leading him towards the salvation of the slums. Initially the slum kids taunt him, but when he proves he can fight he joins their gang and, his velvet clothes now torn, he becomes free. He is able to lead the kids back up the steps, past a sleeping policeman on guard between the two elevations, the two classes, of Sydney, and into the wilds of Potts Point for further adventures.

BMX Bandits

In BMX Bandits Nicole Kidman and her two friends are being chased by two bumbling baddies. The film is a ‘location film’ shot in Manly, but since it is trying to cash in on the BMX craze of the early 80s it is entirely an urban film — unusually for a beach film the kids never set foot on the sand, and never enter the surf. The baddies, who style themselves as American gangsters, drive a big American car and so are compelled to slew back and forth along the switchback roads of Manly’s hills, whilst the BMXers nimbly dart directly up and down the slopes, as well as through shopping centres and building sites. In one extraordinary sequence they transition between urban strata in a dizzying delirium as they slide down the fiberglass spirals of the Manly Waterworks, complete with their bikes.

Deck Dogz

The three nimble skateboarders in 2007’s Deck Dogz are also being chased by two lumbering and hapless baddies. But, rather than the unstructured romp of BMX Bandits, there is an attempt to embed their skateboarding thrills and spills in a Jospeh Cambellesque hero’s journey from the badlands of Sydney’s western suburbs to a beachside skate bowl where the Holy Grail of corporate sponsorship by a world famous skater awaits. But, as in Kid Stakes and BMX Bandits, panoramic horizon lines of the city also feature. These horizon lines are a spatial limit beneath which only children, equipped with either slum-bred insouciance, or BMX Bikes, or skateboards, can travel. In Deck Dogz the skateboarders travel down a stormwater drain, which morphs into the virtual space of a computer game to deposit them magically within the city of Sydney itself.

Martyn Jolly

The Australian National University’s Inkjet Research Facility

The Australian National University’s Inkjet Research Facility’, Imprint Magazine, March. Pp28-29

The ANU’s Inkjet Research Facility in the ANU School of Art was founded in 2003 with a remit to research the creative arts potential of inkjet printing on as wide a variety of different substrates as possible, and to integrate inkjet printing as closely as possible with other disciplines taught in the school such as photography, printmaking, drawing , textiles and painting.

The approach the Facility takes, of methodically and slowly applying hands on, studio based, iterative experimental processes to the technologies of inkjet printing, is very much in keeping with the ethos of the School of Art in which it is based. While the facility has nurtured many younger artists, many of the other artists who have experimented on our Océ Arizona, wide-format, flatbed, UV cured printer already had long experience in studio-based, hands-on techniques in other disciplines — particularly painting, printmaking, textiles and photography. They are already experts in working closely with the materials of their discipline in the ‘atelier’ of the studio or darkroom. To them the digitisation of image printing is just part of what has been a larger evolving and mutating environment in which they have continued to make their work.

Taking a low volume, experimental approach to equipment primarily designed for the high volume, highly standardised, requirements of an industry is not all that new, even if within traditions of art it has always the manual processes that have been valorised.  In the discourses of art photography and printmaking it is the craft and materiality of the traditional darkrooms or print studio that was usually celebrated.  The material processes of light falling on emulsion, or light projected through the finely-tuned magenta, yellow and cyan filters of colour enlargers were once the only way that photographic images were ‘bodied forth’ and their meanings created. Photographers thought in terms of cones of light causing chemical reactions across emulsion. Different emulsions and chemicals, they knew, reacted in different ways. Darkroom printers controlled those reactions directly through manually calibrating light filtrations and subtly changing chemical reactions.  Similarly prints and paintings were once chiefly made by the squeegeeing of ink through the fine mesh of a silk screen, or the pushing of paint into the weave of canvas. In these studio processes the intuitive control of the hand, twisting and pushing, inflecting and directing with micro-muscular movements, was what was valorised ‘ — by the market, the connoisseur and the historian.

However, just as art history was celebrating the individuated manual control which apparently reigned in artists’ darkrooms and studios over the centuries, the artists themselves always knew that at the same time they were dealing with automatic processes, often derived from industrially scaled reproductive technologies, such as lithography or screen printing, that had become superseded in the factory or commercial printery, but had survived in the atelier. They also knew that art history’s divided narratives of photography, printmaking and painting meant little to them when it came to the actual production of their images. Most art has always been ‘multimedia’ to some degree, combining various processes from photography, printmaking and painting, as well as, of course, collage, performance and construction.

This history continues. If you were forced to identify year one of the so-called ‘digital revolution’, you might nominate 1988. It was the year the first digital camera was invented, the Fuji DS-IP , which directly recorded images as a computer file onto a 16 MB card. It was the year the JPEG and MPEG compression standards were formulated. It was the year Thomas and John Knoll signed a licensing agreement with Adobe to distribute the software they were developing, which they had just christened ‘Photoshop’. And it was the year the Hewlett Packard Deskjet printer was released, the first consumer-priced printer to translate the bitmapped digital image into a matrix of microscopic jets of ink. Yet seen from the seen from the point of view of most of the artist who have worked in the Inkjet Research Facility, the year 1988 is not really so cataclysmic. It has simply introduced new technical procedures, and new material spaces into the artist’s working process — a process which has been going on for a long time.

For instance in 2009 the IRF hosted the ANU’s H. C. Coombs Creative Arts Fellow, the late Michael Callaghan. Well-known for his iconic screen-printed posters of the 1970s, Callaghan had a thirty-year career as a graphic designer, painter, sculptor, and printmaker. He brought all of this to bear as he worked closely with the IRF’s printer at the time T. J. Phillipson, who is now working in London at Cut Laser Cut. For a major exhibition which was first shown at the ANU School of Art Gallery, and then at the Damien Minton Gallery as The Torture Memo, Callaghan graphically collaged and layered the familiar media images and slogans of the recent Iraq War. The media images appeared in silhouette, the slogans in repeated patterns of both English and Arabic script. For one ambitious work, eventually called ‘What the US Government Did at Gitmo’, the patterns were printed onto marine ply which was then laser cut and assembled into a chair, such as a torture victim may have used. The chair was placed on a large mirror, itself printed with more script, which in turn reflected an image on the underside of the chair’s seat.

Other researchers didn’t exploit the Océ Arizona’s ability to print on a variety of substrates, as much as its ability to cover a lot of print area quickly, and at reasonably high quality. For instance, for his 2009 PhD examination David Wills produced one of his massive ‘Wunderwall’ installations. Titled ‘There Are Too Many Things in the Cupboard’, it comprised over 3000 separate images, each printed directly on 150 x 200mm fomecore, installed in a floor to ceiling grid almost twenty-seven metres wide.

So far there have been two exhibitions showcasing the Inkjet Research Facility’s work, each held in collaboration with colleagues from the University of South Australia’s School of Art, Architecture and Design. The most recent, Assisted Reproduction, curated by Dr Denise Ferris, was held at the ANU School of Art in October 2012.

It featured work by the painter Gary Smith, a graduate of the School’s painting workshop. For a series of large canvases of glowering industrial landscapes called ‘Refined’, he used a technique researched in the IRF with the aid of an ArtsACT grant.

In the catalogue Smith said:

‘My work over the past three years has explored how contemporary inkjet technologies and traditional glaze painting techniques can be layered and integrated to broaden the scope of painting. … I create multi-pass composite prints, that seek to utilize the inkjet facility as a painter would develop a picture rather than how a photographer would output a print.’

Elsewhere he explained in more detail:

‘The canvas is initially prepared with many layers of silver and pearlescent glazes. These act like a screen in a theatre and add luminosity to the final image. The image to be layered is then split into each of the colours, ie CMYK, and printed separately as a reduced percentage. Between each layer that is printed the whole canvas is glazed with acrylic. This acts to separate each color and to help break the image down. This process is repeated until the image reaches the required level of saturation. These can vary from work to work being 8 layers of printing and 8 layers of glazing to 24 layers of printing and 24 layers of glazing.’

This technique was also used in the collaborative painting Smith did with Frank Thirion. Called ‘The Faceless Men’ it was shortlisted for the 2012 Archibald Prize.

Another longstanding artist with a long association with the IRF is Annie Trevillian, who has been experimenting for several years with printing directly on textiles. For Assisted Reproduction she exhibited work from the site-specific installation ‘Remnants’, about the fugitive historical existence of the Indigenous and European men, women and children who once lived near some old house ruins left in the middle of the new Canberra suburbs of Gungahlin.  For the sixteen large format images use in the installation she wanted to print her motifs, which were derived from various aspects of the site including its artefacts, buildings, orchards, food, animals and machinery, onto a similarly fugitive, remnant material, so she chose a crisp  but lightweight polyester fabric called polyvoile.

In the catalogue Trevillian said:

‘Because of the transparency of the fabric the imagery was either hidden or obvious depending on the light and where you are standing. It definitely conveyed the idea that there was a history to the site whether hidden or known. A bit like prompting memories of people and places. I worked closely with Amy Macgregor from the IRF sampling colours. Stretching the fabric taut and securing it with masking tape pre printing was very reminiscent of stretching mesh for screen printing. I enjoy the fact that my skills from previous art making activities can be translated to different aspects of digital printing.’

Three other artists in the exhibition printed onto glass. PhD candidate Kevin Miller, for instance, often rescues old window glass or architectural glass panels complete with their patina of long use. Miller intensively works with the contrast levels in his digital image until the tones are so compressed, at either the extreme dark or light end ends of the scale, that their content is often at the very edge of perception, as though seen at the outer limits of peripheral vision.  Miller advice to his viewers, straining to interpret the images, is:

‘You could imagine someone peering at a computer screen, adjusting levels, testing contrast and examining the colour, there may even be some manipulation involved, but this is uncertain. Then you imagine the file being uploaded to the printer in a brightly lit space. In this case the smell is not of chemicals but something closer to acrylic paint and while standing there watching the image being revealed in layers on the glass you could believe that the sound of the back and forth movement of the printer head is strangely comforting to the artist.’

Two artists in the exhibition were inspired by the peculiar mystery of glass magic lantern slides. Nick Stranks, another Phd candidate at the School of Art, has been collecting used and old tools. He sees them as a form of physical biography of their original owners. Inspired by nineteenth century magic lantern slides he prints their image onto glass at one-to-one scale, so they then act as sculptural ‘shadows’ cast from the original tool.

Martyn Jolly has approached the magic lantern slide more directly. Following on from his historical research in the National Film and Sound Archive he has tried to figure out ways of reproducing the experience of experiencing a projected image in the nineteenth century. He printed a 150 year old magic lantern slide of a butterfly, from the NFSA’s collection onto plate glass 1.5 metre square, which was suspended and spot lit as though it was a slide projection.

But the most popular work in the Assisted Reproduction show was the witty series, ‘Cheese on Toast’, by current Inkjet Research Facility technician Amy Macgregor. Pursuing her fascination with ‘cheesey’ and ‘hammy’ TV shows and movie stars from the 1950s to the 1970s, she harvested some images of her favourites, including Doris Day and Rock Hudson, and printed them directly onto slices of white bread, carefully dried in a microwave. Not only does the UV cured ink, in it saturated Hollywood colours, soak into the surface of the white bread in a wonderfully delicious way, but the visual pun on ‘white bread’ heroes plays itself out as Doris, Rock, Cliff, Olivia, The Fonze and all the rest gaze out of the bread at us full of wholesome goodness.

What is fascinating about each of these artists is how adept they are at incorporating a range of technologies — their legacy from centuries of studio-based art making practices and decades of industrial image-producing technologies — within a ‘new’ digital environment. For them their research takes place in an historically unprecedented range of creative spaces which nest one into the other: the optical space of the camera, the physical space of the studio, the virtual space of the computer, and the mechanical space of the printer head as it methodically moves back and forth across a surface directly delivering colour and pigment at an impossibly microscopic level of resolution.

Martyn Jolly

Captions

Gary Smith

Tanks 2012

Acrylic and Pigment on Canvas

115 x 240 cm

Amy Macgregor

Doris on White (from the Cheese on Toast series), 2012

UV cured print on bread

10 x 10 cm

Nick Stranks

Mr Pratt (installation detail), 2012

glass, ink jet image, Steel

180 x 50 x 13 cm

Kevin Miller

Blood and Bone 1, 2 & 3, 2012

digital print on glass

(3 x) 90 x 90 cm

Michael Callaghan

What the US Government Did at Gitmo, 2009/2010

Digitally printed marne ply, stainless steel, digitally printed mirror, MDF and Timber, aluminium

Dimension variable

Courtesy Damien Minton Gallery

Michael Callaghan

What Detainee 063 Did at Gitmo, 2009/2010

Digital Print

111 x 140 cm

Courtesy Damien Minton Gallery

David Wills

‘There are too many things in the cupboard’ 2009

Installation of 3000 individual prints

ANU School of Art Gallery

Martyn Jolly

Reproduction of glass magic lantern slide of a moth C1860s

Collection, National Film and Sound Archive

Glass

150 x 150cm

Art School Anecdote

‘Art School Anecdote’, Art Monthly Australia, May pp60-61

March 22

ANU School of Art

If, like me, you once went to an art school for your training as an artist, you might have found that some of the most valuable creative experiments you undertook weren’t for your classes, but were for school balls and parties; and that some of the most memorable conversations you had, with either lecturers or fellow students, occurred at after school drinking sessions rather than tutorials. Walter Gropius, the founder of the most famous art school of them all, knew this. He wrote into the Bauhaus’s curriculum mandatory parties, for which both staff and students had to design decorations and costumes, as we’ll as attend. These parties were part of the utopian current that so fundamentally animated the Bauhaus as a social ideal, and which animated the idea of the art school in general, both before the Bauhaus and since.

Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin also liked a party, and didn’t need much encouragement to design elaborate costumes for themselves to attend impromptu rituals and entertainments, designed to herald a modern future, at sites like the new suburb of Castlecrag in Sydney. And a current of urban utopianism, historically related to the educational ideals of the Bauhaus, also ran through their design for Canberra.

It is the contention of Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich, UK artists who have had a long interest the utopian impulse in contemporary social settings and media environments, that this utopian current is still relevant to today’s art schools, although admittedly at a lower wattage compared to all the other political and financial factors affecting art schools globally. Perhaps you saw Walker and Bromwich last year during the opening of the MCA extensions, sailing around Sydney Harbour in a mirror-tile covered boat, broadcasting in pirate-radio style an FM mash up of people talking about their experience of the marine life of the Harbour. That was part of their ongoing work Celestial Radio, which they have created in various places around the world.

Oral traditions such as radio broadcasting or storytelling — what Walter Benjamin called in his 1936 article, The Storyteller, ‘experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth’ — have been one of their abiding concerns as a way of maintaining and transmitting knowledge within communities. For instance they are interested in the much-maligned oral form of the ‘anecdote’. Narratively streamlined through frequent re-telling, and fueled by a bit of exaggeration and apocrypha, anecdotes are in fact still important for giving us all a sense of our place in time — on a personal, family, and community level.

When invited to produce a collaborative work with students at the ANU School of Art for Canberra’s Centenary, Walker and Bromwich brought these threads together in a work called Art School Anecdote. They and students from across the School designed and built a wonderfully ancient looking stage, which was based on the Griffin’s unrealised design of 1936 for the student union of India’s Lucknow University. The team designed and made fantastically modernist costumes for themselves, and created kookily choreographed Futurist rituals involving the hilarious, but po-faced recitation of the idealistic design philosophy of Marion Mahony Griffin from 1912; as well as the educational philosophy of the Bauhaus’s Johannes Itten from a 1919 lecture called ‘ Our play, our party, our work’; and the inaugurating Vision Statement of the Canberra School of Art by its first director, Udo Sellbach, who in the mid 1970s still saw Canberra’s new art school as being on the outer lip of the furtherest historical ripple that had been created by the Bauhaus.

The team trained themselves to spontaneously form into instant tableau vivants of famous paintings and, most importantly, invited past and present students and staff to retell alternatively poignant and amusing anecdotes about things that had happened to them at the school, and the things that had accumulated to give the school its presence within so many individual lives, as well as the community of Canberra. Some students even revisited the archives of the School’s well-known performance group Acme, which had formed in the 1990s around the former head of Sculpture, David Watt, and re-interpreted one of their works.

But the night wasn’t just a nostalgia fest for the ANU School of Art, in fact it was about every art school anywhere, and the enduring value of the idea of the art school through time. The climax of the performances was a fabulous tableau vivant of that old revolutionary chestnut, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. This dramatic pyramid was backed with ex-student Tim Dwyer’s electronic looping and layering of his own musings on not quite living up to the standard model of art world success expected of him with his degree. The crowd went crazy. A genuine wave of collective joy had been created by the vernal force of the students, and we all felt borne up, above the specificities of our own good or not-so-good experiences with art schools, to be part of a larger, collective, transnational historical project.

Every five-year-old child who has played with blocks on the lounge room floor knows that utopias are bound to fail. But what these students, through Walker and Bromwich, reminded us was that the real failure is, when given the opportunity to ride that utopian impulse, to not say: YES!

Martyn Jolly

Martyn Jolly is Head of Photography and Media Arts at the ANU School of Art

Captions:

Square darkish image:

Tableau Vivant of Liberty Leading the People, from Art School Anecdote, ANU School of Art, Picture: Sarah Nathan-Truesdale.

Longer crop

Tableau Vivant of Liberty Leading the People, from Art School Anecdote, ANU School of Art, Video Frame Grab: Lachlan Pini.