Celebrating Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis’s book ‘Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross

For Vivid Ideas, Vivid Festival, Sydney. ‘Kings Bloody Cross, Surface Glitter and Underground Guts’, at The World Bar, Saturday 3 June, 2017 (I’ve stuck the power point slides in amongst the text)

Today I want to sing the praises of a small and obscure photography book published in 1971. Australia doesn’t have a particularly big tradition of photobooks, perhaps our population has always been too small to sustain local publishers who specialise in photobooks. So it’s pretty hard to call to mind any important Australian photobooks, whereas European ones like Brassai’s Paris by Night, or American ones like Robert Frank’s The Americans, spring readily to mind. Nonetheless there are a few Australian photobooks that, in their own way, are significant and integral works of art as well as being important cultural documents. And it pains me that they are not remembered, particularly by today’s young Australian photographers who all profess to be into photobooks, but only it seems if they are imported from Europe or the US. Of course Mathew Sleeth’s Tour of Duty from 2004 is a classic, and there are a few others which are celebrated perhaps. But remembering Australian photobooks from their heyday, the period from the mid 1960s until the early 1970s, when they were part of mainstream culture as well as being sites for experimentation, is particularly important.

In the history of Australian photography it is not the 1960s, but the 1970s that is commonly celebrated as the watershed decade where, following the 1972 election of a socially enlightened Labor government, there was a creative flowering entailing both a renaissance in the Australian film industry, and a ‘photography boom’ consisting of new photography galleries, new photography collections, new funding opportunities, and a new role for a younger generation of art-school trained photographers.[1] However, if attention is paid to the many photobooks that were produced, distributed, bought and read in large numbers before the magical date of 1972, the picture we can form of not only Australian photography, but also of Australian culture as a whole, deepens considerably.

There were two absolutely cracker books published in that period, one was Southern Exposure published by David Beal and Donald Horne in 1967, and the other was Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross published by Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey in 1971. And today I want to celebrate the latter.


Southern Exposure, 1967

Kings Cross Sydney, 1971

During this period Australian photobooks tended to be coffee table tourist souvenirs. They were the kind of book an aunt you never saw during the year might give you for Christmas; or you would send back to your grandparents in the UK or Greece; or you would put in you bag after a few weeks of R&R ion case you needed a souvenir for someone. But during this period some photobooks began to be published which attempted to go beyond the standard Australiana tourist genre. They began to be timely, about Australian society as it was at the time, rather than timeless, about a generic Australia; and they were quite explicitly about the new Australian identity that was emerging in the post war period. Driving this change was unprecedented wealth flowing from a mining boom, continuing mass migration from Southern Europe, and a geopolitical realignment towards the US, evidenced by an escalating commitment to the Vietnam War from 1966 onwards and, in the case of Kings Cross, the presence of a quarter of a million American servicemen in Australia, who spent seventy million dollars on their R&R leave between 1967 and 1971.

 Significantly, the Australian film industry did not undergo its renaissance until the 1970s. There were only a handful of feature films made in Australia during the sixties, and most of those were made by overseas directors. A good example of this is They’re a Weird Mob. Featuring Kings Cross, it was based on an extraordinarily popular Australian novel, and starred some of Australia’s best-loved actors, but it was made by an English director. [2] However, although Australian feature films were few in number in the 1960s, at least sixty significant Australiana picture books were published during the same period.

The sixties also saw a radical increase in the number of independent, start-up publishers, historically analogous to the internet startups of today. The value of Australian publishing increased eight fold between 1961 and 1979; and from 1961 to 1971 membership of the Australian Book Publishers Association increased from thirty-seven to sixty-seven, of which nearly forty were Australian owned.[3] Many of these publishers, such as Rigby, Lansdowne, Nelson and Jacaranda were substantial, while others were more like today’s internet start-ups and were literally kitchen table operations. Horwitz, whose books sold for less than a dollar, catered to the lurid pulp fiction market. However not all of Horwitz’s books were pulp fiction. Some, such as the gritty Vietnam: The Cruel War by Anthony Syme, which sold for 65 cents, engaged with the politics of the period.

Other start-up publishers who also focussed on the cheaper end of the market, such as Sun Books, explicitly addressed the burgeoning of intellectual interest in issues of Australian history identity.

In many ways these book publishers formed a continuum with the magazine publishers, who published middle class travel magazines like Walkabout, domestically oriented magazines such as the dominant Women’s Weekly, and barbershop magazines such as Australasian Post, People or Pix. From 1965 this suburban newsagent’s range was joined by a burgeoning of inner city street magazines which focussed on satire, sex and radical politics. These included Oz, which reached a circulation of 30,000, but also magazines like Kings Cross Whisper, which reached a circulation of 100,000, and the quickly banned sex magazines like Sexy, Searchlight, Obscenity, Ribald and Censor, as well as student magazines that dealt with radical politics like Honi Soit and Tharunka.[4]

Jozel Vissel, Paper Seller, Kings Cross, From Life In Australia, edited by David Beal and Craig McGregor, 1968, p228

Kings Cross was already featuring in this explosion of Australian publishing. It already had, since at least the 1920s, become a media trope within Australia. It was a locus of a powerful kind of ‘aspirational anxiety’ within Australia. Louis Nowra has described Kings Cross as:

a piece of urban DNA where the two spirals interweave the safe and the dangerous, the Australian and the foreign, the old-fashioned glamour and trashy sexual exploitation, the underworld and city professionals, the seedy and glamorous, the hetero and gay, sexual freedom and commercial sex, the underclass and the rich, the beautiful and tawdry.[5]

And, as an emerging  popular media spectacle, Kings Cross was similarly a place of Bohemian artiness and Parisian boulevards, at the same time as it was a place of crime, drinking and sex. It was where airy aspirational fantasies of Australia finally graduating as a cosmopolitan country were mixed with deep atavistic fears of rampant sexuality and lawlessness.

Max Dupain, Soul of a City, published by Oswald Ziegler

The popular iconography of the Cross had been developing in the 1940s and 50s. Max Dupain contributed photographs of women in pretty print dresses strolling under the plane trees of Macleay Street to many Sydney books during those decades. But it really took off in the 1960s — on a broad visual front. The Cross not only featured in the film They’re a Weird Mob, it also became the staple location for Horwitz pulp fiction novels, and in 1965 was the subject of a Channel Nine TV documentary called The Glittering Mile.

The Glittering Mile in many ways sets a template for subsequent Cross iconography. It starts with a bit of history: the convict windmills and colonial villas on the ridge above the town reached by an aboriginal track through the scrub which eventually became William Street, and so on. It interviews what had already become a familiar cast of characters: the 1920s flapper Dulcie Deamer, the witch Rosalee Norton, the manager of the Pink Pussycat Last Card Louie, and so on. But it also adds a new character, a stunning looking Carlotta barely out of her teens, and before her sex change, who was interviewed backstage at The Jewel Box, a predecessor to Les Girls. And, like many other documentaries it takes us through a twenty-four hour period in the life of the Cross: from the the day when we surveil the same pretty print dresses we had seen in Max Dupain, to the night where we track strippers rushing between jobs. We are shown, on our TV screens in 1965, strippers performing inside strip clubs, and men soliciting prostitutes. It might have been these brief glimpses which led to calls for the TV documentary to be banned.

The Glittering Mile, Channel Nine, 1965

In 1965 the first book to be devoted entirely to the Cross was also published. Life at the Cross featured an anodyne text by Kenneth Slessor. Slessor had popularised ‘Bohemian Sydney’ in 1933 with his book of poems Darlinghurst Nights, and in the post war period had become the go-to laureate for poetical musings on Sydney. He was 64 by this time, and phoned in a text which is yawningly behaved. The book had an introduction by the Lord Mayor, so there is no imagery of prostitution, as there had been in The Glittering Mile, but nonetheless Robert Walker’s by now familiar imagery of ‘Parisian’ streets is spiced up with some tasteful strip club imagery, and even some drag act imagery. But all the stripper photographs are printed very small, and visually recuperated into images of suburbanites having a touristic fun night out, which are printed larger and dominate the pages.

Life at the Cross, Kenneth Slessor and Robert Walker, 1965

There is an obligatory excursion to the Cross in my other pick for best-Australian-photobook-ever, an acerbic take down of Australian complacency called Southern Exposure published in 1967 by Donald Horne, author of the excoriating book The Lucky Country, and the photographer David Beal. Their book which, as we can see from the cover, is dedicated to inverting Australian complacencies, also breaks down the unspoken wall between day and night which all previous visual representations of the Cross had adhered to in order to sustain the aspirational anxiety it represented — to keep separated the Cross’s twin helixes of cosmopolitanism and sleaze. In previous Cross representations the daytime is for Parisian boulevardiering, the night-time for frenetic excess. However in the double page spread of Beal’s obligatory Cross photos a fashionable young coffee drinker suspiciously glowers at the camera through narrowed eyes, wordlessly telling us to f… off, and we get a portrait of the Pink Panther’s garbage bin primly sunning itself in the bright morning.

Southern Exposure

As the sixties progressed the idea of youth — young people as a distinctive cultural category — began to occupy inner city iconography. Some young people began to bring a kind of hallucinogenic approach to inner city Sydney. For instance in 1968 the thirty-five year old left-wing writer and social analyst Craig MacGregor had got the job of writing the text for the tourist souvenir book To Sydney With Love. McGregor attempted a very personal beat-poetry howl on Sydney. He opened his text, meant to be read by ordinary Australians, with a cosmic experience of Sydney he had late at night standing on the roof of a block of flats in Potts Point looking into Woolloomooloo:

I know this city, I comprehend it utterly, my guts and mind embrace it in its entirety, it’s mine. It was a moment of exhilaration, of exquisite and loving perception, my soul stretched tight like Elliot’s across this city which lay sleeping and partly sleeping around me and spread like some giant Rorschach inkblot to a wild disordered fringe of mountains, and gasping sandstone, and hallucinogenic gums.

While the Cross sprouted these ecstatic visions, middle class Australia continued its fascination with it from a distance. For instance the tourist magazine Walkabout did a Cross story in 1969, adding yet another member to the cast of characters: Ted Noffs from the Wayside Chapel, which had been established in 1964 and had become a Cross institution. The following year Walkabout did yet another Cross story, this one by Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis and called ‘Wild Night in Big Bad Sydney’. Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey also contributed Kings Cross photographs to The Bulletin and The Sydney Telegraph.

Walkabout, 1969

Walkabout, 1970

Their contributions to these magazines were to become part of a larger project, a whole book aimed at a new market made up of the traditional market for Australiana, R&R servicemen, and the emerging hipster class. When the book Ellis and Stacey had been shooting finally came out in 1971, published by Nelson, it was badged as Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross. It was going to be their vision of the cross in photography. The blurb on the dust jacket capitalizes on the edginess of the project:

Over a period of six months the authors made frequent forays in the Cross armed with their cameras and a tape recorder. It was only by becoming known to the locals that they were able to record some of the remarkable scenes in this book. Nevertheless, there is much that they learned about the Cross which can only be hinted at. The laws of libel and the threats of bashing ensure a diplomatic silence. As one of the authors put it: ‘When a guy pulls a pistol on you and says that he’s going to shoot you, you know that it’s time to put away your camera and retire gracefully.

The young photographers, in their early thirties, took the reader right into the strip clubs and hippy pads of the area, using graphically dynamic and tight picture groupings and pungently personal text.[6] Their book had a decidedly hallucinogenic feel to it. Most significantly, the focal length of their lenses changed, while Robert Walker had been shooting with a something like a telephoto 135mm lens, Stacey and Ellis were shooting wide angle at 35mm. Walker’s strippers are seen from the back of the room, Stacey and Ellis take us into their dressing rooms

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

Ellis’s text for the book begins with a picaresque personal memory from 1958, when he came to the Cross after leaving a Melbourne grammar school. There he and his mates meet Babs. She is ‘training to be a strip-tease artiste’ and gives the boys a show they will never forget. From this mnemonic deflowering Ellis takes us back to the obligatory history of colonial windmills and villas, before plunging us into the present day, 1970. Like a Beat poet he introduces us to the people themselves:

Hippies and heads and spades; dog-walkers and cat-feeders; witches, warlocks, painters; poets, philosophers, pensioners, painters, prostitutes, perves; soldiers and sailors; strippers; gamblers and gunmen; camps and conmen; craftsmen, chefs, shopkeepers, foreigners, bikies, jewellers, junkies, nuns, schoolkids, tourists; princes and paupers and chicks on the make, cops on the take and even an Irish Jew or two. p6

For me this exhilarating list has echoes of a similar list Carol Jerrems made three years later in her Book About Australian Women, where she said she had photographed:

“…….artists – painters, sculptors, writers, poets, filmmakers, photographers, designers, dancers, musicians, actresses and strippers. Others included women’s liberationists, Aboriginal spokeswomen, activists, revolutionaries, teachers, students, drop-outs, mothers, prostitutes, lesbians and friends.”.[7]

Carol Jerrems, Virginnia Fraser, A Book About Australian Women, 1974

Although we meet the same cast of characters introduced in previous Cross publications, including the aging flapper Dulcie Deamer, and the aging witch Rosalee Norton, Ellis’s text take us down onto the street where his own libidinal gaze is roused:

The streets are busy with shoppers, especially determined little old ladies with straw hats and gloves and, in summertime, perhaps a parasol, and itinerant kids brushing from one to another killing time or maybe stretching it out. The girls are extraordinary nymphets—cascades of hair, bare feet, and erect nipples denting T-Shirts over faded Levis or perhaps they wear long tie-died dresses or Indian gear. For most, the bra is passé. They amble along the street, breasts jiggling like delicious jellies, features open to the world. The boys are hairy and hip. They look like ancient warriors and act like troubadours. p8

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

On pages like this we see the ambition of the book, but also its graphic naivety. Unlike all previous Australian photobooks, Ellis’s text is linked closely to his images of the same experiences, which are often printed on the same page as the text. The book’s design attempts to break out of the staid stolid design of the previous decades, so occasionally it creates centrifugal layouts of small images across double page spreads. These small images are also run along the top of the pages which carry his text, but they are a bit too small to be seen properly by the reader.

On other pages Ellis indulges in long Beat-style riffs that encapsulates not so much a visually captured scene, as a personally experienced moment:

Keep your eyes and your mind wide open and you’ll see it all— the passing parade, a perennial Mardi Gras with no threat of Lent to follow. Across the road—hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare hare—there are eight of them, the men with shaven heads, except for a tuft on the crown, the girls pretty and gentle with long plaits over their shoulders, all in flowing robes, their foreheads symbolically marked in white. Together they sway from foot to foot, a devoted chorus line of the Hare Krishna movement chanting their mantra to a drum beat and a hand clap— hare krishna hare krishna—it’s an infectious rhythm and people stop to stare, and wait for something to happen, while others join in and chant. Some hurry past as if it wasn’t really happening at all. Several Japanese businessmen leave a restaurant and climb into a long chauffeur driven car. They glance momentarily at a curvy girl in a Superman T-shirt—rama hare rama rama—while another with a gold-lettered satin sash across her shoulder walks past, handing out Whisky a Go Go invitation cards: ‘$2 includes food and drink for the sock-it-to-me happy hour and quarter and admittance all night until 3 a.m.’. People accept them indifferently. The hairy ones in their Levis are floating past, stalking shadows and followed by chunky-nippled girls in two and threes and solo, oblivious, I think, to the heads they turn. One girl in a crocheted top actually has her brown nub poking through the open knit like it’s coming up for air. You try not to look too hard and glance at the Back to Godhead magazine which you have been given—hare krishna, hare krishna—and before you’ve recovered another nymphet comes into view, beautiful and blonde, her stomach bare, her friend a willowy black soul brother bebopping along just like he was on 125th Street. Then, revving big Trummpies, a couple of Very Heavy bikies glide past, their leathered and crash-hatted ladies hunched on the back, defying the world. There are tourists in bermuda shorts with sunglasses and Instamatics and snappy little hats and next to me this jet-set guy with film star good looks and tinted hair, and his girl chain-smoking her unbelievable mauve cigarettes, and back in the street the ubiquitous little old Cross ladies tottering along all dressed up under ritzy white summer hats. And there goes Caddy, that white haired leprechaun with the side levers who carries the strippers’ bags and knows all their little secrets. Girls for a private show? Go see Caddy—hare hare rama hare—Hey man! Leonie, Jill of all trades, master of the quick con and sweet, sweet lady, mouths greetings, her snakey tatoo showing an inch above the neckline of her black satin shirt. Kerry the dog girl is shopping, and the Black Prince, with lovely young Veronica, is off downtown to flog his silver roach clips. Pilly the Dill and Fearless Fred the Drug Squad stalwarts cruise past, eyes piercing the crowded streets; Michael and Roger—Mimi and Ruth— triss by on their way to their favourite camping spot, and a thousand other people go about their daily shopping. On Thursday afternoon the scene will be the same but different, if you know what I mean. p30

It is no wonder that the following year Ellis said:

Much of my pleasure in photography is not in looking at the photographs, which I find boring, but my involvement in the actual situation of taking the shots, of preventing the moment from escaping forever.[8]

On other pages Ellis gives us extraordinary intimate vignettes:

At her home in Victoria Street, Michele, one of the strippers, talks about her job. She is English, very likeable and in her own style intelligent and articulate. She sits in her bra and pants on the couch under an Uncle Sam Wants You for The US Army poster and plays with her kitten. ‘Well actually I arrived in Australia with only $6 so I caught a cab, told the driver I danced, he told me he knew where I could get a job and took me to the Paradise Club and I started the next day waitressing and stripping. I used to do tables, jump up, get my gear off, then back on the tables. It was quite hard work really. But I liked it in the Cross. Compared with places like Soho and the Reeper-bahn in Hamburg it’s much more friendlier, not so vicious. It’s closer knit. Everyone knows everyone. And the bosses, the big guys, are more approachable here, you know, more like people. ‘Quite a lot of women come in to the shows. Sometimes they’re in long dresses after some fancy ball and they giggle and hide their faces. It’s funny to go up and shake your fanny around and embarrass them. And we have lots of middle-aged married couples up from Melbourne. Then there’s these downright perves who just sit there having wanks. It’s awful. They come in and sit in the front row, they’ve got glassy eyes, and they just pull it out and away they go. It’s so embarrassing. I look at them as I dance past and say “put it away you filthy bastard” and they just look at you blankly. They’re miles away in a sexual fantasy of their own. Mostly they’re young guys. Then there are the old regulars of course, great characters who think it’s great if the girls talk to them.’

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

At other times Ellis reports from within his own experience, like a gonzo school boy.

The Whisky a Go Go claims to be the Biggest Night Spot in the Southern Hemisphere. … You walk in under an explosion of neon in William Street, past a couple of tuxedoed and handsome dandies who scrutinise each and everybody. The last thing the Whisky wants is trouble, buddy. You pay your $2 and then, like jumping through the looking glass, you’re plunged into a maelstrom—a total environment that impinges on the senses like an electrical storm. Partly it’s manufactured by the management—light balls whirling in the dark, incredibly sexy go-go girls performing in chained and mirrored cages, forty near-nude waitresses, and the thundering amplified sounds of a rock group— and partly by the people themselves, shaking and shimmying on the dance floor as if they’re caught up in the electronic vibrations that burst out in waves from the huge speakers. The Whisky has been a big favorite with R & R boys, especially the Negroes. And black girls too. And they form their own turned-on little clique, dancing like mad with their big lit up spade smiles, flowing limbs and a knowing sensuality that stirs the loins. In contrast the rest of the Whisky oozes with a sort of contrived, but nonetheless effective, sexuality. The waitresses in a kind of bikini-sarong outfit, bend over your table and their boobs just about fall out all over you. The go-go dancers in their cages, reflected all angles several times over, are curvy ladies too, and they know how to make the curves work. In g-strings and bras they writhe away for ten minutes then take a twenty minute break. Six nights a week, six hours a night they work like convulsed marionettes.

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

Race is one issue that the book is completely uninhibited about displaying. The other issue is the changing role of women in Australia. Although Ellis’s libidinal gaze is never far away from the book, and although we see him developing this pervey gaze in the 1980s in the extraordinarily popular books Life’s a Beach and Life’s a Parade, in fact the experience of women becomes a focus for the Kings Cross book in a way which is totally unprecedented in other published Australian photobooks of the time. It is there in Ellis’s text. But also there in some of the striper shots, where they are pictured a adrift in a lonely void.

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

A stripper hurries across the road from one club to another. Her red panties are three inches lower than her mini skirt and as she walks they seem to flicker like a danger signal. Under her arm she carries the inevitable record that will set her in motion once she hits the stage. As she enters the door, Freddy the midget wrestler comes out and they exchange a nodded hullo. Freddy pushes his way through a knot of people who are staring across the road at a young woman and her baby. She is barefoot and in short shorts and carries her little boy on her hip. He is naked, save for a singlet that just covers his navel. Suddenly she places a square of newspaper on the ground and sits him on it while she stares into a shop window, resting her forehead on the glass. Then she’s off again. She stops and starts, stares at windows and a weighing machine, places her baby on the ground and picks him up again. Those who know drugs know she is tripping. Her shorts are very short and you can see the cheeks of her bottom grind together as her impatient steps take her from one manhole cover to the next. Each time she reaches her goal she stands stock still, staring and seemingly unaware of the impression she’s making on the crowd. Some are watching her because of the naked curve of her bottom. Others show genuine concern for her condition and for her baby, especially when she walks out into the traffic. But no one tries to help.

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

Like every account of the Cross, ever, Stacey and Ellis’s book ends on a Requiem for a lost Cross of the past, a Cross they experienced, but we can’t, we were too late.

Requiem: And so it goes on. Everywhere there are signs — Summit, Westfield, Mainline, Bank of NSW, Palisades, Home Units — proudly announcing the new projects. Many others are on the planning boards and in a few years time the Cross we know today will be unrecognizable. In place of the village will be a new satellite city. And much of the atmosphere that suggested this book will have vanished with the brick dust.

Kings Cross Sydney didn’t sell. It was an experiment that failed. In many ways it is a transitional publication, halfway between the tourist photography of the 1950s and 60s and the personally inflected photography of the 1970s. In 1974, just three years later, Morry Schwartz’s Outback Press published Carol Jerrem’s A Book About Australian Women with text by Virginnia Fraser, and Robert Ashton’s Into the Hollow Mountain, about Melbourne’s Fitzroy which combined text and poetry. The next Australian photobook to feature Kings Cross was thoroughly embedded in radical politics, it was Marion Marrison and Peter Manning’s Green Bans, which covered the fight to save Victoria Street, and was published by the Australian Conservation Foundation in 1975. Ellis submitted some more junkie pictures to an Ilford Photographic competition called Concern, and then opened up a photography gallery in Melbourne, and further honed his libidinal gaze to produce the extraordinarily popular books Life’s a Beach and Life’s a Parade in the 1980s.

Marion Marison and Peter Manning, Green Bans, 1975

Concern, 1972

Kings Cross Sydney is certainly is a flawed book. The layout seems extraordinarily amateurish to us now, but at least we can begin to see the photographers wrestling with the problem of deploying images across a page, although they can never seem to make up their minds what to do design-wise from page to page. We also see Ellis himself trying to work his photographs and his writing together. The book has disappeared to history almost completely, and though it is great that Ellis’s individual photographs are coming back to us through the work of the Rennie Ellis Archive, I think that Stacey and Ellis’s book project also is very important for the history of Australian photography. This is becasue, in the book Stacey and Ellis:

identified a market that might straddle both existing mainstream genres as well as newly emerging beat/hippy/gonzo modes;

shot the project in an unprecedented embedded process over a defined period of six months;

tried (and failed) to produce a designed book package integrating text and image;

all at the crucial historical juncture of 1970 as the R&R days of the late sixties were rolling over into the counterculture of the 1970s.

So I think it’s good.


[1] Gael Newton, Shades of Light : Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Canberra: Australian National Gallery: Collins Australia, 1988. Helen Ennis, Photography and Australia, London: Reaktion Books, 2007. Anne-Marie Willis, Picturing Australia: A History of Photography, North Ryde, N.S.W.: Angus & Robertson, 1988.


[2] Examples include: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Leslie Norman, 1959; They’re a Weird Mob, Michael Powell, 1966; Age of Consent, Michael Powell, 1969; Walkabout, Nicolas Roeg, 1971; Wake in Fright, Ted Kotcheff, 1971


[3] Frank Thompson, ‘Sixties Larrikins’, Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia 1946-2005. Ed. Craig Munro, and Robyn Sheahan-Bright. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2001.


[4] Dominic Bowes, Exposing Indecency, BA (Hons) thesis, University of Sydney, 2012

[5] Louis Nowra, Kings Cross: A Biography, 2013)

[6] Rennie Ellis and Wes Stacey, Kings Cross Sydney; a Personal Look at the Cross, Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1971


[7] Virginnia Fraser and Carol Jerrems, A Book About Australian Women. Outback Press. 1974 Outback Press was founded by Morry Schwartz, amongst others. Morry Schwartz is currently owner of the Black Imprint.

[8] Concern, edited by Harry Marks, Nelson, p48

Surface Glitter and Underground Guts


I’m enjoying preparing for a discussion I’m having about Rennie Ellis with Mandy Sayer and Manuela Furci at Surface Glitter and Underground Guts as part of the Kings Bloody Cross weekend. I was till going to primary school in Brisbane when Rennie (along with Wes Stacey) was cruising Macleay Street. But I loved finding these Horwitz book covers on line. It’s good to know that Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette’s book Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980 can be pre-ordered. Our discussion of Rennie Ellis will be on at The World Bar, 24 Bayswater Road, Kings Cross at 12.45 pm on Saturday 3 June.

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

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



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



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


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


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


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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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



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


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


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


Martyn Jolly

Shaping Canberra, 2013

The Citizens of Canberra in Shaping Canberra, ANU School of Art Gallery 2013

The Citizens of Canberra in Shaping Canberra, ANU School of Art Gallery 2013

The Citizens of Canberra in Shaping Canberra, ANU School of Art Gallery 2013

The Citizens of Canberra in Shaping Canberra, ANU School of Art Gallery 2013

The Citizens of Canberra in Shaping Canberra, ANU School of Art Gallery 2013

The Citizens of Canberra in Shaping Canberra, ANU School of Art Gallery 2013

This year it’s been great to be invited to be in shows: by Cathy Laudenbauch and Patsy Payne for a show at the Front in Canberra called Undertone, and by Mary Hutchinson and Ruth Hingston for a show called Shaping Canberra at the ANU School of Art Gallery. The Shaping Canberra show went along with a conference also called Shaping Canberra, at which I gave a paper called Art from Archives, the paper’s in the writing part of this blog, at the end I talk about the work I did for the show thus:

“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.”

If you were at the conference you can read the other papers at:


My City of Sydney, 1994

‘My City of Sydney’, 1994

Sydney Photographed catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. pp 59-67

A SECOND-HAND COPY OF FRANK HURLEY’S PICTURE BOOK Sydney: A Camera Study is held in the library of the National Gallery of Australia.1 Between its pages are four pieces of toilet paper.  Presumably they were put there by Derek, who, going by his inscription on the fly leaf, originally gave the book, ‘with love to Mum and Dad and Shirley’ at Christmas 1948.  He has used the toilet paper as improvised tracing paper to add a personal overlay to the grand civic vistas in the book.

For instance we can orient a square of paper over the full colour photograph ‘The Spit, Middle Harbour’2 by the traced outlines of Clontarf, Middle Head and a sail boat. Once it is positioned we can locate Derek’s superimposed comments. An arrow points from the inscription ‘This is where Jim Miller has his block of land where we nearly built a duplex’ to a spot in Clontarf. Another inscription above Spit Road says: ‘I pass along this road everytime I go to White’s’. And another, in the top left hand corner reads: ‘Arthur -Marjorie’s brother lives just off the picture’. This is a wonderful example of somebody tactically re-using civic photography to record their own sense of space within its hegemonic view of an urban place. But it also points to a dialectic which perhaps affects all Sydney photographers who try to photograph their city: ‘Sydney’ is both a space in which some of us live, and a place in which a certain national iconography is staged.

After its publication in 1948, Sydney: A Camera Study was reprinted three times, completely revised in 1958, and eventually sold 50,000 copies.3 Countless similar books, primarily intended to be given by Australians to friends and family overseas, have been published since, but none have the authority of Hurley. A veteran propagandist of the Antarctic, New Guinea, and various theatres of the First and Second World Wars, Hurley defined our official visual culture for decades, with his operatic stagings and heroic deeds and monumental edifices. Hurley’s photographs are horribly oppressive, monumental things.  Each of his images is arranged like an over-designed stage set: foreground forms frame a receding plane which forces the eye back towards infinity.  Every building is on the square, every landscape is crowned with piles of creamy cloud, and every citizen is frozen looking purposively somewhere, either diligently down at their work if it is a factory shot, or deeply into space if it is a landscape.  Every single element of every single one of his photographs is relentlessly bound into an obsessive, almost paranoid national enactment. Every beach, every lifesaver, every street, every building, every factory, every mountain, every valley, every koala – they all serve Australian progress.

Hurley roamed throughout Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, producing a whole set of picture books in every State of the Commonwealth. However, because Sydney is Australia’s pre-eminent city, Hurley’s Sydney images and similar images by other photographers had a defining role to play within a more broadly nationalist iconography. Sydney is the stage on which Australian progress has been primarily displayed. Unlike say, Melbourne’s discursive micro-mythologies of various gnostic places within the metropolis – this or that separate street or locality – Sydney’s special places are all oriented within the nationalist stage directions of Our Harbour, Our Beaches and Our Monuments.

But Sydney still has no equivalent to the Eiffel Tower, which is both a universal symbol of Paris as well as offering a panoramic perspective on it. Sydney may have its complement of skyscrapers built by ‘corporate high-flyers’, but these towers tend to constitute merely an undifferentiated vertical skyline, a generic backdrop to the ‘real’ Sydney rather than its central motif. Despite the recent popularity of Centrepoint Tower’s viewing platform there has been no consistent physical point from which to view Sydney panoptically. However, it is still remarkably easy to conceptualise Sydney in the mintd’s eye from an aerial perspective, with a panoramic view of its places. Because Sydney not only a physical, topographic, sociogeographic site for living, but also a giant, virtual amphitheatre of national imagining, it is easy to imagine it from this ideal perspective with all of its diverse places conceptually ordered within its twin destinies as Austral birthplace and gateway.

In the imperial histories of most Australiana picture books Sydney is not the scandalous Fatal Shore of recent popular historical revisions, but a sacred birthplace, a kind of 18th-century geo-political manger. And in the imagination of these books, Sydney’s manifest destiny reaches back deep into its rock strata. As L Cotton, Professor of Geology and Physical Geography at The University of Sydney, wrote in ‘As It Was

the Beginning’, the first chapter of Sydney: A Camera Study: ‘According to a time scale now generally accepted by geologists, it was nearly 200,000,000 years ago when nature laid the foundations of our city.’4 Those rocks then sat and waited, ignoring the Aborigines, for the First Fleet to arrive. As C H Bertie, past president and Fellow, Royal Australian Historical Society wrote in his chapter, ‘A City and a Nation are Built’: ‘We have no record of the ejaculations of the men as they entered the heads and discovered the extent and beauty of Port Jackson, but Phillip adequately summed up their impressions when he wrote, some months later in a report to Lord Sydney “We got into Port Jackson early in the afternoon and had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbour in the world”.’5

This kind of history telling has been described by Paul Carter in the Road to Botany Bay as ‘diorama history’: a mythological history which invents a point of view, a panoramic eye before whose gaze the historical facts unfold.  History becomes a sublime working model which renders time clockwork and miniaturises space.6 Diorama history continues to affect our relationship to our city. As John Thompson wrote of Sydney in his poem accompaniment to Max Dupain’s 1966 book Soul of a City:

Much of your pride is new-fangled, yet histories hide in your bricks.

Archway, balcony, staircase, paths of the poor and the rich,

Fill with echoes and shadows, the brave rough ghosts of the earlies,

Wherever a Sydneysider may pause and lean and muse.

A double lifetime ago there were trees where the traffic rolls;

A lifetime ago it was only the fearless who sped so far…7 Australian progress has always relied upon, but also feared, mass mobilisations of people.  For most of this century that unthinkable migration coming down upon us on a broad front from the north was only conceptually containable when countered by another controlled migration funnelled in through Sydney Heads. As John Thompson put it:

O beautiful, affirmative city!

O brooch on the breast of a continent in the caress of the sea!

Hub of exchanges, ideas and antilogies, eldest and freshest

Of all the brash clan of young cities that shine in the clean dry South!8 In this imagining Sydney was, in Ross Gibson’s words, safely South of the West, not vulnerably South of the East.9

Of course government policy has now changed our cultural longitude, and migration has made Sydney much more polyglot than in Hurley’s day.  But the carnival of nations is still drawn into the cradling arms of Sydney’s imperial history.  For example, there is currently a dispute between the multicultural festival Carnivale and the anglo-centric Festival of Sydney over just this question.  Should Carnivale stay dispersed amongst the various ethnic condensations on the invisible plain of Sydney’s flat suburbs, and remain a ‘community’ event for its participants; or should it be brought into coherent view within the already inscribed, defined, predetermined ground of Sydney City and become a ‘internationally prestigious’ event to benefit all of Australia?

Sydney has not only retained the original moment of colonisation, it has also remained the first point of penetration, physically and conceptually, into the heart of the country itself. To the rest of the world Australia is undoubtedly the Bush rather than Sydney, but nonetheless today’s tourists need to touch down at Kingsford Smith before flying on to the desert, and more importantly can only reach the ancient wonder of Uluru through a prior conceptualisation of the modern wonder of the Opera House.

To live in Sydney is to act as an Australian for others overseas. As Hurley says in his introduction to Sydney: A Camera Study. ‘I hope that those who study this book will feel a glow of civic pride, and appreciate more fully the splendid work done by our public services and institutions that have contributed so much to the citizen’s well being, safety, and convenience. I hope too, that when the pages of Sydney: A Camera Study are turned by friends overseas, the contents will rouse in them an urge to come and join us in Sydney, or in some other of our cities or towns.’10 Derek’s traced overlays, intended to illustrate his new spatial world for Mum, Dad and Shirley, are a personal, epistolary adumbration of this colonial relationship.

Since then, of course, Australia has become increasingly reliant on touristic, rather than colonial population mobilisation. As Meaghan Morris wrote in ‘Panorama: The Live, The Dead and The Living’: ‘Where imperialism wanted settlers for security, tourism needs visitors for endorsement. One regime values permanence and accumulation, the other transience and turnover, one fears invasion, the other metaphorically solicits it. Threatened by the ‘foreign’, the ‘primitive’, and by ‘ghosts’, imperialist discourse tends towards closure: it paranoically defends the borders it creates. A touristic space must be liberal, and open: the foreign and the primitive are commodified and promoted, ghosts are special effects: the only ‘barrier’ officially admitted is strictly economic.’11

The Sydney amphitheatre is still a node within this touristic space. Its job now is to be not so much a crowded city, as a city where crowds are deployed and made visible, just as the outback’s job in both nationalist and touristic imagining is to be empty except for either ghostly or intrepid presences.  Melbourne is a crowded city, but not a city of crowds. Its apocalyptic evacuation in On the Beach seemed to be its natural role (at least according to Ava Gardner), however the panoramic image of a nuked and desert-like Sydney on an old Midnight Oil record cover was meant to rouse us to indignation.

The crowds of Sydney aren’t just currents of teeming citizens, they are self-conscious festivals. Sydney’s crowds are there to enact a purpose: the crowds at the Mardi Gras, the Bicentenary, the footy, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, and the countdown to the announcement of the Olympic 2000 bid are all there to be seen to be there. Even when Sydney is exhorted to ‘let its hair down’ it does so in order to be admired by others.

The natural position for photographing this city seems to be up in the air, not only in a plane flying over the glinting harbour, but up with History itself, gazing over the shining events that make up the grand imperial narrative of Australia.  Countless images have pictured Sydney thus: ranged like stack seating around the Harbour, waiting for another First Fleet re-enactment or another Midget Sub attack. And countless other images -subversive collages or cheeky advertisements – have played with this repertoire, therefore reinforcing its primacy.

But of course if Sydney is a national diorama, for us who live here it is also a lived psychogeography.  Derek, in 1948, lived in the vista of Middle Harbour which he sent to his parents. He knew its contours, internal forces, and micro-histories intimately, and at the same time was proud of it as an abstract sign of his adopted country’s progress. Similarly we live, at one and the same time, in the abstract ‘Sydney’ and in our own locality, either on the North Shore, or in the Eastern Suburbs, the Western suburbs, or the Southern Suburbs. These sociomagnetic poles become the cardinal points of our: navigation: rich or poor, new or old money, working class or bourgeois, anglo or etr young or old, homely or trendy. Then there are the local ‘areas’, delicate atmosphe that ignore postcode boundaries. These are the sub-cultural enclaves: the residues outposts, the dying limbs and sprouting tendrils of any city. These differing urban densities and temperatures are the lacunae and folds of the city’s fabric which the panoramic view smooths away.

So the panoramic view of Sydney implies another, picturesque view, from down amongst it. It may be tempting to imagine that for every photographer ponderously positioning their camera on some eminent vantage-point in order to capture the monumental spectacle of Sydney, others have actively written their city of Sydney following personal paths within it. Many photographers appear to have inverted th unifying, prospective vision of Hurley’s dioramic photography of Sydney and sougf the fragmentary, the anecdotal, and the tangential.

There are several famous historical examples of this ‘other’ Sydney, for instance Harold Cazneaux’s middle-class dalliance with the besmirched, but pictorial, popp( the Rocks. Cazneaux lived on the North Shore, and in the 1900s photographed the children of the Rocks on his way to and from work in the city. In an article ‘In and i the City With a Hand Camera’ he described his techniques for hunting in these ne^ ‘picture grounds’ and warned his fellow amateur Pictorialists: ‘A trip down to the R | Area and Argyle Cut will convince any worker with pictorial imagination of what is I—I had, but photography is difficult in this neighbourhood. To be successful the work should have had some experience, as any nervousness of manner and lack of tact working here will only end by being ridiculed.  However go by all means and get broken in. Tact and expert manipulation of one’s camera is necessary if we wish to deal successfully with side street work in this locality.  Still the chances are that you may not like to return again.’12

Thirty-eight years later David Moore was out looking for American-style documentary poverty in Redfern on one of his weekends off from Max Dupain’s studio, with a Speed Graphic borrowed from Dupain. Suddenly he was yanked from the ‘cramped and sordid Redfern Lane’ and into the bedroom of Redfern Interior by a woman who mistook him for a newspaper photographer and demanded that he ‘take a picture and print it’.13

Although it may initially be tempting to see such photographic detours as the subjective, experiential reply to the demands of the panoptic, ideal Sydney, these photographers were not on a Situationist derive, or practising de Certeau’s ‘long poem of walking’.  If they were driven by any romantic desire it was the libidinous voyeurism of the flaneur. Their encounters were shot through with power, cliche, and stereotype, and were motivated by a pornographic desire to know the Other of civic place. Their reigning spatial metaphor is penetration, not drift. Thus they were always fully incorporated into Hurley’s imperial Sydney, analogous, in a way, to the discreet ads for ‘Naughty Sydney’s escort service’ at the back of the Tourist Guides left in hotel rooms.

Today Sydney has become as ‘overexposed’ as any other postmodern Western city. Our public life has shifted from the streets and plazas of our city to the screens and channels of our living rooms. Sydney’s famous crowds are now media, not civic events. In Meaghan Morris’s words, the media’s current demand ‘is for crowds, not population: people are needed to pass through a space (and be filmed or photographed), rather than inhabit it with communities.’14

The growth of the corporate towers that now form the backdrop in these images h meant that Sydney City has become evacuated of authentic ‘life’ (the town planner’s dreaded Doughnut Effect).  But although no longer ‘organically’ alive, Sydney City is i experientially dead. Those of us who may still, from time to time, walk in the cold an windy shadows of its office blocks, now find that its streets are being directly ‘theme a 1990s revision of Hurley’s dioramic national narrative.  For instance walkers occasionally come across a strategically placed sign-board, part of Westpac Bank’s Heritage Walk, which shows a photograph of the view from that exact spot a hundred years earlier.  If we wish we may go one step further and loll in a convict hammock at Hyde Park Barracks.  Soon, visitors to the Museum of Sydney, which has been incorporated into Governor Phillip Tower, will be able to interact with historical characters created by actors, scripts and computer technology. Visitors may even imagine them be phantoms rising directly from the soil of the archaeological site of first Govemment House, upon which the tower and the museum are built. Sydneysiders are no longer allowed to simply ‘pause and lean and muse’ on the ‘brave rough ghosts of the earlies’ as in John Thompson’s day. Now they must re-embody and re-enact, under controlled, sanitised conditions, the experience of those ghosts (now of both invaders, immigrants and Aborigines) as their civic duty to the commodified spectacle of Sydney.

Within the new historiographic logic of this theming, Sydney is now a compacted, archeological layering of contradictory historical moments, rather than simply the em stage for the perpetual unfolding of our imperial destiny. Yet it remains a mythic site the spectacle-culture of our nation.  Its potent vitality has been hollowed out into a shell a ruin. Sydney is now, more even than in Hurley’s heyday, an abstract space beyond contestation, waiting to be deployed within a primarily televisual spectacle of nationhood.  Reduced by cartoonist’s shorthand into the logo of a grafted Bridge/Opera House silhouette, or simply into an Opera House-shaped ribbon of exuberance for the Sydney 2000 Olympic bid, Sydney is now probably recognisable in a nano-second anywhere in the West.   Recent noisy conflict between the Federal, State and Local governments over the future of the Circular Quay precinct – the Cahill Expressway, the Customs House, East Circular Quay, even the Casino and the wharves – point to this intensifying national potency. The terms of the argument – universal aesthetic values,: amenability for promenading crowds, the need to have it all finished before ‘they’ arrive   in the year 2000 – all confirm Sydney City’s status as Australia’s televisual shop wine

It is this Sydney which is the site for current urban tactics. Some examples already present themselves. On Invasion Day 1988, Aboriginal protesters not only marched from Redfern to Hyde Park (tangentially, across the usual celebratory civic vectors, rather than, say, down George Street) but also invaded Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. What would have been a prime viewing balcony for proud white Australians became itself a stage for a protest which was televisually viewed by the world.

The televising of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras seemed to be the inevitable culmination of its history of contesting the straight’s hegemony over a particular urban place. After winning the right to march up Oxford Street, successfully claiming it as a gay and lesbian place, the next space to dance into is our living rooms, and the next place to claim a right to is television. But by covering the event in exactly the same way as an ANZAC Day march, perhaps the ABC withheld from the Mardi Gras the ultimate right to transform its televisual place.

It is within an urban dialectic that Sydney photographers work. Are they citizens or civic actors? inhabitants of a space they know like the back of their hand? or extras in perpetual civic festival? Or are they both?


Frank Hurley,  Sydney: A Camera Study, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1948

Frank Hurley,  Sydney: A Camera Study, p. 13

David P Millar, From Snowdrift to Shellflre, Sydney, 1984, p. 136

Frank Hurley,   Sydney: A Camera Study, p.10

Frank Hurley,  Sydney: A,Camera Study, p. 16

Paul Carter,  The Road to Botany Bay, London, Faber & Faber, 1987, pp. xix-xx

Oswald Ziegler, Max Dupain, John Thompson, Soul of a City, Sydney, Oswald Ziegler, 1966, unpaginated

Oswald Ziegler, Max Dupain, John Thompson, Soul of a City, unpaginated

Ross Gibson,  South of the West: Post Colonialization and the Narrative Construction of Australia, Indiana University Press, 1992

Frank Hurley,  Sydney: A Camera Study, p.7

Meaghan Morris, ‘Panorama: The Live, The Dead and The Living’, in Paul Foss (ed.) Island in the Stream, Sydney, Pluto Press, 1988, p. 182

Harold Cazneaux, ‘In and About the City with a Hand Camera’ in Australasian Photo Review, August and September 1910

David Moore,  David Moore: Australian Photographer, Sydney, Chapter & Verse, 1988, p.24

Meaghan Morris, ‘Panorama: The Live, The Dead and The Living’ p.182

The Lives of Max Dupain, 1986

The Lives of Max Dupain

Max Dupain’s Australia Viking, Australia, 1986. $39.95

‘Photofile’, Vol 4, No 4, 1987

Max Dupain’s eminence has been with him for over fifty years. In the 1930s, inspired by the Modernist movement of Europe and America, he first began to champion the New Photography against the remnants of Pictorialism. His eminence continued into the 1940s when, through his first monograph published in 1948 and the Australian Pho­tography 1947 annual, he espoused the ‘creative treatment of actuality’ dictums of the Documentary Movement. Later, in the 1960s and 70s, he was honoured by the architectural profession as Austra­lia’s foremost interpreter of their work.

More recently, however, his eminence has been taken out of his own hands. Gael Newton’s excellent exhibition at the AGNSW in 1980, with its accompanying monograph (his second), re-asserted the importance of the purely Modernist Dupain. Treating her work much more cursorily than it deserves, Gael Newton inserted Dupain into a worldwide Modernist Movement and constructed an artistic oeuvre for him which was fundamentally defined by the purist Modernist motivations of transcendant truth, beauty and form. His career as a commercial photographer, his documentary work of the 40s and 50s, and his later architectural work were all incorporated into the development of his larger artistic presence as Australia’s most eminent Modernist photographer.

This scholarly and useful approach has largely defined Dupain’s subsequent, and growing, eminence. However Max Dupain’s Australia operates tangentially to this familiar construction of Dupain’s importance as an Australian artist.

Although it is his third monograph Max Dupain’s Australia, as its title suggests, functions primarily as a picture book about Australia. Dupain’s artistic eminence is used to privilege his ‘personal’ view of Australia. Throughout the book’s text his personal artistic vision effortlessly transmutes into historical annecdote and commentary and then out of it again. The book’s extended captions often discuss his formalist reasons for composing and exposing a photograph in a certain way, and then go on to discuss the social configurations depicted in the image, all without changing register.

Therefore as a monograph, as a book about Dupain the photographer, Max Dupain’s Australia acts as the re-assertion of the voice of the artist — in the face of written history, and by claiming to be ‘raw’ history. In contrast to the careful scholarship of his second monograph, Max Dupain’s self-commentary is discursive, even eccentric. Yet even in its wilful idiosyncrasy this voice is immediately familiar to any who have read his newspaper reviews.1 It therefore re-asserts his eminence, but now on his own terms. Dupain the critic reclaims Dupain the artist for his own.

In terms of oeuvre Max Dupain’s Australia concentrates on his documentary imagery, particularly from the 1940s — the period of his first monograph    when    he    was    overtly

championing the Documentary Movement. The ideological rationale for the book is based in the 1940s, when truth was integral to the appearance of things, only waiting to be revealed by the perspicacity of an artist. In light of the encroaching Bicentennial celebrations it is significant that much of the book’s content comes from the 40s and 50s. In the postwar period industrial growth, progress, and a single, almost legendary ‘national character’ were valorized. The book also includes substantial amounts of Dupain’s later industrial and architectural work, however, in the context of the books narrative progression, these also become inscribed within its essentially 1940s vision of Australia’s nationhood — a simple people, a rugged land, and an ever expanding economic growth.

Although many of the same images appear in all three of Dupain’s monographs as well as his other books and exhibitions, their different contexts and accompanying commentaries give different inflections to Dupain’s eminence — nurturer of an artistic vision born within 1930s Modernism, or Documentary photographer revealing his country’s Nationhood. The Dupain of the 1980 monograph was a completed historical figure, with all of his influences and developments neatly incorporated into the whole. The Dupain of Max Dupain’s Australia tears at these contrasting historiographic ligaments and a re-animated voice rages from within.

For instance Dupain’s studio work of the 1930s, which is vital to the Dupain of the 1980 monograph because it provides him with a direct link to the Modern Photography Movements of Europe and America, is contemptuously dismissed by the Dupain of Max Dupain’s Australia with just one image and one line: “This typifies the glamour period which I endured at the early stages of my development. It was all about creating a make-believe atmosphere. The silhouette in dress suit and top hat is a rear projection onto a glass screen.”

Exposing the Australians in Focus

Exposing the Australians in Focus

Harold White Fellowship Lecture, National Library of Australia, 2011


The books I’m going to talk about this evening are the books you find on the bottom shelf at the very back of the second-hand bookshop. They have been slowly bending the chipboard shelves with their weight over the past years forty-five years. Now I think it is time that they were dusted off and re-examined.


There had been a trickle of Australiana photobooks throughout the twentieth century. For instance the British photographer E. O. Hoppe came to Australia in 1930 and shot the book The Fifth Continent. In the next decade Oswald Ziegler began to publish a long series of large-format commemorative volumes co-sponsored by various governments and municipalities. Many of his publications were designed by the European trained designer Gert Sellheim, who often constructed elaborate double-page panorama-montages of national destiny using photographs from a diversity of anonymous sources. Usually the images he used came from stock sources, however every now and again we can trace a montage fragment back to its origin. For instance one of his montages from 1946 contains an image taken by Roy Dunstan, a photographer for the middle class travel magazine Walkabout, of Gwoja Tjungurrayi, known as ‘One Pound Jimmy’. The image was originally taken near T. G. H. Strehlow’s camp in 1935 and first published in Walkabout in January 1936 with the caption ‘The aboriginal, as seen by the early explorers’,


During the 1950s Frank Hurley began to publish his series of ‘Camera Study’ scenery books, and they continued to be published well into the early sixties, even after his death in 1962. And occasionally the posh fine-art publisher Ure Smith would produce genteel photobooks about Sydney, or surfing.


As the 1960s progressed photobooks in this well established mould continued to be produced, but at a steadily increasing rate, and in an increasing diversity of approaches. The New Zealand photographer Robin Smith continued the tradition of Hurley’s scenery books. One of his many books, Australia in Colour, sold 50,000 copies. But the dodgy colour reproductions and haphazard layouts of his books were were beginning to look very tired and old fashioned. As well, corporations such as BHP or James Miller Ropes produced books as promotional tools. An example is The James Miller Story published in 1962 which succeeds in making even the daggiest of industries, rope making, appear glossy, glamorous and modern.


However some creative experiments with photographic formats were also published. For instance in 1957 Angus and Robertson published Piccaninny Walkabout, a children’s book shot on an Aboriginal mission by Axel Poignant, which told it’s story almost entirely in photographs. Three years later a small, charming book of post-Pictorialist photographs won a ‘Book of the Year’ prize. It was Melbourne a Portrait, designed and shot by the photographer Mark Strizic with words, translated into French and German to appeal to the overseas gift market, by the architect David Saunders. The cover was by Len French. The judges commented:

This book of photographs, printed by offset, is an outstanding production. All the illustrations have an attractive softness. Not often is text printed by offset so clearly and evenly carried out. The preliminary pages have been well treated and refreshingly break away from the stereotyped pattern…..


The judge’s comments pointed to one major technological change which was leading to the expansion of photobooks. Offset printing, as opposed to letterpress printing, allowed text and image to be more cheaply, conveniently and intricately integrated on the one page, while retaining photographic quality and textual clarity. The book was printed from Griffin Press in Adelaide, who were to establish a reputation for high quality offset printing. In addition, access to large offset printers in Asia meant that Australian picture books could be printed in Singapore, Hong Kong or Japan in bulk and at low cost. Many glossy promotional books were beginning to be printed in Asia. The Age said of Strizic’s Melbourne a Portrait: ‘It gives a truer picture of Melbourne than a book of more glossily conceived and executed pictures could ever do. It also gives a picture of an exciting and a vital city” Melbourne Truth (2/12/60) called it ‘friendly and intimate … Melbourne’s old familiar places, caught and held by the art of the camera, come alive with fresh beauty…In comparison, the glossy production of the Victorian Promotion Committee, Melbourne — Big, Rich, Beautiful, sinks to the level of a singing commercial’.


But in the mid to late 1960s there was a dramatic acceleration to this increasing flow of photobooks. Books began to be published which were larger in format, better in design, and integrated text and image even more closely. In addition, these books were no longer simply about scenery, or worthy propaganda flattering the progress of this or that municipality, or this or that manufacturing company, they were about Australia itself. And they were timely, about Australia in the 1960s, rather than timeless, about a generic Australia. And they were quite explicitly about the new Australian identity that was emerging in the post war period.


During this period there was a radical increase in the number of independent, start-up publishers in Australia such as Rigby, Landsdowne, Nelson and Jacaranda, all trying to get a slice of the boom in book sales. The value of Australian publishing increased eight fold between 1961 and 1979; and from 1961 to 1971 membership of the Australian Book Publishers Association increased from 37 to 67, of which nearly 40 were Australian owned.


There was also a vibrant discourse on the nature of Australian identity being carried on during this period, with landmark texts being widely read and discussed. These included the smash hit post-war migration novel They’re a Weird Mob, 1957, which sold 300,000 copies in three years; critiques of Australia’s urban environment in The Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd, 1960; discussion of the supposed success of Australia’s assimilation policies in I, the Aboriginal, by Douglas Lockwood, 1962; critiques of how Australia’s wealth and provincialism had made it uninspiring and indolent in The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties, Donald Horne, 1964; discussion of the country’s changing ethnic and age demography in Profile of Australia, Craig McGregor, 1966; and new approaches to thinking about Australian history in a world context in The Tyranny of Distance, Geoffrey Blainey, 1966.


As a background to this there was unprecedented wealth flowing from a mining boom, continuing mass migration from Southern Europe, and the beginnings of what would be our escalating commitment to the Vietnam War from 1966.


Significantly, as well, the Australian film industry would not undergo a renaissance until the 1970s. There were only a handful of feature films made in Australia during the sixties, and most were by overseas directors. The biggest hit was They’re a Weird Mob made by an English director in 1966, eight years after the book was first published. You can count the number of 1960s Australian feature films on the fingers of one hand, but at least sixty significant Australiana picture books were published during the same period


Looking back on this period from 1970, the novelist and journalist George Johnston commented:

I think it is significant that the rise over the past 20 years of a new, different, technological Australia runs almost parallel with the startling increase in and acceptance of books about Australia.’ The magazine quoting him added: ‘Perhaps there is also evidence that Australians are looking for an ‘instant heritage’”. [Walkabout 1970]


The Australians

In 1962 a National Geographic photographer named Robert Goodman came to Australia on assignment. Whilst here he met the Australian photographers Jeff Carter and David Moore, and worked with the Tasmanian born National Geographic staff writer Allan Villiers on a major National Geographic article on Australia. The article came out in September 1963 and established the dominant theme of the decade, the contrast between country and city. The articles he had assisted in lining up for Jeff Carter came out as ‘The Alice in Australia’s Wonderland’ in 1966; and for David Moore as ‘NSW The State That Cradled Australia’ in 1967. Whilst here, Goodman also conceived the idea of producing a high production value coffee table photobook about Australia for a global market.


Goodman, an extraordinarily energetic entrepreneur, got the support of a series of companies who were persuaded of the benefit of having a stock of books to be used as promotional gifts. 12 companies made $150,000 available over three years to finance the book, in return for10,000 copies to be used as promotional gifts. The companies were travel, mining and manufacturing companies and included: Qantas, the National Travel Association, Alcoa, Ansett, Associated Pulp and Paper, BHP, Commonwealth Bank, Felt and Textiles, IBM, International Harvester, Mutual Life and Citizens Assurance Company, P&O, H. C. Sleigh.


Goodman returned to Australia to shoot the book in 1964. He met the novelist George Johnston who had just returned from living abroad for fourteen years, and whose just-published sentimental autobiographical novel My Brother Jack was receiving critical and popular acclaim. Johnston agreed to write the text. Although many photobooks at this period were making use of the new Asian printers in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, Goodman ensured quality control by using the Adelaide independent publisher Rigby and the Adelaide printery Griffin Press, which was known for its quality, to have control over the colour separation, plate production, and paper quality. This control is indeed palpable in the final product. There is a wide variation in the print quality of the books I am discussing, but The Australians is amongst the best.


Goodman had also made important media connections, including with the class travel magazine Walkabout who a year out from the book’s publication began to build anticipation for it by covering his travel around Australia with his wife. When it was finally published in September 1966 the book was supported by an unprecedented publicity blitz, with articles and mentions in every magazine, from Pix, to the Women’s Weekly, to Walkabout, to Australian Photography, to Vogue Australia, as well as the newspapers. The coverage was tailored to each magazine, the Women’s Weekly featured his wife, Australian Photography showed the gear he had used. Even with the assistance of the copies going to the corporate sponsors, sales were excellent, despite the hefty coffee table price of $7.95. After it’s first edition of 35,000 copies sold out it went through several editions eventually staying in the best-seller list for a total of 14 months, and staying in print until well into the seventies. By 1970 it had sold 90,000 copies. [Walkabout 1970]


The big splash the book made was further increased by two exhibitions which were printed, one by the Australian Government for display in the US, and one by Ansett-ANA for display in Australia. 66 prints were sized from 1.5 metres x 1metre down to 75 cms x 50 cms. The book became a favourite corporate and government gift, being an official Gift of State at the Montreal Expo of 1967.


As well as its bar-setting production values, the other significant shift in the book was its change in subject matter from previous photobooks. It wasn’t about the continent of Australia simply inhabited by some people, it was about the people of Australia as formed by their continent. The empty urban and pastoral vistas of Hurley or Robin Smith, images of imperial potentiality, became landscapes of faces, a collective portrait.


The modernist designer Harry Williamson, a typographer who had trained at the London School of Printing, designed the book. Goodman and Williamson worked together projecting slides onto an enlarger baseboard. Goodman even returned to slide-rolls he had shot in 1962 on his first trip here, but flipped them and re-cropped them. Williamson cleaned up and de-cluttered each spread, and regularly punctuated the reader’s progress through the book with dramatic double-page images. But these spreads weren’t of vast distant landscapes or urban ravines, as we might expect from previous photobooks, but of the faces and most significantly the gazes, of Australians. Williamson said of his design of The Australians:


I believe it was quite a major statement in design. I tried to produce an integrated statement, to relate the pictures to the words and also to work to a specific grid which I designed, based on Bob Goodman’s 35mm shape. I could bleed the 35mm shape across on to the next page and it conditioned the column of text, generating a continuity throughout the book. I learned quite a bit about tuning things up from an editor from Newsweek [Jonathan Rinehart] who we used to edit the text. I’d do things in a rough sort of way, but he’d say ‘Look, we’re going to end every story on a big red shot, or … we’re always going to start this way.’ Although my grid was rational, I learned a lot from him about structure, about orchestration of pictures and that sort of thing.’ Caban 117


The flavour of The Australians was determined by its international context. It was photographed by a hot-shot American photographer, and narrated by a famous writer returning home after fourteen prodigal years as an expatriate. The bulk of Johnston’s text was a sequence of potted history chapters. These chapters followed a trajectory very familiar from lots of other Australiana photobooks — from the ‘land’ to the ‘people’ to ‘industry’, to ‘arts’, to ‘sport’ and finally ‘Anzac’ — but they were given personal colour by a series of short written vignettes mixing Johnston’s nostalgic recollections, anecdotes and social speculation. These paralleled the photographs quite closely, so text and image informed each other. For instance opposite an image of two Australians on a park bench we read:


The simplest generalization is that Australians and Americans are the two most instantly identifiable peoples of the western world. After ten years of living in Europe I could on a Mediterranean waterfront unerringly recognize from 150 yards away an Australian arriving on the noonday steamer. When I returned to my native land I had been absent for almost fourteen years. Yet everywhere I looked they were the same people I had recognized from the quayside, but infinitely multiplied. The first vivid impressions of homecoming I have not had reason to change…..


Reviews confirmed that The Australians had set a benchmark both in terms of the physical quality of the book, and in terms of its broadening of the themes and issues which could be encompassed by a Australiana photobook. Walkabout’s review of The Australians picked up on the book’s design sophistication and the closeness of the collaboration ‘His running text, which parallels the pictures, is a successful exercise in verbal interpretation which manages to avoid any trace of redundancy.” [September 1966]. While the bookseller trade journal Ideas indicated that this was a book to be sold as fundamentally about the national character of Australians caught between bush and city: ‘Both text and photographs reveal the outback — the back breaking pioneer character of the country which lead to the mateship quality of its inhabitants [as well as] the present-day, suburban, industrialized situation, which now leaves a question mark hanging over the character of today’s Australians’ [September 1966:]


Southern Exposure

The extraordinary success of The Australians prompted a series of replies from other publishers, as well as a series of attempts to jump on the Australiana bandwagon. The most trenchant reply came from Collins who published Southern Exposure in 1967, using a text by Donald Horne, who’s ironically titled The Lucky Country had been a talking point since it’s publication in 1964, and the photographer David Beal, whose black and white photographs had traces of the gritty documentary acerbity and class consciousness of photographers like Bill Brandt or Robert Frank.


The dust jacket states blurb its intention clearly:

Southern Exposure is the most original picture book on Australia yet to be published. It marks a departure from the stereotyped, quasi-official, ‘coffee table’ productions which portray in verbal and visual clichés an idealized picture of Australia. As Donald Horne says in his forward: ‘Neither of us — photographer or writer — could be bothered producing the ordinary kind of picture book on Australia. There are no photographs of koala bears in gum trees here … We are trying to get down in pictures and words the Australia we see…..


The cover images are just as explicit, and almost satirical. A prototype of ‘Norm’, the character Phillip Adams was to invent eight years later for a government sponsored exercise campaign called Life Be In It, holds a worker’s shovel but incongruously licks an ice cream — almost a visual encapsulation of The Lucky Country — while on the back cover the ‘real’ Australia remains dry and parched. The faces in The Australians were frontal and open with frank gazes, the faces in Southern Exposure are belligerent or turned away. Their gobs are plugged with bottles, cans or cigarettes. As in the cover, the book is full of sly and sardonic puns. A theatre-goer’s be-jeweled décolletage transmutes with the turn of the page to a drinker’s empty beer glass shoved down her blouse. The book ends with a sequence of two shots implying that both the bush and the suburbs are places where we are equally marooned. Other images, such as of bleached skeletons, a major visual trope of post war Australian iconography, seem to be out to directly trump Goodman’s more glamourized depictions, and Beal’s ANZACS, rather than looking weary but quaintly proud as in Goodman, just look smug and slovenly.


In contrast to Johnston’s expansive and easy-going anecdotes, Horne’s essays are densely written monologues, or almost harangues. To Horne, following on from The Lucky Country, Australians were provincial, complacent and intolerant. Just a skim through the chapter headings and sub-headings are sufficient to give a flavour of his text:

A transported civilization —What the Australians brought with them; Deserts of disaster —Australia’s manic-depressive cycles; The same but different — Australia as a province; Life in the south-seas — Good time Australia; Boxes of brick — Australia as a suburb; Mates— The Australians as a folk; Non-mates — The ‘Blacks’; Bosses — A crisis in leadership; The new Australia — A freshening; Existential Australia — A new style?


The pre-publicity for this book was nowhere near as extensive as that for The Australians. The trade journal Ideas said in July 1967:

Collins are very excited about this book and from what we can see have every reason to be. The photography is excellent and depicts the Australia that most of us know, rather than the Australia many publishers attempt to expose to the eyes of the world. … Absent are the clichés; the overtones of self-congratulation are missing’


The Australian newspaper was also keen:

Everything about it is brilliant, from its sardonic title and sleek presentation to its blistering essay and acute photographs (From ad in Ideas September 1967)


However the book raised the hackles of Walkabout, the travel journal that had doyens from the travel industry on its board, and which had supported The Australians. They complained:

This new genre of picture-book, solidly established last year by The Australians, was given an impeccable and sophisticated pattern by George Johnston’s text and Bob Goodman’s pictures. A welling, wholesome sanguineness swept through it. Australian frailties were admitted with grace, but Johnston’s pride in and Goodman’s American admiration for a people who had tamed but had been simultaneously moulded by a fiercely raw nature, and from scruffy beginnings had built a nation with no small part in the world’s affairs, arts, sciences and sports, seeped through unashamedly. Achievement was the keynote.


In [Southern Exposure], people will read what is tantamount to a lecture to Australians themselves from a superior posture of niggling, radical intellectualism. The Top People, gibes Donald Horne, have come to a dead end, and can’t tell the rest what to do next. Australians are provincial, superficial, and existential, and they have lost the ability to “conceptualise”, raise issues and find broad meaning [except] in action which is now a relief from meaning. They have become imitators and adapters. Even their individualism has become group individualism. They are more concerned with “ordinariness” and mindless conformity.’ [September 1967]


Not surprisingly most Australians agreed with Walkabout’s assessment and weren’t going to pay money to be insulted. The book did reach the best seller list in September 1967, exactly one year after the Australian’s spectacular debut, but stayed there only one month, compared to Goodman’s fourteen. (However many other books I will discuss never made it to best seller status at all.)


It was clear from Walkabout’s over the top reaction that the agenda for photobooks had now shifted, from the purely promotional where it had been for decades, to the personal and political.


Jeff Carter Outback in Focus

Jeff Carter had cleared the equivalent of $3200 from his National Geographic assignment and, more importantly, it had left him with a stock of 3000 colour slides to draw upon. He was regularly publishing letterpress books, where photograph and text were printed on different pages, but in 1967 he moved into offset photobooks with Central Australia in 1967, and Outback in Focus in 1968, published by Rigby, the publishers of The Australians. These books enabled him to place the National Geographic slide stock, and the work he had been doing on an almost weekly basis for the popular magazines Pix and People into the broader more expanded context established by The Australians and Southern Exposure. Even some of the layouts that were occurring in the weekly magazines, such as Pix, People and Australasian-Post, could be transferred to books with higher quality printing.


These books took as their topic Carter’s favourite site, what he called ‘Centralia’. Outback in Focus valorised individual farmers, stockmen and fossickers, but took issue with the pastoral industry as a whole, which he accused of destroying the environment of central Australia. He also critiqued the standard assimilationist trajectories espoused by magazine like Walkabout. In these comforting narratives traditional Aborigines were noble, fascinating and grand, but they were inevitably the last of their generation. White education would produce new Aborigines fully functioning in white society, but still with some residual qualities of Aboriginality.


Carter was quite clear to his readers that this narrative couldn’t play itself out while there was still social and economic exploitation and injustice in Central Australia.  Quasi ‘anthropological’ gangs of figures or faces were a very popular graphic trope in many photobooks. It was used on any exotic species from opera dowagers to Aborigines. In one spread Carter seems to use this ganging layout to give us a standard assimilationist ascension to civilization across the two pages, but only when reading the caption do we realize that he is undermining it.


This Wailbri tribesman is amongst the last generation of Aborigines still capable of a nomadic life.

This man could still live in the bush too, but looks to the ways of the white man for a better life.

This Alice Springs policeman works as a white man, but is not paid as a white man or treated like one.’


On the page before Carter’s triptych another familiar image of a tousled hair aboriginal boy, commonplace enough since the days of Piccaninny Walkabout, comes with the warning:


Friendly, but doubtful now, this youngster’s attitude to white men will almost inevitably harden into active dislike. The onus is squarely on the white man to win the respect and trust of the black minority.


Walkabout, by now connoisseurs of travel books, praised the proximity Carter got to their beloved outback. They themselves had been responsible for reproducing frequently the head of ‘One Pound Jimmy’ taken by Roy Dunstan in 1935, such that it finally becoming iconicised into a postage stamp, so they praised the frank frontality of Carter’s Aboriginal heads — while ignoring the acerbity of their captions.


Some of his pictures here, in particular aboriginal portraits in colour, are magnificent. In flesh tint and texture, definition of form and line, use of light and projection of character they, in my view, transcend the mechanical and become Carter-creative. I have never seen better, nor such good reproduction by a Japanese printer.


Perhaps because two years had elapsed since the publication of The Australians, they didn’t directly take issue with his critiques of the outback as vehemently as they had Beal’s critiques of Australia as a whole.


The author-photographer describes the aboriginal population as he knows it, and deplores the poor treatment they get, despite legislation to improve their lot and their pay. ‘The new laws are scarcely worth the paper they are written on’, he asserts. A lot of outback topics Carter writes about are well in focus, starkly defined indeed. [August 1968]


Like Southern Exposure a year before Outback in Focus spent just one month in the best-seller list in August 1968.


Kings Cross

Other topics can also been looked at to trace this development in the sophistication and agenda of photobooks. Kings Cross was a staple subject of almost all photobooks about Sydney. Kenneth Slessor, author of the quintessential Sydney poem, 1939’s Five Bells and the book Darlinghurst Nights, was the virtual laureate of Sydney. In 1950 he wrote the text for a Ure Smith book on Sydney illustrated by a variety of photographers including Max Dupain, and in 1965 he wrote the text for a book on Kings Cross.


However his prose in Life at the Cross is rather journalistic and anodyne, and the photographs by Robert Walker are rather distant. The book, which in true promotional style includes a welcome from the Lord Mayor of Sydney, never really gets behind the scenes, or when it does there is a sense that the action has been staged. The design uses lots of small photographs to create a sense of business, but their grouping is incoherent, and their visual dynamism is dispersed.


However six years later, after several years of visitation to The Cross from US servicemen on R & R leave from the Vietnam War which began in late 1967, and the beginnings of the hippy movement, Kings Cross was done again by Rennie Ellis and Wes Stacey. Their book, Kings Cross Sydney, is much more satisfying than the earlier book. The picture groupings are graphically dynamic, and we are taken right into the dressing rooms and hippy pads of the area. The text, while not poetical, is nonetheless pungently personal.


Graham Kennedy’s Melbourne

Other publishers undoubtedly saw a bandwagon to jump on. The ‘King of Television’, Graham Kennedy, lent his name and his image to a book published by Nelson in 1967. The Channel 9 photographer Barrie Bell went round with Graham and took a total of six shots which were dropped in amongst the stock photos from the likes of Mark Strizic and Wolfgang Sievers. For a shot by Brian MacArdle of a South Yarra restaurant Graham comments:

Every second Melbournite has become a sort of instant connoisseur who can chat knowledgeably about Cabernet reds and steak Béarnaise. I know, because I’m one of them myself. I used to think it was snobbery to go beyond a steak (medium thanks) with chips, washed down with a lager. Now I know there are few things in this life to beat good cooking, good company, and a glass or two of good wine.


Made in Australia

When the English low cost, mass distribution publisher Paul Hamlyn entered Australian publishing they also saw potential in the photobook boom. After working with the English photographer David Mist on a book about Sydney. They accepted his idea of copying a 1967 book by the London fashion photographer John D Green called Birds of Britain, and doing a Swinging London, Carnaby Street style take on Australian women. The Sydney bon vivant and wine expert Len Evans would write the cheeky Playboy-style captions. Made in Australia the large format book that resulted in 1969 attempted a kind of groovy design aesthetic, but the ungainly addition of graphic elements like speech bubbles shows the limits of offset printing at the time. Nonetheless it was launched by none other than Patrick McNee from The Avengers TV series in Len Evans’ own restaurant.


In Her Own Right

Made in Australia deliberately and completely ignored the Women’s Movement. But in the same year Nelson published a book of essays called In Her Own Right edited by Julie Rigg which addressed what she called ‘the woman problem’:


The unresolved struggle for equal pay; the occupational problems faced by married women — whether or not to work in a society where industrial expansion depends on tapping married women as a convenient labour pool, but in which child care facilities are grossly inadequate — and the problems of the older married woman who finds her skills as a mother redundant once her children have grown, but is ill-equipped to do very much else; the inequalities of status and treatment which women still experience in many areas of occupational and social life.


The book was illustrated with photographs by Russell Richards, and its design was generally conservative and subservient to the text, however occasionally it breaks in to full bleed double page spreads reminiscent of The Australians.


To Sydney With Love

The combination of David Mist and Len Evans was a good one to target the upwardly-mobile, male, urban-dandy market, but other combinations seem more forced. In 1968 Nelson teamed the social commentator Craig McGregor, who had had the idea for In Her Own Right, with the Austrian-born landscape photographer Helmut Gritscher in To Sydney With Love. McGregor attempted a very personal beat-poetry meditation on Sydney. He opened his text late at night standing on the roof of a block of flats in Potts Point looking into Woolloomooloo:


I know this city, I comprehend it utterly, my guts and mind embrace it in its entirety, it’s mine. It was a moment of exhilaration, of exquisite and loving perception, my soul stretched tight like Elliot’s across this city which lay sleeping and partly sleeping around me and spread like some giant Rorschach inkblot to a wild disordered fringe of mountains, and gasping sandstone, and hallucinogenic gums.


But despite this attempt to ramp up the emotional ampage of the book Gritscher, primarily a landscape photographer most comfortable behind a long focal-length lens, shots things very much at a distance and brought the book back down again to the pedestrian level.


In The Making

However in 1968 McGregor collaborated with the photographers David Moore and David Beal as well as the designer Harry Williamson (the designer on The Australians) on another Nelson book which was to be the largest and most technically ambitious book of the decade. The reader’s experience of In the Making was very much led by Williamson’s design, which compared to the robust simplicity of The Australians, over-reached itself in its complexity. Ostensibly about the process of art making, from poetry to opera, the book must have been a confusing experience for the reader. McGregor’s potted biographies were quite trivial, and had a clever archness to them which failed to engage with any real issues. The photographs were often repetitive in their documentation of the artist at work or, confusingly, they were used as abstract design elements to illustrate the meaning of some poems or pieces of music. And the collage-like design with its lack of chapters and headings was often bewildering. It was a giant book, and at $19.95 a very expensive one, even if aimed at the Paddington or South Yarra coffee table market. It seems to have never made it anywhere near the bestseller list.


By the 1970s the number of Australiana photobooks being published died down. Although some notable photobooks were published from time to time in 1970s, not many took the totality of Australian identity as their topic, and few had the big corporate budgets of the 60s books. The adventures of travel writers like Jeff Carter transmuted into the gonzo TV shows of the Leyland Brothers or the films of Albie Mangles. The expeditions of Walkabout magazine transmuted into the TV shows of Bill Peach. What the seventies had, of course, which the sixties didn’t, was an Australian film industry. Perhaps the last book in the traditional style was A Day in the Life of Australia, initiated by another American photojournalist Rick Smolan, and published in 1981.



In conclusion I hope that I have convinced you that the late 1960s produced a series of photobooks which were not only important and formative collaborations between publishers, writers, artists and designers, but also engaged with real issues of the moment. Is there any legacy here for us? These books were produced during a period of economic boom and geopolitical re-alignment. Many of them were structured around the contrast between the economy and culture of the bush, in particular the mining industry and the pastoral industry, and the economy and culture of the city, in particular its suburban inhabitants. The 1960s had a two-speed economy and a two-speed culture. Mining and pastoral interests have recently re-entered our media and our cultural discourse in a big way to argue against things such as the Mining Industry Super Profits Tax, the temporary cessation of the live export trade, or a price on carbon, and to argue for such things as special industry assistance. In doing so they have been able to draw upon a deep well of iconography produced over many decades, largely, though of course not exclusively, by photobooks such as the ones I have discussed. I think at the background to many of these massive PR campaigns is the implication that real jobs, authentic Australians and nationally significant activities remain in the bush, rather than the suburbs, and should naturally take some kind of historical priority in defining the terms of everything else. This is exactly the same background implication that was at issue in The Australians, Southern Exposure, and Outback in Focus


This debate appears to be coming around again, but after having my head stuck in these books for the last couple of month, its terms, and its visual iconography, appear to me to be very familiar.


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

Ten Series/106 Photographs

Mathew Sleeth, ‘Ten Series/106 Photographs’, review in Photofile 82, 2007, p76

Matthew Sleeth Aperture 2007

Maybe there are two ways to present groups of pictures: either as stories or as series. Matthew Sleeth’s picture book Tour of Duty from 2002 told the story of Australia’s mission to East Timor in wonderfully ironic pictures with powerfully centrifugal compositions — and became an instant classic. Since then, however, Sleeth has increasingly used simple ideas to assemble series of deadpan pictures, which he has either published as limited edition artists books, or exhibited as large scale installations.  Ten of these series are gathered together for this handsome and rewarding book, under a title that doffs its hat to the patron saint of conceptual photography Ed Ruscha.

In most contemporary photobooks shots such as a red fire extinguisher wedged between two blue seats on a train, or an indoor plant’s drooping leaves illuminated by the same grimy sun that also picks out the smoke drifting from an unextinguished cigarette, would be used as occasional cutaways to add a psychological ambience of claustrophobia or ennui to the photographer’s unfolding drama. But in this book we find them in the two series 10 Fire Extinguishers and 13 Houseplants, where they can be nothing other than themselves.

Like countless photographers before him Sleeth is a traveller, a voyeuristic cruiser thorough the globalised world of Japan, China, Europe and Australia. His subject is the everyday, and everything about this book is understated, cool and downplayed. But his conceptual series are not as formally objective or archivally rigorous as in the ‘Düsseldorf school’ inspired by Bernd and Hilla Becher — Sleeth’s series are idiosyncratic, provisional and incomplete, and his compositions fractured and fleeting. Nor is his vision of our contemporary corporate reality as dystopian as other photographers — it is not as overheated as Wolfgang Tillmans, say, or as sardonic as Martin Parr. This is not only a humanistic book, it is also a happy book.

It opens with a short series Women in Uniform. These portraits, the only direct ones in the whole book, are not of your usual exotic Japanese cyborgs, but real people who just happen to be wearing uniforms, some of them endearingly scruffy. It ends with a series Feet shot on a Tokyo subway. Similarly these images of dislocated shoes and knees and vinyl are full of personality and warmth.

Sometimes Sleeth’s conceptual conceits for his series work very effectively. For instance his series Red China is linked together by a political pun on the colour red — the colour of communism but also the colour of capitalistic triumph used by corporations such as coco-cola. At other times his conceits can’t sustain the series. Photographing all the signs in the Louvre pointing tourists to the Mona Lisa might have seemed like a cute idea on the day, but it makes for a low point in the book.

The high point of the book is the series Kawaii Baby, in which a cavalcade of Japanese smile and laugh and coo at Sleeth’s toddler daughter, who only ever appears as a puff of golden hair at the bottom of some of the frames. Many individual photographs are tour de forces of compositional complexity combined with restrained emotion. For instance in Pictured #36 a window reflection overlays a network of Christmas lights over a private scene between two people, all superimposed onto a lonely railway platform.

Martyn Jolly

Out of Time: Essays Between Photography & Art

‘Out of Time: essays between photography and art’ by Blair French, review in Photofile 81, 2007, p76.

Out of Time: Essays Between Photography & Art
Blair French
Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, 2006
$25, 120 pp B/W  illustrations

In the 1990s Blair French was a curator at the Australian Centre for Photography (ACP) and managing editor of Photofile, before completing a PhD at Sydney University on the photograph’s central role within contemporary art. These sixteen short essays were mostly written following on from that PhD. Some were originally introductory catalogue essays, some were reviews, and a sequence of five, which are the most substantial in the collection, were commissioned by the CACSA for its Broadsheet. French not only analyses the key tendencies currently defining art photography, but also urges a continuing criticality on behalf of us, the viewers. He does not mean the ability to identify ‘good’ and ‘bad’ photographic genres, but a self-reflexive discrimination towards each specific photograph within its historical moment.

And this is a historical moment of posts: post postmodern simulacra and appropriation, post poststructuralist theories of representation, post the supposed threats of the digital revolution, and post the easy comforts of naïve humanism. But what we are not post, as this collection makes clear, is the reality of social experience, and the privileged indexical connection photography maintains to the real. At the same time, more than ever photography has become a heaving mass of imagery merged and flattened into a representational homogeneity which tends to commodify the image into banal spectacle. It is against this background that French tries to throw into critical relief the practices of a variety of contemporary  Australian and New Zealand photographers.

The essays concentrate on two groups of photographers. Initially he looks at those, such as Selina Ou, Darren Sylvester and Anne Zahalka, who work in the familiar style which has dominated art photography recently — the large, singular, seamless, hermetic, constructed pictorial scene. Later, he expands his attention to those who, in various ways, reprocess the direct presence of history, memory and death in the photograph, such as Lyndell Brown & Charles Green, Silvia Velez, or the New Zealand street-photographer Peter Black.

He writes in intelligent support of many of these photographers, but has thoughtful criticisms to make of others. For instance, although Deborah Paauwe’s photographs of sexualised adolescent girls knowingly mobilize a potent set of photographic conventions and social histories, for French they fail to connect with any tangible experience, so they ultimately don’t make any real trouble for the viewer, as they should. In another nicely nuanced reading of Selina Ou, French is worried by the stultifyingly conventional sense of detachment the photographs relentlessly give to their subjects. He occasionally widens his focus to encompass photography’s institutions. For instance he is critical of the installation of Trente Parke’s show Minutes to Midnight  at the ACP, where he finds the artist’s tendency to ‘optical hyperbole’ exacerbated by the overbearing theatricality of the hang which overcooked it into mere visual distraction.

Although I thought his rather forced discussions of artists like Derek Kreckler and Geoff Kleem needn’t have been reprinted, with perhaps more space spent on reproductions, this collection establishes Fernch as a serious thinker and an astute reader of the contemporary Australian photography.

Martyn Jolly

Martyn Jolly is Head of Photomedia at the Australian National University School of Art