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.
It was Rowan Conroy’s first day at work, and also the day our new printer arrived, which will be part of our Inkjet Research Facility.
Talk at Australian Parliament House 20 June 2014 for Anne Zahalka Parliament House commission forum
Australian Photography, Corporate Commissions and Australia’s Parliament House
When Parliament House was being built the scene for art photography was very different to the scene now. Now photography has become just another imaging-option within art, and it really only gets public profile as a medium in its own right through a set of annual photography competitions, in which anyone — amateur, professional or student — can take their chances. But, twenty-five years ago, photography was still relatively ‘hot’ as an art medium and, as well as being seen to be publicly accessible, it was also associated with the young and innovative. Rather than today’s large photographic competitions, which are largely funded by the entry fees of photographers themselves, in the eighties corporate sponsorship was very important in offering new photographers their first break, and offering established photographers further opportunities. Companies such as Polaroid and Kodak sponsored photographers, but the biggest sponsor of the period was the cigarette company Philip Morris, who aligned itself with the National Gallery of Australia and, through its director James Mollison, purchased 700 photographs by over 100 photographers between 1976 and 1980.
Other industries also saw the advantage of using photographers to not only document their activities, but also to gain a corporate shine from being seen to be with-it philanthropists to a young and exciting art medium. Of course photography has always been completely bound up in industry. From the early twentieth century onwards photographers and factories were close acquaintances. Photographers such as George Lewis, who features in the current NGA exhibition of Indonesian photography, was exemplary in importing the visual logic of the portrait studio onto the factory floor. Even before the industrial photographer unpacked his camera gear the machinery had to ‘photograph itself’ by momentarily pausing in its ceaseless whirring so that it would register solidly on the film rather than become a liquid blur. Workers, machinery and lighting were then choreographed, as in a portrait studio, to give just the right impression for the client.
As was the case globally, Australian photographers have also always been associated with industry and architecture. Harold Cazneaux undertook a commission for BHP in 1935; and in 1973 the publisher Oswald Ziegler used Max Dupain’s photographs for one of his celebratory and commemorative volumes, Sydney Builds and Opera House. This exemplifies what could be called a modernist-heroic genre of architectural photography, celebrating industry and architecture primarily, and including workers as a function of the industrial process. Workers are certainly present and even celebrated, but they are a figured within the machinery of construction, a human accent to the formal architecture of the image. In this heroic mode it is the historical force of modernity itself which is the generative power, producing the ‘sculptural forms’ of the architecture which define the photograph, which in turn are ministered to by the supplicant workers who provide a fleshy torque to the composition’s hard architectonics. This heroic genre was getting a fair bit of profile twenty-five years ago. For instance in 1976 David Moore reprinted some photographs taken by Henri Mallard of the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for an Australian Centre for Photography travelling exhibition. Perhaps the last example of this heroic mode is David Moore’s own documentation of the building of the Glebe Island Bridge, published in 1996.
However, in 1978 one company, CSR, saw the advantage of uniting the benefits of the corporate philanthropy of Philip Morris with the opportunity to directly document the variety of their industrial activities. The story goes that they originally contacted the Australia Council to help them find a painter to celebrate the centenary of their Pyrmont refinery with a great big painting of the refinery. The council steered them toward getting more bang for their twelve thousand bucks by spending the same amount on a group of six photographers. The project, auspiced through Christine Godden, director of the Australian Centre for Photography, went on for a further four iterations. The project was structurally very similar to the future Parliament House Project, it commissioned emerging photographers, but also featured established photographers ‑ even towards the end getting Max Dupain to reprint some images originally taken in the 1950s. The emphasis was on a variety of approaches, from the traditional fine print to the more art school trained style of creative photography. Thus in 1978 Sandy Edwards broke the masculinist mold of the previous heroic mode by photographing the multicultural women on the production line. Micky Allan also broke the heroic mold of picturing workers as a mere manifestation of the Modernist imperative by incorporating noise andvibration — stilled in previous industrial photography — in her production line photographs. Even Bill Henson enveloped the younger workers in his trademark entropic twilight, making them not the vigorous propellers of progress, but the romantic bearers of a lugubrious weight. David Moore even assembled portrait-rows of them, matching the leatheriness of their multicultural faces with the marks on their multifunctional gloves. Also notable in the CSR collection was some of what was called at the time ‘constructed photography’, exemplified by Debra Phillips, who a decade before photoshop blended two separate photographs into the one experiential landscape; or Merryle Johnson who made multiple-viewpoint scenes of ordinary life. However the CSR commission also gave the opportunity for photographers like Grant Mudford to explore the formal properties of the medium using industrial materials and gravel.
The Parliament House commission had a lot in common with the CSR commission, and many photographers who worked on Parliament House had previously worked at CSR. However some, for instance Bill Henson, who worked on the CSR commission unfortunately did not come back for Parliament House, I wonder what he would have done if he had? Many of the twenty-eight photographers who shot on the site around the year 1986 worked in a hyper formalist style. One example amongst many is Tony Perry who revelled in the mud and hard shadows, and formally played the white of the concrete off against the dark patterns of reinforcing mesh. For others, like Steven Lojewski, on-camera flash often flattened space, and horizon lines were often pushed way up to force a tension between the 3D space depicted in the image, and the 2D surface of the print. To anybody who lived through this period this is all very, very, familiar, but scrolling through the images now the viewer feels the clench of a claustrophobic air. But nonetheless this style dominates the collection. Other examples in black and white are: Fiona Hall, Glen O’Malley, John Elliot and Charles Page ; and in colour: Douglass Holleley and Ed Douglas. In many of these shots workers are excluded entirely, and in others, such as Fiona Hall’s, they are reduced to tiny ciphers.
Only some photographers seem to capture the full scale and spatial weirdness of the building, most notably Gerrit Fokkema who gave his photographs his trademark surreal irony; and Debra Phillips who seems to have begun her photography by responding to the spaces she entered, rather than imposing her own pre-determined formal sensibility, like a net, over the spaces she looked down into— which many of the other photographers seemed to do.
This was a national commission, photographers went anywhere in Australia from which Parliament House’s construction materials were sought, but there was a politics here too. Take for example the sourcing of timber: Anthony Green photographed the dense Huon pine forests of Tasmania as though it was just another formalist exercise, and Richard Stringer’s photographed in the jungles of Kuranda, in far north Queensland, as though it was a postcard; but Gillian Gibb took individual tree portraits in Tasmania, baptising each one with their proper botanical name.
Workers are not excluded entirely: Mark Kimber did Sanderesque portraits of them, while Richard Woldendorp and John Williams photograph them emeshed in their environment. (It is only after a little while that we realize with a shock what is missing from these twenty-five year old images of workers, where are the hi-viz vests, today’s instantly recognizable symbol of labour worn by everyone from the prime minister down— here totally absent?). Merryl Johnson, one of several overtly feminist photographers who were chosen, places them as part of a dynamic environment.
Standing out from all of the rest of the work is Sandy Edwards, who photographs workers not ‘on the job’, but involved in the controversial de-registering of the Builders Labourers Federation. She took photograph of three union members and other union activities in saturated colour. Beneath the images she placed labels filled with her own querulous first-hand experiences. I was around when this collection was first exhibited, and I’ve forgotten most of it, but I still remember the shock of seeing Sandy’s photographs. What comes through is her own tentative self-questioning, a self-conscious awareness of the fragility of the temporary relationships she forged with the unionists and strikers she photographed, and an acute awareness of the politics of the commission itself. (But now, encountering them 25 years later I can’t help but see them through the filter of all the all massive iconography of Thatcher’s Britain that has come out, particularly in cinema, since then. As always, it’s a tragedy that so much of Australia’s visual heritage remains hidden and dormant, while that of other countries spreads across the world.)
So, in these collections we can see larger political dramas — between feminism and patriarchy, between environmental consciousness and the perception of nature as imply a ‘resource’, between the historical project of modern development and the human experiences caught up in it — directly played out in the dialogue between the photographs.
Zahalka has inherited all of this. She, like photographers before her for over a century, has imported the logic of the studio into the workplace. Make no mistake, hers is an industrial photography. She, like photographers before her, has had to work out where to find the ‘dignity’ of labour. Not in the heroic tradition, where a worker’s labour and therefore their dignity is merely a product of a historical project far greater than the individual; and not either — at least in this case — in an oppositional tradition where the worker is cast as an actor in another historical drama of oppression resistance and rebellion. But rather, somewhere between them.
Anne Zahalka at Work
Everybody wants a behind the scenes tour. Documentary filmmakers and photographers have always catered to this desire to lift the hood on an institution and see how the human machinery underneath works. We all remember seeing documentaries about, for example, the ‘below stairs’ bustle of majestic mansions, the below decks drills of mighty warships at sea, the behind the scenes dramas of great opera houses, or the backroom machinations of political campaigns. Our Parliament House combines all of these aspects — from the aristocratic to the bellicose to the operatic to the Machiavellian — in the one magnificent site that virtually every Australian has visited, or will visit, at one time or another. And even when we aren’t there in person — trailing through the public level in school groups, queuing for a spot in the public galleries, or attending a function in the Great Hall —we still see one or another of the several tips of the Parliamentary iceberg every night on TV: a shouting match in the chamber, a doorstop interview on a chilly Canberra morning, or the forced chit-chat of caucus or cabinet before the doors are closed on the cameras.
But how does it all run? Or, more specifically, who runs it all? Last year, twenty-five years after it opened, Anne Zahalka was commissioned to photograph Parliament House and, through a process of discussion and experimentation, eventually decided to work with the staff, the ordinary but essential people who keep the vast machinery of the legislature running day in day out, from year to year and from government to government. Of course Parliament House is an extraordinary piece of architecture, not so much a building set in a landscape as a citadel which is part building and part hill, a self-contained city voyaging through time on its own temporal rhythms driven by the imperatives of parliamentary sittings and legislative agendas. And photographers have always loved it; its flat planes, hard edges and abutted textures are made for the camera. Nor was Zahalka the first photographer to be commissioned to photograph it. As it was being built in the 1980s the Parliament House Construction Photography Project commissioned twenty-eight emerging and established photographers to respond to the construction process and the building as it grew into the hill. Most of the photographers concentrated on the tangled formal patterns which the concrete, reinforcing mesh, formwork, and so on made against the mud and bedrock. Only some, most notably Sandy Edwards, photographed the workers themselves — union members in her case — who were needed to actually do the work. As hill mutated into building other photographers, for instance Debra Phillips, got the opportunity to photograph the vast and complex cathedral like spaces that were opening themselves up beneath the buttresses and aprons of concrete above. These photographers can be seen as precedents to Zahalka’s anniversary commission.
But that heroic construction phase was long ago, the building and its staff have long since settled into a regular rhythm, chugging efficiently along as political storms rage above, and it is that on which Zahalka has concentrated. However in her work we still get a sense of the building’s full architectural scale, which so fascinated the construction phase photographers, through the building’s employees. A worker checks her phone in a storeroom for old furniture which has been built, at the lowest level of the building, into the roughly excavated bedrock of the hill itself. In another photograph another worker tugs apart the bus-sized flag which is about to fly high above the swards of rooftop grass, from the top of the massive quadrapod flagpole.
The architecture of the building has also written itself into the very compositional structure of Zahalka’s images. Like the building itself all of her images are strictly symmetrical and organised around a central axis which drives itself straight through the middle of her photographs. Some of her images are even bicameral like our Parliament house. The panoramas, made by digitally gluing several separate exposures together, seem to conjoin two visual halves into one unified image; and one image of the Parliamentary Library, made from two adjacent points of view, allows us to look down two bookshelf aisles at once.
There has always been a tableau-like quality to Zahalka’s photographs. For example in her series Welcome to Sydney, 2002, commissioned by Sydney Airport, new migrants to Sydney from different countries were posed against panoramic Sydney skylines as though they were giant postcards. Within the rectilinear pyramids of these Parliament House images the staff are arranged like actors on a well-lit stage waiting for the curtain to rise. Working with her subjects, Zahalka posed them in their work-settings, sometimes art-directing the furniture and ornaments, and sometimes styling vital details such as the orange electrical lead of the cleaner’s vacuum-cleaner which leads our eye in as it snakes across the carpet of the Prime Minister’s suite. As Zahalka works on the digital files after they had been captured she further controlled the final image.
This sense of the choreographed enactment of dignified work, rather than the instantaneous grabbing of workers from the midst of the mundanity of their labours, is not new in Australian photography. The photography of Wolfgang Sievers is another precedent to Zahalka’s approach. (Sievers did not participate in the 1980s Parliament House Construction Photography Project, though his contemporaries Max Dupain and David Moore did.) Sievers built his reputation constructing elaborate promotional photographs in factories, from which the worker-subjects were often sent home for clean shirts, shaved and cleaned-up, and posed as though they were masters of their machinery, which was dramatically lit against darkness. In front of Sievers’ camera even the grottiest factory looked dramatic, and the most grueling work felt heroic. No wonder Sievers’ photographs, originally taken to promote individual businesses, eventually became iconic images for Australia as a whole. Although not as extreme and artificial as this, Zahalka’s photographs do endow the staff of Parliament House with worth and national value. The image of the pond cleaner scrubbing the bottom of the ceremonial pond in the House’s forecourt, as the hose loops around his legs like a lazy eel, is not ironic. All edifices, no matter how grand, and all institutions, no matter how complex, require dedicated staff from top to bottom, and from outer perimeter garden to inner sanctum. All play their part. Even the cabinet table, around which crucial decisions will shortly be made ‘in camera’, needs to be cleaned, by somebody.
With a formally tuned, but visually witty, sensibility Zahalka has documented these diverse staff members in their diverse work environments; describing, twenty-five years after it was built, Parliament House not as simply a piece of architecture, and not as simply the seat of our government, but as a place, a symbiosis of people, power and architecture.
I have Kevin Miller to thank for leading me to this wonderful page from one of Isaac Newton’s notebooks. At the same time as he was producing colour by refracting light with glass Newton was also perceiving colour by directly palpating his own eyeball with a wooden bodkin and deforming the wet squishy sphere, thereby putting direct physical pressure on the sensitive interior surface and sending signals which the brain interpreted as light and colour.
I tooke a bodkine gh & put it betwixt my eye & [the] bone as neare to [the] backside of my eye as I could: & pressing my eye [with the] end of it (soe as to make [the] curvature a, bcdef in my eye) there appeared severall white darke & coloured circles r, s, t, &c. Which circles were plainest when I continued to rub my eye [with the] point of [the] bodkine, but if I held my eye & [the] bodkin still, though I continued to presse my eye [with] it yet [the] circles would grow faint & often disappeare untill I removed [them] by moving my eye or [the] bodkin.
If [the] experiment were done in a light roome so [that] though my eyes were shut some light would get through their lidds There appeared a greate broade blewish darke circle outmost (as ts), & [within] that another light spot srs whose colour was much like [that] in [the] rest of [the] eye as at k. Within [which] spot appeared still another blew spot r espetially if I pressed my eye hard & [with] a small pointed bodkin. & outmost at vt appeared a verge of light.
Had glass and the newly discovered laws of diffraction written the soul, the spirit and the imagination out of vision, he worried? No, because colour could be produced in vision by something other than the vitreous diffraction of light in either eye or prism. From our point of view his experiment at least established that the body, if not the soul, was deeply implicated in vision. But his notebook drawing of his heroic experiment, which Kevin and I found at a Cambridge University Library online exhibition Footprints of the Lion: Isaac Newton at Work, is wonderful: the tiny hand inserts the bodkin, the sphere is indented like a foot kicking a football in a Harold Edgerton photograph, the concentric circumferences of the origins of the rings of colour are plotted on the retina, but then! — a virtual projection of what he perceived is projected out of the eye into the world. The eye is therefore not only a camera obscura but also a magic lantern! Virtuality, about to stage a comeback with the Oculus Rift is predicted!
At Michael Aird’s Captured exhibition at the Brisbane Museum I found myself staring hard, trying to pierce the sealed surfaces and compressed scenarios of the tiny carte de visite tableaux of aboriginal people on display, most taken be either Thomas Bevan or Daniel Marquis in their George Street or Edward Street studios, in Brisbane in the 1860s.What extraordinary photographs. Aboriginal people lived in Brisbane in number, they entered into some unknown financial contracts with the photographers, who obviously had a global market in mind for the images. They pantomimed affection and mimicked fights between themselves, flexed their muscles, pumped out the extraordinarily knotted lumps of dense scarification on their backs, brandished their shields to cover their genitals, and either beetled their brows into the distance or looked at each other with glances of ambiguous filial affection that obvious parodied the bourgeoise family portrait. Were the cartes collaborative? That is the question. Did the subjects have any more or less agency than the white Queensland arrivistes who would have visited the same photographers at the time, and sent their cartes back across the globe. One thing you can say for certain was: these guys were hardcore. You had to refer to the helpfully scanned and enlarged digital prints on the wall to see the studium of the images and figure out what was going on, but return to the tiny oysters of the cartes for the full pungency of the objects.
We climbed Whites Hill in Brisbane to visit the camera obscura, price of entry sixpence, one penny for children. We were disappointed to find it wasn’t there. Apparently it hasn’t been operating since 1928, some kids last saw some remnants attached to the dilapidated tea-rooms in the 1940s, all we found was a council plaque. In the 20s it had a 360 degree rotating periscope in the roof of a two storey tower projecting an image onto a viewing table 9 feet across, which viewers saw from a surrounding mezzanine balcony. My source, Judy Rechner’s Where Have All The Creeks Gone: Camp Hill Heritage Drive Tour, published by the Brisbane East Branch of the National Trust of Queensland, says that the viewing table was conical, perhaps to keep the whole field of view in focus because of the periscopic optics? I seem to remember that the Edinburg camera obscura and Santa Monica camera obscura had tables that tilted, perhaps for the same reason of different points of focus across the width of image? Whites Hill isn’t all that high, but when you get to the top you can see why a camera obscura would have worked there, with the city to the west and Moreton Bay to the east, and flatness in between. The trees have all grown now, obscuring most of the view, except for a gap towards the city helpfully left by the council to frame the distant towers. This scopic vector was the only real remnant of the Whites Hill camera Obscura. But I remembered another camera obscura from my childhood, the one at Picnic Point near Towoomba. The NLA has a wonderful shot of it by Glen Rees. My googling said that the Picnic Point one had been built by W.M. Lowe in 1966, and had a ‘dished’ viewing table. Were each of these room camera obscuras designed and built independently? Or was there a template?