History of Photography, The

The estimable Belinda Hungerford is doing a fabulous job researching and organising the archives of the Australian Centre for Photography. Her research led me to find, in the back of a cupboard, copies of a small booklet I produced with my students in 1990 (!). It was to accompany a show we put on at the ACP. Some students from back then are still doing important work in the field, I’m gratified to note. Reading through the anecdotes we collected back then it’s interesting that in that pre-digital period the minilab, now a lost site of visual profligacy and collective concatenation, served a not-dissimilar lubricious function to the ‘on-line’ environment now. If you want a copy of our booklet I’ll be glad to send you one, the price hasn’t changed in 25 years.

Australian Research Council funding for Heritage in the limelight: the magic lantern in Australia and the world

The ARC has funded a three year Discovery Project I will lead. The project aims to discover and analyse the large number of glass magic lantern slides that remain under-used in our public collections. International scholarship has recently begun to show that lantern slide shows were a ubiquitous, globalised and formative cultural experience. The project aims to explore the international reach and diversity of this globalised modernist apparatus from the Australian perspective. It plans to understand how diverse audiences affectively experienced these powerful forms of early media, and to develop ways for today’s Australians to re-experience their magic, invigorating and expanding our cultural heritage.

The team is Dr Martyn Jolly and Associate Professor Martin Thomas Australian National University; Professor Jane Lydon, University of Western Australia; Professor Nicolas Peterson and Professor Paul Pickering, Australian National University; Associate Professor Joe Kember, University of Exeter, UK.

With scholars like that we are guaranteed to find amazing material around Australia, and do wonderful things with it, in terms of identification, critical analysis and re-presentation. It’s also great that we will be working  with the European project A Million Pictures: Magic Lantern Slide Heritage as Artefacts in the Common European History of Learning. And I’m also looking forward to working even more with my friends from the lantern slide fraternity around Australia and the world. I can’t wait. I’m also really looking forward to picking up steam in my other ARC Discovery Project led by Dr Daniel Palmer, Monash University,’ Photography Curating in the Age of Photosharing’.

'In the Hurly Burly', detail from Salvation Army Melbourne War Cry, 1894

‘In the Hurly Burly’, detail from Salvation Army Melbourne War Cry, 1894



Catalogue Essay: The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg

The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg

Australian Centre for Photography

Essay by Martyn Jolly, Cherine Fahd, Suzanne Buljan

Full catalogue below


It is often said that it was the painters who invented Photography (by bequeathing it their framing, the Albertian perspective, and the optic of the camera obscura). I say: no, it was the chemists. For the noeme “That-has-been” was possible only on the day when a scientific circumstance (the discovery that silver halogens were sensitive to light) made it possible to recover and print directly the luminous rays emitted by a variously lighted object. The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. Roland Barthes. [1]

Photographs are both pictures of things and emanations from things. Over the last twenty years all the buzz has been on the ‘picturing’ side of photography: we are astounded by the latest estimate of the astronomical number of smartphone images uploaded to the internet every second, we are shocked by the latest sickening images tweeted from a violent war zone, we are awed by the majestic detail in the latest mural photograph mounted behind pristine acrylic in an art museum, and we are habituated to the sleek look of digital images — either Photoshopped into high-dynamic-range conformity or with one selection from a convenient menu of retro Instagram-filters laid on top.

But lately a global movement of artists has been building around the world, not so much interested in the medium as the endless iteration of separately framed scenes, but rather fascinated by it as an ongoing process of chemical and visual becoming. The works they are producing are not photographs of things, they are photographs as things. In various ways these photographers are directly re-approaching the core power of photography — the touching of time and light.

This core power was present at the medium’s birth. Many of William Henry Fox Talbot’s first images in the 1840s were photograms — of lace or leaves laid directly on salted paper in the sun — so that object physically touched the resultant image. Photograms went on to become a staple of high modernism in the 1920s and 30s, with photographers such as Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray and Max Dupain producing a ‘new vision’ out of pure light. To the modernists these darkroom impressions were a future orientated extension of the technical capacity of new photographic technology; but to subsequent photographers, photograms and other images of their ilk became a way of bypassing the whole corporate apparatus of photography and getting back to the elemental forces of nature itself.

After the rise of industrially manufactured amateur photography in the 1890s, signaled by the invention of the Kodak, Pictorialists began to make their own emulsions in gum-bichromate, or produce ink impressions in bromoil transfer, to declare their independence from the emerging mass photography, and their allegiance to fine art. In the 1970s, handmade emulsion and photograms returned to art schools, which were beginning to teach fine-art photography alongside other media such as printmaking. Courses in so-called ‘alternative techniques’, along with their accompanying ‘darkroom cookbooks’, became very popular.[2] Similarly, pinhole cameras and the construction of camera obscuras have been integral to thousands of introductory photography courses around the world for decades. And, in the 1990s in the immediate wake of the digital revolution, ‘post-photographers’ such as Adam Fuss used pinhole cameras, photograms and other ‘obsolete’ processes to stage spectacular conceptual deconstructions of the transforming medium.

But in the last ten years these longstanding and historically disparate tendencies have combined with new energy and conceptual force. Not only have a thousand instructional YouTube videos from enthusiasts around the world replaced the darkroom cookbooks of old, but more photographers are more seriously exploring the fundamentals of the medium. Many of the artists in the The Alchemists had their initial student training in digital photography, but felt a curiosity for learning about ‘analogue’ photography that replaced the dry, precise, virtual environment of the computer screen with the liminal and wet laboratory-place of the darkroom. This discovery of the darkroom was paralleled by the discovery of vintage cameras and retro processes, not only by art school trained photographers, but by amateur photographers as well, who were able to buy Lomo cameras and refurbished Polaroid cameras from museum gift shops, or Sunprint cyanotype kits from craft stores.

What is ‘new’ about this photography is that: images are magically produced by the simple optical fact of the camera obscura, rather than the factory manufactured equipment of the camera; the photographic print is treated not as neutral screen for the image, but as a physical object layered with light sensitive halides and dyes — potential eruptions of colour waiting to be revealed; hand-made emulsions, such as collodion which is freighted with a hundred and fifty years of historical association because it was used for nineteenth century ambrotypes, tintypes and wet-plate negatives, are used in modern large-format cameras; and photographers continue to find enormous wells of inspiration in the photogram, where three-dimensional objects and two-dimensional images meet and mingle in cradles of light.

This is not just a nostalgic retreat to the past, a hipster reinvention of the outmoded, or a retro fad. Nor is it part of some redundant ‘debate’ between the lost ‘purity’ of the analogue in the face of the encroaching contamination of the ‘digital’. Rather it is a discovery of another mode of making — a slower making, a more curious making, and a making which looks, in the words of one young artist, ‘simultaneously backwards and forward.’[3]

A series of exhibitions and books from London, New York and Los Angeles have already showcased these artists internationally.[4] But, what is happening in Australia and our region? Recently there have been several thoughtful attempts to address the Australianness of Australian photography. While taking different approaches, two books, The Photograph and Australia[5], and Photography and Australia[6], both identify the relatively recent — compared to the US, for instance ‑— colonization of the continent and displacement of its indigenous inhabitants as crucial to our photography. While Australian photography is obdurately oriented to people and land, every realistic portrait and landscape remains nonetheless marked in some way by the ambiguities and complexities of colonization. As Helen Ennis suggests:

These [significant local] differences [of photography in Australia] stem from one inescapable historical reality: photography in Australia is not simply a product of the modern era, but is tied inextricably to the imperialist and colonialist underpinnings of modernity. This distinguishes Australian photographic practice from its counterparts in Great Britain and various European countries, aligning it in crucial ways with that of other colonized countries such as India, Indonesia and New Zealand instead. Of primary importance therefore is the interaction between Indigenous and settler Australians. This has given rise to some of the most potent images in Australian visual culture.[7]

All of the works in The Alchemists are driven by joy and pleasure: the joy of seeing the fundamentals of optics and chemistry magically manifest themselves; and the pleasure of being the one to ride the unleashed processes of transmission, projection, refraction, filtration, sensitization, exposure, impression, reaction, absorption, precipitation, development and fixation to the unknown destination of a material outcome. But at the same time every artist, to varying degrees, attempts to use that joy and pleasure to engage with some other aspect of Australia, New Zealand, or Asia, not to ‘take a picture’ of it, but to materially and critically participate in it.

As one example amongst many, we could cite the oldest work in the exhibition, Catherine Rogers’ The Nature of Evidence, from 1986. This work was an interrogation of the dodgy forensic evidence and popular witch hunt which eventually led to the conviction of Lindy Chamberlain for the murder of her baby Azaria at Uluru, rather than accepting that a dingo had taken it as she claimed. (The trial took place in a media frenzy that mobilized many Australian anxieties about living in a recently colonized country.) Through the bleeding of developer over darkroom projections of multiple negatives, as well as photograms of significant objects such as scissors, the works directly participated in the same ‘aesthetics of the forensic’ that had convinced the jury to wrongly convict Chamberlain in the first place. As Helen Grace identified at the time:

In The Nature of Evidence, each of the frames of counter-evidence [] interrogates both the ‘official story’ of the Chamberlain case and the ‘official story’ of photography itself, since the techniques of photography (at the level of the image rather than the camera) are laid bare.[8]

Like Rogers, other artists in this exhibition also unite various photographic processes with various political, historical, personal, and environmental processes. For example, collodion emulsion and daguerreotypes, literally the stuff of colonial photography, are used by contemporary Australian and New Zealand photographers, some of whom have indigenous heritage, with powerfully ironic results. In these works the past is not just re-enacted, but also, in a sense, optically re-materialized in the present.

Other artists simply mainline themselves into larger forces and expanded networks, either urgent bodily forces of sexuality, slowed-down spiritual forces of nature, or expanded cosmic forces of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Still others engage in the purely formal and abstract possibilities of lines and shapes and tones in a rectangle. But, in all of these works, beauty — the non-descriptive, non-referential, non-semiotic beauty of fundamental propulsions and ineluctable balances — is wordlessly reclaimed.

Finally, hovering above this exhibition, only occasionally directly referred to, but nonetheless always present — are the largest and most indefinable processes on the planet, but ones with the most tangible ultimate results. The processes of mixing, swirling, condensation, melding and melting, which we see at micro scale in so many of the works in The Alchemists, are the same as are happening at macro scale in our atmospheres, oceans and continents as ice caps melt, reactors leak, rivers break their banks, and the ground cracks apart.

Plenty of digital photographs have been taken, and will continue to be taken, of the environment we all share. But photography in the digital epoch can only show us our world as virtual pictures before our two eyes. Alchemical photography, on the other hand, attempts to manifest our world as physical events we must encounter with our whole body.

[1] Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes, Jonathan Cape, 1982, p. 80.

[2] Most popular was: Breaking the Rules: A Photo Media Cookbook, Bea Nettles, Light Impressions, 1977

[3] Kylie Banyard, ‘A Politics Of The Outmoded’, Photography & Fictions: Locating the Dynamics of Practice, (ed. V. Garnons-Williams), QCP, Brisbane, 2014, p.44.

[4] Shadow Catchers: Cameraless Photography, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2010-2011. The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography, toured by the Aperture Foundation, 2010-2013. What is a Photograph?, at the International Centre for Photography, New York, 2014. Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, at the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2015.

[5] The Photograph and Australia, Judy Annear, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2015.

[6] Photography and Australia, Helen Ennis, Reaktion Books, London, 2007

[7] Ennis, p8.

[8] Helen Grace, ‘A Shroud of Evidence’, Photofile, Summer 1986, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney.


The Truth About Digital Photography

From the ANU Reporter Vol. 46 No. 2, May 2015

In the world Trending #2

There have been two different phases in the relatively short history of digital photography.

First was the apocalyptic phase, when there were dire warnings of ‘the end of photography’. The coming ‘revolution’, it was claimed, would fundamentally reconfigure the photographic ‘eye’.

We would be cast adrift from the firm shores of analogue photography, where chemical emulsion reliably reacted to the light reflected from real-world scenes, and left to float on a digital sea where pictures, now just data, could be changed at will.

Like many apocalypses, this one didn’t come. Although iconic names such as Kodak were swept away into history, the practice of photography itself went from strength to strength.

Cameras got cheaper and smaller and people took more and more photos to post on social media. Far from being bankrupted, the newly ubiquitous medium gained more impact than ever.

What those Chicken Littles didn’t realise is that photography is much more than just a technology, it is a social practice, a personal habit, a psychological need, an accumulated history of looking and, increasingly, a global network of exchange.

Photographic truth is supported by social protocols, and it is the multiple micro-recalibrations of these that we are currently experiencing in the second phase of digital photography. News organisations still protect direct photon to pixel mapping.

When Adnan Hajj, a hapless stringer for Reuters, was caught out by sharp-eyed bloggers using Photoshop’s clone tool to increase the amount of smoke rising from Beirut after a 2006 Israel bombing raid, he was summarily dropped. All 920 of his images were immediately removed from the Reuters site and a picture editor was sacked.

However, while minor excisions and additions to the image are strictly policed, enhancements or modifications to the connotational ‘feel’ of the reportage image as a whole are still allowed by press photography protocols.

In 2010, Stepan Rudik was stripped of his World Press Photo award.  He had radically cropped thephotograph he submitted, Street Fighting, Kiev, Ukraine, and  applied a heavy Photoshop filter to it. But that wasn’t why he was stripped of the award, it was because he had digitally removed a tiny pinch of pixels representing the intrusive foot of an irrelevant figure in the background of the image.

This year, 20 per cent of World Press Photo entries were disqualified for similar digital cutting and pasting and controversies like these, big and small, continue to erupt across the Internet.

But if we take a sideways step into celebrity photography, we find not only a tolerance for digital enhancement, but an expectation of it.

We are all now so completely habituated to seeing the flawless, poreless, skin of our celebrities stretched over their cheekbones that we barely give the routine post-production enhancement of the glossy images we consume a second thought. Indeed we now expect it as a kind of fantasy ‘truth’.

When 224 un-retouched photographs from a Beyoncé advertising shoot were released on a fan site earlier this year, before the texture of her tiny acne scars, moles and wrinkles had been digitally smoothed away, her fans “freaked out”, and were left “shocked and lost”.

The site was forced to remove the photographs of what they maintained was just Beyoncé as a “naturally beautiful” “regular woman” because “some of the things we have seen posted were just horrible, and we don’t want any part of it”.

But, before we laugh too quickly at the betrayal Beyoncé’s deluded fans felt, we must realise that reportage photos are also routinely undergoing similar makeovers.

In 2013, another controversy engulfed the World Press Photo Award when winner Paul Hansen’s Gaza Burial was accused of digital manipulation. It was eventually revealed that it was the product of the superimposition of three separately modulated versions of the one file, which gave the final digital composite a cinematic feel as though the director of photography on a big Hollywood movie had lit it with movie lights. Nonetheless it retained the prize because, although it had been enhanced, no pixels had been removed or added.

The meaning of the words ‘photographic manipulation’ is shifting before our eyes and growing in complexity. Today’s digital cameras don’t take pictures, they record data.

In this new imaging logic, the journey from scene to image is a continuity where image manipulation can feedback into a scene’s ‘truth’.

Add to this the exponential proliferation of images online, the acceleration of their transmission, and their accumulation into vast data-bases and we are set for yet more fascinating recalibrations in photographic truth.

Holy City and Jack the Ripper

Holy City was the million-seller song of 1892. A little while ago, accompanied by a singer and pianist, I projected  my set of magic lantern slides, complete with double exposures and hand colouring, which were made to illustrate the song. Imagine my surprise this weekend when I read that its composer, the singer Michael Maybrick, has just been fingered as Jack the Ripper by the latest contribution to Ripperology, the 800 page They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper (it’s all the fault of the Masons, apparently). If the book’s author, Bruce Robinson, is right, Maybrick had given up ripping a few years before he penned Holy City. I had always been fascinated by the song because of the way it took the trope of sublime religious vision, and reduced it to a nineteenth century opiated dream of travel. I had always been fascinated by my slides because they transcode the idea of the hallucinatory travelogue, as the dreamer takes a metaphysical Cook’s Tour to Heaven,  to the visual technology of the double exposure and the dissolve — presaging the transitive media of the twentieth century. But now it may also be an act of expiation by its author!

An Australian Spiritualist’s personal carte-de-visite album

my chapter from:

Shifting Focus: Colonial Australian Photography 1850 – 1920

Edited by Anne Maxwell and Josephine Croci

Australian Scholarly Publishing

Melbourne 2015

At first glance it’s an unassuming album, barely twelve by fifteen centimetres in size and about six centimetres thick. The anonymous owner purchased the blank album for three shillings in Melbourne in the early 1880s. The thirty-six carte-de-visite portraits that she slipped into it were taken in Australia and overseas from the late 1850s onwards.

So far there is not much to distinguish this album, which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, from the hundreds of other carte-de-visite albums that were assembled in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Such albums visually located their owners within widening concentric circles of immediate family, social groups and political classes. They were oral, as well as visual, documents because their owners narrated them as they were shown to family and friends in the parlour. But, although they were domestic objects, the images they contained opened out onto the whole world.

In most nineteenth century albums portraits of intimate friends rubbed shoulders with portraits of famous personages, but in this album these images also rubbed shoulders with portraits of spirits. The album documents one person’s passion for the religion of Modern Spiritualism. Its owner was probably a member of the Victorian Association of Spiritualists, and her album uses cartes-de-visite to map the spiritual, social and political world the Victorian Spiritualists created for themselves.

Looking through this album now we are missing the owner’s all-important narration, but it is possible to recover some of the knowledge she would have recalled about each subject as she slid their photograph into its pocket. The portraits were inserted into the album in no particular order and most are, in themselves, visually unremarkable. However analysing the album as a complete object is still worthwhile, because, when we know some of the things the album’s original owner knew about each portrait, the disparate images begin to network together into a complex world-view made up of succeeding spheres of the local, the famous, and the disincarnate. Biographical information can be found for all but one of the portraits in the album. Of these only a couple are Melbourne locals. Of the rest, approximately a third are of Spiritualist mediums and lecturers who visited Melbourne on their round-the-world tours, another third are international luminaries of Modern Spiritualism, and a final third are of well known spirits returned from the dead. A description of even a small representative sample of the these four groups gives an indication of the extent of the album’s reach, all the way from Melbourne, to Britain, to the United States, and on to the Beyond.

The Network of Portraits

The album contains a couple of portraits of Melbourne spiritualists who its owner probably would have known personally. Perhaps she even obtained their portraits in exchange for her own. Most significant is a portrait of William H. Terry by the Melbourne photographers Stewart & Co. Terry was Melbourne’s most prominent Spiritualist. A vegetarian teetotaller, Terry was a spiritual healer, diagnosing ailments through what he called a ‘spiritual telegraph’ with the Beyond. Throughout the 1870s, popular interest in Spiritualism and séances continued to grow so that by 1878 a reporter for the Melbourne Age was confessing:

Though I do not profess to being a Spiritualist, I own to having been infected with the fashionable itch for witnessing ‘physical manifestations’ as they are called, and accordingly I have attended several séances with more or less gratification[1]

By 1881, at about the time this album was being compiled, the membership of the VAS had climbed 853 members, at a time when Melbourne’s population was barely 300,000.[2]

The VAS sponsored the visits of many prominent international spiritualists to Melbourne, and their cartes-d-visite were placed into the album. The glamorously bearded American lecturer, Dr J. M. Peebles, who came to Melbourne in 1872 and again in 1878, visited the same Melbourne photographer as Terry, Stewart & Co, to have his portrait made. He lectured to standing-room-only crowds of up to 3000 people every Sunday for three months about progressive vegetarian diet reform.[3]

One of the most high-profile mediums to visit Australia was J. J. Morse. Supposedly an uneducated barman, he suddenly became full of erudition when entranced. He also appeared to be able to withstand fire and physically elongate his body. [4] His carte in the album was taken by the photographer James Bowman of Glasgow. The album also features a Bowman portrait of Morse’s spirit guide, Tien Sien Tie. (Figure 1) Supposedly a Chinese philosopher who had lived on Earth in the reign of the Emperor Kea-Tsing, Tien Sien Tie first ‘controlled’ Morse in 1869. The spirit portrait is in fact a photographic copy made by Bowman of a trance drawing produced by the Glasgow medium David Duguid. Duguid would take a plain card and breathe on it and rub it between his hands in order to ‘magnetize’ it. He would then place it in a sealed envelope in the centre of the séance table, while the sitters placed their hands on the envelope and sang hymns in order to protect the fine mechanisms of the spirits from outside influences as they worked. When the envelope was eventually opened a spirit drawing was found on it.[5] Duguid’s trance drawing is a stilted piece of proto ‘photo-realism’, however it was adapted to being turned into a carte-de-visite, allowing the spirit to take his place amongst the other personages in the album.

James Bowman (Glasgow), J J Morse’s Controlling Spirit Tien Sien Tie, c1874, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

James Bowman (Glasgow), J J Morse’s Controlling Spirit Tien Sien Tie, c1874, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Conventional cartes-de-visite of many of the senior figures of the international movement, who never visited Australia, were also placed in the album. For instance it contains a thoroughly unremarkable portrait of Modern Spiritualism’s first and most famous medium, Kate Fox, who as a young girl in 1848 had first established a code of raps for communicating with a spirit that haunted her house in upstate New York, thus sparking the growing craze for Spiritualism which spread across the world.

These cardinal figures are supported in the album by a range of lesser known writers, proselytisers and investigators for the movement. However without doubt, the highlights of the album are the spirits themselves. The world’s first spirit photographer was William Mumler of Boston, and his photographs were circulated widely throughout the global Spiritualist community as visual testimony to Spiritualist truths. Perhaps the most famous testimony came from Moses A. Dow. The faded, desiccated spirit we see slipped into the Melbourne album today gives the contemporary viewer little indication of the intense emotions and complex interactions that surrounded the photograph. Dow had taken a talented young woman, Mabel Warren, under his wing and eventually came to regard her as a dearly beloved daughter. She was suddenly taken ill and quietly passed into spirit land, leaving Dow grief stricken. The spirit stayed in touch with Dow through several different Boston mediums before announcing that she wished to give Dow her spirit picture via Mumler’s photographic mediumship. Dow described the result of Mumler’s photographic séance with him:

Her right hand passes over my left arm and clasps my hand. Her left hand is seen on my left shoulder, and between the thumb and forefinger of this hand is held an opening rose bud, the exact counterpoint of the one I placed there while she lay in the casket at her funeral.[6]

For three shillings sixpence for a packet of three, spiritualists living in Britain and Australia were able to order copies of these photographic proofs that the dead lived from Spiritualist magazines, such as Boston’s Banner of Light, and London’s Spiritual Magazine. However in this album all traces of that rose bud have finally leached out of the photograph.

The other key photographer in Spiritualism was the London photographer Frederick Hudson. His 1872 group portrait of two mortals and a spirit is inserted into the album’s first page. (Figure 2) The medium Charles Williams, who is seated, could supposedly produce fully materialized spirits while he sat tied up and entranced in a curtained-off cabinet. He benefited from the patronage of Samuel Guppy who is photographed standing beside him. The wealthy Guppy had married the medium Agnes Nichols in1867and they became London Spiritualism’s ‘first couple’. In this portrait the top half of a shrouded spirit appears to be materializing in front of the two men, assertively looking towards the viewer and raising his hand in a biblical gesture.

Frederick Hudson, Samuel Guppy (left), the medium Charles Williams, and a spirit, c1872, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Samuel Guppy (left), the medium Charles Williams, and a spirit, c1872, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Some Spirits were known by name. The best-known spirit of the day was John King, who spoke in direct voice through a floating trumpet and said he was Henry Owen Morgan, the buccaneer. Many mediums claimed to be able to materialize him, including Charles Williams, and with his trademark turban King frequently appeared at séances in London. He even posed behind some studio scenery in substantial form (though with suspiciously similar facial features to Charles Williams himself) for his carte-de-visite, which is in this album. (Figure 3)

Unknown, The spirit John King, c1870s, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Unknown, The spirit John King, c1870s, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Hudson’s fame quickly grew amongst Spiritualists and he began to accept many clients into his studio, producing draped spirits on the plates for them as well. However his most important collaborator was Miss Georgiana Houghton, an accomplished upper class women who in 1859 found her true passion in Spiritualism and ebulliently developed her own amateur mediumship.

She had read the first reports of William Mumler’s spirit photographs in the Spiritual Magazine of December 1862. She at once believed, and purchased one of the packets of Mumler photographs that the magazine offered to its readers. Ten years later the Guppys introduced her to Frederick Hudson. She recounted her subsequent four years of experimentation with him in a book illustrated with fifty-four miniaturised cartes-de-visite called Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye. In the preface to the book Houghton granted her photographs a privileged role in proving Spiritualism’s truths:

I send them forth in full assurance that they carry a weight of evidence as to the substantiality of spirit being far transcending any other forms of mediumship.[7]

Houghton travelled across London every Thursday to Hudson’s backyard glasshouse studio, meeting Mrs Guppy for a regular appointment at which Hudson would coat, sensitise and expose three plates of her. Hudson wholesaled his photographs of Houghton back to her, and she retailed them to her Spiritualist correspondents around the world, thus increasing his clientele as well as making enough profit for Houghton to cover her own costs. Miss Houghton and Mrs Guppy took turns to be photographed after mesmerizing the other in a ‘cabinet’ — a curtained-off part of a room which supposedly collected and concentrated the psychic energy of entranced mediums. The mesmerized women acted as batteries of stored-up spirit-power which could be drawn upon by the spirits to supplement their own spirit-power as they materalised themselves. To Houghton the draped figures could not possibly be Hudson’s collaborators dressed-up, they were too flat and unfilled-out. Their draped appearance was the result of the spirits using the women’s spiritual power with wise economy. Spirits told the lady experimenters to preserve their magnetism by wearing clothes that they had had about their person for a considerable time, and to avoid wearing clothes that had just been laundered. Houghton went a step further, using one of her black satin petticoats to construct her own dark-cloth for Hudson to cover and uncover the lens of his camera.

For Houghton, what was most genuine about the shrouded figures in her photographs was the simple, unassuming modesty of their attitudes (poses we would now see as stilted eschatological theatrics). In contrast, she noted, living people usually wanted their portraits taken in order to exhibit their ego, and photographers were paid to make the most of any good feature. For her, the hundreds of cartes-de-visite displayed in shop windows, where the sitters were full of self-consciousness and had an air of self-gratification, contrasted badly with the air of peaceful repose of the spirits that she saw in Hudson’s photographs.

In a photograph taken in May 1872 a spirit appeared whom she recognised as her Aunt Helen who had died thirty years before of heart disease brought on by grief at the loss of her husband. Aunt Helen had left half her fortune to Houghton who had gratefully spent it all on her Spiritualist enthusiasms. She appeared now standing right behind Houghton to indicate that she continuing to support her from beyond the grave. The Melbourne compiler of this album purchased this double portrait for her album. (Figure 4)

Frederick Hudson, Miss Houghton and spirit of her aunt, c1872, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Miss Houghton and spirit of her aunt, c1872, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

A key Hudson portrait from the album is of Dr Walter Lindesay Richardson, father of the future famous Australian author Henry Handel Richardson who based her book The Fortunes of Richard Mahony on him. Richardson was a successful doctor in Ballarat and became the first president of the Victorian Association of Spiritualists, while also holding other eminent posts in colonial society such as on the Senate of Melbourne University. He was so successful in business he was able to return to Britain for a tour of the Continent with his family in 1873 and 1874. Whilst there, he wowed British Spiritualists with an address that connected progressive Spiritualism to the manifest destiny of the colonies. He said:

I come from a far country where […] the Teuton and the Celt and the Anglo-Saxon are founding a new republic and […] the great wave of modern Spiritualism is spreading over the length and breadth of the land. It is sapping the foundations of ecclesiastical Christianity; it is splitting asunder corporations based on self-interest and human greed […] It is, amid much ridicule and denunciation, proclaiming the brotherhood of the human race and the absolute and unconditional freedom of each immortal soul.[8]

When in London Richardson also attended séances with London’s leading mediums including Charles Williams, Mrs Guppy and Miss Houghton. He witnessed the materialization of London’s most celebrated spirits as well, including John King. In early 1874 he visited Frederick Hudson, as so many others were doing. After cleaning the plates himself and followed every stage of the process through to development, he received spirits on three out of the four plates, sending prints back to William H. Terry in Melbourne. The most remarkable of the three successes is in the album. (Figure 5) Terry, writing in his magazine the Harbinger of Light, tried to wrap his head around exactly what he was seeing:

Frederick Hudson, Dr Richardson and spirit of his sister, 1873-74, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Dr Richardson and spirit of his sister, 1873-74, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

…a Gothic chair is standing before the sitter with its back in close proximity to his knees; a female figure which is kneeling in front of him seems to permeate the chair, portions of the chair being visible through the form, as though the matter of the chair offered no obstruction to the more refined material of the Spirit form.[9]

So, Terry reasoned, this form must be a transition stage to full materialization…..

As far as we understand it, the Materialized Spirit form which appears on these occasions, is a condensation of sublimated matter, brought about by a scientific process known to Spirits who have studied Chemistry. The power used is Electricity, brought to bear through the magnetic emanations of the Medium, and but few Media (sic) have the necessary emanation to enable the spirits to complete the process.[10]

Richardson also sat in on several séances with the leading matron of London Spiritualism, Mrs MacDougall Gregory, who was also the widow of his old Chemistry professor. Hudson’s carte-de-visite of Mrs Gregory is also in the album. (Figure 6) The shrouded spirit who has joined her, identified in the caption as the sister of her departed husband, has eschewed the self-conscious formal poses of the standard carte-de-visite, and instead sits comfortably cross-legged on the floor beside her, imitating the sitting conventions of the American Indians and Orientals who were often Spirit Controls for British mediums.

Frederick Hudson, Professor Gregory’s wife and spirit of his sister, c1873, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Professor Gregory’s wife and spirit of his sister, c1873, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Spiritualism and Nineteenth Century Science

For us, merely knowing bare facts such as these about the subjects of the portraits may have only succeeded in filling the album with bewildering chatter from the procession of grifters, hucksters, naifs and idealists who crowd its pages. But, if we could hear how its owner would have narrated it in the 1880s, this silent collection of now-faded cartes-de-visite would become full of the urgent discourse, the very presence, of all of the key protagonists in the Spiritualists’ world. These personages formed themselves into series of conceptual concentric circles around her: local campaigners such as Terry and Richardson; celebrity proselytizers and mediums who had visited and performed in Melbourne such as Morse; famous mediums and writers from overseas who she had only read of or heard about; and finally, in the outer circle, the spirits themselves, such as Charles Williams’ tall and turbaned John King or Georgiana Houghton’s stalwart Aunt Helen.

This structure of progressive elevation and etherealization was also how, in a cross-pollination of their Swedenborgian and Copernican cosmologies with progressive ideas of political progress and social evolution, the Spiritualists conceived of this life and the afterlife — as a series of concentric spheres through which mortals and spirits gained more knowledge as they continued their ascent towards God.

Not only were developments in politics and social philosophy shaping the movement’s progressive social agenda, but developments in science were also structuring its metaphysical imagination. Nineteenth century advances in evolutionary biology, geology, physics and chemistry, which emphasised that matter and being changed incrementally over time, were crucial to Spiritualism. The new technologies arising from these sciences not only provided tangible evidence that science was progressing and opening up hitherto unknown worlds of knowledge, which the Spiritualists were confident already contained confirmed examples of spirit communication, but they also provided enabling metaphors and analogies which were joyfully inhabited and extrapolated upon by the Spiritualist imagination — an imagination which had the capacity to stretch far beyond the breaking point of incredulity other people had.

The reigning metaphors were electricity and the telegraph, the wonders of the age, which allowed communication over vast distances. For instance in the 1850s two separate magazines called themselves The Spiritual Telegraph. Spiritualism was therefore a theory of communication as much as it was a conventional religion. It was not a faith in a deferred redemption, but an active belief in the current opportunities provided by supposed communication with those who already had higher knowledge — the spirits.

Mediated Intimacy

If Spiritualism was a theory of technological communication, can contemporary theories of the media cast any light on the activity of this anonymous compiler of carte-de-visites? In his 1995 book The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of Media, John Thompson argues that, because of today’s new technologies such as TV and the internet, our social relationships and sense of ourselves are increasingly characterised by what he calls ‘mediated intimacy’, an intimacy exemplified by the real sense of closeness many fans feel with the stars they idolize. He says:

It is this new form of mediated, non-reciprocal intimacy, stretched across time and space, which underlies, for example, the relationship between fan and star. It can be exhilarating, precisely because it is freed from the reciprocal obligations characteristic of face-to-face interaction. But it can also become a form of dependence in which individuals come to rely on others whose very absence and inaccessibility turn them into an object of veneration.[11]

Fans create their own customised worlds by taking up, transforming and incorporating media products into a structured symbolic universe inhabited only by themselves. Because of media technologies, Thompson says, we are all living in a mediated world in which we are increasingly unconstrained by our location or our time, but only at the cost of the displacement of immediate ‘lived’ experience:

If we compare our lives today with the lives of individuals who lived two or three centuries ago, it seems clear that the structure of experience has changed in significant ways. […] While lived experience remains fundamental, it is increasingly supplemented by, and in some respects displaced by, mediated experience, which assumes a greater and greater role in the project of self-formation.[12]

Perhaps we can see the owner of this album, who lived a mere one hundred and thirty years or so ago, as a pioneer of both the pleasures, and the pitfalls, of this use of mediated experience for a project of self formation. She probably never left Melbourne, but through the global interchange of cartes-de-visite, and through the global reach of Spiritualist networks, she assembled a coherent world for herself out of fragments of photographically mediated experience.

She probably did this by sending money overseas to spiritualist magazines, as well as to individuals like James Bowman from Glasgow, and Georgiana Houghton from London. In addition she brought cartes-de-visite off visitors to Melbourne, and probably exchanged her own image for cartes-de-visite of her fellow Melbourne Spiritualists. They all come together in her little parlour album — from Melbourne, from London, and from Boston — all assembled in the ready-made pockets of her album.

These cartes-de-visite constructed an entire world, with the compiler’s firm place at the centre of it implied, but never stated. Some of the images were drawn from lived experience in the colony of Victoria, and some were drawn from the higher planes of the spirit world, where celebrity spirits such as John King perpetually hovered, intimately near, but yet always out of reach — very much like a contemporary fan’s relationship to their favourite celebrity. As media objects they were all flattened, delocalised and mobilised by the globalised conventions of the various photographic studios around the world, which produced cartes-de-visite in a standardised format, in standardised glass-house studios, with standardised photographic conventions. (The Glasgow photographer Bowman even transduced trance drawing of supposed spirits into conventional cartes-de-visite.) They were all brought together into the compacted space of the album, where they were available for instant retrieval and sharing. In many respects they are like a page on a contemporary social networking site such as Facebook. In these virtual spaces close intimates, social acquaintances and favourite celebrities are all similarly flattened into ‘friends’, which orbit around the empty centre of us, constructing what we now call our ‘profile’ through our connections, rather than our innate selves.


Thompson warns us that there are both strengths and dangers in mediated intimacy, both pleasures and pitfalls. Did our compiler experience any of these pitfalls? Was this album, and the extraordinarily intimate, yet mediated, world it constructed simply the product of a passing enthusiasm? Did the owner, perhaps with too much money and time on her hands, simply jump on the bandwagon at the height of the fad, collecting cartes-de-visite indiscriminately before eventually getting bored with Spiritualism’s breathless rhetoric of progress and revelation, or perhaps disillusioned with its charlatans? Did the interpenetrating spheres she built up in her album all suddenly collapse in on her like a house of cards? Or, did she remain one of the social, spiritual and technological pioneers of Australia, expanding on the conventions of the portrait album to describe both the palpable and the evanescent world she lived in. Did she seriously manage to incorporate the worlds she constructed in her album, although they were ultimately built only within her imagination, into a sustained, and sustaining, personal commitment to her new religion?

We will never know.

Martyn Jolly

[1] Emma Hardinge Britten, Nineteenth Century Miracles: or Spirits and their work in every country of the earth: A complete historical compendium of the great movement known as ‘Modern Spiritualism’ (New York: William Britten, 1884), 238.

[2] Alfred J. Gabay, Messages from Beyond, Spiritualism and Spiritualists in Melbourne’s Golden Age, 1870-1890, ( Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001), 70.

[3] Ibid, 83-86

[4] Nandor Fodor, Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science, (London: Arthurs Press, 1933), 246.

[5] ibid, 97.

[6] Martyn Jolly, Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography, (Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2006), 19.

[7] Georgiana Houghton, Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye, Interblended with Personal Narrative, (London: E. W. Allen, 1882), np.

[8] Dorothy Green, ‘Walter Lindesay Richardson: the Man, the Portrait and the Artist’, Meanjin Quarterly 29.2 (March 1970): 5.

[9] William H. Terry, Harbinger of Light, 1 July 1874, 651.

[10] ibid, 651.

[11] John Thompson, The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of Media, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), 208.

[12] ibid, 233.

London Road film

It was wonderful to see  the film London Road the other day at the movies. It’s musical shot in the dourest of colours — even the flowers that finally bloomed at the end, after the neighbourhood serial killer had been banged up to rights, seemed to have the colours on their petals rationed as though it was still World War Two. The film was the adaption of a stage musical based on recordings of actual interviews with actual English residents in 2006 (which we finally heard over the end credits). The librettists had lovingly repeated and chorused each captured speech inflection, each glottal stop, each rising ‘yeah’ at the end of the sentence. It was a film that could only have been made in the UK.  It made me think of Nick Park’s claymation Creature Comforts, then further back through all the angry kitchen sink dramas of the fifties, then back through the Mass Observation Movement and finally to the GPO Film Unit of the 30s and 40s, with Humphrey Jennings’ wonderful stiff-upper-lip vox pops with stout fire wardens and  unflappable matrons. The title even echoes Jennings’ blitz masterpiece London Can Take It!. I came over all patriotic and I’m Australian!

London Road film

London Road film

The Gin-Fiend

I’ve just brought these magic lantern slides manufactured by York & Son, UK, just before1888 to a temperance text by Charles Mackay. I’m trying to think why the faces might be obscured in slides two and three, the most beautiful and dramatic slides of the set.

The Gin Fiend slide 1

The Gin Fiend slide 1

The Gin-Fiend cast his eyes abroad

And looked o’er all the land,

And number’d his myriad worshippers

With his bird-like, long right hand

He took his place in the teeming streets,

And watched the people go,

Around and about, with a buzz and a shout,

For ever to and fro; —

 ”And it’s hip!” said the Gin-Fiend, “hip, hurra!

For the multitudes I see,

Who offer themselves in sacrifice

And die for love of me!”

The Gin Fiend Slide 2

The Gin Fiend Slide 2

There stood a woman on a bridge;

She was old but not with years;

Old with excess, and passion, and pain; —

And she wept remorseful tears

As she gave to her babe her milkless breast;

Then, goaded by its cry,

Made a desperate leap in the river deep

In the sight of the passer-by!

 ”And it’s hip!” said the Gin-Fiend, “hip, hurra!

She sinks but let her be —

In life or death, whatever she did

Was all for the love of me.”

The Gin Fiend slide 2

The Gin Fiend slide 3

There watched another by the hearth,

With sullen face and thin:

She uttered words of scorn and hate

To one that staggered in.

Long had she watched, and when he came,

His thoughts were bent on blood.

He could not brook her taunting look,

And he slew her where she stood.

 ”And it’s hip!” said the Gin-Fiend, “hip! hurra!

My right good friend is he;

He hath slain his wife — he hath given his life —

And all for the love of me.”

The Gin Fiend slide 4

The Gin Fiend slide 4

And every day, in the crowded way,

He takes his fearful stand,

And numbers his myriad worshippers

With his bird-like, long right hand;

And every day the weak and strong,

Widows, and maids, and wives,

Blood warm, blood cold, young men and old,

Offer the Fiend their lives

 ”And it’s hip!” he says, “hip! hip! hurra!

For the multitudes I see,

That sell their souls for the burning drink,

And die for the love of me.”



Of Strange Glasses: Camera Obscuras, Brisbane, and Robyn Stacey

(Catalogue essay for Cloud Land, Museum of Brisbane, 18 September 2015 — 3 April  2016)

Stick your hand in your pocket and hoik out your mobile phone. Flip it over and find the camera lens, it’ll be about the width of a grain of rice. Behind the lens is a sensor about the size of a baby’s fingernail, and between the lens and sensor is the only void in your phone that the manufacturer hasn’t crammed with electronics. It is a chamber, dark except for the tiny pyramid of image which the lens projects. That ‘chamber dark’ is a camera obscura. Now only a few millimetres high, the camera obscura was once the size of a room.  Of course your phone’s camera obscura is really a tiny photographic camera. When you tap the button the phone saves an image file from the stream of data produced by the sensor, while skeuomorphically playing you the comforting sound effect of an old-fashioned photographic shutter. But photographic cameras are only 176 years old, while camera obscuras are at least half a millennium old and may be even older.

Five hundred years ago Leonardo da Vinci already understood quite well what was going on when he asserted that:

[E]very [light] ray passing through air of equal density travels in a straight line from its cause to the object or place where it strikes. The air is full of an infinity of straight and radiating lines intersected and interwoven with one another without one occupying the place of another. They represent to whatever object the true form of their cause. The body of the atmosphere is full of infinite radiating pyramids produced by the objects existing in it.[1]

But how could the ‘infinity of radiating pyramids’ produced by everything in every direction be organised into a coherent image? The answer was the camera obscura. Inside a darkened room a tiny pinhole could squeeze down the ‘infinity of straight and radiating lines’ to individual pencil beams, each one drawing only a small separate sample of the scene onto the opposite wall.

Opticians then discovered that if glass discs were ground into the shape of lentils (hence the word lens) and placed in enlarged pinholes, more light rays could be admitted into the dark chamber and bent by the different density of the glass to form an upside-down and back-to-front image. In 1589 Giambattista della Porta celebrated the wonder of seeing an image separate itself from its object for the first time, and the uncanny effect of the inversion of the image as it was projected into the room. In the seventeenth book of his magnum opus Natural Magic, titled ‘Of Strange Glasses’, he begins by describing a pinhole camera obscura, where the hole in the wall is the width of a little finger:

So shall you see all that is done without in the sun, and those that walk in the streets, like to Antipodes, and what is right will be left, and all things changed, and the farther [the images] are from the hole the greater they will appear. … If you put a small centicular crystal glass in the hole, you shall presently see all things clearer, the countenances of men walking, the colours, garments, and all things as if you stood hard by, you shall see them with so much pleasure, that those that see it can never enough admire it.[2]

della Porta went on to describe, 250 years before the invention of photography, how the combination of different types of lenses could increase the angle of view, to the point where the viewer inside the room would rejoice to see projected onto a piece of paper “an epitome of the whole world”. As well, he reported, concave mirrors could be used to re-invert the image to being upright, while redirecting it to another part of the room. It didn’t take della Porta long to realise the potential of this kind of optical set-up. He launched himself into an extravagant flight of fantasy where he imagined some ‘ingenious person’ staging elaborate scenes of “hunting, battles of enemies, and other delusions” on a spacious, sunlit plain outside the camera obscura. Inside the camera obscura, viewers, unaware of the elaborate tableaus being staged for their benefit outside, would only see the moving images of these scenes:

they cannot tell whether they be true or delusions: swords drawn will glitter in at the hole, that they will make people almost afraid. I have often showed this kind of spectacle to my friends, who much admired it, and took pleasure to see such deceit; and I could hardly by natural reasons, and reasons from the optics, remove them from their opinion, when I had [revealed] the secret’.[3]

The idea of two pyramids of light, from object to image, with their apexes meeting at a lens, had already become one of the dominant tropes of the Enlightenment but, for della Porta and others, fantasy and delusion were never far away from natural truth and its optical laws. This was especially strange because, as della Porta well knew, the camera obscura also demonstrated how the eye worked: the image is let into the eye by a pupil, just as it is let into the camera obscura by a lens; and the back of the eye receives the image, just as the rear wall does in a camera obscura.

In 1619 Christopher Scheiner performed an experiment where human perception and the camera obscura were collapsed one into the other. He suggested entering a darkened room and boring a hole in the wall, and into that hole placing the eye of a recently dead man, or if a recently dead man was unavailable, a dead ox. The dead eye must still be plump with all its aqueous and vitreous humors, and it must be inserted into the hole so that it is looking out from the dark into the light. Then he suggested taking a sharp knife and scraping away at the flesh behind the retina, then placing thin paper or an eggshell over the spot. There, in the dark of the room, if you peered closely enough, you would see a tiny image of the outside world projected onto the inside of the eyeball.

What this experiment couldn’t demonstrate, however, was how this upside and inverted image was combined with its neighbour from the other eye, rectified, and turned into human vision incorporated within the mind of the perceiver. The philosopher Rene Descartes featured Scheiner’s experiment in his Optics of 1637. He illustrated the camera obscura set-up schematically, but he rendered the optical structure of the eyeball with surgical detail. However, in the book’s illustration the retina is being observed by a classical bust hovering in the dark with robes and a patrician beard. Who is this man? Of course he is the experimenter in the camera obscura, but if this is also a model of how human vision works, the illustration is also of our own heads, and he is a homunculus of us, or our perception, or our knowledge, or our spirit, or our soul.

Illustration from 'Optics', Rene Descartes, 1637

Illustration from ‘Optics’, Rene Descartes, 1637

What worried philosophers and scientists such as Descartes, Johannes Kepler, John Locke and Isaac Newton was: what was the nature of that homunculus who took the various light beams which had irrupted into the eye and struck the retina, and eventually delivered them as ‘the world’ to the person? Was vision just inert vitreous optics screening pictures in front of the tribunal of perception in our brains, or was the human spirit, or soul, necessary as well, to tie us into the world we subjectively experience? Where was our faculty of perception located, just behind our eyes where the robed bust hovered, or somewhere else in our spirit? Where did we end and our world begin?

Whilst camera obscuras were performing duties as philosophical and scientific analogies, they were also being developed as machines. They were shrinking from the size of rooms to the size of scientific instruments. Diderot’s Encyclopedia from the mid18th century illustrates several handy desktop models in the section devoted to drawing. In these camera obscuras the world is miniaturised by the lens, and the artist looks attentively down at the world re-inverted by mirrors and projected onto a ground glass screen or drawing paper. Some camera obscuras were boxes of wood where a reflex mirror reflected the image up onto the underside of the artist’s drawing paper, which was protected from being washed out by ambient light with a hood. Others were like pyramidic tents into which the draftsman stuck his head and hand, where a periscope projected the image down onto paper. These camera obscuras removed their users from the flux of world, and laid out images for their rational eyes to observe and draw.

Plate 4, Drawing, Camera Obscura, Encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, 1751-1772

Plate 4, Drawing, Camera Obscura, Encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, 1751-1772

Plate 5, Drawing, Camera Obscura, Encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, 1751-1772

Plate 5, Drawing, Camera Obscura, Encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, 1751-1772

But even though the camera obscura was adopted as an instrument of rational sight in the 18th century, the problem of our vision’s simultaneous enmeshment in and removal from the world, which the camera obscura spectacularly instantiated, wouldn’t go away. In 1846 Karl Marx even took the camera obscura analogy and radically expanded it out to be a metaphor for ideology as well.

If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life processes.[4]

To Marx, we could not trust what we see in society because it had already been inverted by the ideology into which we had been born. We don’t recognise the inversion of ideology because we have been formed by it as historical subjects, just as we don’t recognise that our eyes invert our vision, because we are formed by it as cognitive subjects.

While Marx was using the camera obscura as a handy metaphor in his revolutionary thought, actual camera obscuras were being enjoyed by the proletariat. In Australia they were becoming popular attractions, rather than scientific instruments. From the 1850s camera obscuras, probably built into carts, were being advertised as feature attractions in Australian traveling fairs and exhibitions. Intrepid entrepreneurs began to build permanent camera obscuras, out of either stone or wood, at prominent vantage points in Adelaide, Sydney, Wollongong and Brisbane. The ones in Adelaide, Sydney and Wollongong didn’t last long, but the one in Brisbane lasted almost 50 years.

After Robert and Eliza White opened a kiosk and sly grog outlet on the top of the hill (now Whites Hill) in their property on the outskirts of Brisbane, they decided to invest 200 pounds in importing two telescopes and a camera obscura from England.[5] The camera obscura apparatus, “consisting of a lens which reflects panoramic views on a saucer shaped concrete bowl, with a plaster of paris surface”, was built into a tower above their octagonal dining room, and from 1891 the attraction garnered a steady trickle of visitors, many of whom were happy to take the half-hour walk from the Coorparoo tram terminus.[6]

Camera Obscura, Catalogue, William Y. McAllister, New York, c1890

Camera Obscura, Catalogue, William Y. McAllister, New York, c1890

Like many others around the world, the Whites Hill camera obscura provided visitors with an uncanny experience. As they looked into the pool of image they felt a bit like the homunculus in Descartes’ Optics, as if they were losing certainty as to where they were, what size they were, or where their body ended and the rest of the world began. Bob White twisted one handle to rotate the periscope around, sweeping Brisbane and Moreton Bay across the circular viewing table, while also pulling another handle to shift the angle of the reflex mirror, swinging the centre of view from foreground to distance. The Queenslander enthused:

Above is the tower, which is a camera obscura. Like an impressive old-necromancer the host operates the strings controlling the finder, and amazingly lovely scenes flit across the large horizontal, white disc placed in the centre of the room. Forest scenery is succeeded by water scapes, and the mouth of the Brisbane River appears. A slight tug at the cord and the bay slips into view. Then one picks up several islands. Another movement of the finder, and stately mountain peaks limn themselves on the white disc. In the foreground, just where one was going to rest his hand, trees quiver in a breeze which has been shut out from the tower. There are skies, too, where luminous clouds move across wonderful pools of blue. Another twist of the cord, and the finder discovers a mighty city with its suburbs rambling over countless hills. Above these are lovely cumulus clouds; and in the foreground a path strangely familiar. Then one remembers suddenly that he passed along it when climbing the ascent to the house. One feels glad that this the twentieth, not the seventeenth century, and that the grave old magician near by is not likely to be burned as a wizard![7]

Whites Hill, from 'The Pocket Brisbane', 1913

Whites Hill, from ‘The Pocket Brisbane’, 1913

View of the Observatory restaurant at Camp Hill Brisbane, 1924

View of the Observatory restaurant at Camp Hill Brisbane, 1924

In similar camera obscuras elsewhere in the world operators encouraged their lofty customers to adopt an almost god-like attitude to the scenes they witnessed. In the 150-year-old Edinburgh camera obscura visitors are still invited to hold slips of paper on the table, so the Lilliputian figures walking below appear to walk across the paper, unaware that they have been ‘captured’.

In 1928, following the death of Bob White, the Greater Brisbane Council resumed White’s Hill and sublet the kiosk and its camera obscura. But, even though the Lady Mayoress did her bit by holding tea parties there, the attraction did not thrive. In 1935 the delegates to the Australian Newspaper Conference and their wives visited, but the new lessee didn’t even bother to put on a shirt for the southerners. As he swiveled the periscope and tilted the mirror the delegates looked on truculently.[8] A year later, and the same operator was slightly better dressed for the children of the South Brisbane Intermediate School Rambling Club, who seemed slightly more impressed as they leant into the bowl, immersing themselves in the coloured concave image which the Telegraph photographer’s flash was about to blast away.[9] But, within a few years, continually hampered by the difficulty of public transport access and poor publicity, the kiosk had been abandoned. By the Second World War the American army had commandeered the land for its geographical eminence as an observation post and training ground. After the War the Whites Hill camera obscura was left to the vandals.[10]

‘Seeing the City, The Delegates to the Australian Newspaper Conference and their wives see Brisbane through the Camera Obscura at White’s Hill’, The Telegraph, 1 June 1935 p13.

‘Seeing the City, The Delegates to the Australian Newspaper Conference and their wives see Brisbane through the Camera Obscura at White’s Hill’, The Telegraph, 1 June 1935 p13.

‘Children from the South Brisbane Intermediate School Rambling Club view the surroundings through the camera obscura at White’s Hill’, The Telegraph, 18 July 1936, p30.

‘Children from the South Brisbane Intermediate School Rambling Club view the surroundings through the camera obscura at White’s Hill’, The Telegraph, 18 July 1936, p30.

In one sense these camera obscuras (Queensland hosted another one during the 1960s at Picnic Point in Toowoomba) are a subset of the panoramic mode of photography. Wickham Terrace was the most popular place in Brisbane from which cameras could click through 360 degrees, surveying the achievements of the city as it progressed with the straightening of streets, the building of bridges and the construction of buildings. But panoramas have just one temporal dimension, they are about measuring how far we have come, or how far we have yet to go. They have just one point of view, a stable one at the centre of the circle (usually, in Brisbane’s case, near the Windmill) acting like a scopic surveyor’s peg from which distances to landmarks in both history and geography can be measured. They have none of the hallucinatory, groundless shifts of the camera obscura attraction.

But that is the tradition that Robyn Stacey’s city photography belongs to: magical experiential pockets tucked into the seamless panoptic sweep, delusion within vision, memory within history, and the psychic within the civic. Brisbane, with “its suburbs rambling over countless hills” as The Queenslander put it, is particularly good at evading the panoptic view. The river and the hills fold in on themselves, but these folds have always been riven with shifting and unseen boundaries, divisions, segregations and curfews defined around race, class and gender. However, the biggest permanent division was between high and low. During the time of Robert White’s camera obscura, which was only 120 metres above sea level, any eminence amongst the hills, even of a few metres in altitude, was enough to cement social division: the rich built their villas along the ridges, straining to catch any breeze off the Bay, while the poor built their bungalows in the gullies, waiting to be flooded. During the Second World War, the time of greatest segregation, the American army observation post that replaced the Whites Hill camera obscura was only one node in a vast, South-East-Queensland-wide network of observation points, searchlight units and anti-aircraft gun-batteries that took over every hilltop, anxiously watching the sky.

After the War the rambling topography of Brisbane, with its hidden pockets of local intensity, was written over by progress. The ‘mighty city’, which The Queenslander had seen, must have been no more than a horizontal smudge in Bob White’s camera obscura, but it nonetheless began to sprout. In 1960 the Torbreck home unit tower claimed Highgate Hill for modernity; shortly after television towers, one for each of the four channels on the TV set in our living rooms, ranged themselves along the ridge of Mount Coot-tha; in the 1970s office buildings were erected in the CBD, dwarfing the previous eminence of the City Hall from which reputedly you could once have scanned from Stradbroke Island to Mount Tibrogargan; and in 1982 the Deen Brothers demolished Cloudland Ballroom to make way for crappy apartments.

This urban thicketing is recorded by some of Stacey’s images: the relentless grids of high-rise buildings completely wallpaper Ronald van Weezel’s room at the Hilton; and they spear to death the dreamy clouds and nostalgic photographic views of old Brisbane laid across the bed in room 1706 of Quay West; while all the young occupants of Willara House can look out to from her window is a fractured wall of brick and concrete. Sometimes, however, Stacey is able to carefully pick out her views between the towers and recall the underlying geographies of Brisbane. For instance, the image of the Story Bridge from All Hallows School (which was established in a doctor’s mansion built on another key site of geographical eminence, Duncan’s Hill at the top of Fortitude Valley, purchased by the Catholic Church in 1863) is like a giant picture postcard someone has put back upside down in the postcard rack. In a similarly spectacular inversion Stacey implodes the panoptic Benthamite architecture of another famous landmark, Boggo Road Gaol, to create an internal horizon of brick, fringed by the tops of the trees and blocks of flats of Dutton Park peeping over the wall. The City Botanic Gardens, which was originally a convict farm lying at the heart of Brisbane’s colonial layout, has been inverted and turned into a curtain of richly brocaded green. The curtain rises to reveal Maroochy Barambah, the song woman of the Turrbal people, the original owners of the land, who strikes a pose against a blue backdrop of sky. The Turrbal people unsuccessfully claimed Native Title over areas of Brisbane, but Maroochy’s defiant stand in a room of the Royal on the Park Hotel still attempts to topsy-turvy the hotel’s claim that it ‘provides a view like no other and offers guests a tranquil retreat in the heart of the Brisbane CBD’.

.Robyn Stacey has asked other transient occupants to perform as themselves in her room camera obscuras: Tyrone waits in the Children’s Court; while Jade in Room 1817 or Lesley in room 2212 of the Sofitel, or Mess in room 2418 of the Marriott, wait in their hotels. They remind me of the homunculus in Descartes’ Optics, they seem like they are sitting inside their own heads, immersed in a ‘through the looking glass’ dream of Brisbane. Or perhaps Stacey’s uncanny photography has temporarily released Brisbane from the thrall of its ‘historical life-processes’, as Marx would have put it, so it appears to these visitors as it really is. For instance Carlos, an occupant of a room at the Hotel Tower Mill, leans forward against a wall, with his eyes closed in intense inner communion. Projected onto the wall of the room once, and then reflected in a wardrobe mirror again, is the Windmill across the road, haloed in a nebula of jacaranda blossom. The Windmill is the oldest, and for many years was the highest, building in Brisbane, from which the Hotel Tower Mill takes its name and its architectural shape. The Windmill was the spot near which many of Brisbane’s proud photographic panoramas were taken; the building on top of which a time ball once dropped every day at 1pm, keeping Brisbane synchronised before clocks; and the building from which test radio and television transmissions were first made in the 1920s. But folded into this panoramic history darker functions and submerged lacunae lurk. Built on a ridge to catch the breeze in the late 1820s the sails of the Windmill never worked properly, perhaps they were put on the wrong way. So convicts were put to work until they dropped at a treadmill, grinding their grain and receiving their punishment simultaneously. Reputedly, the sails did become eventually useful as an improvised gibbet for two Aboriginal men, wrongly accused of murder who, in 1841, were unceremoniously pushed off the balcony of the Windmill, amid the howls of the other Aboriginal people of Brisbane, to dangle in a public execution. Now quaintly down at heel, the Hotel Tower Mill, in which Carlos dreams, was once seriously posh. It was the accommodation chosen for the all-white Springbok Rugby Union team from apartheid South Africa when they were invited to Brisbane in 1971. Police violently pushed the anti-apartheid protestors, who had gathered next to the Windmill across the road from the motel, down the steep slope of Wickham Park, bashing them as they tried to escape. Does the camera obscura re-project these distant memories, which the Windmill has attracted to itself like an historical lightening rod, into Carlos’s head?

Carlos isn’t saying. After taking part in Stacey’s experiment he’s checked out and gone back to where he came from. But as we look at her images of the outside in and the upside down, we too are invited to observe how a whole big, brash city may magically find itself silently floating upside down inside a single room; and how the past may still be felt, delicately tucked up into the present.

Another, more elemental, vision underpinned the laws of optics before they were rectified, framed and interpreted by photographic cameras and cultural conventions. Stacey shows us that, even in these days of the camera phone, da Vinci’s mind blowing revelation of infinite radiating pyramids filling the atmosphere is still capable of shaking us out of our habits and allowing us to experience the city we have built for ourselves in fresh and uncanny ways.

[1] Leonardo Da Vinci, Notebooks, Oxford University Press, 2008, p115

[2] Giambattista della Porta, ‘Of Strange Glasses’, Natural Magic (English translation), Thomas Young, 1658, pp363-364

[3] ibid, pp364-365

[4] Karl Marx, A Critique of The German Ideology, 1846, np

[5] ‘Passing of a Pioneer, Mr John White, of White’s Hill, Glimpses of early Brisbane, The Telegraph, 25 February 1927, p9)

[6] ‘Excursionist, Trips Around Brisbane, The Australasian, 20 February 1892, p44; The Brisbane Courier, 31 July 1929 p14.

[7] ‘Illustrations, Sixty Years Married, The Whites of White’s Hill’, The Queenslander, 24 January 1925, p40

[8] The Telegraph, 1 June 1935, p13

[9] The Telegraph, 18 July 1936, p30

[10] Judy Rechner, Where Have All The Creeks Gone: Camp Hill Heritage Drive Tour, Brisbane East Branch, National Trust of Queensland, 2001.