Why is an archive when it is lost?

HomeToAustralia.org presents vintage photographs in its busy booth at Sydney Contemporary

Can we ever forgive the hapless Fairfax beancounter who, in 2013, thought he had solved at least one of the troubled news organisation’s many financial problems? Their massive archive of deteriorating photographic negatives and prints was costing a motza to house and maintain, and without a rapid program of digitisation it was going to be hard to monetise it. His answer was to do a deal with an Arkansas sports memorabilia dealer, John Rogers, who said he would buy two million physical items from Fairfax for $300,000 along with the agreement that he would catalogue and scan them. Rogers could sell the physical prints and Fairfax, who always retained copyright, could licence the digital images. In the words of Fairfax executive Garry Linnell, shipping two million negatives and prints overseas would  ‘preserve them for future generations’ of Australians. There were several problems with the deal. As anyone who has done it knows, digitising two million items  is an enormous task, and properly cataloguing them even more so. As it was, Rogers was only ever going to use high speed document scanners, yielding at best low resolution files of little monetary value and little use to our visual heritage. The second problem was that Rogers was a conman.

Shortly after the collection of Australian and New Zealand photographs was shipped off to Little Rock in late 2013, prints which hadn’t even been scanned yet, even at low resolution, were beginning to turn up on eBay. The receiver later estimated that up to a thousand images may have been skimmed off before digitisation even began. Rogers became unresponsive to requests from Australia and then, in early 2014,  the FBI raided him. He was later convicted of fraud, became bankrupt, and a sizeable chunk of Australia’s heritage fell into a legal limbo. In 2015 we in Australia who love photography stared in open mouthed dismay at the ABC’s Glenn Sloggett like images of padlocked warehouse doors beginning to be choked by weeds in the outer suburbs of Little Rock.

Then in 2017 came the news that California’s Duncan Miller Gallery had purchased the entire collection, still estimated to be around two million items.  The new owner of the physical archive, Daniel Miller, reasoned that even though the copyright of images taken after 1955 still resided with either Fairfax or the original photographer, the ’pieces of paper’ could perhaps return him around four dollars each from Australian institutions as a bulk purchase, and considerably more for the ‘name’ photographers who had found their way into the archive, such as Jeff Carter, Max Dupain, Olive Cotton, Wolfgang Sievers and David Moore.

Miller launched a website with the rather Peter Allenesque url of hometoaustralia.org. He sought corporate sponsorship, and came to Australia in 2017 to speak to curators from major collections and go on breakfast TV. In 2018 he had a booth at Sydney Contemporary showing some of the collection in art frames. To aid their repatriation, and the return on his investment, the gallery did a new taxonomic survey of the collection, dividing them into 500 different thematic categories.

So far they estimate that they have sold about 160,000 photographs back to various Australian collections, including the Bradman Museum who have  purchased 24,000 cricket photographs, and Beleura who have purchased 20,000 theatre photographs. Last weekend the Canberra Museum and Gallery announced they had purchased 3,500 Canberra photographs, many from the Canberra Times, at $20,000. A good deal.  They plan to work with the University of Canberra to do the cataloguing that John Rogers promised and didn’t do. They still have to negotiate with the original photographers or Fairfax, which has now been swallowed by the media conglomerate of Nine Entertainment, to reproduce the post 1955 images.

Can we ever forgive that Fairfax executive? No we can’t. But what does this farrago tell us? Firstly that photographs, whether physical or digital are equally vulnerable. Australian photography is full of similar stories at varying degrees of apocrypha — of collodion being cleaned off plates for green house windows, of glass plate negatives being used for road ballast, and so. There are also stories of rescue missions, which is how the Duncan Miller Gallery see their work. For instance in 1929 the bookseller James Tyrell brought 7903 negatives from the Charles Kerry and Henry King studios, which were then sold to Australian Consolidated press in 1980, who donated them to the Powerhouse Museum in 1985. Secondly, it throws into relief the legal separation between the three values that photographs have always had: ownership, display and reproduction. Thirdly it brings to the fore an  increasingly important photographic value — searchability.

Fairfax did eventually got back a set of digital files from Rogers’ receiver in Arkansas. They are probably of low quality anyway, but without even a searchable interface they are next to useless. The physical archive’s current owner, the canny Duncan Miller Gallery, has realised the importance of the interface. While they have certainly capitalised on the short list of proper names of Australian photography in the collection, whose prints can be sold as individual ‘art works’, the gallery also realised they needed a ‘team of archivists’ to generate five hundred new separate categories out of the raw A to Z sequencing of the images. Major Categories, from ‘Aboriginal people’ to ‘Yachting’; Smaller Categories, from ‘Abacus to ‘Witch Doctor’’; and Personalities and People, from ‘Aboriginal people’ to ‘Zoo’. It remains to be seen how useful potential clients in Australia will find these newly generated search terms in approaching the vast opaque repository of images in America. But what is certain is that issues of the archive are only just beginning to come home to us.

Should art museums think of themselves as ‘collections’ or ‘archives’?

Lecture at Art Gallery of New South Wales, in association with the exhibition The Photograph and Australia, 29 March 2015

(The research for this lecture was done in association with Dr Daniel Palmer as part of our ARC Discovery Project Photography Curating in the Age of Photosharing)

the powerpoint is below


When the Art Gallery of New South Wales asked me to write an essay on nineteenth century photograph albums for the catalogue to the exhibition The Photograph and Australia they emailed me some jpegs of the albums they would be exhibiting. One jpeg was from an album in the State Library of Queensland that had been compiled by the Lethbridge family of pastoralists. It showed a charming fresh faced girl and I could see immediately why the curator, Judy Annear, had been attracted to it. The photograph’s informality, and the girl’s easy manner was quite anachronous in the context of the other photographs of the period, which I guess was around the early 1870s. A member of the Lethbridge family member had evidently come along later and written in pencil on the album page: ‘Effie Dalrymple, sister of Florence Lethbridge (nee McLean)’. Of course I did what every highly skilled and highly trained photographic researcher with thirty years experience in the field does with such precious metadata, I typed it into Google and hit return. In 0.49 seconds the results came back, I clicked on ‘images’, and in another fraction of a second I was looking at Effie again, this time in 1900. In less than a second she had aged thirty years and all of the fresh bloom of youth had drained from her face which was now pinched and tightly pulled back by her hair. The second photograph Google found for me also came from the State Library of Queensland, but it came via a circuitous root, my first hit was to a computer-student’s blog. He had used the SLQ’s on line image database for a class exercise in data management. It is only through his blog that I got to the SLQ digital record. A few more searches took me to some genealogical sites, and the site of the Mackay Historical Society, and within minutes and I knew what had happened to the lovely girl in the photograph: in 1880 she had married the Mayor of Mackay who went on to become a widely disliked right wing politician in Queensland, and had had four children by him.

My little story exemplifies two things photography does best. First it deals with aging and mortality. Photography can show us with a shock how bodies and faces age and die. By freezing time it makes the passing of time more tragic, especially when you spend that time married to a right wing Queensland politician. The second thing my story shows is that photography is a networked medium. Photographs by themselves don’t mean as much as photographs in relation to other photographs. And photographs are slippery things, they do not want to stay in one format, as objects secured in albums for instance, they want to be copied and duplicated. With the digital revolution photographs are now everywhere, they are digitized into ‘digital assets’ and available in Digital Asset Management Systems, along with other digital assets such as sound files or text files, which are accessible through various Content Management Systems. Individual end users like you and me and the student blogger though which I found Effie again are connecting and threading those databases together as we blog and tweet photographs.

At the preview to The Photograph and Australia the director of the AGNSW Dr Michael Brand proudly announced that the Art Gallery of New South Wales photography collection now numbered 5000 objects. My first thought was: ‘what, only 5000? Is that anywhere near enough? I’ve got more than that on my iPhone in my pocket, and some of them aren’t too bad either.’ Of course what was implied in Dr Brand’s boast was that these were carefully selected photographs, it was a curated collection, assembled by a succession of experts who had developed collection plans, strategic directions, and curatorial policies, which interlinked with the plans, directions and policies of the Art Gallery as a whole. These strategies are even outlined in the 2007 book Guide to the Photography Collection.



There are several things to say about the AGNSW’s collection, as well as the photography collections in other art galleries. This is a collection of photographs as art, and that therefore means it is a collection of photographs as art objects. Since the beginnings of art photography the photo object, as opposed to the photo-image, has been primary. We only need to go back the Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in 1906 to see the paradigmatic display of photo-objects, each isolated in its elegant amplitude of olive and grey, burlap and hessian. It was clearly to this heightened aesthetic attention to the photograph as object that Harold Cazneaux aspired three years later in his 1909 one man show, although his hang still has the feeling of a cluttered Edwardian parlour, rather than an elegant New York Gallery. Nonetheless the foundation curator of the AGNSW collection, Gael newton chose Harold Cazneux and his Pictorialist friends in the Sydney Camera Circle to be the firm foundation stones of the collection because, in her words Pictorialism was ‘a conscious art movement, aimed at using the camera more creatively.’

The main artefact of this approach to curating is the print. And amongst prints the most highly valued are vintage prints, those made by the photographer close to the date the image was taken. The idea of the vintage print, which still rules the market, contains all of the fetishizations of art objects: a single point of origin in time, a singular artistic vision, and the artist’s crafting hand. Even when there is no artist, the power of the vintage print still remains. For instance on online photo dealer recently offered for sale a set of press prints which had been released to the press by NASA in 1966. The images were made robotically by the Lunar Orbiter 1 as it circled the moon, and radioed data back to earth to be read out in strips onto 35 mm film like a fax achine. The site offers them as ‘vintage silver prints’ in very good condition, not mounted. Their slight yellowing adds to their aura as precious relics from the space age, and these press prints would be worth less, I think if they were still crisp and white.

Around this idea of the vintage print other scopic machineries are built. One is the passé partout (pas par too) mat board, which the Pictorialists loved, which isolates the single image from visual contamination. Another piece of museal engineering is the solandar box where the few lucky prints selected to be collected will be preserved until the end of time. When I was a young curator I was frequently reminded that the initial cost of buying a print was minimal, it was the ongoing cost as that print had to be accessioned, catalogued, tracked, conserved and stored in controlled conditions for ever and ever which was the real cost.

If the matt board and the solandar box are the museal engineering for art photography, the curators are the engineers. Here we see Ralph Eugene, Alfred Stieglitz, Heinrich Kuhn and Edward Steichen gazing intently at a print, I like to imagine that Kuhn is looking so surprised because the print is beginning to smoke under the intensity of their gazes, like we used to burn paper with our magnifying glasses when we were children. After his Pictorialist phase Steichen became a visual engineer of propaganda shows, and he was photographed in action with the Family of Man, building visual architectures out of prints.

This concern with the photograph as object is of course a natural fit for an art gallery. When most art gallery collections were being founded in the 1970s it fitted in with the collection logic all of their other objects — prints, paintings, sculptures, decorative art and so on which had previously been collected in the season before. Only since the 1990s, with the growth in video art, computer art and multimedia art has another potentially ‘virtual’ or non-object based collecting category entered the art gallery. But the idea of a curated collection of photographs is still a natural fit to an art gallery. The collection to which Dr Brand referred, then, is very different to an archive. While an archive is potentially infinitely expandable and is only restricted by contingencies such as storage space, the collection is deliberately shaped. Representative selections are handpicked from representative photographers, so that the collection itself in its very structure forms a picture of photography, or as the curators would hasten to add I’m sure, one picture amongst many other possible pictures.

Curators are continually rewriting their policies in order to re-draw the picture they want to make of the photograph and Australia. For instance Gael Newton began the AGNSW collection in the 1970s with an emphasis on Pictorialism, while before she retired from the National Gallery of Australia last year she shifted the collecting emphasis of that collection to the Asia and the Pacific, in order to re-draw the picture it was making of photography relevant to Australians in the twenty-first century. While there can never be too many images in an archive, here can be too much in a curated collection which needs to be restricted in number so it can be shaped. Notions of quality come into play.


In a curated collection an image of ‘poor quality’, from a set of say twenty prints brought from a photographer, will reduce the effectiveness of the entire set; however in an archive where there might be hundreds or thousands of photographs, so one more or less good or bad image doesn’t matter. For instance while the National Library of Australia has catalogued 10,987 Wolfgang Sievers photographs and put them on line. The AGNSW has just 22. The 22 the AGNSW owns are a fine selection, covering his career from his early days in Germany to his later big scale corporate work, as well as some early colour. The selection of 22 tells us what has been accepted by scholars as Sievers’ main story as a creative artist, the relationship between the noble worker and his industrial tools. The NLA on the other hand acquired the lot when Sievers died a few years ago, and has almost completed the mammoth task of putting them online, with only a couple of thousand to go. It would take a lot of work to get the shape of Sievers as a creative photographer from the NLA’s vast archive, but it is a resource within which we can find evidence Australian industry, architecture and advertising.


So that might seem to be one distinction between gallery and library, collection and archive — one tells us about the creative individual, the other is a resource through which their photographs can tell us about our society and history. This distinction has been characterized by other scholars as that between ‘canon’ and ‘archive’. Another distinction might be between curation and retrieval: in a gallery collection photographs have already been selected to tell a story, and other experts will, from time to time, sequence them into exhibitions; in the archive meanings await retrieval through user searches.

But this distinction between canonical collection and archive and is not clear-cut, and in fact they have been institutionally entangled for the last 100 years. For instance, at the end of the First World War, perhaps in the throes of the same nationalistic fervour we are feeling one hundred years later, the amateur photographic magazine the Australasian Photo Review called for a ‘national collection of Australian photographic records’. The Mitchell Library was one of several institutions who responded positively to this idea, even suggesting a list of twelve different categories of photographs which amateurs could take for a future repository. The photographs included:

  1. The topography of districts, such as panoramic views, extended landscapes etc., showing general features of districts
  2. Street views and principal thoroughfares, artistic by-ways, etc., not only cities and town, but even of small country centres.
  3. Celebrations, pageants, festivities, great functions, etc, no matter whether they are political, civic, social or religious
  4. Celebrities and even oddities (including public men, politicians, authors, artists, actors, leaders of industry, agitators and reformers, town characters, etc.)
  5. Trade and industry, commerce and transport, depicting the various operations connected therewith
  6. Public buildings, statues, monuments, churches — old and new, architectural curiosities and follies, etc.
  7. Public parks and gardens and memorial avenues.
  8. Prize stock, famous horses, cattle, sheep, dogs, etc.
  9. Sport and pastimes, such as racehorses and their jockeys, racing yachts and their crews, famous cricketers and footballers, sculliers, etc.
  10. Nature studies, such as growing trees and flowering plants in situ, birds nests in natural position, animals at play, etc.
  11. Aboriginals, showing their physical features, corroborees, habits and customs, sports and pastimes
  12. Any other phase of life, scientific photographs, collections of views illustrative of tours in Australasia and the Pacific

It is interesting that The Photograph and Australia conforms almost perfectly to this hundred year old template.

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

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

The National Gallery of Victoria became the first state gallery to collect photography. The first work to enter the collection – David Moore’s documentary photograph Surry Hills Street (1948) – was acquired through a grant from Kodak. In the same year the NGV imported The Photographer’s Eye, a touring exhibition from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which had been the first art museum to establish a Department of Photography in 1940. The exhibition was curated by MoMA’s John Szarkowski, undoubtedly the most influential photography curator of the second half of the twentieth century, and a curator in the lineage of Stieglitz and Steichen. The Photographer’s Eye was a statement of his formalist position on photographic aesthetics. Its title was adapted for a local version, The Perceptive Eye (1969–1970).

By 1973 the yet-to-be-opened National Gallery of Australia had purchased its first photograph, an artistic confection by Mark Strizic (Jolimont Railway Yards, 1970) that looked more like a print than a photograph. Two years later the AGNSW was laying the foundation for its collection with the acquisition, exhibition and book on the early twentieth century photographs of Harold Cazneaux, collected by them as fine-art Pictorialist prints, rather than as the sharp bromide enlargements that had been published by Contemporary Photography in 1948. However at the same time the National Library of Australia was also collecting Cazneux prints in accordance with its policies to collect exemplars of the medium, and documents of history. In the end the AGNSW ended up with 203 carefully selected Cazneaux’s, while the NLA ended up with 1414.

It was only after this period, in the late 1970s, that the dual nature of the photograph as both a carrier of historical and social information, and an aesthetic art object and exemplar of an individual’s creativity, which had co-existed over the previous decades, was finally separated between libraries and galleries. Both galleries and libraries found themselves embedded in the newly constructed infrastructure of the Whitlam era: the newly established Australia Council, rapidly expanding tertiary courses in photography, new magazines and commercial galleries, and the establishment of the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney in 1974.

In this historical context the photographer as creative artist, and the photograph as art object gained brief cultural ascendancy. The longed-for acknowledgement from overseas materialised in the form of John Szarkowski himself, who was invited on a ‘papal’ tour by the ACP in 1974. Szarkowski gave six public lectures titled “Towards a Photographic Tradition’ .The purpose of the national tour, as Howe put it at the time, “was to liberate photography from the world of technique and commerce and to suggest that it could also be of absorbing artistic and intellectual interest.”

Photography was considered to be a medium with its own intrinsic characteristics”. At the AGNSW Gael Newton deployed a clear art historical teleology, she built on the Pictorialist foundation with a monograph on Max Dupain in 1980, seen as the modernist successor to the Pictorialists. However, galleries also engaged with the contemporary art photography of the graduates from the new art schools, as well as emerging postmodern ideas. For instance the title of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ 1981 exhibition Reconstructed Vision defined this new style of work against, but within the overall trajectory of, the newly established historical traditions.

While the gallery use art historical strategies to embed photography within their structures was certainly in the cultural ascendancy at this time, nonetheless libraries were also confirming their commitment to photography, but as a non aesthetic-object based, content-driven, curatorial strategy. The contemporary cultural relevance of the subjectivist photo boom of the seventies, combined with Modernist and Postmodernist teleologies, drove the aesthetic strategies of galleries, but the nationalistic socially cohesive agendas of events like the 1988 Bicentenary drove the content-based strategies of library photo collecting. At the same time as curators in galleries were building such art historical teleologies, library curators like Alan Davies at the State Library of New South Wales were taking a more encyclopedic approach producing comprehensive surveys such as 1986’s The Mechanical Eye in Australia. At the same time as gallery curators were seeing ‘creative’ photography finally getting the recognition it deserved from a reluctant art establishment still fixated on painters like Brett Whitley, vision of vast searchable databases began to open up for librarians. In a forerunner to today’s participatory online photographic projects, in 1983 Euan McGillivray and Matthew Nickson proposed a snapshot collecting project, Australia as Australians Saw It, which would copy photographs in the possession of individuals, then index them and make them accessible through the latest technology, which at that time was microfiche. Their idea never got off the ground. But, two years after the publication of The Mechanical Eye in Australia, during the bicentenary, Alan Davies, curator at the State Library of New South Wales, travelled to twenty-three country towns and copied about seven thousand vernacular photographs from 576 individuals. Under the title At Work and Play, they were made accessible by a videodisc keyword search (a forerunner to today’s digital database and tagging methodology).


The contest between the logic of the gallery and the library in the 1970s and 1980s was a global phenomenon, and part of poststructuralist, Marxist theoretical discourse. This situation was dramatized in the US by the critic Douglas Crimp in 1979 who saw the institutional aesthetization of photography as a contraction of its power as a medium. In The Museum’s Old, the Library’s New Subject he wrote:

Photography will hereafter be found in departments of photography or divisions of art and photography. Thus ghettoized, it will no longer primarily be useful within other discursive practices; it will no longer serve the purposes of information, documentation, evidence, illustration, reportage. The formerly plural field of photography will henceforth be reduced to the single, all-encompassing aesthetic. Just as, when paintings and sculptures were wrested from the churches and palaces of Europe and consigned to museums in the late eigh­teenth and early nineteenth centuries, they acquired a newfound autonomy, relieved of their earlier functions, so now photography acquires its autonomy as it too enters the museum. But we must recognize that in order for this new aesthetic understanding to occur, other ways of understanding photography must be dismantled and destroyed. Books about Egypt will literally be torn apart so that photographs by Francis Frith may be framed and placed on the walls of museums. Once there, photographs will never look the same. Whereas we may formerly have looked at Cartier-Bresson’s photographs for the information they conveyed about the revolution in China or the Civil War in Spain, we will now look at them for what they tell us about the artist’s style of expression.


Fast forward to the present in Australia. Over the intervening 40 years, since the establishment of various departments and the ACP, the boundaries of photography have expanded. However, galleries have largely kept to the historical trajectories inaugurated in the 1970s. In the 1980s, photographic reproductive processes became central to postmodern art, which had the flow-on effect of boosting photography’s place in the art museum. But postmodernism did not fundamentally alter the increasing focus of departments of photography on artefacts of ‘art photography’.

Into the 1990s and 2000s, and until perhaps the AGNSW’s The Photograph and Australia show, departments of photography essentially continued a monographic and consolidation phase, aided by the international prominence of large-scale colour photography as art, such as the Düsseldorf School. Simultaneously, we have witnessed the digital revolution, which has produced a whole new generation of photographers using online photosharing services like Flickr and Instagram, whose effects until now have been felt much more widely felt outside the gallery. In response to the digital revolution libraries and social history museums have invested institutional effort into digitizing their image collections and making them available online. They have brought software from international companies that give them sophisticated Digital Asset Management Systems for organizing images and other data in the same digital space, and they have brought Content Management Systems for delivering that information to users in different ways. In the digital space of social history museums and libraries the logic of ‘asset management’ and ‘content delivery’ is merging. For instance the popular Emu Digital Asset Management System advertises a ‘narrative’ module which automatically connects together diverse digitized objects within the catalogue itself, but across normal taxonomic categories, for instantaneous publishing on line, or to be available for public searches. This is in contrast to traditional gallery spaces where storerooms, catalogues, and exhibition spaces are maintained as separate entities. Likewise the Android labels on objects in museums are multimedia rich, and can be updated instantaneously from a curator’s desktop through the institution’s Content Management System. This is in contrast to the art gallery’s commitment to the status as an object to be experienced in the flesh, hung in static exhibition installations.

The Melbourne scholar Scott McQuire has compared the ‘vault’ approach to what he calls an ‘operational archive’, in the vault approach the collection is kept in a specific space, from which its objects are occasional produced; the ‘operational archive’ on the other hand is continually active as data is transferred in and out. In this distinction there is a shift from cataloguing, where a discrete process of description and accessioning adds static information such as title, date, subject, to active ‘tagging’ where users continue to add tags to the image. This shift might also be between a curated exhibition, where a set of pictures is chosen and sequenced, to an active search, where an archive is sampled using a keyword. A further distinction might be between a spatialized ‘display’ of photographs, and a temporalized ‘stream’ of photographs in, say, an Instagram feed.


If the primary aim of photography curating in the 1970s was to establish photography as art, this has clearly been achieved. Photography is ubiquitous within contemporary art, but ironically now not as an autonomous tradition – rather as a mode integrated within wider practices. But if the now forty-year old institutional structures are still largely with us, if museums continue to have departments, curators and galleries of photography, this is still largely for the autonomous and separate history of photography, for the knowledge of specific collections and conservation techniques, rather than for its networked ubiquity with our art and culture. So even if photography is now safely and deeply embedded in the art museum, its precise role is still up for grabs.

Clearly, museum departments can no longer work in isolation. However, what the mere integration of photography into the newly contemporary art museum all too easily elides is that photography’s place there has always been unstable, its ambiguous status as object and information continually threatening the grounds of the art museum’s hierarchies and collection policies.

We have seen this in Australia in relation to the location of photography between the library and the art museum, in terms of a split between information and aesthetics, a documentary database versus an aesthetic object. Photography’s recent insertion into digital networks reveals these tensions yet again, but with even more complexity. Within the modernist logic which originally auspiced photography in the art gallery, the networked digital image, circulating as reproducible information, is guaranteed to be excluded. If gallery photography departments continue to adhere to the logic which gave birth to them the potential for different kinds of photography in the art gallery could go largely unnoticed. But there may be the potential for art galleries to judiciously incorporate some aspects of the archival image mode, retain their integrity, and enhance their relevance to contemporary culture.

In identifying the future potential of photography in the art gallery, perhaps we can learn from artists. For instance The Photograph and Australia has deliberately placed Patrick Pound’s computer programming work, which is about the continual digital slippage of photographs, next to a bank of cartes de visite and postcards. Furthermore, if curators are engaged in creating innovative contexts for public engagement, networked photography opens up new possibilities for this to happen. I am not arguing that the art gallery ought to emulate the hyper-linked experience of the internet, or the swipe-based logic of mobile media. However, I am proposing that authoritarian presentations of a connoisseurial canon need to become part of a larger project: exploring photography’s protean nature as a medium and its potential to complicate spectatorship and activate audiences in new ways.


It is clear that the cat is already out of the bag, and that previously separate spaces and categories have already collapsed for art galleries as they have for libraries and museum. For instance something that drive curators in both galleries and libraries absolutely crazy is twitter feeds such as @historyinpics, which is run by two teenagers, a 17 year old from Victoria and a 19 year old from Hawaii. The experts say that this Twitter stream is a genuine phenomenon. Last year it had twice as many followers as the Library of Congress, and reportedly earned the teenagers $50,000 a month, last week it had 2.38 million followers, of which, apparently, only 5% are bots. Every day a new photo which has been scraped from an online archive is tweeted, and though there is preponderance of Hollywood movie stars the feed is addictive, and it is now how many people understand historic photographs. But these photographs are entirely cast adrift, without authors or attribution or location. The site infringes copyright, frequently posts fake photographs, and rarely credits the photographer. It may be history candy, but it give its followers no sense of history.


The Google institute is a way that institutions can wrest back this powerful internet space from the ignorant teenagers who currently rule it. It allow them to put parts of their collections online, and it allows users to ‘curate’ their own sequences. For instance the AGNSW’s ‘Posts from the Past’ is an online slide show of 22 cartes de visite from the exhibition The Photograph and Australia with some captioning, and some ability for the user to re-arrange and compare the photographs. However this is essentially still a very short slide show, a short extract from a larger installation, and it still has the sense of a finite experience served up to the user


Similarly HistoryPin is used by institutions to pin images from their collections onto Google maps.


The hashtag #collectionfishing is also used by archivists to try to get their collections out to the public.


Some more interesting examples of how curators in social history museums are using the opportunities afforded by Digital Asset Management Systems and Content Management Systems can be found in the new World War One Galleries of the Australian War Memorial. The gallleries cost over thirty million dollars to prepare, but from my point of view the results are problematic. The spaces are congested with technology, and the visitor’s head is filled with audio soundtracks featuring ‘war’ sound effects and children singing plaintive songs. Any personal affective response which the viewer may have to the auratic power of the artefactual material is pre-empted and crowded out by the emotional manipulation of the galleries themselves which think and feel for us — and think and feel a very restrictive, jingoistic version of the ANZAC myth as formative to our national identity. Nonetheless there are some interesting aspects to the installation which indicate future directions for development. One aspect is to do with quantity, the other is to do with scale.

A large quantity of photographs are included in The Life at Anzac display which was developed to showcase the Memorial’s collection of amateur photographs taken by the soldiers at Gallipoli, and to introduce visitors to the realities of soldier life at Gallipoli – beyond the narrative of the landing and battles at Lone Pine and the Nek which are frequently reproduced in the media. The Memorial’s curators wanted to minimise the curatorial voice and draw directly from the records of soldiers to interpret their experience at Gallipoli. The 372 photographs selected for use in the display were uploaded to the Collection Management System. Twenty-two tags were developed based on what the photographs and diaries illustrate – what the soldiers have chosen to capture and tell us about their experiences. For example: living amongst the dead, lost friends, dugouts, behind the lines, weather — storm, heat, snow — faces, general views, medical, religion. From this set of twenty-two, one to three tags were assigned to each photograph, so that multiple subjects could be explored in each photograph. The Memorial curators told me that they didn’t have to force any of the tags onto the images, most images ‘spoke’ to them pretty clearly, they said.  Each column in the display relates to a tag, some tags cover multiple columns because of the quantity of images. 153 quotes from soldier diaries were also entered on to the CMS and assigned tags. These appear at random when a visitor pulls up a photograph. The Memorial has the ability to change the display remotely through the CMS, adding new content (images, tags & quotes), theming the selection to a particular event or visit, or changing the selection entirely. The photographs selected represent a very small proportion of what the Memorial holds and it hopes to include more as resources/allow. The users interaction is subtle which was important given the limitations of the physical space. The ‘falling rain’ or cascade appearance was chosen to give the impression of an infinite collection and introduce some movement and graphic energy.

The other aspect is scale, this is seen in a slide show produced from a high-resolution scans of the glass plate negatives made by Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins, these are projected from a bank of 49 separate data projectors, so the projection is not pixelated and is at the level of the film grain. However unfortunately the visual power of this technology is compromised by its positioning.

While not suggesting that art galleries do anything like these kind of social history displays, which are very ideologically directed in their affective power, perhaps there may be some clues for art museum to develop new ways to approach contemporary photographic practice.

Interestingly, although the Australian War Memorial World War One galleries rely so much on digital images, they still need to evoke the artefactual, auratic quality of snapshots, however these need to be simulated in inkjet prints.


The digital revolution is affecting the practice of art photographers. Many artists do not work in a single visual space any more, producing prints for books or exhibition, say. They work across platforms. For instance the photographer Lee Grant carefully edited 65 photographs into the book Belco Pride, about the Canberra suburb of Belconnen. But she has 200 photographs of Belconnen that she considers to be part of the set. Many other photographers work in this way, so there could be a curated selection of say 65 photographs, or there could be various iterations of the archive produced by users.

Many other photographers produce a continual stream of Instagram posts, which are as integral to their practice as their officially published work.

Other artists return to particular topics or subjects over an extended period of time revisiting them and changing them.


This implies that there could be the potential for curators to not only purchase a selection of prints from a photographer, but to ‘contract’ with a photographer to maintain an interface to their ‘operational archive’ to use Scott McQuire’s term, as it grows and mutates. There could be the potential to not replace the power and the beauty of the unique object, but to augment it with other ways of creatively experiencing the photograph as a networked image, as well as a crafted print.

Martyn Jolly

Is Rob Moody Australia’s greatest archive artist, greater even than the great Patrick Pound?

Rob Moody article 1

Rob Moody article 1

Rob Moody article 2

Rob Moody article 2

Pitch perfect: cricket tragic records 25,000 DVDs worth of game time

Author: Gareth Hutchens

Date: Sydney Morning Herald 18/01/2014 p10.

It is a tale of misspent Australian youth: a young cricket fan starts recording the odd televised cricket match, and then he begins to tape every game on TV. Soon, he starts washing cars, and delivering newspapers, doing anything to buy more tapes for his hobby.

A few years later and he gets a job at Coles, deliberately, because he wants to use the supermarket’s buying power to order cheap video cassettes by the hundreds.

Nearly 30 years later – after a digital revolution – he has amassed 25,000 DVDs worth of cricket footage of virtually every match ever broadcast in Australia since the mid-1980s.

He has also become a cult phenomenon on the internet.

Rob Moody’s tale is one of an obsessed collector as much as a cricket fanatic.

Asked why he couldn’t stop taping everything and his answer makes perfect sense: “I just didn’t wanna miss out on stuff.”

Moody’s YouTube channel – Robelinda2 – is a cricket buff’s dream. After starting to upload snippets of his vast archive online a few years ago, now his channel features unusual, historic and often hilarious outtakes of hours of cricket coverage from over the years.

Fans in India, Pakistan, England and Australia have learnt that they can ask him to upload rare special footage from their memories, or to make video compilations of their favourite players, and he can do it. Journalists have learnt to ask him, too.

Recently, he even heard former Australian fast bowler Jason Gillespie was after footage of English batsman David Gower getting repeatedly caught on his leg side in the 1980s by traps set by Australia. It took Moody 30 minutes to put the video together.

He says he learnt to edit his footage by copying the techniques used in Channel Nine’s cricket coverage. And his favourite thing to do with the footage is to make compilations of different players or incidents.

He has exposed Australian batsman Shane Watson’s defective technique in a video that compiles every one of his painful LBW test dismissals.

Another video features every test match run-out of the ungainly Pakistani batsman Inzamam-ul-Haq.

Over the years Moody has had to transfer his valuable footage from VHS to DVD to hard-drive, to save it from deteriorating.

He says he still loves the sport, though he can’t watch too many games while his two children, aged 6 and 4, are awake.

What does his wife think of his collection?

“She’s fine,” he says. “It looked physically a lot worse when we first got together because it was all on video tapes, thousands of video tapes.

“It’s not all over the house like it used to be.”

The Time Machine, 1988

The Time Machine

‘South Australia Rephotographed’, catalogue, 1988


“Nearly all civilized countries preserve their records with care, and in doing so they are working not only in accordance with scientific needs, but also in obedience to a deep-grained instinct.”

G.C. Henderson

Chairman of the Library and Archives Committee, Public

Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia. 1920

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPH The American semiotician Charles Peirce described three modalities in which the sign stood for entities in the real world. The first, the symbol, was an arbitrary sign which functioned because of a conventional association between it and its referant. The second, the icon, referred to its object through resemblance. The third, the index, had a direct, causal connection with its object.

The photograph incorporates all three modalities of the sign, but in a dramatically ascending scale of potency. The much discussed representational power of the photograph lies in its symbolic nature, but more in its iconic nature, and more still in its indexical nature. The photograph’s optical and chemical causality, the fact that its referant adheres (to use Barthes’ term) distinguishes it from all other forms of visual record. It also grants it a privileged intimacy with the past.

A STORY OF THE PAST A dinosaur wanders through a pre-historic swamp. It places one of its huge feet in some soft mud and leaves both an iconic and indexical sign of its existence. A volcano explodes, covering the mud with lava, and fixing the footprint for ever. Time passes. A paleontologist excavates the fossilized footprint. He makes a plaster cast and places it in a museum. We come to visit the dinosaur exhibit. As we look at the footprint we shudder slightly. We can almost feel the ground shake under us as the ghostly dinosaur lumbers past. We shake our heads in wonderment: “so long ago, so much time has passed, yet it seems so close”.

Now it is no longer pre-history, no longer the Pleistocene Period. Now it is History, history with a capital H, Australia’s Official Bicentennial History — the Sepia-Toned Period. A photographer wanders through South Australia with social habits and a perceptual apparatus almost as open to speculation

as the dinosaur’s. He places the legs of his tripod on the ground, they leave a faint impression. He takes a photograph. Eventually it finds its way into a museum. We visit. We feel a slight shudder: “so long ago, so much time, yet it seems so close”.

Then we dream: what if we went back to that spot, got down on our hands and knees, gently ran our fingers over the ground and, by some miracle, found those three faint impres­sions from the feet of the photographer’s tripod. And what if we put our camera there, and took another photograph of exactly the same scene, but one hundred years, and several historical and social cataclysms later?

What if we displayed both photographs side by side in a museum? What shudders we would feel! What glowing auras of proximate distance we would bathe in! What mysteries of history we would create!


REPHOTOGRAPHED PROJECT Despite the Project’s prosaic title and its pretentions to scientific validity, it is essentially this intoxicating dream which underlies South Australia Rephotographed.

By presenting two photographs of the same scene, but separated by approximately a century’s worth of time, the Project may well teach us something about South Australian History. On the level of the photographs’ symbolic modality we may perhaps learn the extent to which South Australia’s social customs have changed. On the level of the photographs’ iconic modality we may perhaps learn the extent to which the topography and architecture of South Australia has changed. However it will be on the level of the photographs’ indexical modality that our essential fascination with the Project will lie. This fascination will remain unutterable, outside the Project’s pedagogics. Our fascination is with time itself, rather than history. Our thrill comes from time travel, rather than the specifics of historical change.

Our Time Machine is obviously the camera. But the force which propels it is the interaction of two interdependent systems: the photograph and the archive. The photographs mark — symbolically, iconically and indexically — two points in the flow of time, and the archival repository allows us to connect them. The simultaneous proximity and distance of the twinned images react off each other, giving the ‘that has been’ of the photograph a double valency.

THE MEANING OF TIME In his essay Photography Between Labour and Capital2 Allan Sekula discusses the relationship between the photograph and the archive. Sekula describes an archive as a ‘clearing house of meaning’, where any original function an image may have had is supplanted by its ‘semantic availability’. The image’s meaning is now up for grabs to anybody who cares to penetrate the ‘territory of images’ which constitutes the archive. This territory is a flat, featureless plain. It doesn’t matter whether the constituent photographs were initially personal snapshots, scientific documents, topographical views, or even artworks, they all end up with an ‘abstract visual equivalence’ within the archive. They are all, equally, only potential statements awaiting enunciation.

Within the archive, Sekula says, “the spectator is flung into a condition of imaginary temporal and geographical mobility. In this dislocated and disoriented state, the only coherence offered is that provided by the constantly shifting position of the camera, which provides the spectator with a kind of powerless omniscience. Thus the spectator comes to identify with the technical apparatus, with the authoritative institution of photography. In the face of this authority all forms of telling and remembering begin to fade. But the machine establishes its truth.”

As far as the retrieval systems of the Mortlock Library’s photographic archive allow us to determine, most of the historical images used in this Project (except those used by Ian North and Fiona Hall) were made by Samuel Sweet or Ernest Gall between the 1860s and the First World War. They are primarily views of Adelaide and its surrounds taken for sale through the photographers’ city studios. The clients for this view trade were mainly travellers collecting interesting and informative souvenirs of their visit, and settlers seeking visual descriptions of their new home to send back to friends and relatives in Europe.

South Australia was a product of the Systematic Colon­ization schemes of early nineteenth century Britain. These schemes involved the selling of regulated parcels of ‘wasteland’ to young, appropriately skilled colonists. The proceeds of these sales would in turn pay for the passage of further colonists. Thus an efficient pastoral yeomanry would be formed, avoiding the ad hocery of both convict transportation and the squatter system. The ideology informing this process was one of civilizing, Christianizing and colonizing the primitive vacancy

that was Australia. This was to be followed by the natural development and progress of the Colony in a British mould.

In this context the view trade’s function can be seen as basically propagandistic. The photographs may appear to be simple documents of Adelaide’s major new buildings; its handsome, well laid out thoroughfares; its busy port; and its picturesque, pastoral hinterlands. Their job, however, was to proselytize the Colony of South Australia back in Europe. They present South Australia as a potential space: empty, but ripe. The photographs were initially read within the rhetoric of the ‘New World’, one awakening from dormancy to activity, flowering from wilderness to a garden, growing from primi-tivism to civilization, and converting from paganism to Christianity: a world strange, but slowly and systematically transforming itself into a simulacrum of Europe. The archival images used in this project were originally invitations to participate in this transformation. They were forward looking, taken and sold to aid the teleological thrust of South Australia into prosperity, from the past to the future.

However, once embedded in the archives of the Mortlock library their forward thrust is halted. They become markers lodged in the past. Their meaning is placed on auction to the various users of the Library. Perhaps they become a nostalgic image for a picture postcard or a calendar, perhaps hard evidence for a thesis on architectural style, perhaps even part of the artistic vision of Samuel Sweet or Ernest Gall. Or, as in this case, they become a point of reference, one terminus of a joy-ride through time.

The spectator’s gaze travels on a photographic time-shuttle as it flicks from the archival to the contemporary image and back again, comparing this detail to that. The two terminuses share many characteristics. Each is, of course, of the same geographical location, and each depends on the other for its presence on the gallery wall. But more importantly, even though the origins and original meanings of the archival images lie outside the Project, they are now just as dependent on it as the contemporary, commissioned images for the potential readings they may make available to us.

However in this neat symmetry there is one wild card. The authors of the older images were undistinguished, even anonymous artisans. Simply two more names from the general category of ‘Nineteenth Century Photographer’. To maintain appropriate, scientifically neutral conditions for the Project, to

minimize the variables in the experiment, similarly artisanal photographers should have been chosen to carry out the rephotography. In fact six artist photographers were com­missioned, complete with all their fierce independence and restlessly individual styles. They were chosen because, like Samuel Sweet and Ernest Gall were in their time, they are the State’s foremost photographers. But their work is the product of an art discourse, rather than the commercial discourse in which Sweet and Gall were leaders. Artists and not, say, South Australia’s leading commercial or postcard and calendar photographers were chosen to participate, even though the latter are the true inheritors of the tradition of Sweet and Gall —the popular circulation of images of a picturesque and prosperous State.

This ambiguity of purpose within the Project reveals a more fundamental ambiguity within photography itself. Photography, as we all know, is a mechanical art, combining the discourses of ‘objective truth’ and ‘artistic vision’ in an uneasy alliance. It is precisely this alliance which has allowed South Australia Rephotographed to have a dollar each way, to invest in both the supposed impartiality of photographic truth and the privileged subjective impressions of the photographic artist. Within the seamless, symmetrical enclosure of the Project one redeems the other. The divergent discourses of historical fact and artistic truth are bonded together in an unassailable unit of mutual validation.

This monogamous pair-bonding asserts another neat symmetry for the two types of author involved in the Project —the artist and the artisan. Each becomes the privileged Voice of their time. Because an individualist personality is denied the anonymous artisan of the past their photographs attain a Positivist truth as historical artefacts. Like archeological relics they become passive ciphers standing in for a complete culture — mute, elliptical documents unproblematically containing, but not exceeding, all our assumptions about their historical period. However the present is not as complete, or as containable as the past. It automatically exceeds any single images attempts to contain it. Here the individualist, author­itative voice of the artist is privileged — blessed with perspicacity and acuity. Within the symmetrical terms of the Project these two privileged voices — the emblematic, artisanal voice of the past and the acute, artistic voice of the present —are married.

THE ARCHIVE OF ELAPSATIONS The Project is, in a sense, not so much an independent artistic or historiographic statement derived from an archive as a subset of that archive. The Mortlock Library has been extensively searched, and the historical images carefully selected by the Project’s director. However they were chosen solely on the basis of their amenability to rephotography. Images were chosen if they aesthetically appealed to contemporary photo-

graphic tastes, if it was physically possible to re-locate am. re-photograph them, and if this rephotography would evince the feeling of substantial historical change. The criteria for selection was primarily the efficiency with which the images would operate within the Project’s time-shuttle mechanism, rather than any specific social, cultural or historical arguments they might make. (Nor were the images selected to describe any particular photographer’s oeuvre, or any particularly photo­graphic style or concern, as has been the case in similar projects carried out in the United States.) They have simply been transferred from one totalizing system — the archive — to another — the South Australia Rephotographed Project.

However this subset of the larger archive is not an archive of images so much as an archive of ‘elapsations’ — the time-shuttle between twinned images. It is an archive not of clearly authored interpretations of reality, but of immutable, trans­cendent lines between moments of time — ‘now’ and ‘then’. As spectators we no longer read historical writings, but seem to experience History itself. The frictionless connection between two instants valorizes the Historical Moment as Truth. This new archive structures itself as a Positivist entity, dealing only in facts, denying variant readings, and placing absolute faith in the self-evidentiality of perceptual experience.

In the presence of this ‘archive of elapsations’ we feel something like the same dumb awe we feel before a dinosaur’s footprint. It is an awe that lies outside knowledge, created by the immediate presence of unconscionable oceans of time, and the aura of proximate distance.

But all ineffable experiences remain embedded in the social. They are produced within institutions such as the church, theatre, gallery or museum. Our audience with the dinosaur’s footprint comes courtesy of the intersection of the science of paleontology and the institution of the museum. The South Australia Rephotographed Project’s legitimating discourses are History and Art. Its supporting institutions are the gallery, Library archive and, more pervasively, the Australian Bicentennial Authority.

The Bicentenary was initially intended to celebrate a nationalistic, trans-class, trans-cultural unity, grounded in the supposedly a-historical verities of shared national ‘character’ and ‘experience’. Recently such celebrations have become the site of conflict, centred on Aboriginal Land Rights, but also including charges of cynical party-political opportunism.

The Official Bicentennial Celebration is essentially a process of erasure and conflation: the erasure of social and cultural difference and oppression, and the conflation of variant histories — British, Aboriginal and Immigrant — into a normative historical narrative. The anti-Bicentennial protests are essentially attempts at re-inscription and re-incision: the re-introduction of repressed historical events into the normative flow of the dominant historical narrative, the re-assertion of fundamental social and cultural differences, and the public proclamation of continuing inequalities and oppressions.

It is in this context that the true Janus-like character of the ‘archive of elapsations’ reveals itself. The historical images proudly looked forward, towards us, for their fulfilment in unified progress and stable prosperity. The contemporary images nervously look back, from uncertainty of identity and conflict of interest, into an unchangeable past where stability and meaning can perhaps be found within an original, historical truth. The twinned images stare each other in the face, what have they been allowed to see?

READING REPHOTOGRAPHY The structure of the Project tends to work for the processes of historical erasure and conflation. Although archival images of Aborigines were not deliberately excluded from the Project, none were found that were suitable for rephotography. However, once absent from the archival images they are excluded from the rephotographs. They remain absent from the Project’s history, but their absence is now a glaring one. It becomes a shadowy presence. Aborigines were at best quaint anachronisms to the view trade’s white clientele. They were the remnants of the pre-historic, potential space of Australia, the civilization and pastoralization of which the images recorded. Now their absence from the Project underlines their very survival of this genocidal history, as well as their prior ownership of ‘Terra Nullius’.

Two essential questions must be asked of all archival photographs: what meanings did they produce when they were originally published? What meanings can we produce from them now? Rephotography may redouble the indexical power of the photograph, and it may record superficial changes in the environment, but it is basically a historically passive activity. It does not, in itself, interrogate the original function of the archival images, nor does it seem to provide a fruitful enunciative context in which new readings may be produced. Because it places its faith in photographic self-evidentiality it is only through irony and disfunction that readings, outside the thrill of seeing time pass before our very eyes, can be made. However on closer examination these ironies and disfunctions fertilize the ‘archive of elapsations’, allowing unexpected readings to grow in the cracks between its temporal poles.

For instance one pervasive irony seems to confound our assumptions about the steady progress of history. Many of the contemporary photographs, particularly those of coastal and rural towns, have a leisurely nostalgic air to them, compared with the strenuous bustle of the archival images. This reversal of our normal conception of the respective ‘pace’ of the past and the present ironically underscores the decay of many South Australian industries.

The Project seems to record the replacement of commerce


with recreation as the prime picturable outdoor activity. Economic activity has now largely disappeared from the picturable — absorbed into computer circuitry, or hidden within unintelligible robotic functions; whilst recreation has come out from the parlour and away from the occasional picnic to almost totally define the space of the outdoors.

In the nineteenth century the outdoors was synonymous with economic production — farming, grazing, timber-getting, railway and steamer trade, mining, etc. The productive system mapped the outdoors. Roads, railways, sea-ways, ports and jetties all had primarily economic meanings within nineteenth century visual culture. Now the outdoors is synonymous with recreation — swimming, boating, sightseeing, bushwalking etc. Recreation maps the outdoors. Surf beaches, fishing jetties, marinas, highways and national parks all have primarily recreational meanings within contemporary visual culture.

The many new readings the project does make available are produced not so much when the contemporary photo­graphers dutifully follow the scientific guidelines of the Project, as when they deviate from them. Six artists may have been chosen for the Project in order to encode the two discourses of photography — objective truth and artistic vision — within its structure, but it is precisely their precocious artistry which saves the Project from a relentless scientism that would otherwise be stultifying.

Each artist has brought varying degrees of historical accuracy to their rephotography. Some, for instance Martin Smith and Alan Cruickshank, have been scrupulous in their detailed research, but have been thwarted at the last moment in their attempts to find that magical ‘exact same spot’. They have discovered the limits of even the photograph’s indexical power and have been reduced to the tentative nomination of a particular spot as ‘the spot’ within a range of relative uncertainty. (Very much in the manner of a physicist who is unable to locate the sub-atomic building blocks of matter with certainty, and can only theoretically predict their presence.) And, of course, in nominating, from a range of possible spots, the one spot which is to bear all the indexical magic of photographic time-travel, matters of personal taste — which reside in the photograph’s symbolic modality — must inevitably be crucial. Yet hitherto the whole complex of reasons why a particular view is chosen by a particular photographer at a particular historical and cultural juncture were excluded from the Project. Their re-appearance, even as a disfunction, opens up a space for the spectator to critically insert themself between the bonded images: why was that spot chosen and not another?

Another major disfunction occurs around the issue of the disposition of human figures within the various views. Unlike buildings or topographical features, passers-by have to be directed by the photographer to adopt certain positions within the overall scene.

The original photographers were making architectural and topographical views, they weren’t making sociological documents. People were subordinate to the scene, which was generally chosen to emphasise depth and scale. If onlookers were present at the time of the photograph’s execution they may have been included, but only as figures to further articulate the spectator’s sense of ‘view’: they were either indicators of scale, surrogate spectators, or perhaps evidence of a sober, industrious citizenry.

The scenes the artist photographers approached were predetermined by the archival images, but the directions they gave the inevitable onlookers were left up to their culturally and historically specific taste and judgement, and their interpretation of the ‘rules’ of the Project. Mark Kimber often directed onlookers to pose in exactly the same positions as the figures in the archival images. But, ironically, this obviously theatrical connection with the past reads as somehow fraudulent amidst so much indexical verisimilitude, thereby applying the brakes to the photographic time-shuttle.

Photographing passers-by as just that, passers-by, rankled with some photographers. The archival photograph’s dour descriptive views, arranged around the Claudian perspectival scemas favoured by nineteenth century photographers, were not to the taste of the contemporary artists who cut their teeth on the planar compositional strategies of twentieth century Modernism. To simply allow the figures to be caught where they stood would, for them, result in an image totally devoid of personal significance. Stephanie Valentin and Mark Kimber solved the problem by referring back to their personal photographic styles and introducing figures in the foreground of the scene, thus producing a kind of hybrid rephotograph/ sociological portrait. Both artists have been at pains to place markers of contemporaneity — ghetto-blasters, surf-mats, etc — in their rephotographs. Yet, once more, in an image charged with temporal flux such deliberate sociological declarations on the part of the artist photographers appear oddly gratuitous.

Two artists, Ian North and Fiona Hall, opted out of these irresolvable dilemmas by totally refusing the Project’s scientism and instead applying the ‘spirit’ of the project to their individual oeuvres.

Fiona Hall extended the interventions of Valentin and Kimber but couched her photographs entirely within the theatrical, creating tableaus based on early twentieth century snapshots. Her twinned images become humanist allegories, playing off the unchanging, casual ambience of ‘people at leisure’ against the radical changes to their dress and leisure time activities in the intervening years. She thereby asserts a behavioural commonality which transcends the historical particularity of social habits. A nationalistic commonality is further celebrated in another image where a family, replete with Anglo-Saxon members, is replaced by a family identically


replete with ‘multi-cultural’ members (including an Aboriginal boy). Basic familial norms are asserted over the cultural diversification of the Australian nation, which is now, allegorically, one big family.

Ian North’s combination of three South Australian landscapes, one each by Hans Heysen, Harold Cazneaux, and himself, are not concerned with topographical change through time. Rather they engage with the historical process through which a picturing system developed in the 1900s to 1930s becomes the most pervasively popular image of ‘South Australia’. The landscape paintings of Heysen, perhaps South Australia’s best known artist, and the Pictoralist photographs of Cazneaux, have become emblematic of South Australia’s ‘rugged north’. Ian North’s quasi-expressionist overlay of brush work visually links the three images. It also intervenes in the pictorial self-sufficiency of each landscape, flirting with the historical contingency of all picturing systems, even those which, by virtue of History, have acquired their own meta­phorical overlay.

The work produced by the six artists commissioned by South Australia Rephotographed has far exceeded the terms within which it was initially conceived. The sheer intoxication of time-travel remains, but in addition the archive of elapsations becomes a fertile terrain which, through irony and disfunction, is capable of producing many variant, even contradictory readings. The Project was inspired by photography’s privileged intimacy with the past, it attempted to contain history within time and the photograph within truth. It was bound to fail. But it is precisely within its failure, through the historical mobility and semiotic plurality of all photographs, that its success can be found.

Martyn Jolly

1.  G. C. Henderson. The Archives Department of South Australia.

(An appeal on behalf of the Board of Governors of the Public Library, Museum, and Art Gallery of South Australia to all who have in their possession original documents relating to the history of South Australia). Adelaide. 1920. Thanks to Margy Burn of the Mortlock Library for this reference.

2.  Allan Sekula. Photography Between Labour and Capital. In
Mining Photographs and other Picture 1948-1968. Nova Scotia
College of Art and Design.


Art from Archives

‘Art from Archives’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martyn Jolly

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

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

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

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

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

Photography and an Australian indigenous spirituality

‘Contemporary Australian Indigenous Photography’, lecture at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection, University of Virginia, USA, 2004.

Recently there has been a flowering of Australian indigenous photography, mostly by urban Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Before the 1980s there were very few active indigenous photographers—Mervyn Bishop is virtually the only example. During the course of the eighties, as Bishop’s own career came to be recognised[1], a few other indigenous photographers also came to prominence: most spectacularly Tracey Moffatt, but also Michael Riley, Brenda Croft and Ricky Maynard.[2] But in the 1990s there was a veritable explosion.[3] There was also a general change in the style of indigenous art photography: away from a relatively straightforward documentary style, and towards a more postmodern, theoretically savvy, ‘art school’ style.[4]

This explosion parallels similar explosions of urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creativity in painting, film and theatre. But more importantly it also parallels a growth in indigenous history telling, much of which relied on archival photographs.[5] As well, this explosion accompanied a ratcheting up of the pitch of popular debate about indigenous issues that happened in the late eighties and early nineties about our ethical responsibility to the history and memory of race relations in Australia. Media debates and court cases about land rights, the British legal doctrine of terra nullius and the stolen generation planted a specific array of images in our collective visual consciousness: barefooted kids in orphanages, Aboriginal ‘murderers’ in chains, and anthropological portraits.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, given the legal framework in which the debates took place and the media imagery which accompanied it, that contemporary urban indigenous photography is characterised by two things: a wordiness, a play or struggle with the weight of words — both English and indigenous; and the re-use of old photographs — both historical documents and family snapshots.

Virtually all indigenous photographers have, at some time or other, re-used old photographs: Leah King-Smith, Brook Andrew, Rea[6], Julie Gough, Fiona Foley and the painter Gordon Bennett have all directly copied and re-used archival museum and gallery photographs; Fiona Foley, the early Tracey Moffatt[7] and Darren Siwes have renegotiated their relationship to these ‘received’ images by some kind of performative response in the present; Brenda Croft, Destiny Deacon and Gordon Bennett have directly re-used family snapshots in their work; and received styles or retro atmospheres have also been evoked latterly by Tracey Moffatt, Destiny Deacon and Brenda Croft.

This is not unique to indigenous photography. Old photographs, both personal and historic, and retro atmospheres, both oppressive and kitsch, haunt contemporary photography globally. In particular migrant artists have used old photographs to talk about their dislocation from the past and their, at least partial, alienation from a present which still marginalises their heritage. Many settled white artists also re-use old photographs in the 1980s to talk about general issues of post colonialism in Australia and elsewhere. But then, today everybody is dislocated from their past. It is part of our general millennial condition in which we have been cast adrift by the multitude of twentieth century geopolitical diasporas, and muffled by mediating technologies which make historical consciousness and collective memory vicarious experiences.[8]

Indigenous photography is a more politically intense instance of this general phenomenon. Certainly few peoples have been so brutally dislocated from their past as Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. And they have long used photography both symbolically and forensically to find their past. Many indigenous narratives of historical discovery start with family snapshots. And several Australian museums now take a proactive role in using their collections to re-forge individual historical connections. For instance the South Australian Museum’s Aboriginal Community and Family History Unit helps Aboriginal people learn more about their families and communities using photographs originally taken by Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdsell and held in the Museum’s Anthropology Archives. [9]

Coming to terms with history: Lorraine Hunter catalogues photographs at the Berendt Museum, Picture Megan Lewis, The Australian, 14/7/99 p44.

However the irony is that unlike a white person using family snaps as aide memoires at a family reunion, or historical images as forensic genealogical clues, indigenous seekers after their family history are often using anthropological photographs that were not made to document individuals, but to identify anthropological types; and not as systematic social records, but as fragmented scientific specimens. They were originally taken not to confirm historical presence, but to file away an archival record in order to posthumously confirm the historical extinction of the original. It is this bitter irony that makes the symbolic use of old photographs in urban indigenous art, and the forensic use of old photographs by Aboriginal people of the stolen generation, more prevalent than migrant or mainstream uses of old photographs.

In the late eighties and early nineties Gordon Bennett was making paintings such as Tryptych, 1989, one section of which, titled Requiem, superimposed the geometric lines of three perspectival pyramids ‘shooting’ towards an image of Trucanini derived from the well know C.A. Woolley photograph of 1866. The image was made spectral and degraded by a process which looks like multiple photocopying. But to Gordon Bennett even perspective itself is political

[P]erspective may be seen as symbolic of a certain kind of power structure relating to a particular European world view … Aborigines caught in this system of representation remain ‘frozen’ as objects within the mapped territory of a European perceptual grid.[10]

Lately anthropological portraits has been held up by indigenous artists as not only the theoretical paradigm of colonial attempts at genocide, but also as acts of violence technically akin to, and instrumentally part of, that very process of that attempted genocide.

Thus Rea used archival photographs of aboriginal domestic servants to talk about her own grandmother’s life. And Fiona Gough domesticates and passifies the residual power of archival photographs by engulfing them in granny’s fluffy slippers.

The photographs used by urban indigenous photographers are not monuments, because they do not commemorate a historical closure on the past. In a way they are anti-monuments, images of unquiet ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves. Their re-use attempts to capture a feeling of active dialogue with the past, a two way corridor through time, almost a voodoo quality, or a sense of New Age channelling. Brenda Croft in her Barthesian meditation on nineteenth century colonial Aboriginal photographs “Laying Ghosts To Rest”, comes closest to articulating this feeling. She allows herself the indulgence of retroactively investing the agency of political resistance in the portraits when she says:

Images like these have haunted me since I was a small child and … [and] were instrumental in guiding me to use the tools of photography in my work. … The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest. [11]

Leah King-Smith. Untitled (4/17), Cibachrome photograph, 1.2m x 1.2m. 1991

One of the first indigenous photographers to receive unexpected international success with a series that re-used old photographs was Leah King-Smith. Her exhibition Patterns of Connection, 1992, travelled nationally and internationally. In her large deeply coloured ‘photo-compositions’ anthropological  photographs were liberated from the State Library of Victoria to be superimposed as spectral presences on indigenous landscapes. In the catalogue the process was described as allowing:

Aboriginal people [to] flow into the land, into space reclaimed for them by the photographer … From the flaring of velvety colours and forms, translucent ghosts appear within a numinous world.[12]

Clare Williamson describes how King-Smith pictorially, rather than rhetorically, invests her original images with the same ability Brenda Croft feels to project the past into the present.

It is instructive to examine King-Smith’s imagery alongside the historical images which are her sources. These small black and white photograph’s ‘contain’ their aboriginal subjects as objects which can be held in the hand, collected, stored and viewed at will. Their placement of the figure within a fabricated European (or a constructed ‘native’ one), and set well back from the picture plane, creates a gulf between viewer and subject, and an inequitable relationship in favour of the viewer. King-Smith reverses the order. Large colour saturated images ‘impress’ the viewer. The figures are brought right to the picture plane, seemingly extending beyond the frame and checking our gaze with theirs.[13]

Brook Andrew invests the bodies of his nineteenth century subjects—who he releases from the closet of the past by copying their images from the archive of the nineteenth century postcard photographer Charles Kerry—not only with a libidinous body image inscribed within the terms of a contemporary ‘queer’ masculinity, but also with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as Sexy and Dangerous, 1996, I Split Your Gaze, 1997 and Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr, [I see you], 1998. These works attempt to reverse the relationship of subject and object in the nineteenth century colonial portrait around the axis of the trajectory of the gaze, and to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from history itself.

Brook Andrew, Sexy and dangerous, digital phootgraph, 1996

Charles Kerry, sheet of copied photographs, 1880s-1890s, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Even when the contemporary Aboriginal artist’s body ritualistically and purgatorially takes on colonial subjugation, the historic photograph and, more significantly, the alignment of gazes, is still the vitalising channel of connection. In the work of Brook Andrew the trans-historical objectifying gaze is simply reflected straight back to the present contingent moment to be immediately re-inscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse. However, in contrast, in Fiona Foley’s re-enactments of the colonial photographs of her Badtjala ancestors, Native Blood, 1994, the gaze is stopped dead in its tracks by Foley’s own obdurate, physical body. To the post-colonial theorist Olu Oguibe:

In Foley’s photographs the Other makes herself available, exposes herself, invites our gaze if only to re-enact the original gaze, the original violence perpetrated on her. She does not disrupt this gaze nor does she return it. She recognises that it is impossible to return the invasive gaze, that what purports to be a returned gaze is only a mimicry. Instead Foley forces the gaze to blink, exposes it to itself.[14]

Fiona Foley, Native blood, 1994.

Tosca Studios, Candelo, West Queensland Aboriginal, c1900, Queensland Museum.

In all of these contemporary uses of the colonial photograph the intention of the original historic photographer is evacuated. We find ourselves in his empty shoes, shuttling back and forth along a two way channel formed along the alignment of the two interlocking gazes of sitter and viewer, object and subject, past and present. Certainly, to at least some extent, this sense of channelling pervades all the contemporary uses of old photographs. But the indigenous use of old photographs gives this channeling a different political valency to equivalent uses of old photographs by migrant or long-term settler photographers.

In their book Uncanny Australia Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs use Australian ghost stories to describe the uncanniness of Australia’s relationship to indigenous spirituality. In postcolonial terms they see hauntings as a productive occurrence:

‘Ghosts’ simply could not function in a climate of sameness, in a country which fantasises about itself as ‘one nation’ or which imagines a utopian future of ‘reconciliation’ in which … all the ghosts have been laid to rest. But neither can they function in a climate of nothing but difference, where the one can never resemble the other, as in a ‘divided’ nation. A structure in which sameness and difference solicit each other, spilling over each other’s boundaries only to return again to their respective places, moving back and forward in an unpredictable, even unruly manner—a structure in which sameness and difference embrace and refuse each other simultaneously. : this is where the ‘ghosts’ which may cause us to ‘smile’ or to ‘worry’ continue to flourish.[15]

Aboriginal ghosts remind Australia that there is unfinished business. Gelder and Jacobs quote Raymond Williams who has made a distinction between the archaic and the residual in the contemporary experience of the past, the ‘residual’ is “still active in the political process”. Anthropological indigenous photographs cannot yet be monuments because they are still left over from the past, residual to history.[16]

The idea of ghosts soliciting the fickle memory of a too self-absorbed, too quickly forgetful later generation also scans across to the role of Anzac ghosts in Australian collective memory. This cross-scan to a twentieth century settler spectral tradition of the Anzac myth is implicitly referred to a series of photographs by Aboriginal photographer Darren Siwes taken from 1999 to 2002, which have also proved to be extraordinarily popular with curators nationally and internationally. By ghosting himself standing implacably in front of various buildings in a series of night photographs taken around Adelaide, he refers to an indigenous haunting, certainly; but in many images he is ghosted standing to attention whilst wearing a generic suit, so he also evokes the feeling of being surveilled by a generalised, truculent Australian masculinity — exactly the same feeling that an Anzac memorial statue gives.

Darren Siwes, Church 1, 2000.

New Agers have often appropriated Aboriginal spirituality for use in their own impromptu spiritual systems, and at the same time contemporary Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and New Agers are occasionally fellow travellers.[17]  Leah King-Smith is perhaps the most explicitly New Age of contemporary Aboriginal artists. She concludes her artist’s statement by asking that: “… people activate their inner sight to view Aboriginal people.”[18]   Her work animistically gives the museum photographs she re-uses a spiritualist function. Many of her fellow Indigenous artists have criticised her for being too generalist, for not knowing the stories of the people whose photographs she used, and not asking the permission of the traditional owners of the land she makes them haunt. But, by referring to Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Anne Marsh describes this as a ‘strategic essentialism’. She says:

There is little doubt, in my mind, that Leah King-Smith is a kind of New Age evangelist and many serious critics will dismiss her work on these grounds. Others will point to the artist’s misplaced desire to represent Aboriginal Australia: to talk for the subaltern, as it were. But I am interested in why the images are so popular and how they tap into a kind of cultural imaginary and use the mythology of photography’s syntax … to conjure the ineffable. …  Leah King-Smith’s figures resonate with a constructed aura: the skin which is shed onto the photographic plate is given an enhanced ethereal quality through the use of mirrors and projections. The ‘mirror with a memory’ comes alive as these ancestral ghosts, already simulacra in their Anglo costumes, seem to drift through the landscape as a seamless version of nineteenth century spirit photography.[19]

This sense of Aboriginal ancestors, re-born as spiritually replete by the demands of their descendents, and liberated by contemporary Aboriginal artists to drift through a numinous landscape, is also present in the work of Michael Riley. In the photographic series Sacrifice, 1993, and Flyblown, 1998, Riley used objects like crucifixes as both literal and allegorical symbols of mission-life oppression. But in a later series, Cloud, 2000, these symbols have taken on a more autonomous spirituality. They have lost some of their grounding in past historical circumstances, but gained access to a New Age style symbolic bricolage. In Brenda Croft’s words:

[The have] shifted from terra firma to other-worldly locations, including the paranormal.[20]

The role of performance is also important to these photographs. In discussing the Bringing Them Home report on the Stolen Generation of 1997, John Frow comments that the report supplements the standard historiographic citation of the past with collaged-in fragments of first-person testimony. He quotes De Certeau who contrasts collage with historiographic citation. Citation allows the past to lend an effect of reality that validates historical knowledge in the present, through citation the present makes the past intelligible, but also separates past from present. Collage on the other hand gives the past direct affectivity and  answerability within the present. In the Stolen Generations inquiry the unmediated, cathartic, performed testimony of witnesses allows the past to report on the present, just as the present is supposedly meant to be soberly reporting on the past.[21] In the debate between the so-called ‘black armband’ and ‘white blindfold’ view of the history of white Australia’s contact with indigenous Australians the ‘admissibility’ of evidence which is not forensically factual, but based in oral history, myth and even the numinous, is one major point of contention. For instance a revisionist article disparagingly quotes the experience of an  anthropologist Dr Bruce Shaw, called as an expert witness in a Native title case: “I … experienced a shift of awareness when reading some of the longer passages [to the court]. At times I felt like those men were speaking through me. That is not to suggest that I have the abilities of a spiritualist medium; it means that I was experiencing the same sort of responses as some of my listeners … when such narratives are recited in court the subjective, which includes the metaphysical and at times the numinous, slips into proceedings.” Quoted in Rod Moran, “Was there a massacre at Bedford Downs?”, Quadrant, November 2002.

Similarly, in their re-use of old photographs, indigenous photographers do not see themselves as citing them, or ‘appropriating’ them in the standard ironic mode of postmodernist quotation, so much as collaging them into the present, using them to demand an answer from the present. They are trying not to so much appropriate them across culture, as collage them across time. They ‘re-perform’ the old photograph in the present in order to generate this sense of temporal collage.

It might be this urgently felt need to re-perform the historic photograph in the present which, for me, gives many of these photographs their overwrought feeling. They seem histrionic, melodramatic, and pictorially overproduced — as though urban aboriginal photographers have to try very hard to ritualistically get in touch with their ancestors. They use an excessive bricolage of special effects verging on the banal to generate a sense of connection. Brenda Croft, for instance, in In My Father’s House, and In My Mother’s Garden, 1998, overlays family snaps of her father, mother and grandmother with repeatedly floating words like ‘bereft’ and ‘weeping’, in multiple layers of Photoshop, in cursive fonts, at different colours, sizes and levels of transparency. Certainly these literally over-wrought surfaces were partially a result of the acute personal grief these works deal with,[22] but this quality also characterizes her later work such as Irrisistable/irresistible, 2000, as well as the work of many other indigenous artists with a more intergenerational yearning for the lost ancestors they never knew.

Brenda L. Croft, Don’t go kissing at the garden gate (Love is blind but the neighbours aint), 1998.

Brenda L. Croft, My mother recognised the man in the little boy, 1998.

In the context of Australia’s fraught race politics, an important aspect of the affectivity of these works for white viewers is the supplementation of the viewer’s own sense of shame—our desire (or otherwise) to say ‘sorry’ for the crimes of our ancestors, which we bring to the image. The imprecatory tone of many of the works I have discussed is best understood in that context. For instance shortly after being elected to office Australia’s new conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, discussed Aboriginal reconciliation and native land tenure with the populist magazine Who Weekly.

Most Australians—now don’t misunderstand this—most Australians grow up not having any contact with Aboriginal people. Now, that’s not their fault but equally they shouldn’t sort of be blamed for something in which they played no part. Aborigines were terribly treated in the nineteenth century, I understand that, and in many cases into the twentieth century. I accept that completely and it ought to be taught in schools and understood. I understand all that, but if you grow up in a neighbourhood where you didn’t have any contact with Aborigines—and that was the lot of most Australians, I mean I didn’t have any contact with Aboriginal kids when I grew up because there weren’t any living in my suburb. In some country areas and a few urban areas there were. And that was it. Now to say to me and to say to my kids and to say of my parents, who never treated them poorly, to say you’re all to blame and you should apologise, it’s something people just can’t get a handle on and they think it’s odd.[23]

This kind of thinking allocated to the indigenous community a deracinated sense of history and an experiential forgetting which inevitably weakened the indigenous stake in Australia’s future. If Howard’s view—that any historical processes affecting the Aboriginal community which were not personally experienced may be discounted in favour of a synchronic assessment of social need—were applied across the board, then all of the structures he holds dear would collapse. The bonds of nationhood, the Westminster system, and the common law all rely on the diachronic transmission of a sense of ownership and responsibility not only directly, person to person, but also indirectly through collective assumptions and investments which are shared and transmitted experientially—narratively and imagistically.

Indeed the Prime Minister’s sense of his own statesmanship is closely interwoven with his mission to keep Anzac memory alive.[24] This also requires an affective remembering where those who come from the past are seemingly brought up to witness the present. For instance Anzac rituals such as the Minute’s Silence or the Dawn Service encourage us to homeopathically re-experience long past historical moments. The sacred phrase ‘Lest We Forget’ warns us against letting the experience of war slip away.

In Australia there has not only not been a social and historical reconciliation between black and white, there has also not been a reconciliation between the two mnemonic traditions. Will they co-exist? Will they merge? Will one extinguish the other? These questions remain stalled in history. This background of fraught race politics and conflicting mnemonic traditions goes at least part way to explaining the over-wrought, imprecatory tone of much contemporary urban Aboriginal art, as well as the curatorial success which has greeted the ghosts it has called forth.

Both the well established Anzac mnemonic tradition, and the emergent indigenous mnemonic tradition, seem to be developing along very similar structural and iconographic lines, both incorporating at various times spectral photographic imagery. In both photography’s special effects, its power to not just reproduce the real, but to conjure apparitions and laminate them to the present, are called upon.

Contemporary indigenous artists have politically deployed the spiritual, spectral magic of photographs of their ancestors on a wide scale. This strategic deployment has a higher valency than standard appropriation because the photographs are being reactivated to call the present to account. But are these precious old photographs, whilst being made politically active in the present, kept in a dialectical relationship to it? After all, photographs of long dead Aborigines are, in fact, merely insubstantial ghosts, they are not the Aborigines themselves. Are contemporary indigenous photographers, such as for instance the sassy and savvy Brook Andrew with his ‘sexy and dangerous’ nineteenth century aboriginal men, hijacking the past for their own strategic politico/aesthetic ends? In their attempts to break through the historical impasse that tragically freezes contemporary Australian political discourse, are they, not unlike a supplicant to a spirit photographer, attempting to collapse time itself, by co-opting the past into a fantasy of presentness that risks being banally synchronic?

Lately the spectral Aborigine has become part of mainstream iconography. For instance a popular book summarising the result of the Royal Commission into the stolen generation superimposes the face of an aboriginal child over the ruins of a mission. And Aborigines are regularly photographed by press photographers holding anthropological portraits as defiant talismans. A recent memorial to Reconciliation was controversial because it asked us to remember aboriginal children removed to missions primarily as happy, cricket playing youngsters. So recently some Indigenous artist have upped the ante and have complicated this convenient trope of haunting.

Fiona Foley, for instance, has recently photographed herself with native Americans not, I think, to promote some banal idea of a pan-global ‘nation’ of First Peoples, but more to overtly and cheekily experiment with a kind of post-colonial drag, to lay authoritative claim to a bricolage not stalled in a perpetual relationship to nineteenth century ancestors and mired historical processes.

Brenda Croft, too, in simply reproducing Kodachrome slides from the 1950s of her father in the series  Man About Town, allows them to maintain their ineffable distance from us in the present. There is plenty of space left for us to fantasise and speculate about his life when he was a young single man, before he met the artist’s mother, before he knew that he had a twin sister, and before he found his mother from whom he had been taken as a baby.

[1] In Dreams: Mervyn Bishop Thirty Years Photography 1969-1990, curated by Tracey Moffatt, Australian Centre for Photography, 1991.

[2]  The first group exhibition of Aboriginal photographers, Naidoc Week Aboriginal and Islander Phototgraphers Exhibition, was held in Sydney in 1986. See an exhibition review by Tracey Moffatt, Photofile, Summer 1986.

[3]  National Gallery of Australia,  Re-take: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Phootgraphy, 1998-1999.

[4] [Gellatly, 1999 #397]

[5].[Langton, 1983 #333] Catherine De Lorenzo, ‘Delayed Exposure: Contemporary Aboriginal Photography’, Brenda Croft ‘Blak Lik Mi’,  Art In Australia, 1997, 35, 1,

[6]  Look Who’s calling the Kettle Black, 1992.

[7] Some Lads. 1986

[8]. Andreas Huyssen, Twilight  Memories: Marking time in a culture of amnesia, New York and London, Routledge, 1995, , Introduction pp3-9

[9]See also the Berndt Collection in the Western Australian Museum, and the exhibition Portraits of our Elders by the Queensland Museum. Michael Aird, Portraits of our Elders, Brisbane, Queensland Museum, 1993. And[Poignant, 1996 #51]

[10]. Gordon Bennett, ‘Aesthetics and Iconography: an artist’s approach’, Aratjara: Art of the First Australians, Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 1993,

[11]. Brenda L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, Portraits of Oceania, Judy Annear, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997, p9, 14

[12] [Phipps, 1992 #401]

[13]. Clare Williamson, ‘Leah King-Smith: Patterns of Connection’, Colonial Post Colonial, Melbourne, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, 1996, p46

[14]. Olu Oguibe, ‘Medium and Memory in the Art of Fiona Foley’, Third Text, 1995-96, Winter 1995-96, , pp58-59

[15]. Ken Gelder and Jane M.Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation, Melbourne University Press, 1998, p42

[16] Raymond Williams Dominant, Residual and Emergent”, Marxism and Literature, Oxford University Press, 1977. Quoted in. Ken Gelder and Jane M.Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation, Melbourne University Press, 1998, p18

[17]. L. R. Hiatt, ‘A New Age for an Old People’, Quadrant, 1997, 16, 337,

[18]. Leah King-Smith, ‘Statement’, Patterns of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992,

[19]. Anne Marsh, ‘Leah King-Smith and the Nineteenth century Archive’, History of Photography, 1999, 23, 2, p117

[20] [Croft, 2002 #402]

[21]. John Frow, ‘The Politics of Stolen Time’, Meanjin, 1998, 57,2,

[22]  “For the artists … photography and family histories entwine as the act of making art becomes a way of dealing with grief.” [Gellatly, 1998 #403]

[23]  [John Howard, 1996 #404]

[24]  See for instance: “Keep the Anzac fire alight”, The Australian , 26 April, 2000, p1 and  “Statesmanship forged on a fatal shore”, The Weekend Australian , 29 April-2000 , Pp3.

The Disinfected City in Australia

‘The Disinfected City in Australia’, Eugene Atget Symposium, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 25 August, 2012

Disinfected Sydney
The Panoramic, the Evidential and the Picturesque
The idea of Atget and archival delirium in Australian photography

Of course there is no antipodean Atget. The very idea is ridiculous. Any relationship drawn between a singularly exceptional photographer working in early twentieth-century Paris, the city which as the ‘capital of the nineteenth century’ was central to global shifts in urban culture, and any other photographer working far away in the colonial settler society of Australia, at the dusty extremity of a European empire, must be attenuated in the extreme.

Yet nonetheless Atget is here, and perhaps the mystique that surrounds him can be used as a lens to look afresh at some aspects of Australian photography.

The idea of Atget

Firstly what have been the reactions to Atget? The surrealists saw Atget’s photographs as suspended between fact and dream, between the prosaic and the poetic. Subsequent interpretations, particularly in the US, emphasised the prosaic, factual pole of this tension. Atget’s commercial imperatives were seen to have produced an archive of empirically authentic documents.

Walter Benjamin was attracted to Atget because his photographs thematised the spatially and temporarily liminal. Both were interested in contested and transformed spaces; and in the outmoded, which has the capacity to erupt into the present at the very moment it is consigned to history, challenging the linear distinctions between past, present and future.

In 1931 Benjamin said of Atget:

‘ … he disinfected the sticky atmosphere spread by conventional portrait photography … He cleansed this atmosphere, he cleared it; …  He sought the forgotten and the neglected, … such pictures turn reality against the exotic, romantic, show-offish resonance of the city name; they suck the aura from reality like water from a sinking ship.  … Atget almost always passed by the ‘great sights and so-called landmarks’ … the city in these pictures is swept clean like a house which has not yet found a new tenant. These are the sort of effects with which surrealist photography established a healthy alienation between environment and man, opening the field for a politically educated sight, in the face of which all intimacies fall in favour of the illumination of details.’

Five years later Benjamin praised Atget once again for eschewing the nineteenth century portrait ritual and the romance of the human face:

To have pinpointed this new stage constitutes the incomparable significance of Atget … It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed [the streets] like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way.’

What I take from all of that is that Atget’s photographs are dreamlike, but also authentic documents. They create a ‘disinfected’ city cleansed of the cloying atmospheres of myth, and cleared of the ideology of romantic humanism. They are made up of details that need to be read with a ‘healthy alienation’, rather than contemplated within a comfortable aesthetic familiarity. They document liminal temporalities where the smooth flow of history is folded back on itself; and liminal spaces where the seamless ideologies of civic space are unpicked to reveal urban gaps and layerings.

Urban photography in Australia

During roughly the same period in which Atget was working there were three dominant modes in the picturing of Australian cities, and each I think resonates in different ways with Benjamin’s comments on Atget. The three modes are the panoramic, the evidential, and the picturesque.

The Panoramic

Colonial audiences loved panoramas, and photographers took every opportunity to take them. Charles Bayliss used Holtermann’s North Sydney Tower in 1875, the roof of the Garden Palace Exhibition Buildings in 1879, and the GPO Tower in the 1890s, as vantage points for his panoramas of the growing city. Even some of his terrestrial views were panoramic, working to extend the viewer’s eye across long and deep diagonals that led all the way to infinity down long vanishing streets which are completely delineated by the sun. In the twentieth century the American adventurer Melvin Vaniman also took a panorama of Sydney from a tethered balloon, as well as from the mast of a ship.

The Evidential

Tucked away on the far right of Vaniman’s ship-mast panorama is The Rocks area, which is the first site of the second mode of photography I want to discuss, the evidential. In 1900 the Department of Public Works assembled 300 ‘Views Taken During Cleansing Operations, Quarantine Areas’. They were taken by John Degotardi, under the supervision of the engineer George McCredie. They documented the cleansing of The Rocks area following the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in January 1900 from which 103 people died. The photographs were commissioned as evidence of dereliction to forestall possible litigation from slum landlords whose properties were to be either demolished or cleansed. The quarantined residents, unable to leave, were employed to cleanse their own streets, and to finish with whitewashing their own walls. Whitewashing had no sanitary value, but was purely a signifier of cleanliness. Degotardi himself often wore white, and often his photographs capture a face-off between cleansing official and hapless denizen of the quarantined area.  Indeed the scale of the project gives it now, in retrospect, something of the same moral force that Jacob Riis’s much more famous flash-lit reportage of New York’s slums had. Some of the basements and toilets are lit by flashlight, as Riis’s was, but Degotardi’s usual illuminant was the purifying sun angled into the backyards.

The actual identity of the photographer was only established in about 1980 by the sharp-eyed historian Max Kelly who recognized, eighty years after they were first taken, that Degotardi had exceeded his initial brief.

…  he offers us a way to know this previously unknown world rather more intimately than a literary or statistical account could provide. Here people are as they were. There is no artifice. Some are caught unawares, some are apprehensive. Others are just as interested in the photographer as he is in them. Most have only rarely, if ever, had their photographs taken. The same is true for the buildings — the terraces, shacks, doss-houses, warehouses and make-do shelters.’

In 1977 he published some of the archive in the important book A Certain Sydney which went into three printings. It began with the epigraph:

‘Most of the people pictured here are dead. Nearly all of the houses have been demolished and a number of the streets no longer exist. The book tries to resurrect an aspect of Sydney’s life which, even in its time, was largely forgotten.’

Thirty years after this statement, this period of The Rocks is now permanently remembered as part of the tourist’s heritage experience. If Max Kelly saw the collection as documents of city life, the cultural critic and artist Helen Grace saw them as documents of city politics. In a 1991 article she noted that the buildings themselves became suspects under interrogation. She claimed that many of the photographs are like mug shots, ‘portraits’ of the front of the buildings. But the buildings’ facades initially resist penetration by the official gaze. ‘This is the age of the façade’ Grace asserts, ‘a building which does not have a noble visage, a building which is hidden away from other buildings, in a side lane, for example, must have something to hide’. Therefore the official desire to see the building beyond the façade, as though unclothed, becomes almost pornographic. For Grace this penetration beyond the façade brings into view an ‘invisible city’:

[T]hat space which must be brought into existence so that the mechanisms of the modern city can begin to operate. Public health is the focal point around which revolves the impetus for discovery of the invisible city of unspeakable horrors and sanitary evils. Once the official has tentatively ventured down a side lane there is no stopping him; his curiosity is excited; he loses his fears of the inhabitants of these forbidden places. He is ready to enter the other side, the reversal of the facade.

But in Grace’s narrative the pleasure which the European bourgeoisie traditionally took in their own revulsion at the Dickensian squalor of the Other is complicated because such familiar and comfortable old-world squalor is not even supposed to exist in the modern cities of the new world. The threat posed to the optimism of the new world by the unexpected irruption of the old world put additional pressure on the photograph to be proof of a social evil. Therefore, in an emerging evidentiary paradigm, the photograph combined with writing so that they reinforced each other, the photograph adopted an anti-aesthetic, style-free visual rhetoric, while the accompanying text adopted the status of legal eye-witness testimony. The image was able to prove the meaning of the words, and this new authority was put to immediate use by the government.

In Grace’s analysis the outbreak of the plague, and the commissioning of the photographs, was a convenient excuse for the state to not only rid the city of the disease itself, but also of certain sections of the population, in particular the Chinese, and to reclaim land from the people through an ad hoc slum reclamation program.

Shortly after her political analysis of the plague photographs Grace herself made an art series that also used photographs and legal deeds to create a polyvalent archive that documented the politics and psycho-geography of land use in inner-city Sydney. In Secret Archives of the Recent Past she counterposed spookily radiant infra-red photographs of buildings which had been the sites of now mostly forgotten political activism, with a suspended parchment palimpsest of the official property deeds and changing ownerships of the same building. To quote from this Gallery’s guide to the collection: ‘In the space between image and manuscript lie the unrecorded activities of the site — ‘the ghosts which redevelopment attempts to exorcise but can’t’, writes Grace. (p296)

If, with her ‘politically educated sight’ Helen Grace was, like Atget, more focused on the activities of a site rather than the people per se, then Max Kelly, as an historian, was more interested in the people themselves who were caught in the emulsion.  A few years after the success of A Certain Sydney he produced another important book, Faces of the Street, based on another set of albums that were also taken for evidential purposes by another photographer ,Milton Kent, under the official authorship of the City Building Surveyor, Robert Brodrick.  These were the ‘Demolition Books’, compiled by the council to record condemned properties about to be demolished.

Kelly’s new book concentrated on photographs taken over a period of just one week, in 1916, of the building to be demolished for a widening of William Street inspired by Haussman’s improvements in Paris. Milton Kent’s photographs are not only a one-week snapshot of the south side of the street, but they could be extracted from the archive and re-assembled to form a new kind of terrestrial panorama of the lost street façade, a sort of proto Google Street View.

By entering this systematic space and enlarging sections from the evidentiary photos, Kelly performs a kind of retro street photography within the archive. Writing in Photfile in 1983 he argued for photographs as a new kind of historical document, a human document which objectively recorded things other forms of record couldn’t, importantly, intimate, contingent, human things. He noted:

[I]n an endeavor to tune the reader’s eye, and to motivate his and her mind, I included enlarged details from a number of the original photographs. It is interesting to note that it has been these details, thus isolated, that readers have remembered best.’  P10

Something of the sort had been done previously within Australian photographic historiography. In Keast Burke’s 1973 book Gold And Silver, based on the 1951 discovery of a cache of Bayliss and Merlin gold-field negatives, most of the reproductions were severely cropped, while Burke also occasionally selected extreme details for enlargement — ‘emphasizing elements of human or sociological appeal’ he said. (p57). (Of course this technique had been used in documentary filmmaking since the late 1950s. Ken Burns used it heavily throughout the 1990s, and his name is now irrevocably attached to the technique.)

But back in 1983 Kelly’s book took this technique a few steps further than even Keast Burke had. Like a documentary filmmaker he used literary texts and newspaper reports to add contextual ambience to the demolition photographs which he mined for as much evocative detail as possible. For instance, even though no working prostitutes were captured in the demolition photos, there was still a section of his book about the prostitutes of William Street. It used reports from The Truth newspaper, plus poems by Henry Lawson, Mary Gilmore and Kenneth Slessor, and was illustrated, not with images of real women, but with a tiny detail of shop window dummies the ever-vigilant Kelly had spotted in one facade.

While Max Kelly was concerned with the direct resurrection of the historical past, and Grace with our political education, other more contemporary artists are concerned with a more acknowledged fictionalized and poeticized evocation of history, but one with foundations still sunk deeply into the bedrock of evidential fact found in the photographic archive nonetheless. For instance Kate Richards and Ross Gibson have quarantined 3000 photographs off from the much larger collection at the Justice and Police Museum. They regard this data base of Sydney crime scene photographs from the 1940s, 50s and 60s as a self-contained ‘world’ which, under the title Life After War Time, they have iterated into various versions by introducing new poetic texts and various algorithmic sequencing techniques. Writing in 1999 Gibson described the uncanny relationship between artist and evidentiary archive.

The archive holds knowledge in excess of my own predispositions. This is why I was attracted to the material in the first instance — because it appeared peculiar, had secrets to divulge and promised to take me somewhere past my own limitations. Stepping off from this intuition, I have to trust that the archive has occulted in it a logic, a coherent pattern which can be ghosted up from its disparate details so that I can gain a new, systematic understanding of the culture that has left behind such spooky detritus. In this respect I am looking to be a medium for the archive. I want to ‘séance up’ the spirit of the evidence….

The Picturesque — Harold Cazneaux

My third mode is the picturesque. At about the same time as Degotardi and Kent, the artistic photographer Harold Cazneaux trod the very same streets of Sydney. In 1910 he wrote an article called In and about the City with a Hand Camera. Although ostensibly a guide for other aspiring Pictorialists, it is really a very personal record of his own engagement with the streets which, he said, ‘have all the humour and pathos of life’.  However, unlike the evidentiary photographers, Cazneaux did not shoot with the cleansing sun over his shoulder, rather he shot into the sun, as well as into the mist, into the haze, into the steam and into the rain. In Cazneaux’s words this ‘[cut] down insistent detail, so that the masses and tones become more picturesque’, but it also immediately re-infected the city with an anachronistic yearning for the free-floating contemplation of a city built to a European blueprint. The article also took the reader along Cazneaux’s personal itinerary through the various areas of the city, each with its own pungent atmosphere, from the brisk CBD streets, to the smoky docks, to the bustling markets, to the steamy railway, and to finally to the secret alleys of the The Rocks. The article makes clear that while the streets do contain picturesque subject matter and artistic lighting effects waiting to be discovered by the intrepid Pictorialist, they are also resistant to the his gaze; and without the official authority of a engineer or a surveyor to back him up, the mute stand-off we have seen in the evidentiary pictures could quickly become an outright hostility that destroys the Pictorialist’s personal old world fantasy. As Cazneaux warned:

Hand and eye must work together, and to hesitate is sometimes to lose. If you are once caught in the act of presenting the camera, your work is almost invariably spoilt as expressions are not pleasant when the subjects are aware that the camera is pointing their way. It is much better to move about calmly, and knowing your camera, study any little group or street scenes. Whilst moving past, decide upon the best view point, mentally calculate the exposure and distance, adjust the shutter, stop the focusing scale. Then, returning to the chosen viewpoint, turn and bring the camera up, locate the image quickly on the finder and expose at once, with perhaps no one but yourself aware that an exposure has been made. …  A trip down to the Rocks Area and Argyle Cut will convince any worker with Pictorial imagination of what is to be had, but photography is difficult in this neighborhood. To be successful the worker should have had some experience, as any nervousness of manner and lack of tact whilst working here would only end up by being ridiculed. However go by all means and get broken in. Tact and expert manipulation of one’s camera is necessary if you wish to deal successfully with side street work in this locality. Still, the chances are that you may not like to return again.

Despite these dangers Cazneaux’s photography was part a larger genre of ‘Old Sydney’, and pretty soon a plague of artists like Sydney Ure Smith, Julian Ashton and Lionel Lindsay were congesting the streets and alleyways with their quaint and charming views.

In the 1910s and 20s Cazneaux had turned many of the negatives he exposed into pictorial gems, such as the wee little gum-bichromate print of North Sydney, which is positively putrid with old world atmospheres. However in 1948 the young photographer Laurie Le Guay, editor of Contemporary Photography magazine, saw some of these prints in Cazneauz ‘s studio. He suggested  Cazneaux make new prints for a special of the magazine. In the subsequent article Cazneaux relegates the Old Sydney of his youth to a past now decisively brushed aside by Modernism, rather than still caught in a bubble of the outmoded, and the ‘old worlded’, as it had been in 1910:

The old Sydney is changing. The March of Time with modern ideas and progress is surely brushing aside much of the old — the picturesque and romantic character of Sydney’s highways, byways and old buildings. Some still remain, hemmed in and shadowed by towering modern structures. ….

Cazneaux goes on to describe how he restored his 250, forty year-old negatives, and made new prints on modern, smooth contrastier bromide papers. Le Guay now saw the collection in documentary, historical and nationalistic terms. Once Cazneaux himself had willingly disinfected them of their Pictorialism, they became for le Guay, as Atget’s images were for others at the same time, exemplars for the Documentary movement that le Guay was promoting in Australia. He said:

[These prints] must assume the same importance as Atget’s photographs of Paris. As a document of early Sydney, they are undoubtedly the finest prints of the period, and would be a valuable acquisition for the Mitchell Library or Australian Historical Societies. Photographically, they are remarkable for their quality. With slow plates, relatively unprotected from halation, the against the light effects have exploited the range of film and paper with maximum efficiency, while Bromoil and rough textured prints have been dispensed with entirely. It is hoped that this collection may furnish an incentive for a more direct and accurate approach to photographing Australia today.

Kid Stakes

If, in the tasteful aesthetics of the Old Sydney school of the 1910s and 20s, Cazneaux, Ure Smith, Lindsay and Ashton had re-infected the slums of Sydney with the sticky atmosphere of old world anachronism, it was left to popular culture to disinfect old Sydney again. The popular children’s film Kid Stakes, made in 1927 by Tal Ordell contains an astonishing sequence that perfectly, elegantly and poetically, captures the spatial politics of Sydney in the 1920s. Based on a comic strip, the film centres on the slum kids of Woolloomooloo who play cricket and live their lives freely in front of the wharves and ships of Woolloomooloo Bay. Above them lies Potts Point, full of its posh mansions and restrictive mores. Suddenly, out of the rows of grand houses at the bottom of Victoria Street, emerges Algie Snoops, an upper class boy who yearns for the freedoms of the Wolloomooloo kids. Through the bars of his suburban prison he performs a panoramic sweep of the city across the bay, including St Mary’s cathedral. But this panorama is not a projection into the future, as Bayliss’s and Vaniman’s had been, instead Algernon is assaying a potential itinerary, just as the nervous and highly strung Harold Cazneux who, a bit like Algie, lived on the salubrious North Shore had his favourite itinerary through the city. Algie sees the kids playing, and the camera irises in. The Woolloomooloo steps dwarf him as he descends down them like a latter-day Dante, but the steps are leading him towards the salvation of the slums. Initially the slum kids taunt him, but when he proves he can fight he joins their gang, and, his velvet clothes now torn and put on backwards by the girls in the gang, he is free. He is able to lead the kids back up the steps, past a sleeping policeman on guard between the two elevations, the two classes, of Sydney, and into the wilds of Potts Point for further adventures.


By applying the lens of Atget, that is the tension between the prosaic and poetic, the descriptive and the uncanny, to what I have identified as the three modes of urban photography during the same period — the panoramic, evidentiary and picturesque — I think I have been able to identify the archive, and not the single photograph, as the key object of both photography and photographic historiography. Some photographers have re-invented their own archives within their own lifetimes; while historians have produced others, who were one anonymous functionaries, into significance. Some historians have gone into archives as resurrectionists, seeking to bring back the lives of the dead (something Atget never did); while other artists (perhaps a bit closer to Atget’s mystique) have attempted to use the residual power of archives to pick at the seams of the city and expose the spatially and temporally liminal nature of so much of Sydney. Yet all, and in this sense alone they are exactly like Atget, have been infected with the delirium of the archive.

Martyn Jolly

Dana MacFarlane , Photography at the Threshold: Atget, Benjamin and Surrealism, History of Photography 34:1, 17-28)

Short History of Photography 1931

Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936Continuum, Photogenic Papers Vol6, No 2 1991

Photofile, Winter 1983 p10.

Harold Cazneaux: ‘In and about the City with a Hand Camera’ The Australasian Photo-Review August 22, 1910:

Photofile 58, December 1999

‘Spectres from the Archive’, MESH 18, Experimenta Media Arts, Melbourne, 2005

Spectres from the Archive

The dead have been making themselves visible to the living for millennia. In Purgatory, Dante asked Virgil how it was that he was able to see the souls of the dead with whom he was speaking, while their bodies had been left behind in the grave. Virgil beckoned a spirit who replied that, just as the colours of reflected rays filled rain-filled air, so the un-resurrected soul virtually impressed its form upon the air.[1] Similarly, the ghost of Hamlet’s father was as invulnerable to blows from a weapon as the air. It was a mere image which faded at cock-crow. But, for the last several centuries, these diaphanous, insubstantial condensations of light and air have been acquiring a technological, rather than a natural, phenomenology.

In the years following the French Revolution Etienne-Gaspard Robertson terrified crowds with the first phantasmagoria show, which he staged in a convent that had been abandoned by its nuns during The Terror. He made his magic-lantern projections, of paintings of gory figures such as The Bleeding Nun, appear to be phantasmic entities by blacking out their glass backgrounds and projecting them onto stretched gauzes, waxed screens, and billows of smoke. By placing the magic-lantern on wheels, which was dollied backwards by an operator, he gave these luminous, translucent apparitions the power to suddenly loom out over the audience. At an 1825 London phantasmagoria show the impact of this effect on the audience was electric. According to an eyewitness the hysterical screams of a few ladies in the first seats of the pit induced a cry of ‘lights’ from their immediate friends, but the operator made the phantom, The Red Woman of Berlin, appear to dash forward again. The confusion that followed was alarming even to the stoutest: “the indiscriminate rush to the doors was prevented only by the deplorable state of most of the ladies; the stage was scaled by an adventurous few, the Red Woman’s sanctuary violated, the unlucky operator’s cavern of death profaned, and some of his machinery overturned, before light restored order and something like an harmonious understanding with the cause of alarm”.[2]

In the eighteenth century the host of supernatural beings — such as ghosts, devils and angles — who had long inhabited the outside world alongside humans, were finally internalised under the illumination of Reason as mere inner-projections of consciousness — fantasies of the mind or pathologies of the brain. During this period, in Terry Castle’s phrase,  “Ghosts and spectres retain their ambiguous grip on the human imagination; they simply migrate into the space of the mind”.[3] But, as she goes on to explain, technologies such as the phantasmagoria allowed these images of consciousness to project themselves outside the mind once more, into the space of shared human experience. They were destined to return from the brain to re-spectralize visual culture.

The eighteenth century also changed the way in which death was experienced. No longer an ever-present communal experience, the effect of someone’s death became focussed onto a few individuals — their family — just as the various processes of death and mourning became privatised and quarantined within the institutions of the home, the hospital, and the necropolis.[4] One response to this was the rise in the nineteenth century of an extraordinary cult of the dead  — Spiritualism — which gripped the popular imagination well into the twentieth century. Spiritualism was the belief that the dead lived, and that they could communicate. Spiritualism was a quintessentially modernist phenomenon, and Spiritualists, as well as the spirits themselves, used all emerging technologies to demonstrate the truth of survival.[5]

The early years of Spiritualist communication were conducted under the metaphoric reign of the telegraph. In 1848 the world’s first modern Spiritualist medium, a young girl called Kate Fox, achieved world-wide fame by developing a simplified morse-code of raps to communicate with the spirits who haunted her small house in upstate New York. Twenty years later portraits of spirits began to appear on the carte-de-visite plates of the world’s first medium photographer, William Mumler. Spirit photographs were a personal phantasmagoria. Just as Robertson’s phantoms were lantern-slides projected onto screens, spirit photographs were actually prepared images double-exposed onto the negative. But the spirit photographer’s clients sat for their portrait filled with the belief that they might once more see the countenance of a loved one; they concentrated on the loved one’s memory during the period of the exposure; and they often joined the photographer in the alchemical cave of the darkroom to see their own face appear on the negative, to be shortly joined by another face welling up from the emulsion — a spirit who they usually recognised as a loved one returning to them from the oblivion of death. For these clients the spirit photograph was not just a spectacle, it was an almost physical experience of the truth of spirit return.

Public interest in spirit photography reached its highest pitch in the period just after World War One, when the unprecedented death toll of the war, combined with the effect of an influenza pandemic, caused a public craze for Spiritualism.[6] On Armistice Day in 1922 the London spirit photographer Mrs Ada Deane stood above the crowd at Whitehall and opened her lens for the entire duration of the Two Minutes Silence. When the plate was developed it showed a ‘river of faces’, an ‘aerial procession of men’, who appeared to float dimly above the crowd.[7]

When the ardent Spiritualist convert, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, lectured to a packed house at Carnegie Hall the following year, he flashed this image up on the lantern-slide screen. There was a moment of silence and then gasps rose and spread over the audience, and the voices and sobs of women could be heard. A woman in the audience screamed out through the darkness, “Don’t you see them? Don’t you see their faces?” before falling into a trance.[8] The following day the New York Times described the image on the screen: “Over the heads of the crowd in the picture floated countless heads of men with strained grim expressions. Some were faint, some were blurs, some were marked out distinctly on the plate so that they might have been recognised by those who knew them. There was nothing else, just these heads, without even necks or shoulders, and all that could be seen distinctly were the fixed, stern, look of men who might have been killed in battle.”[9]

The Spiritualist understanding of photography was underwritten by a keen, and highly imaginative, conception of two substances: ether and ectoplasm. Since Morse’s first telegraphing of the words “what hath God wrought” in 1844, and Kate Fox’s first telegraphing to the spirits four years later, the air had steadily thickened as it was filled by more and more of the electromagnetic spectrum: from the electrical ionisation of residual gas in a cathode-ray tube (discovered by Sir William Crookes, who also photographed the full body materialization of a spirit Katie King by electric light); to x-rays (developed in part by Sir Oliver Lodge, who communicated with his dead son, Raymond, for many years after he fell in World War One);  to radio-waves; to television transmission. From the late nineteenth century until the period when Einstein’s theories made it redundant, most physicists agreed that some intangible interstitial substance, which they called ether, must be necessary as the medium to carry and support X-rays, radio waves, and perhaps even telepathic waves, from the point of transmission to point of reception. Since sounds, messages and images could be sent through thin air and solid objects, why not portraits from the other side?[10]

If ether allowed Spiritualist beliefs to be made manifest through electrical science, ectoplasm allowed them to be made manifest through the body. For about thirty years after the turn of the century various, mainly female, mediums extruded this mysterious, mucoid, placental substance from their bodily orifices, whilst groaning as though they were giving birth. Sometimes this all-purpose, proto-plasmic, inter-dimensional stuff seemed able to grow itself into the embryonic forms of spiritual beings, at other times it acted as a membranous emulsion which took their two dimensional photographic imprint. For instance on 1 May 1932 a psychic investigator from Winnipeg, Dr T. G. Hamilton, photographed a teleplasmic image of the spirit of Doyle (who had ‘crossed over’ the year before) impressed into the ectoplasm that came from mouth and nostrils of a medium.[11]

Just as spirit photographs were in reality various forms of double exposure, such teleplasms were in reality small photographs and muslin swallowed by the medium and then regurgitated in the darkness to be briefly caught by the investigator’s flash during the intense psychodrama of the séance. Nonetheless, for the Spiritualists they confirmed an associative chain that poetically and technically extended all the way from ectoplasm to photographic emulsion — creamy, hyper-sensitive to light, and bathed in chemicals.[12]

The Spiritualists placed photography at the centre of their cult of the dead. And modernity’s cultural theorists placed death at the centre of their response to photography. Photography was compared to embalming, resurrection, and spectralization. The horrible, uncanny image of the corpse, with its mute intimation of our own mortality, haunted every photograph. For instance to Siegfried Kracauer, writing in the 1920s, a photograph was good at preserving the image of the external cast-off remnants of people, such as their clothes, but could not capture their real being. The photograph: “dissolves into the sum of its details, like a corpse, yet stands tall as if full of life.”[13] The blind production and consumption of thousands upon thousands of these photographs was the emergent mass-media’s attempt to substitute itself for the acceptance of death implicit in personal, organic memory: “What the photographs by their sheer accumulation attempt to banish is the recollection of death, which is part and parcel of every memory image. In the illustrated magazines the world has become a photographable present, and the photographed present has been entirely eternalised.”[14]

To a subsequent critic, Andre Bazin, our embrace of the photograph was also a pathetic attempt to beat death. The sepia phantoms in old family albums were, “no longer traditional family portraits, but rather the disturbing presence of lives halted at a set moment in their duration … by the power of an impassive mechanical process: for photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.”[15]

In Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, his almost necrophilic meditation on photography written while in the grim grip of grief for his mother, the photograph’s indexicality, the fact that it was a direct imprint from the real, made it a phenomenological tautology, where both sign and referent, “are glued together, limb by limb, like the condemned man and the corpse in certain tortures.”[16] In posing for a portrait photograph, he says, “I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death … : I am truly becoming a spectre.”[17] Later he reduces this essence of the portrait photograph down even further. It is not only an exact process of optical transcription, it is also an exquisitely attenuated chemical transfer, an effluvial emanation of another body—“an ectoplasm of ‘what-has-been’: neither image nor reality, a new being really.”[18]

Although wildly extrapolating upon the intimate connection between photography and death, the Spiritualist use of photography ran counter to the dominant perception of the photograph as irrevocably about pastness, about the instantaneous historicisation and memorialisation of time. Spirit photographs cheerfully included multiple times, and multiple time vectors. Spirit photographs were collected and used by Spiritualists very much like the millions of other personal snapshots that were being kept in albums and cradled in hands. But for them they did not represent the exquisite attenuation of the “that has been” of a moment from the past disappearing further down the time tunnel as it was gazed at in the present, nor the frozen image’s inevitable prediction of our own mortality. Rather, they were material witnesses to the possibility of endless emergences, returns and simultaneities.

The images were performative. They worked best when their sitters had seen them well-up from the depths of the emulsion in the medium’s developing tray, or seen them suddenly flashed on the screen in a lantern-slide lecture. Their power lay not in their reportage of a pro-filmic real elsewhere in time and space, but in their audience’s affective response to them in the audience’s own time and place. They solicited a tacit suspension of disbelief from their audience, at the same time as they brazenly inveigled a tacit belief in special effects. Spirit photographs used the currency of the audience’s thirst for belief to trade-up on the special effects they borrowed from cinema and stage magic —which had also descended from the phantasmagoria. They shamelessly exploited the wounded psychology of their audience to confirm their truth, not by their mute indexical reference to the real, but through the audience’s own indexical enactment of their traumatic affect. Their truth was not an anterior truth, but a manifest truth that was indexed by the audience as they cried out at the shock of recognition for their departed loved ones.

In mainstream thought about photography the two signal characteristics which defined photography and photography alone, physical indexicality and temporal ambiguity, were in their turn produced by two technical operations: the lens projecting an image of an anterior scene into the camera, and the blade of the shutter slicing that cone of light into instants. But the Spiritualist theory of photography discounted that technical assemblage, along with the ‘decisive moments’ it produced. It shifted the locus of photography back to the stretched sensitive membrane of the photographic emulsion, and dilated the frozen instant of the snapshot over the full duration of the séance.

Many contemporary artists are rediscovering the richly imaginative world the Spiritualists created for themselves. Others are strategically deploying the same technical effects once surreptitiously used by spirit photographers. These contemporary invocations are no longer directly underpinned by Spiritualist faith, but they do reinhabit and reinvent the metaphysical, performative and iconographic legacy of the Spiritualists. For these artists, as much as for the Spiritualists themselves, images, bodies, beliefs and memories swirl around and collide in intoxicating obsession. And technologies of image storage, retrieval, transmission and reproduction are simultaneously the imaginative tropes, and the technical means, for communicating with the beyond. For the Spiritualists the beyond was a parallel ‘other side’ to our mundane existence, for some contemporary artists it is quite simply the past.[19]

For instance the New York based artist Zoe Beloff folds famous episodes from the history of Spiritualism back into her use of new interactive technologies. Examples are the interactive CD-Rom, Beyond, 1997; the stereoscopic film based on the extraordinary ‘auto-mythology’ of the nineteenth-century medium Madame D’Esperance, Shadowland or Light From the Other Side, 2000; and the installation of stereoscopic projections based on the first séances of Spiritualism’s most famous ectoplasmic medium, Ideoplastic Materializations of Eva C., 2004. Some of Beloff’s works resurrect dead-end technologies and apparatuses, such as a 1950s stereoscopic home-movie camera to, for instance, directly link contemporary notions of virtuality to nineteenth century stage illusions, such as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, where a live performer behind a sheet of glass interacted with a virtual phantasm reflected in it. She deploys the occult to re-introduce desire, wonder, fear and belief into what most media histories would have us think was just the bland march of ever-increasing technological sophistication. Like many of us, and like all of the people to first see a photograph or hear a sound recording, Beloff is still fascinated by the fact that the dead live on, re-embodied in technology. She remains interested in conjuring them up and interfacing between past and present like a Spiritualist medium.[20]

For his installation The Influence Machine, 2000, the New York video artist Tony Oursler projected giant ghost-heads of the pioneer ‘mediums’ of the ether, such as Robertson, John Logie Baird and Kate Fox, onto trees and billows of smoke in the heart of the world’s two biggest media districts, London’s Soho Square and New York’s Madison Square Park. These disembodied heads uttered disjointed phrases of dislocation and fragmentation, while elsewhere a fist banged out raps, and ghostly texts ticker-taped up tree trunks. In his Timestream, an extended timeline of the development of ‘mimetic technologies’, Oursler drew an occult trajectory through the more conventional history of media ‘development’, and identified that the dead no longer reside on an inaccessible ‘other side’, but survive in media repositories. To him: “Television archives store millions of images of the dead, which wait to be broadcast … to the living … at this point, the dead come back to life to have an influence … on the living Television is, then, truly the spirit world of our age. It preserves images of the dead which then continue to haunt us.”[21]

The most famous spectre of the nineteenth century was the spectre of communism which, in the very first phrase of the Communist Manifesto, Marx declared to be haunting Europe. But this, unlike almost every other spectre, was not a grim revenant returning from the past, but a bright harbinger of the future when capitalism would inevitably collapse under its internal contradictions ushering in the golden age of communism. But now communism is dead and buried, and when its spectre is raised it is not to haunt us, but to be a parable affirming the supposed ‘naturalness’ of capitalism.[22]

This circular irony formed the background to Stan Douglas’s installation Suspiria from Documenta 11 of 2003. The spectral temper of the imagery was achieved by overlapping a video signal with the over-saturated Technicolor palette of the 1977 cult horror film Suspiria. The piece deconstructed Grimm’s 250 fairy tales into a data-base of narrative elements, often centring on characters vainly seeking short cuts to wealth and happiness by extracting payments and debts. These fragments were videoed using actors wearing clothes and make-up in the primary colours. The chromatic channel of the video signal was separated and randomly superimposed, like an early-model colour TV with ghosting reception, over a switching series of live surveillance video-feeds from a stony subterranean labyrinth. These fleeting evanescent apparitions endlessly chased each other round and round the blank corridors.[23]

As well as the phantasmagoric apparatuses of projection and superimposition, with their long histories in mainstream entertainment as well as the occult, artists such as Douglas or Oursler have begun to deploy another newly occulted apparatus — the data-base.  For instance, Life after Wartime, presented at the Sydney Opera House in 2003, was an interactive, ‘performance’ of an archive of crime scene photographs which had been assembled by Sydney’s police-force in the decades following the Second World War. Kate Richards and Ross Gibson sat at laptops and midi keyboards and brought up strings of images which, combined with evocative haikus, were projected onto two large screens. Beneath the screens The Necks, a jazz trio well known for their ominous movie music, improvised a live soundtrack of brooding ambience. Although not directly picturing spectres, the texts and images did generate open-ended non-specific narratives around a set of semi-fictionalised characters and locations in the ‘port city’ of Sydney. These characters became invisible presences occupying the creepy emptiness of the crime scenes. The element of automation in the way the story engine generated the loose narratives preserved the integrity, the artefactuality, of the original archive. Ross Gibson wrote:

Whenever I work with historical fragments, I try to develop an aesthetic response appropriate to the form and mood of the source material. This is one way to know what the evidence is trying to tell the future. I must not impose some pre-determined genre on these fragments. I need to remember that the evidence was created by people and systems of reality independent of myself. The archive holds knowledge in excess of my own predispositions. This is why I was attracted to the material in the first instance — because it appeared peculiar, had secrets to divulge and promised to take me somewhere past my own limitations. Stepping off from this intuition, I have to trust that the archive has occulted in it a logic, a coherent pattern which can be ghosted up from its disparate details so that I can gain a new, systematic understanding of the culture that has left behind such spooky detritus. In this respect I am looking to be a medium for the archive. I want to ‘séance up’ the spirit of the evidence … [24]

In seeking to be a voodoo spiritualist ‘medium’ for the archive, the work was not trying to quote from it, or mine it for retro tidbits ripe for appropriation, so much as to make contact with it as an autonomous netherworld of images. This sense of the autonomy of other times preserved in the archive also informs the work of the Sydney photographer Anne Ferran. In 1997 she made a ‘metaphorical x-ray’ of a nineteenth-century historic house. She carefully removed items of the colonial family’s clothing from its drawers and cupboards and, in a darkened room, laid them gently onto photographic paper before exposing it to light. In the photograms the luminous baby dresses and night-gowns floated ethereally against numinous blackness. To Ferran the photogram process made them look, “three-dimensional, life-like, as if it has breathed air into them in the shape of a body. … With no context to secure these images, it’s left up to an audience to deal with visual effects that seem to have arisen of their own accord, that are visually striking but in an odd, hermetic way.”[25]

In contrast to this diaphanous ineffability, Rafael Goldchain’s Familial Ground, 2001, was an autobiographical installation in which the artist physically entered the archive of the family album, seeking to know and apprehend the dead. He re-enacted family photographs of his ancestors, building on his initial genetic resemblance to them by using theatrical make-up, costuming, and digital alteration, weaving the replicated codes of portraiture through their shared DNA.  He saw these performances, along with the uncannily doubled portraits they produced, as acts of mourning, remembrance, inheritance and legacy for his Eastern European Jewish heritage, which had been sundered by the Holocaust. The portraits supplemented public acts of Holocaust mourning with a private genealogical communion with the spectres of his ancestors who still inhabited his family’s albums. The dead became a foundation for his identity, which he could pass on to his son. They took on his visage as they emerged into visibility, reminding him of the unavoidable and necessary work of inheritance.[26]

The Native American artist Carl Beam also builds his contemporary identity on the basis of a special connection he feels to old photographs. He uses liquid photo-emulsion, photocopy transfer and collage to layer together historic photographs — such as romanticised portraits of Sitting Bull — and personal photographs —such as family snaps — into ghostly palimpsests. The collages directly call on spectres from the past to authorise his personal, bricolaged spiritual symbology. They allow him to time travel and re-build a foundation for his identity out of fragments from the past.

In 1980 Australia’s most eminent art historian Bernard Smith gave a series of lectures under the title The Spectre of Truganini. In the nineteenth century Truganini had become a much-photographed colonial celebrity as the ‘last’ of the ‘full-blood’ Tasmanian Aborigines. Smith’s argument was that, despite white Australia’s attempt to blot out and forget the history of its own brutal displacement of Australia’s indigenous population, the repressed would continue to return and haunt contemporary Australia until proper amends were made.[27]

As indigenous activism grew in intensity and sophistication during the 1980s and 1990s, anthropological portraits, such as those of Truganini, began to be conceived of as not only the theoretical paradigm for colonial attempts at genocide, but also as acts of violence in themselves, technically akin to, and instrumentally part of, that very process of attempted genocide. They began to be used by young indigenous artists to ‘occult up’ their ancestors. Their re-use attempted to capture a feeling of active dialogue with the past, a two way corridor through time, or a sense of New Age channelling.

The anthropological photographs used by urban indigenous photographers are not monuments, like the statues or photographs of white pioneers might aspire to be, because they do not commemorate a historical closure on the past. In a way they are anti-monuments, images of unquiet ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves. In a Barthesian meditation on nineteenth-century anthropological photographs the indigenous photographer Brenda L. Croft, who uses Photoshop to float imprecatory words of loss within images of her ancestors, retroactively invested the agency of political resistance in the portraits. “Images like these have haunted me since I was a small child and … [and] were instrumental in guiding me to use the tools of photography in my work. … The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest.”[28]

However, rather than laying their ancestors to rest, some indigenous artists have photographically raised them from the dead to enrol them in various campaigns of resistance. For instance one of the first Australian indigenous photographers to receive international attention was Leah King-Smith. Her exhibition Patterns of Connection, 1992, travelled throughout Australia as well as internationally. For her large deeply-coloured photo-compositions anthropological photographs were copied and liberated from the archives of the State Library of Victoria to be superimposed as spectral presences on top of hand-coloured landscapes. This process allowed Aboriginal people to flow back into their land, into a virtual space reclaimed for them by the photographer. In the words of the exhibition’s catalogue: “From the flaring of velvety colours and forms, translucent ghosts appear within a numinous world.”[29]

Writers at the time commented on the way her photographs seemed to remobilise their subjects. The original portraits ‘contained’ their subjects as objects, which could be held in the hand, collected, stored and viewed at will. Their placement of the figure well back from the picture plane within a fabricated environment created a visual gulf between viewer and object. But King-Smith reversed that order. Her large colour-saturated images ‘impressed’ the viewer: “The figures are brought right to the picture plane, seemingly extending beyond the frame and checking our gaze with theirs”.[30]

Leah King-Smith comes closest to holding spiritualist beliefs of her own. She concluded her artist’s statement by asking that, “people activate their inner sight to view Aboriginal people.”[31] Her work animistically gave the museum photographs she re-used a spiritualist function. Many of her fellow indigenous artists criticised her for being too generalist, for not knowing the stories of the people whose photographs she used, and not asking the permission of the traditional owners of the land she makes them haunt. But the critic Anne Marsh described this as a “strategic essentialism”. “There is little doubt, in my mind, that Leah King-Smith is a kind of New Age evangelist and many serious critics will dismiss her work on these grounds. … But I am interested in why the images are so popular and how they tap into a kind of cultural imaginary [in order] to conjure the ineffable. …  Leah King-Smith’s figures resonate with a constructed aura: [they are] given an enhanced ethereal quality through the use of mirrors and projections. The ‘mirror with a memory’ comes alive as these ancestral ghosts … seem to drift through the landscape as a seamless version of nineteenth century spirit photography.”[32]

While not buying into such direct visual spirituality, other indigenous artists have also attempted to use the power of the old photograph make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from the past. In a series of works from the late 1990s Brook Andrew invested his nineteenth century subjects, copied from various state archives, with a libidinous body image inscribed within the terms of contemporary queer masculinity, and emblazoned them with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as Sexy and Dangerous, 1996, I Split Your Gaze, 1997 and Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr [I See You], 1998.

Andrew uses the auratic power of the original Aboriginal subjects to simply re-project the historically objectifying gaze straight back to the present, to be immediately re-inscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse. However other strategic re-occupations of the archive show more respect for the dead, and seek only to still the frenetic shuttle of appropriative gazes between us and them. For instance in Fiona Foley’s re-enactments of the colonial photographs of her Badtjala ancestors, Native Blood, 1994, the gaze is stopped dead in its tracks by Foley’s own obdurate, physical body. To the post-colonial theorist Olu Oguibe: “In Foley’s photographs the Other makes herself available, exposes herself, invites our gaze if only to re-enact the original gaze, the original violence perpetrated on her. She does not disrupt this gaze nor does she return it. She recognises that it is impossible to return the invasive gaze … Instead Foley forces the gaze to blink, exposes it to itself.”[33]

But the ghosts of murdered and displaced Aborigines aren’t the only spectres to haunt Australia. White Australia also has a strong thread of spectral imagery running through its public memory for the ANZAC digger soldiers, who fell and were buried in their thousands in foreign graves during all of the twentieth century’s major wars. Following World War One an official cult of the memory developed around the absent bodies of the dead, involving painting, photography, elaborate annual dawn rituals, and a statue erected in each and every town.

Like indigenous ghosts, Anzac ghosts also solicit the fickle memory of a too self-absorbed, too quickly forgetful later generation. Since 1999 the photographer Darren Siwes, of indigenous and Dutch heritage, has performed a series of spectral photographs in Australia and the UK. By ghosting himself standing implacably in front of various buildings, he refers to an indigenous haunting, certainly; but because he is ghosted standing to attention whilst wearing a generic suit, he also evokes the feeling of being surveilled by a generalised, accusatory masculinity — exactly the same feeling that a memorial ANZAC statue gives.

Siwes’ photographs are mannered, stiff and visually dull, but they have proved to be extraordinarily popular with curators in Australia and internationally. One reason for his widespread success may be that the spectre he creates is entirely generic — a truculent black man in a suit — and therefore open to any number of guilt-driven associations from the viewer. Similarly, many of the other indigenous artists who have used photographs to haunt the present have produced works which are visually stilted or overwrought.  But they too have been widely successful, not because of their inherent visual qualities, but because of the powerful ethical and political question which the very idea of a spectre is still able to supplicate, or exhort, from viewers who themselves are caught-up in a fraught relationship between the present and the past, current government policy and historical dispossession. That question is: what claims do victims from past generations have on us to redeem them?[34]

As photographic archives grow in size, accessibility and malleability they will increasingly become our psychic underworld, from which spectres of the past are conjured. Like Dante’s purgatory they will order virtual images of the dead in layers and levels, waiting to interrogate the living, or to be interrogated by them. Through photography the dead can be invoked to perform as revenants. They will be used to warn, cajole, inveigle, polemicise and seduce. But as always it is we, the living, who will do the work of interpretation, or perform the act of response. Like the viewers of Robertson’s phantasmagoria we think we know that these spectres are mere illusions, the products of mechanical tricks and optical effects. But just as surely we also know that the images we are seeing were once people who actually lived, and that the technologies through which they are appearing to us now will also uncannily project our own substance through time and space in the future, when we ourselves are dead. This knowledge gives photographic spectres more than just rhetorical effect. They can pierce through historical quotation with a sudden temporal and physical presence. Yet at the same time they remain nothing more than the provisional technical animation of flat, docile images. In the end, they are as invulnerable to our attempts to hold onto them as the air.

Martyn Jolly

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J. Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2000)

B. Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: 1980 Boyer Lectures (Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission 1980)

M. Warner, “‘Ourself Behind Ourself — Concealed’: Ethereal whispers from the dark side”, Tony Oursler the Influence Machine, (London: Artangel 2001)

M. Warner, ‘Ourself Behind Ourself — Concealed?’: Ethereal whispers from the dark side, Tony Oursler web site 2001)

M. Warner, “Ethereal Body: The Quest for Ectoplasm”, Cabinet, 12 (2003)

M. Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet (Sydney: Doubleday 1999)

C. Williamson, “Leah King-Smith: Patterns of Connection”, Colonial Post Colonial, (Melbourne: Museum of Modern Art at Heide 1996)

J. Winter, Sites of memory, sites of mourning: The Great War in European cultural history (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995)

[1] Purgatory, 25, 11. 94-101, cited in, Marina Warner, ‘Ourself Behind Ourself — Concealed?’: Ethereal whispers from the dark side,  np. For a discussion of Dante’s heaven hell and purgatory in relation to cyberspace see, Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, 44-75.

[2] Marina Warner, “‘Ourself Behind Ourself — Concealed’: Ethereal whispers from the dark side”, 75. For more on the phantasmagoria see Terry Castle, “Phantasmagoria and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie”,

[3] Terry Castle, “The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho“, 135.

[4] P Ariés, The Hour of Our Death,  cited in Castle.

[5] For Spiritualism and photography see, Martyn Jolly, Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography,  and Tom Gunning, “Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theatre, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncanny”, andTom Gunning, “Haunting Images: Ghosts, Photography and the Modern Body”, ;Louis Kaplan, “Where the Paranoid Meets the Paranormal: Speculations on Spirit Photography”,

[6] For post war memory and Spiritualism see Jay Winter, Sites of memory, sites of mourning: The Great War in European cultural history,

[7] Martyn Jolly, Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography,

[8] Kelvin Jones, Conan Doyle and the Spirits: the spiritualist career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 193.

[9] “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at Carnegie Hall”, np.

[10] For more on the electromagnetic occult see: Roger Luckhurst, The invention of telepathy, 1870-1901,  and Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television,  Artists who have been inspired by the electroacoustic occult include Susan Hiller, Scanner, Mike Kelley, Joyce Hinterding, David Haines, Chris Kubick and Anne Walsh.

[11] T. Glen Hamilton, Intention and Survival, plates 25 & 27.

[12] For more on ectoplasm see, Karl Schoonover, “Ectoplasm, Evanescence, and Photography”, and Marina Warner, “Ethereal Body: The Quest for Ectoplasm”,

[13] Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography”, 55.

[14] Kracauer, 59. For a discussion of Walter Benjamin’s thought on death in relation to photography see Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History, 7-13.

[15] André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, 242.

[16] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, 5-6.

[17] Barthes, 14.

[18] Barthes, 87.

[19] For a recent explorations of this connection see, Alison Ferris, “The Disembodied Spirit”, and Alison Ferris, “Diembodied Spirits: Spirit Photgraphy and Rachel Whiteread’s Ghost“,

[20] See http://www.zoebeloff.com, and Lawqrence R. Rinder, Whitney Biennial 2002,

[21] Marina Warner, “‘Ourself Behind Ourself — Concealed’: Ethereal whispers from the dark side”, 72.

[22] For Marx’s spectralization see Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx : the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the New international,  and Fredertic Jameson, “Marx’s Purloined Letter”,

[23] Stan Douglas, “Suspiria”, 557.

[24] Ross Gibson, “Negative Truth: A new approach to photographic storytelling”, 30.

[25] Anne Ferran, “Longer Than Life”, 166,167-170.

[27] Bernard Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: 1980 Boyer Lectures, . For subsequent work on Australia’s indigenous haunting see Ken Gelder and Jane M.Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation,  and Peter Read, Haunted Earth, .

[28] Brenda L. Croft, “Laying ghosts to rest”, 9, 14.

[29] Jennifer Phipps, “Elegy, Meditation and Retribution”, np.

[30] Clare Williamson, “Leah King-Smith: Patterns of Connection”, 46.

[31] Leah King-Smith, “Statement”, np.

[32] Anne Marsh, “Leah King-Smith and the Nineteenth Century Archive”, 117.

[33] Olu Oguibe, “Medium and Memory in the Art of Fiona Foley”,  58-59.

[34] “There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.” Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, 256. For an extensive response to this epigram in the context a photographic archive from the Holocaust see Ulrich Baer, “Revision, Animation, Rescue”,

Shock Photographs, Monumental Photographs and Haptic Photographs

‘Shock Photographs, Monumental Photographs and Haptic Photographs’, The ANU National Institutes Public Lecture Series, 2003, National Museum of Australia


As I stared more, at images of people in business suits, on picnics, in a taxi, I became frightened. I looked at the people sitting across from me in the subway car for reassurance, but they too began to seem unreal, as if they were also figments of someone’s imagination. It became difficult to choose who or what was ‘real’, and why people could exist but people looking just like them in photographs never did. I became very anxious, nervous, not wanting to depend upon my sight, questioning it. It was as if I were in a waking dream with no escape, feeling dislocated, unable to turn elsewhere, even to close my eyes, because I knew when I opened them there would be nowhere to look and be reassured—Fred Ritchin. 1990.[1]

This attack of ontological paranoia occurred to a New York Times Magazine picture editor called Fred Ritchin in 1990 after seeing his first digitally altered photograph. In his book In Our Own Image: The coming revolution in photography he goes on to worry, after this alarming introduction, that the seamless and undetectable computer manipulation of the photograph would erode a viewer’s faith in the inherent veracity of photography, and compromise the bond of trust photojournalists had historically built up with their audience.

Of course Ritchin’s apocalyptic vision of thirteen years ago now seems silly and hubristic. The digitisation of photojournalism hasn’t led to the deliquescence of reality itself. In fact, rather than dissolving as a distinct medium into generalised streams of digital data, as was commonly predicted a decade ago, photography now seems as distinct a medium as ever. And, I intend to argue, at least in some of its forms the photograph as an object now seems more solid, more substantial than it has been for over a hundred years.

Certainly, within the mass media at least, photography has left its media specificity long behind. We now learn about the world from live satellite video-feeds, rather than wired press photos. Even in our newspapers, most of our most exciting newsworthy images are frame grabs from video, rather than shots taken as stills. All photojournalism is now  nothing more than a temporary freeze-frame, a blip in the continuous flow of mutable data. But, on the other hand, rather than this leading to a loss of faith in photography as a whole, which Ritchin predicted, there seems to have been an increased faith in some photographs, and as well an increase in their specific gravity and artefactual density.

Many of photography’s great theorists, such as Walter Benjamin, held a special regard for the photographs from the first few years of it invention. The long exposure times of the early photographs of the 1840s, combined with the still relative rarity and specialness of the act itself gave them, for Benjamin writing in 1931 at the beginning of the age of the photographic duplication and dissemination, a special solidity which the later invention of the mass-reproduced snapshot destroyed. In his A Small History of Photography Benjamin wrote:

The first people to be reproduced entered the visual space of photography with their innocence intact … photography had not yet become a journalistic tool … The human countenance had a silence about it in which the gaze rested. In short, the portraiture of this period owes its effect to the absence of contact between actuality and photography. … The procedure itself caused the subject to focus his life in the moment rather than hurrying on past it; during the considerable period of the exposure, the subject as it were grew into the picture, with the sharpest contrast to appearances in the snapshot. … Everything about these early pictures was built to last.[2]

My argument in this talk will be that, with our current journalistic tools now no longer being still cameras as much as live video-crosses, and with actuality hurrying on past us now in the form of a tide of digital media rather than a avalanche of snapshots, some photographs are re-aspiring to the solidity and the density that Benjamin imagined he saw in the medium’s incunabula, it originary prelapsarian objects.

I’m going to do a skimming survey of the current state, not of photography as a medium, but of photographs as distinct things. I’m going to make large and abrupt leaps from one small group of photographs to another, to try to identify and explain why some of those photographs have a higher specific gravity than was formally the norm.


Lets start with the digital mass media. The biggest media event this year has of course been the Second Gulf War, the US invasion of Iraq. The coverage bore all the usual hallmarks of postmodern, hyperreal media coverage: it was scheduled into network programming with a precise beginning and end that bore little relationship to the actual status of military operations on the ground; the coverage was treated as a special form of entertainment programming with its own titles, logos and correspondent/stars; journalists weren’t figured as reporters independently covering the action, but returned to the status they had in the first and second world wars of being an integral part of the army structure and therefore also of the army’s logic of military success and public morale; and images were used, as they had been in the first gulf war, ballistically, transmitted into each belligerent’s media space to inflict maximum propaganda and morale damage; and so on.

From where I was sitting there seemed to be a split in the coverage: the moving image TV coverage tended, in terms of its formal characteristics, towards the rawness of unmediated surveillance-camera footage, while still relying on an authoritative exegesis from the well established figure of the grisled war-correspondent. The still photographs in the broadsheet press and the news magazines went in the opposite direction. They were perfectly exposed, perfectly composed, and shot in the same carefully colour-graded palette of many recent war movies. They were generic objects: not grabbed action snapshots so much as finely crafted photo-art objects that quoted the glorious history of twentieth century combat photography — a history seemingly accessed not directly, but through the Hollywood war-movie translation of that body of imagery. There was something about their skillfullness and visual completeness that reminded me of updated academic history painting. These images looked made for the white mat and wooden frame of the gallery wall rather than the newspaper page. They were displayed on the front pages of our bellicose papers not as reportage, or even as spectacles of the new, but as easily recognisable, familiar looking trophies, affective images of our commitment to the coalition of the willing.

Only in a few instances did images break through this generic blanket. When a BBC video cameraman became collateral damage, the footage his camera continued to capture as he lay wounded was broadcast, and still frames were extracted from it and frequently reproduced — particularly one showing a drop of blood on the camera filter. But this seeming irruption of the viscera of reality into the world of the image was, for me, disappointing. It too, seemed generic. The cameras of other cameramen, for instance the Australian Neil Davies, had also kept on automatically filming as they died. The drop of blood seemed too arch after the Blair Witch Project, too much like the ultimate special effect.

Roland Barthes, in his famous article, Shock Photographs, complained that in too many photographs designed to shock the photographer made the mistake of substituting his own feelings into the image, reacting on the viewer’s behalf and thereby divesting the viewer of everything but the “simple right of intellectual acquiescence.” [3]   Now it might be ungrateful of me, but I feel the same about the poor BBC photographer’s sacrifice: ‘no thanks, ho hum, seen it all before.’ His blood on the camera lens immediately and inevitably became semiotic, quotational.

But one photograph did shock me during this period. It wasn’t taken in the official or ‘formal’ war itself (to use the felicitous Whitehouse phrase), but in the informal media warm-up, the ‘Countdown to War’. I opened my paper to find a double page spread. On the left-hand page were the usual generic, perfectly composed photographs I have already described: crazy arabs shouting slogans, and pious Americans getting a quick pre-battle baptism. But on the right-hand page was the image of an Israeli bulldozer which had just run over and killed a young protester as it was going about its business of demolishing Palestinian houses in a refugee camp. Here, to once again quote Barthes from Shock Photographs, was a photograph in which “the fact, surprised, explodes in all its stubbornness, its literality, the very obviousness of its obtuse nature.” This is an image which, again to quote Barthes, seemed “alien, almost calm, inferior to [its] legend.” [4]

The photograph is uncomposed, the bulldozer sits obdurately at the centre of the frame, its blade a dull blank face. But why I think this photograph is for me a shock photograph is because of the surface of the image — there is something like snow or rain across the face of the photograph. It can’t be snow, and it’s highly unlikely to be rain either since the picture taken moments before, also by an unnamed photographer, is in bright sunlight. It’s some kind of visual noise. Is this an old-fashioned film-based photograph, perhaps shot on a cheap disposable camera, which has been scanned for the picture agency which distributed it, Associated Press? Or is this an image snapped on an amateur digital camera at too low a resolution, or a video frame grab, or a jpeg thumbnail pulled down off the web and interpolated, unsharp-masked and anti-aliased up to size but beyond the capacity of the original file? Whatever it is, its surface indeterminacy paradoxically means that for me it is more than just a mere image, it is a document — an object or artefact from a singular point in space and time, with a physical weight or visual heft all its own, a picture with its origins outside the digital data-flows of the media.


I’m going to use my fascination with the surface of this image, which is indeterminate, but nonetheless physical and palpable and dense, to make a huge leap in my survey of the current state of the photograph to the narrow, small little world of art photography. The world I live in.  And one can’t help noticing that within art photography there has been a return to surface, and more specifically to emulsion. For instance the National Gallery of Victoria held an exhibition earlier this year called First Impressions, which featured the work of twelve Australian artists who work in the medium of the photogram. One of the stars of that show was Anne Ferran. You all know her work. She completed a residency here at the Museum last year and she began working with the photogram as a medium in 1995 during a collaboration with the ANU School of art’s Anne Brennan at the Hyde Park Barracks.

Although I am going to be using the current photogram craze in Australia to illustrate qualities I think are present in some other photographs, in fact the photogram is a very different thing to the photograph. The photogram is not like an ordinary photo, it doesn’t consist of the snapping of an anterior scene, its technical assemblage is not one of a shutter-blade vertically slicing through a cone of light projected by a lens, and thereby excising an instant from time and space. It is rather a residue of an event — the optical and chemical event of an object touching photo-paper. The photogram has a different relationship to time and history than the photograph, it doesn’t grant the present information, knowledge, detail or anecdote about the past; rather it is a generalised presence of the past still physically present within the now. Crucially, the photogram isn’t a record of a separate object as a photograph is, it doesn’t even look much like the object that produced it, rather it is a record of a tactile event, and the event of object and shadow meeting on a sensitive surface persists in its record. The photogram is a physical performance which is perpetually taking place in the image.

Other photogram artists represented in the NGV show were Ruth Maddison, who was represented with her photogram self-portrait, and Simone Douglas, where again we get the sense that we are seeing an ongoing performance of light and chemistry rather than a record of someone’s physiognomy as it looked at a particular time.

In the catalogue to the show the curator of the exhibition Isobel Crombie, quotes Helen Ennis, from the School of Art’s  Theory Workshop, from a forward for a special issue of Photofile called ‘Traces’, which she edited on a similar theme. Isobel Crombie writes:

One notable feature of contemporary photograms is the fluid concept of time they embody. A dynamic understanding of what is past and what is present in these works questions our Western notions of linear time. Indeed what we find in Photograms is that the past has often become congruent with the present. As the photography writer Helen Ennis has noted recently: ‘No longer constructed in terms of a rupture between past and present or even fade-outs between the two, time is reconfigured as a continuum. And so, it becomes conceivable that objects, events and experiences from the past have a ‘living presence’.[5]

Contemporary Indigenous Photography

Something of the qualities of ‘living presence’, ‘tactility’, and ‘performance’ which attracts artists to the photogram, also attracts other artists to ‘perform’ images across or within a photographic surface — not a photographic surface conceived of as a slice of an optical pyramid excised from time and dislocated from space, but as a stretched membrane, a semi-conducting diaphragm.

Again, this shift allows the artist to figure time, history and memory very differently. Many contemporary indigenous artists have take part in this shift. Much recent indigenous photography has attempted to call the past forward to bear witness to the present. For instance Leah King-Smith, in an immensely popular exhibition Patterns of Connection from 1992 ‘performs’ two images together onto a single gelatinous surface: archival images of her ancestors which she has liberated from their imprisonment in the State Library of Victoria, and landscapes of her own land. This is an attempt to magically conjure the still living presence of her ancestors into the now. They fantasise that the Library portraits are not just historical images—dead, gone and in the past—but ghosts, still revenant and with agency in the present. As Clare Williamson has described it:

The figures are brought right to the picture plane, seemingly extending beyond the frame and checking our gaze with theirs.[6]

This is obviously a crucial move to make within the context of recent debates in Australia over reconciliation, the debate which raged in the mid 1990s between bleeding-heart black-armband history and bottom-line white-blindfold history about our responsibility to the past. As the indigenous curator Brenda Croft has written:

The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest. [7]

Brook Andrew invests the bodies of his nineteenth century subjects—who he releases from the closet of the past by copying their images from the archive of the nineteenth century postcard photographer Charles Kerry—not only with a libidinous body image re-inscribed within the terms of a contemporary ‘queer’ masculinity, but also with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as Sexy and Dangerous, 1996, I Split Your Gaze, 1997 and Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr, [I see you], 1998. These works attempt to reverse the relationship of subject and object in the nineteenth century colonial portrait around the axis of the trajectory of the gaze, and to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from history itself. The image is turned into a reflective surface which bounces the historical objectifying gaze straight back to the present moment to be immediately re-inscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse.

Darren Siwes has more recently brought this idea of haunting to the fore in his performance photographs. Again, these images aren’t snapshots, but extended exposures where the photographer has exited the scene halfway during the exposure to perform himself as a spectral masculine presence laminated into contemporary Australia.

Monumental Photographs

Something about the way Siwes is standing to truculently surveille a contemporary Australia that seems too self absorbed to recognise him reminds me of all the Anzac memorial statues that similarly haunt Australia with their almost forgotten presence. And this allows me to make another leap to a set of photographs which have also been turned, literally, to stone.

To most theorists of photography the photograph could never be monumental. It was constructed out of time itself, and so can never transcend time. For instance in 1982 Barthes wrote:

Not only does [the photograph] commonly have the fate of paper (perishable), but even if it is attached to more lasting supports, it is still mortal: like a living organism, it is born on the level of the sprouting silver grains, it flourishes a moment then ages … attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes; there is nothing left to do but throw it away. Earlier societies managed so that memory, the substitute for life, was eternal and that at least the thing which spoke death should be immortal: this was the monument. But by making the (mortal) Photograph into the general and somehow natural witness of ‘what has been’, modern society has renounced the monument. A paradox; the same century invented History and Photography. But history is a memory fabricated according to positive formulas, a pure intellectual discourse which abolishes mythic Time; and the photograph is a certain but fugitive testimony; so that everything, today, prepares our race for this impotence: to be no longer able to conceive duration, affectively or symbolically.[8]

But photographs are being eternalised today, to stand as affective, public monuments to duration. Photographs have long stood on mantelpieces in improvised household shrines to remembered dead and acknowledged ancestors, but now historic photographs also have the unprecedented privilege of being the centrepieces of virtually every official commemoration. In these public ceremonies official photographs are performing the same role for the nation, city or town, as the faded snapshot or sepia studio portrait does for the family.

For most of this century the photograph, as a form of media reportage, has traded on the fact that it was able to pluck a fleeting instant out of the rush of time. But in the case of the Kodachrome slide taken by the Australian army PR photographer Sergeant Mike Coleridge of B Company RAR, which was cropped, enlarged to cinematic size, and etched into granite for the Vietnam War Memorial, the evanescent instant captured by the army public relations photographer has been literally turned to eternal stone. Within this commemorative context the shutter blade’s slice of time acquires not only an architectonic presence, but becomes the locus for the same contemplative temporal dilation as a roll call of the dead, or a minute’s silence.

Monumental photographs perform the bodies of their viewers. They either tower over them and physically interpellate them in their nationalist ideological subjectivity, or they compel them to proceed past, or through them, in a spatialised memory/history experience.

Monumental photographs are hybrid objects, between the obduracy of the mute architectural obelisk, and the evanescence of the virtual photographic image. Transformations of scale and material are important to contemporary monumental photographs. They are transmuted into a historically eternalised set of elemental minerals: stone, glass and metal. This takes the organic, perishable, gelatinous emulsive flesh of the photograph and smelts it into the marmoreal, the vitreous, and the metallurgical. Both private memory and public history are equally grist to these civic memory mills—private snapshots are recuperated as avidly as archival record photographs. For instance joining the Vietnam memorial along Anzac Parade are private snapshots which are slumped into glass sheets in the nurses memorial, and a cinematic montage, a cavalcade of archival images full of wipes and dissolves, which is transmuted into a frieze in Robert Boynes’ Air Force memorial.

Haptic Photographs

From the beginning photographs have been used as public talismans of private memory. In the nineteenth century post mortem daguerreotypes were sometimes re-photographed, being cradled by grieving relatives. But lately this private performance has become a public one. Perhaps the aetiology of this public performance of the photograph as a talismanic witness to absence goes back to the Argentinean Grandmothers of May Square, who from 1976 stood in silent vigil with photographs of the Disappeared. In Australia I first noticed the practice with members of the Stolen Generations in the mid 1990s. But over the last couple of years what was initially an occasional semi-private ritual performed in the photographer’s studio, and then a brave public declaration, has become a bit of media stunt, performed at the behest of newspaper and magazine photographers again and again by anybody with a loss to declare. They are now routine public statements, ritualised declarations of loss or trauma. They are mute testimonies, where the intractable visual evidence of the photograph voices the silence of the witness.

Sometimes, as in the case of Australian Aborigines from the Stolen Generation, it is archival, government photographs which are held, re-personalising the public record and performing a grim parody of the anthropological photograph. Sometimes it is already published journalistic images which are cradled, connecting individual and public memory, direct and mediated experience.

The effectiveness of these media images depends on two gestures, two aspects of the way the private photograph is literally ‘performed’ in the public: the quality of touch between the sitter and the photograph they hold; and the expression on their face. Is the photograph cradled, clutched, formally perched alongside, or primly pinched between thumb and forefinger? Is it defiantly held out to the camera, or half hidden beneath encircling arms? Or does the sitter look wistful, lost in internal reverie, or defiant? Despite the clichéd reiteration of these types of images in our press the combination of gesture and expression still frequently produces an effective and moving image, which connects with our anxieties about the instability of contemporary memory and history. The indexical verity of the photographic image which they hold anchors the sitter in history and legitimates their memories. The photographic surface of the haptic photograph becomes a membrane which seals together two images from two times, the past and the present.

Touch, thingness and performance

I’m not the first person to identify the themes in photography that I have been trying to draw out here. A few years ago the photographic theorist Geoffrey Batchen gave a lecture in the Art School’s Art Forum program on vernacular photography, in which he identified the quality of touch as a key aspect of the popular relationship to photography which had been excluded, up until then, from its formal history. And a few months ago the visual anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards gave a talk at the National Library of Australia in which she identified the ‘thingness’ of photographs, their quality as objects and the marks of their use which they bear, as crucial to our full understanding of their meaning and power. As I hope by now is clear, ‘touch’ and ‘thingness’ are crucial to the increase in the specific gravity of some photographs which I have tried to describe here. But I think a third aspect is still waiting for full attention, and that is performance. As can be seen time and time again in the haptic photograph, photographs are also performed into meaning.

Touch and thingness belong firmly to the paradigm of the analogical photograph — a paper print chemically produced from an instantaneous snapshot. Those concepts do not easily map across to the digital paradigm, where, inherently, there is no ‘thing’ to touch. Yet clearly digital photographs will and do perform some of the same ritual functions as analogical photographs. Unlike touch and thingness, I think the concept of performance does map across to the digital. Think of the way you perform images in your computer, the family images you turn into your desktop background, and the downloaded net-porn you nest several folders down in an obscure corner of your hard disk. The net is full of e-mailed jpegs destined to be glanced at and either saved or deleted. The web is full of on-line albums and photo memorials. Notable on-line memorials include the archive of images of those killed on the Cambodian killing fields, and the Argentinean Wall of Memory commemorating the disappeared in Argentina.

A more hokey example of the on-line memorial was sponsored by Kodak and AOL to commemorate September the 11th. Called the Tribute to American Spirit Photoquilt, this corporate exercise deliberately drew on a previously sanctified form of American folk memory — the quilt — to produce, within the user’s computer, the effect of a monumental surface which seemed to stretch epically beyond the edges of the computer screen. The viewer could track across and zoom into this mosaic-like surface, or enter search-terms into a data-base. All the shibboleths of the corporately defined web are therefore combined: screen-space and data-space are conflated, and an on-line community consensus — in this case of grief and shock — seems to be instantaneously produced and confirmed.


I began this talk with two literary images. The first was the fantasised threat, thirteen years ago, of the end of the world as we know it brought about by the end of photography as we knew it. The second was Benjamin’s feeling of 1931 that there was an ontological split between the prelapsarian photo-documents of the 1840s and the mechanically reproducing images of the 1930s. I want to end with a third image drawn from the greatest book ever written about photography, Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes. Written whilst he was in the grim grip of grief for his mother the book is driven by Barthes’ obsession with a small group of dog-eared snapshots from his family’s past. In re-experiencing his mother’s death through these photographs Barthes tries to consolidate the intractable truth of his grief around his own few hidden photographs, and to jealously shelter these photographs, as precious, private artefacts, from the rest of photography and the media, what he calls the brash world of images.

I experience the photograph and the world in which it participates according to two regions: on the one side the Images, on the other my photographs; on the one side unconcern, shifting, noise, the inessential (even if I am abusively deafened by it), on the other the burning, the wounded.[9]

It seems to me that now, after unexpectedly surviving its own death, photography is automatically splitting along similar lines to those drawn by Benjamin and Barthes. Some photographs are now no longer about shutter blades irrevocably slicing up cones of light into decisive slivers of time and space, they are about image surfaces, dispersed fields of reflection or transmission, stretched membranes barely separating two worlds. These scarified skins allow us to transfer touch across time and space. Some photographs are no longer documentary images of elsewhere, but voodoo objects which co-occupy our lives with us. They are arenas in which, and talismans with which, we perform daily rituals, testimony and witness to memory and loss.

Martyn Jolly

August 2003

[1]  F. Ritchin, In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography, New York, Aperture Foundation, 1990.

[2] W. Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’, One Way Street and Other Writings, London, NLB, 1931, pp 244-245.

[3] Roland Barthes, ‘Shock Photographs’, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, Hill and Wang, 1979, p71.

[4] P73.

[5] Isobel Crombie, First Impressions: Contemporary Australian Phootgrams, National Gallery of Victoria, 2003.

[6]  Clare Williamson, ‘Leah King-Smith: Patterns of Connection’, Colonial Post Colonial, Melbourne, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, 1996, p46.

[7]  Brenda L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, Portraits of Oceania, Judy Annear, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997, p9 &  14.

[8] R. Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1982, p93.

[9] p98.