Networking the Tradition: Curating Photography in Australia

Photofile

Vol. 95, Spring/Summer, pp48-55.

(with Daniel Palmer)

Australia’s big galleries and libraries have been seriously buying and curating photographs for over forty years now, during a period when the medium itself has undergone profound transformations. It’s time now to take an overview of the interaction between the institutional imperatives of our state and national collecting institutions and the changes in photography as a medium.

Although the institutional curating of photography did not begin in earnest until the 1970s, in the five or so decades before then the powerful idea of collecting photographs was intermittently discussed, at various levels of institutional authority, and with various degrees of vigour. For instance, at the end of the First World War, the amateur photographic magazine the Australasian Photo Review called for a ‘national collection of Australian photographic records’. The Mitchell Library was one of several institutions who responded positively to this idea, even suggesting a list of twelve different categories of photographs which amateurs could take for a future repository. However the librarians did not follow through on their initial positive noises and collections failed to materialise.

Thirty years later, at the end of the Second World War, the idea of a national collection was raised again. Laurence le Guay, the editor of the new magazine Contemporary Photography, devoted an entire issue to new sharp bromide enlargements Harold Cazneaux made from his Pictorialist negatives of Old Sydney, and declared that they ‘would be a valuable acquisition for the Mitchell Library or Australian Historical Societies.’ However, once more the library failed to follow through, and Cazneaux’s photographs remained uncollected.

Nevertheless, the interest in photography as an Australian tradition and the persuasiveness of the idea of significant public collections of historic photographs continued to build. By the 1960s both libraries and state galleries were beginning to make serious policy commitments to collecting photographs. The aims were to both collect photographs as documents of Australian life, and to record the importance of photography as a visual medium. For instance, the National Librarian of Australia, Harold White, began to work with Keast Burke who in 1956 had proposed a two tier national collection: one part to be purely about the information which photographs contained, and assembled by microfilming records and copying images in the library’s own darkrooms; the other part to be about the medium itself, made up of ‘artistic salon photographs’ and historic cameras.

The National Gallery of Victoria, under Director Eric Westbrook, became the first state gallery to collect photography. Despite forthright opposition from some members (one of whom referred to photography as “cheat’s way of doing a painting”), the Trustees approve the establishment of Department of Photography in 1967.[ii] The first work to enter the collection – David Moore’s documentary photograph Surry Hills Street (1948) – was acquired through a grant from Kodak. In the same year the NGV imported The Photographer’s Eye, a touring exhibition from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which had been the first art museum to establish a Department of Photography in 1940.[iii] The exhibition was curated by MoMA’s John Szarkowski, undoubtedly the most influential photography curator of the second half of the twentieth century, as a statement of his formalist position on photographic aesthetics. Its title was adapted for a local version, The Perceptive Eye (1969–1970).

By 1973 the yet-to-be-opened National Gallery of Australia had purchased its first photograph, an artistic confection by Mark Strizic (Jolimont Railway Yards, 1970) that looked more like a print than a photograph. Two years later the AGNSW was laying the foundation for its collection with the acquisition, exhibition and book on the early twentieth century photographs of Harold Cazneaux, collected by them as fine-art Pictorialist prints, rather than as the sharp bromide enlargements that had been published by Contemporary Photography in 1948.

In this period the dual nature of the photograph as both a carrier of historical and social information, and an aesthetic art object and exemplar of a tradition, which had co-existed within the formulations of the previous decades, was finally separated between libraries and galleries. Library collecting focused on the photograph as a document of Australian life. For example in 1971 the National Library of Australia clarified its collection policy: it would only collect photographs as examples of photographic art and technique from the period up to 1960, leaving post-1960s ‘art for art’s sake’ photography to the new state and federal gallery photography departments.[iv]

The stage was set for the much-vaunted ‘Photo Boom’ of the 1970s, when, as Helen Ennis has pointed out, the baby boomer generation turned to photography for its contemporaneity in the context of a counter-cultural energy.[v] Galleries and libraries found themselves embedded in the newly constructed infrastructure of the Whitlam era: the newly established Australia Council, rapidly expanding tertiary courses in photography, new magazines and commercial galleries, and the establishment of the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney in 1974.

In this context the need to define photography as both a tradition and a new language became more urgent. Such initiatives were largely driven by photographers themselves, whose leading figures made themselves aware of what was happening internationally. Thus Athol Shmith, a key member of the NGV Advisory Committee set up in the late 1960s, corresponded and travelled regularly to Europe. David Moore, one of the key figures in the establishment of the ACP, was familiar with plans for the International Centre for Photography in New York. The first director of the ACP, Graham Howe, was brought back from a stint at the London Photographers’ Gallery. Developments were typically framed around a broadly didactic mission: that photography is central to visual culture but ‘the public needs educating’ in the art of photographic seeing. In addition, the longed-for acknowledgement from overseas materialised in the form of John Szarkowski himself, who was invited on a ‘papal’ tour by the ACP in 1974. Szarkowski gave six public lectures titled “Towards a Photographic Tradition’ (recently recounted in Photofile Vol 93). The purpose of the national tour, as Howe put it at the time, “was to liberate photography from the world of technique and commerce and to suggest that it could also be of absorbing artistic and intellectual interest.”[vi]

Although Szarkowski’s approach was put under sustained stress during the period of postmodernism – especially by feminist critics – his ‘formalist’ approach to the medium continued to dominate the way that photography was understood in the art museum for the ensuing decades. Even as the discourse emerged of an Australian tradition with, for instance, the NGV’s investment in Australian documentary photographers in the late sixties, this became embedded in a model of Euro-American modernism. As Ennis put it, “The argument for ‘photography as art’ was based on the critical position of Modernism. Photography was considered to be a medium with its own intrinsic characteristics”.[vii] At the AGNSW Gael Newton deployed a clear art historical teleology, with the acquisition of Pictorialist photography by Harold Cazneaux and other members of the Sydney Camera Circle forming the foundation for the collection. Pictorialism was important to Newton because it was a: ‘conscious movement, aimed at using the camera more creatively’[viii] Her exhibitions of Harold Cazneaux and Australian Pictorial Photography in 1975 closely followed by a monograph on Max Dupain in 1980, seen as the modernist successor to the Pictorialists. However, the galleries also engaged with the contemporary art photography of the graduates from the new art schools, as well as emerging postmodern ideas. For instance the title of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ 1981 exhibition Reconstructed Vision defined this new style of work against, but within the overall trajectory of, the newly established historical traditions.

In Melbourne a slightly different but equivalent art historical strategy was taking place within the institution of the NGV. This included the mass importation of canonical images from overseas. For instance, shortly after her appointment, the NGV’s inaugural curator (and first ever curator of photography in Australia), Jennie Boddington, ordered Farm Security Administration re-prints from the Library of Congress’s reproduction service. However at the same time the NGV also held solo exhibitions by the young, art school-trained artists Carol Jerrems in 1973 and Bill Henson in 1975.[ix]

While galleries were using art historical strategies to embed photography within their structures, libraries were also confirming their commitment to photography, but as a non aesthetic-object based, content-driven, curatorial strategy. The contemporary cultural relevance of the subjectivist photo boom of the seventies, combined with Modernist and Postmodernist teleologies, drove the aesthetic strategies of galleries, but the nationalistic socially cohesive agendas of events like the 1988 Bicentenary drove the content-based strategies of library photo collecting. In a forerunner to today’s participatory online photographic projects, in 1983 Euan McGillivray and Matthew Nickson proposed a snapshot collecting project, Australia as Australians Saw It, which would copy photographs in the possession of individuals, then index them and make them accessible through the latest technology. During the Bicentenary year Alan Davies, curator at the State Library of New South Wales, travelled to twenty-three country towns and copied about seven thousand vernacular photographs from 576 individuals. Under the title At Work and Play, they were made accessible by a videodisc keyword search (a forerunner to today’s digital database).

Fast forward to the present. Over the intervening 40 years, since the establishment of various departments and the ACP, the boundaries of photography have expanded. However, galleries have largely kept to the historical trajectories inaugurated in the 1970s. In the 1980s, photographic reproductive processes became central to postmodern art, which had the flow-on effect of boosting photography’s place in the art museum (Tracey Moffatt, Bill Henson, Anne Zahalka, etc.). But postmodernism did not fundamentally alter the increasing focus of departments of photography on ‘art photography’. Indeed, as many writers have observed, the wholesale acceptance of photography as art by the institutions and market occurred precisely at the moment of the critique of art photography, as it had been defined within the ‘formalist’ tradition, by artists and postmodern critics.

Photography’s potential as a protean medium to disturb or at least promote a dialogue between institutional disciplines and ordering systems has only rarely been explored by curators. Perhaps the most notable is the disruptive placement of contemporary Indigenous work, like Brook Andrew’s Sexy and Dangerous (1996) – which appropriates an image by the Charles Kerry photography studio – within galleries of nineteenth-century colonial painting at the NGV. Into the 1990s and 2000s, departments of photography essentially continued a monographic and consolidation phase, aided by the international prominence of large-scale colour photography as art, such as the Düsseldorf School (including photographers such as Andreas Gursky), or what Julian Stallabrass dubs “museum photography”.[x]. Meanwhile, we have seen the ongoing integration of photography as part of interdisciplinary art practice which may also include sculpture, performance or installation (sometimes dubbed the ‘post-medium condition’). Simultaneously, we have witnessed the rise of digital photography, which has produced a whole new generation of photographers using online photosharing services like Flickr and Instagram, whose effects are much more widely felt outside the museum. In response to these complex historical changes libraries have invested institutional effort into digitizing their image collections and making them available online, while art museums have embraced photography’s status as an object to be experienced in the flesh, hung in exhibition galleries.

If the primary aim of photography curating in the 1970s was to establish photography as art, this has clearly been achieved. Photography is ubiquitous within contemporary art, but not as an autonomous tradition – rather as a mode integrated within wider practices. And if the now forty-year old institutional structures are still largely with us, if museums continue to have departments, curators and galleries of photography, this is largely for the history of photography, for the knowledge of specific collections and conservation techniques. However, even if photography is now deeply embedded in the art museum, its precise role is still up for grabs. For instance, in 2013 the dedicated photography gallery at the NGV International was given up without any controversy (along with prints and drawings). In the early 1970s, photography enthusiasts had fought for a dedicated area, even just a corridor outside the Department of Prints and Drawings in 1972.[xi]Recently, in a delicious irony, the former photography space was occupied by Patrick Pound’s installation The Gallery of Air (2013) – which the wall label described as a poetic “site specific installation comprising 91 works from the collection of the NGV and 286 works from the collection of the artist” organized around the idea of air. Pound’s work included a wide variety of media in its playful exploration of collecting (both personal and institutional), but its inspiration lay in photography’s role as an ordering system. Various inclusions (such as Man With a Tie) were included in a previous work of found photographs, Portrait of the Wind (2010).

Clearly, museum departments can no longer work in isolation. However, what the mere integration of photography into the newly contemporary art museum all too easily elides is that photography’s place there has always been unstable, its ambiguous status as object and information continually threatening the grounds of the art museum’s hierarchies and collection policies. This instability manifests itself in different ways in different periods, but as we have already hinted at, one of the underlying themes in photography in the museum is the constant exclusion of the vernacular and of reproducibility itself. As Douglas Crimp argued in the late 1970s, the inclusion of photography within the canon of modernist art practice, by its own logic, excludes photography as reproduction.[xii] We have seen this in Australia in relation to the location of photography between the library and the art museum, in terms of a split between information and aesthetics, a documentary database versus an aesthetic object. Photography’s recent insertion into digital networks reveals these tensions yet again, in a new guise. Within a modernist logic, the networked digital image, circulating as reproducible information, is guaranteed to be excluded. The potential for different kinds of photography in the art museum goes largely unnoticed.

It could be argued that similar issues are faced by other Departments such as Painting, in the ‘post-medium’ age. And indeed that the sway of the MoMA Photography Department could be compared to the influence of the massively influential travelling show Two Decade of American Painting in 1967. However, we argue that the protean and unstable nature of the medium of photography makes its placement more problematic. As a result, within the rapidly growing discourse of curating contemporary art, we argue that more attention needs to be paid to the specific situation of photography and the history of photography exhibitions. This is not to regress into conventional medium specificity. It is simply to acknowledge that photography’s multiple, democratic and ambiguous presence as image and object within our culture complicates its place in the art gallery. Photography as a creative art has a more or less integrated tradition that we can and should continue to value because it drives further developments. But we should simultaneously recognize that this tradition is based on a series of exclusions, and addressing these exclusion can also energize the medium. As Peter Galassi once put it, the tradition is both indispensable and inadequate.

In identifying the future potential of photography in the art gallery, perhaps we can learn from the popularity of ‘metaphotographers’ such as Patrick Pound, working with the (always incomplete) archive.. Furthermore, if curators are engaged in creating innovative contexts for public engagement, networked photography opens up new possibilities for this to happen. We are not arguing that the art gallery ought to emulate the hyper-linked experience of the Internet, or the swipe-based logic of mobile media. However, we are proposing that authoritarian presentations of a connoisseurial canon need to become part of a larger project: exploring photography’s protean nature as a medium and its potential to complicate spectatorship and activate audiences in new ways.

Daniel Palmer & Martyn Jolly

[i] This essay derives from early research into the various forces currently influencing photography curating in Australian art galleries, funded in the first instance by an Australian Council grant.

[ii] Isobel Crombie and Susan van Wyk, 2nd sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2002), 7.

[iii] Founded in 1929, MoMA presented its first photography exhibition in 1937 (the major Beaumont Newhall exhibition on the history of photography in 1938–1937). MoMA held their first one-person exhibition, by Walker Evans, in 1938, and established their Department of Photography in 1940, then the only one in any art museum.

[iv] Helen Ennis, ‘Integral to the Vision: A National Photographic Collection’ in Peter Cochrane (ed.), Remarkable Occurrences: The National Library’s First 100 Years (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2010), 210

[v] See Helen Ennis, ‘Contemporary Photographic Practices’ in Gael Newton, Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839–1988 (Canberra : Australian National Gallery, 1988), 134.

[vi] Graham Howe, ‘The Szarkowski Lectures, Art & Australia, July–September , 1974, 89.

[vii] Ennis, ‘Contemporary Photographic Practices’, 136.

[viii] Gael Newton, Silver and Grey: Fifty Years of Australian Photography 1900-1950 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1980), np

[ix] In Canberra the National Gallery not only purchased photographs from young art-school trained Australian photographers through the largesse of the Phillip Morris Arts Grant, but also, in 1980, before it even opened, gained Ministerial approval to spend $150,000 for the Ansel Adams Museum Set from an American gallery.

[x] Julian Stallabrass, ‘Museum Photography and Museum Prose’, New Left Review, no. 65, September-October 2010, 93–125.

[xi] Crombie and van Wyk, 2nd sight, 10

[xii] Douglas Crimp, ‘The Museum’s Old/The Library’s New Subject’ in Richard Bolton, ed., The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1989), pp. 3-13. See also Andrew Dewdney, ‘Curating the Photographic Image in Networked Culture’ in Martin Lister, ed., The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, Second edition (London: Routledge, 2013), 95–112.

Profiled in United States Magic Lantern Society News, October 2014

Sarah Dellmann, from the Department of Media and Culture Studies, Utrecht University, kindly profiled my research in the newsletter of the Magic Lantern Society of the United Stats and Canada. The relevant pages are below. The newsletters of both the UK and US societies are always chock full of interesting stuff, and as Sarah demonstrates connect enthusiasts and collectors and researchers.

Magic Lantern Society News, October 2014

Magic Lantern Society News, October 2014

Magic Lantern Society News, October 2014

Magic Lantern Society News, October 2014

Magic Lantern Society Newsletter

Rowan Conroy, John Ruskin, climate change, photography

Storm Clouds of the Twenty-First Century, my essay for:

Rowan Conroy: Natura Naturans

Barometer Gallery, 13 Gurner Steet Paddington

27th September – 11th October  2014

Storm Clouds of the Twenty-First Century

I’m sure Rowan Conroy wasn’t the only person photographing the sky from the bottom of Glebe Point Road that Thursday afternoon of 17 October 2013. As the dense smoke from the fires raging in the Blue Mountains rolled back over Sydney, I’d bet that plenty of people were using their cameras or iPhones to photograph the blotting out of the sun. Stranger may have even talked to stranger about the phenomenon, perhaps muttering under their breath words such as ‘awesome’, ‘apocalyptic’, ‘sublime’ or ‘portentous’. In a human gesture that goes back to the time of Stonehenge they all, including Conroy, looked deeply, and anxiously, into the sky. There was a sign there, the sky was telling us — the human race — something, but what? The sky portended doom, certainly, but what kind of doom exactly — was it nothing more than the business-as-usual doom of a cruelly cyclical mother nature, simply enacting the familiar Australian narrative of drought and flooding rains; or was there an additional doom, where climate change had already permanently pushed the weather into new realms of extremity.

 

Conroy’s carefully printed photographs are probably more terribly beautiful than the souvenir snaps other people took that afternoon. In some of his images, pewter-coloured puffs of smoke in the foreground chromatically shift the flame-tinged smoke in the background from copper to gold, giving the image a scaleless virtuality, like you see when you stare into the coals of a campfire for too long. In other shots, taken looking up towards the sun, we get the vertiginous feeling that we are a medieval sinner staring down into the bowels of hell. Still others stack up horizontal banks of cloud like an aerial geology that compresses the ragged remnants of dusky blue beneath. But each of the different terrible beauties of these photographs poses the same question — a question that worries many people: what is happening to our world?

 

Another worrier who looked into the skies was the nineteenth century art critic John Ruskin. To Ruskin nature was the origin of beauty on every level: aesthetic, moral and spiritual. But, in the early part of his career Ruskin warned his readers against a poetical conceit he called the ‘pathetic fallacy’, where weak people who are ‘over-clouded or over-dazzled’ by passionate emotion falsely attributed human feeling to nature itself. However to Ruskin this mistaken projection onto nature, where a flower is not a flower but a ‘a star, or a sun, or a fairy’s shield, or a forsaken maiden’, was still higher than the dull perception of an unfeeling person for whom the flower could never be anything but an unloved, symbolically inert organism. But, on a level higher than both these states, Ruskin placed the perception of one who was able to see the natural fact of the flower simultaneously intertwined with the spiritual associations and human feelings it evoked. Conroy does not succumb to the pathetic fallacy, his clouds are more than empty symbols of a fantasy apocalypse, they are also observed meteorological records, but records demanding a human response: this day happened, and it told us something.

 

About thirty years after writing on the pathetic fallacy, and towards the end of his life as he began to suffer bouts of mental illness, Ruskin wrote about the skies he had been observing and painting for decades. In the lecture The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century he claimed to have observed a new meteorological phenomenon that had arisen in the early 1870s. He called it the ‘plague wind’: a ‘dry black veil which no ray of sunshine can pierce’, looking as though ‘it were made of dead men’s souls’. When it blew, it blew tremulously, and made the leaves of trees shudder with a fitful distress. Its clouds, made of ‘sulphurous chimney-pot vomit’, were ‘thin, scraggy, filthy, mangy [and] miserable’; they did not redden the sun, but instead blanched it. In the scientific record of England’s climate there is scant actual evidence for the phenomena Ruskin observed (although temperatures in those decades were slightly lower than usual and rainfall slightly higher). But Ruskin’s observations weren’t scientific, they had succumbed to something like the pathetic fallacy he had previously condemned. His lecture, though based in close and highly-tuned personal observation, does more than just record the effect of industrial pollution on the environment, it also claims to see the moral and spiritual decay of England actually written in the sky.

 

Ruskin’s lecture was slightly mad, certainly, but it is a compelling, and relevant, read even today. In the last paragraph Ruskin says: ‘What is best to be done, do you ask me? The answer is plain. Whether you can affect the signs of the sky or not, you can the signs of the times. Whether you can bring the sun back or not, you can assuredly bring back your own cheerfulness, and your own honesty.’

 

Standing at the beginning of the climatic revolution of the twentieth-first century, rather than in the middle of the industrial revolution of nineteenth, perhaps ‘cheerfulness’ is no longer the best word to describe the ongoing communal resilience that will be required of us, but ‘honesty’ certainly is the best word to describe the change needed in our public discourse. To respond appropriately, and scientifically, to the threat of climate change we may need to embrace something like the revelatory vision of Ruskin. Conroy has.

 

Martyn Jolly

 

John Ruskin, ‘Of The Pathetic Fallacy’, Modern Painters, Volume 3, Part 4, 1856

John Ruskin, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, 1884

Brian J Day, ‘The Moral Intuition of Ruskin’s ‘Storm-Cloud’’, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Volume 45, Number 4, Autumn 2005, pp917-933

 

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Pictures from ANU School of Art and Drill Hall Gallery night of ‘Colour Music’ performances

Louise Curham gently manipulates the super 8 projectors

Louise Curham gently manipulates the super 8 projectors

Shoeb Ahmad and Louise Curham's projections

Shoeb Ahmad and Louise Curham’s projections

Ross Manning's standing wave percussion

Ross Manning’s standing wave percussion

ANU School of Art Photography and Media Arts Students perform with Ross Manning

ANU School of Art Photography and Media Arts Students perform with Ross Manning

ANU School of Art Photography and Media Art and Painting handmade film projection

ANU School of Art Photography and Media Art and Painting handmade film projection

ANU School of Art Photography and Media Art and Painting handmade film projection

ANU School of Art Photography and Media Art and Painting handmade film projection

ANU School of Art Photography and Media Art and Painting handmade film projection

ANU School of Art Photography and Media Art and Painting handmade film projection

Photography and Media Arts projection on ANU Drill Hall exterior

Photography and Media Arts projection on ANU Drill Hall exterior

Rolfoclasm

Now that his trial has faded in our memories it is possible to take stock of the new punishment spectacles being developed in our society. In this case the body of the condemned was not available for public torture, but his self-caricature of a face — thick glasses, fussily groomed facial hair, and  lasciviously darting tongue (always, we realised, incipiently Mephistophelian) — still haunted our memories. But this man was an entertainer, a creator, and even an artist of sorts. This not only made us, his naive and innocent audience, obscurely sinned against as well, but it also conveniently left us with a stock of his works — songs, paintings and murals — which through a process of sympathetic magic could substitute for his body. We could pillory these instead. Songs were ceremoniously  removed from playlists, murals were ceremoniously painted over, and so on. Individuals took it upon themselves to correct the collective historical record on all of our behalves. The works destroyed or erased weren’t great, and weren’t even, in the end, all that numerous, but nonetheless I found this medieval hysteria worrying. Because of his crimes he may have forfeited some of his rights, but not his moral rights as an artist. Who will be next?

Rolf mural painted over in red paint

Rolf mural painted over in red paint

Rolf mural painted over in red paint

Rolf mural painted over in red paint

Rolf mural painted over in red paint

Rolf mural painted over in red paint

Rolf replaced in entertainer's mural

Rolf replaced in entertainer’s mural

Rolf painting removed from Canberra school

Rolf painting removed from Canberra school

Rolf painting removed from Canberra school

Rolf painting removed from Canberra school

Rolf's portrait removed from National Portrait Gallery

Rolf’s portrait removed from National Portrait Gallery

International Spotlight as National Mirror: Robert B Goodman’s Trajectory Through The Pacific and Australia

Powerpoint presentation at Broken Images: American Photography in the Asia Pacific, 1850-1950, Queensland Art Gallery, 3 July 2014

 

INTRODUCTION

Robert B Goodman plunged through Australian photography like a comet — arriving in 1962 and departing in 1967 — and nothing was ever the same again. He inspired Australian photographers and designers, helped one of them get their first international gig, and expanded the horizons of all of them. He ‘raised the bar’, and ‘set new benchmarks’ in book production. He was a new model of photographer on the Australian scene: a wheeler and dealer, a mover and shaker, an inveterate publicist who saw photography not in terms of ‘art’, ‘documentary’, ‘advertising’ or ‘industrial’— the previous compass points between which Australian photography had languidly drifted for decades — but in terms of corporate publicity, marketing campaigns, sponsors, deals, promotions and pre-sales. He was a Yank in cohoots with mining companies, banks and tourist agencies; he was handsome and articulate, smooth talking, perpetually typing letters, always ready for the next meeting; he had an air that he could be anywhere in the world, really, but he was choosing, just at the moment, to be in Australia, because Australia was important, just at the moment. At the same time he was able to back up his talk — Goodman could efficiently and repeatedly nail high quality National Geographic style shots of anything: portraits, landscapes, industrial, street scenes, sport. Being a National Geographic photographer he understood 35mm film, and was completely at home with colour, at a time when most Australian photographers were still shooting on black and white, medium format film. And some Australian photographers were secretly jealous of him, so they set about publishing their own replies to his magnum opus, which they reviled as it kept selling month after month after month, from 1966 all the way through to 1970.

 

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Goodman was born in Cincinnati and studied photography in Ohio, but was attracted to the romance of Hawaii and moved there in 1959 at the age of 21. His big break came when a National Geographic writer got him to photograph close to the mouth of an erupting volcano. His daredevil shots, published in March 1960, lead to them employing him. Although he travelled globally for the Geographic, he concentrated on the Pacific region. He contributed a substantial number of shots of New Zealand for an article primarily attributed to Brian Brake for National Geographic’s April 1962 edition, and by the October edition he had his own by-line for an article on Western Samoa. That year he was assigned to Australia for five months to work on a major article about the nation. In standard National Geographic style, and consistent with the previous New Zealand and Samoan articles, the layout for the Australian article played up the contrast between city and country, ancient and modern, aboriginal and western.

 

Whilst in Australia, Goodman met the Australian documentary photographer Jeff Carter. Carter remembered their meeting in the following vivid terms:

 

I was photographing Sydney’s Kings Cross, in particular the trendy, newly completed Rex Hotel in Macleay Street. … In order to get a dramatic low angle I crouched in the gutter opposite the entrance steps, honing in on a dapper male wearing an eye catching candy stripe suit exiting the building. After firing off a volley of rapid-fire exposures, I became aware the gentleman had halted directly in front of me. As I rose to my feet he addressed me in a strong American accent, ‘Say, you look like you can handle a camera. I’m Robert Goodman of the National Geographic magazine. Just arrived today. I’m here to contact some Aussie photographers, the names of David Moore, David Potts and Jeff Carter. You wouldn’t happen to know any of them?’

 

Carter’s and Moore’s subsequent National Geographic commission was published in 1966 and had a big impact on Carter’s career, he not only cleared $3200 from it, but he was left with an invaluable archive of three thousand colour slides to draw upon for years to come. David Moore already had international opportunities as a stringer for the Black Star agency, and was about to shoot a slim volume on Australia and New Zealand for Time Life World Library encyclopaedia; nonetheless his National Geographic article of 1967 enlarged his archive and his reputation.

 

Whilst on assignment in Australia Goodman conceived the idea of producing a high production-value coffee table photobook about Australia for a global market. The way Goodman told the story captures some of his charismatic style:

I was lying in my bedroom one afternoon at the Stuart Arms Hotel in Alice Springs, when it suddenly hit me that for all my travelling around I really knew nothing about Australia. I knew that to capture it in its entirety, its actuality, I needed more than just five months. For three days I stayed in that room trying to come to a decision. Here I was with a good job on the Geographic – I had only just joined them – a job any photographer would envy. Should I throw it up for what was only a hazy dream? How could I do it? Could I do it? I didn’t know, but the idea was there, and it grew stronger and stronger. You see, I didn’t think Australia was being publicised properly. … And, I reasoned, a stranger looking at the country and its people could possibly have clearer eyes than those who live here and perhaps cannot see the forest for the trees. So, there I was. I wanted to do a book on Australia.

After completing a National Geographic assignment on Jacques Cousteau in the Red Sea he resigned from the company and returned to Sydney to begin to raise money for the venture. He was an extraordinarily energetic entrepreneur and eventually, after a year, had gained the support of twelve leading travel, mining, banking and manufacturing companies who he persuaded of the benefit of having a book to promote Australia in general, and their industry in particular. They made $150,000 available over three years to finance the book, in return for ten thousand copies to be used as promotional gifts.

 

THE AUSTRALIANS

Goodman shot the book during 1963 and 1964, including a six-week caravan trip with his wife and young son. Sidney Nolan introduced him to the novelist George Johnston, who had just returned from living in Greece, and whose just-published sentimental autobiographical novel My Brother Jack was receiving critical and popular acclaim. He agreed to write the text. Goodman said:

George’s text for the book is the most moving I have ever read. His simple prose, every page verbally keyed to the pictures, is magnificent. I couldn’t have written any of it. I’m an American, and no matter how long I stay here I will always be one. But George is fifth-generation Aussie, and he talks of his country, its people, its future and past, and makes it all meaningful to his own people. Anyway, when we got lined up, I simply went out and took pictures —30,000 of them altogether — and as I took them George and I would go through them together.

Although many other Australian photobooks at this period were making use of the new Asian printers in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, Goodman ensured quality control by seeking out the Adelaide independent publisher Rigby and the Adelaide printery Griffin Press. He said:

I must have been as bold as brass then. There I was on four bob a day, talking to top-line printers, ink manufacturers, book-binders, telling them about my huge project, saying I would consider using them! It paid off, though. I really got the cream of the profession working for me.

 

The London trained modernist designer Harry Williamson designed the book. Goodman even returned to the Kodachrome rolls he had shot on his first trip to Australia, and Williamson flipped them and re-cropped them. Williamson established a unifying design grid based on the shape of Goodman’s 35mm slides which, compared to other books and magazines of the period, cleaned up and de-cluttered each spread while establishing a continuity throughout the book. Williamson also worked closely with the New York based, former Newsweek editor, Jonathan Rinehart who Goodman had hired to help him edit the text and image together so that, in his words, ‘the book, in its final expression would be neither picture nor word book, but rather a beautifully intertwined volume with a unity all of its own.’

 

Goodman had already made important media connections during his earlier visit, particularly with the middle-class travel magazine Walkabout who, a year out from the book’s publication, began to build anticipation for it by covering his travels around Australia with his wife as a photo story in its own right. In the lead up to the release date the publishers took out a series of ads in the booksellers’ trade journal Ideas.

 

When it finally hit the shops in September 1966 the book was supported by an unprecedented publicity blitz, with articles and mentions in almost every magazine and newspaper. The coverage was tailored to each magazine, the Women’s Weekly highlighted the support of his wife and young son, while Australian Photography showed a display of all the Nikon camera gear he had used. The book became a favourite corporate and government gift — the Queen and President Johnson received theirs bound in merino skin. Enlargements and transparencies from the book also became the centrepiece of the modernist architecture for Australia’s Expo ’67 pavilion.

 

The book used sequencing to comment on Australian identity in the 1960s. For instance, as we turn from a vertical colour shot of distant backlit figures walking down a Sydney street beneath a Union Jack, to the next page, we are suddenly confronted with a double-page full-bleed spread containing a black and white close-up shot of three southern-European faces looking ahead with keen, lip-biting trepidation — ‘Immigrant Arrivals, Sydney Harbour’, the caption tells us. This spread describes the demographic change happening in Australia with a startling telephoto intimacy unprecedented in previous Australiana books. (The image was copied about a year later by David Moore on his assignment for National Geographic, but Moore’s version Migrants Arriving in Sydney 1966, eventually became a national icon.) Williamson also used colour with confidence. For instance the series of vertical slices arrayed across two pages conducts a kind of kind of typological census, in pink, yellow and red, of three generations of Australian womanhood at the Melbourne Cup.

 

The flavour of The Australians was determined by its international context. The fact that Goodman was a visiting American was articulated by the publicity as an advantage — as an unprejudiced but internationally knowledgeable outsider only he could see us as we really were. The book’s chapters followed a trajectory very familiar from lots of other Australiana photobooks — from the ‘Land’ to the ‘People’ to ‘Industry’, to ‘Arts’, to ‘Sport’ and finally to ‘Anzac’ — but they were given personal colour by a series of short written vignettes mixing Johnston’s nostalgic recollections with anecdotes and social speculation.

 

Reviews confirmed that The Australians had set a benchmark because of the physical quality of the book and because it broadened the themes and issues which could be encompassed by an Australiana photobook. The Australian newspaper, picked up on the book’s fundamentally optimistic and nationalistically flattering message. Although the faces in the book had ‘the sun cracked texture of parched land’, nonetheless they ‘did us proud’ in a way ‘that may seem oddly old fashioned in these days of national self analysis and criticism’.

 

The book not only flattered Australians, it also flattered the mining, travel and finance companies who had backed it. Its unprecedented financial success encouraged other photographers to move into the market it had opened up, but it also goaded them into replying to its corporate jingoism. The most trenchant reply came the next year from Southern Exposure, a book with a text by Donald Horne, whose ironically titled The Lucky Country had been a talking point since its publication three years before, and photographs by David Beal, whose black and white images, rather than having the chromatic chutzpah of the classic National Geographic shot, had heavy doses of the gritty documentary acerbity of Bill Brandt and Robert Frank. The dust jacket blurb is clearly directed at a reader who is already thoroughly familiar with the success of of The Australians:

 

Southern Exposure is the most original picture book on Australia yet to be published. It marks a departure from the stereotyped, quasi-official, ‘coffee table’ productions which portray in verbal and visual clichés an idealised picture of Australia. […] ‘We are trying to get down in pictures and words the Australia we see.

 

The cover images are almost satirical. A beer-gutted Australian worker holds a shovel but incongruously licks an ice cream – almost a visual encapsulation of the argument of The Lucky Country – while on the back cover the ‘real’ Australia remains cracked and parched. The faces in Goodman’s The Australians were frontal and open with level gazes, whereas the faces in Beal’s Southern Exposure are belligerent or turned away. Their gobs are plugged with bottles, cans or cigarettes. Turning the pages doesn’t produce dramatic revelations, as in The Australians, but sardonic puns. For instance, a visiting English actress’s bejeweled décolletage at an opening night transmutes with the turn of the page into an empty beer glass shoved down a female pub drinker’s blouse. Other images, such as bleached animal skeletons, a major visual trope of postwar Australian iconography in painting and photography, seem to be out to trump Goodman’s more glamourised depictions. Compared to the ragged imprecation of Beal’s desiccated kangaroo in Southern Exposure, Goodman’s ‘Dead Ram, Witchelina Station, South Australia’ in The Australians begins to look almost choreographed. Rather than looking weary but quaintly proud as in Goodman, Beal’s returned Anzac soldiers just look smug and slovenly.

 

Southern Exposure raised the hackles of Walkabout, the travel journal that had doyens from the travel industry on its board which had directly supported Goodman’s The Australians. They complained:

 

The spate of picture books seems to be running into side-channels, not without stirring up mud. Southern Exposure is an example. […] This new genre of picture-book, solidly established last year by The Australians, was given an impeccable and sophisticated pattern by George Johnston’s text and Bob Goodman’s pictures. A welling, wholesome sanguineness swept through it. Australian frailties were admitted with grace, but Johnston’s pride in and Goodman’s American admiration for a people who had tamed but had been simultaneously moulded by a fiercely raw nature, and from scruffy beginnings had built a nation with no small part in the world’s affairs, arts, sciences and sports, seeped through unashamedly. Achievement was the keynote. [But] In [Southern Exposure], people will read what is tantamount to a lecture to Australians themselves from a superior posture of niggling, radical intellectualism.

 

Elsewhere I have argued that Beal and Horne’s reply to The Australians was followed by important books by Jeff Carter, and Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey, which were also not only published in the wake of, but defined against, The Australians. To quote Harry Williamson in a recent email to me: ‘David Beal, Jeff Carter, Wes (Stacey) and Rennie (Ellis) bring a gritty extension to what Bob Goodman started, and although in some ways he made it possible to get those books out and published, it was never something he would have intended to achieve himself.’

 

BACK TO HAWAII

After the success of The Australians the trio of Harry Williamson, Jonathan Rinehart from New York, and Goodman stayed together and discussed other potential countries where businesses would want to invest money on publicising themselves and their country, such as South Africa, Mexico and Israel. However Goodman returned to his spiritual home Hawaii and the three worked on the book The Hawaiians, which came out in 1970. It closely followed the template set by The Australians: the cover also featured a frontal open face, the layout followed the same 35 mm shape across the double page spreads, there was a special deluxe edition, and presumably free copies for the thirty-four corporate sponsors.

 

Rather than using a small independent publishing company, in Hawaii where he intended to live, Goodman set up his own company, Island Heritage. He offered Williamson a position in the company but Williamson decided to stay in Australia. Back in Hawaii Goodman eventually became more interested in book publishing than photography per se. With his friend Robert Spicer he produced a series of children’s books based on traditional folk tales in Hawaii. He became part of the renaissance of Hawaiian culture through his publishing association with the Hawaiian artist Herb Kane. After working on an early Macintosh computer to design a 1986 book about the Hawaiian whaling industry Whalesong, he became an advocate for desktop computer publishing.

 

CONCLUSION

Goodman wasn’t the only photographer to publicise Australia to an international market. The world famous photographer E O Hoppe toured here in the late 1920s to add to his series of books on Britain, Germany and America with one on Australia. Called The Fifth Continent, it also mixed national typologies with landscapes; and from 1958 David Moore attempted to carve out Australia, S E Asia and the Pacific as his patch through The Black Star agency. And then of course there is Frank Hurley, who was similarly self-promotional, and who died in 1962, the year Goodman first arrived in Australia. However although Hurley exhibited his exploration films internationally, his Australiana books were aimed at modest domestic audience and had none of the social identity dimensions of Hoppe, Moore or Goodman. Ten years after Goodman left Australia another American National Geographic photographer came to our distant shores. Just like Goodman had before him, at some stage after photographing Robyn Davidson’s camel Journey for National Geographic in 1977, Rick Smolan (played by Adam Driver in the movie Tracks) conceived of his A Day in the Life of Australia book, where ‘one hundred of the world’s top photojournalists photographed Australia over twenty-four hours during 6 March 1981’. This was a similar to the business model Goodman had developed — both in its audacity, and in its invitation for the world to come and ‘show us to ourselves’. Goodman’s series only reached two countries, but Smolan’s A Day In The Life of … series extended from its beginning in Australia, to Hawaii (like Goodman) then to Canada, Japan, America, California, Spain and the Soviet Union.

 

Despite their differences all of these photographers deployed the same sets of elements: their own special personalities as galvanizing global photographers, their individual attempts to create new markets for photography, the compelling power of an international gaze trained upon Australia, which reflected back to a domestic audience tropes of Australian identity, such as national typologies or nationalistic landscapes, with increased intensity. In the case of all these photographers the international spotlight became a national mirror.

 

The memory of Goodman’s galvanizing effect on Australian photography has now been almost completely forgotten. For instance I myself remember, in 1981 as a Marxist, Foucaldian, Barthesian art student, attending a PR event about the production of Smolan’s A Day in the Life of Australia. As a postmodern cadet I was there to condemn and sneer at its clichéd depiction of Australia, but I still remember one bearded old photographer, I don’t remember who, saying that until A Day in the Life of Australia we had had no better picture book to send overseas than Goodman’s The Australians, which was at the time fifteen years old. ‘What was this book?’ I remember wondering at the time, ‘who was this Goodman? I had never heard of him.’ ‘Since I hadn’t heard of him, he certainly couldn’t be important’, I thought to myself at the age of twenty-two. But clearly Goodman’s trajectory through Australia had reverberated for at least fifteen years, and now I think it is time it is recognised again.

 

Martyn Jolly

Hey France, yes, ban the burka, but free the camera too!

Great to see that the European Court of Human Rights has just upheld France’s 2010 ban on the burka. No doubt the French quoted Emmanuel Levinas from Totality and Infinity: ‘The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation’ (p201). But despite this enlightened ban, France’s poorly written, post-Diana anti-paparazzi, privacy laws, in particular article 9 of the Civil Code and article 226-1 of the Penal Code, still mean that street photographers are routinely harassed on Parisean streets by people who believe their right of privacy, or their ‘proprietorial ownership’ of their own face, extends into civic space — thus closing down the street as a space to truly ‘live together’. What about some droits for photographes too?

 

A new word needs to be invented— perhaps it should be ‘re-engagement’?

A new word needs to be invented for performances such as Teaching and Learning Cinema’s  (Louise Curham and Lucas Ihlein) performance of Malcolm le Grice’s Horror Film 1 (1971) and Guy Sherwin’s (Wo)man with a Mirror (1976), which happened yesterday at Canberra Contemporary Art Space and was, by the way, a top wet-Saturday-arvo’s excursion. Although based on meticulous historical research, they weren’t re-enactments in the sense that Civil War re-enactors re-fight old battles, because they acknowledged that the formal  and historical terms of the aesthetic battles to be fought have evolved since their first iteration (so performer-gender and sometimes media had to be changed); nor were they playing a score like an orchestra, because they were referring not to an originary written document but an originary ephemeral event (or even events). ‘Re-presentation’ or ‘re-iteration’ sound too passive and boring. Perhaps to keep the military metaphor going we could use ‘re-engagement’? One thing’s for certain a new word is going to be needed for sure because, although of course the Madonna of performance art Marina Ambramovic has ‘re-engaging’ with the performance art canon  for years, more and more other people in video, performance, silent cinema, pre-cinema, theatre, as well as Louise and Lucas’s beloved expanded cinema are going to be doing it in the future.

Re-engagement with Sherwin's Man with a Mirror at CCAS, by Teaching and Learning Cinema

Re-engagement with Sherwin’s Man with a Mirror at CCAS, by Teaching and Learning Cinema

Re-engagement with Le Grice's Horror Film 1 at CCAS, by Teaching and Learning Cinema

Re-engagement with Le Grice’s Horror Film 1 at CCAS, by Teaching and Learning Cinema

Ready to go

Ready to go