The Darkroom by Anne Marsh

‘The Darkroom by Anne Marsh’,  review in Photofile 71, p79, 2004

The Darkroom: Photography and the Theatre of Desire, Anne Marsh, Macmillan, Melbourne, 2003.

There is a slow but seismic change going on in the world of photographic theory. When the idea of a ‘theory of photography’ first took off in the 1970s it was built around a model of the camera as an instrument for surveillance and objectification. Recently a range of theorists and historians have been re-evaluating and re-interpreting the original texts which have underpinned photographic theory, and have started to turn over the ground in previously neglected areas of photographic history. Anne Marsh’s book is an important contribution to this wider movement. She writes an account of photography which sees photographs as not only capturing reality, but also providing transactional spaces for both photographer and subject to perform their own desires and embody their own memories. The photograph is still a veridical, ideological document, but it is also a phantasmogoric space of fantasy and corporeal resistance.

This is a history of photography in which the central technology is not the cold glass eye and the guillotining shutter blade, but the dark room — be it a camera obscura, photographer’s studio, séance room, or ritualistic performance space. This is a history of photography where it matters, for example, that the camera obscura was initially a room-sized space in which people moved about, within the introjected image; or where it matters that to many people it felt as though photographs were able to preserve the diaphanous ‘skins’ which seemed to be perpetually emanating from bodies. This is a history in which photography is not only the paradigm of modern technological verisimilitude, but also a ‘virus’ infecting Modernity’s authority with its fleshy fantasias.

Marsh ranges across photographic history, from its technological pre-history to the present, and from well-worn global figures to little-known local ones. Surrealist photography is discussed, again, but so is spirit photography, which is only now beginning to receive critical attention. Famous nineteenth century photographers such as Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron are discussed, again, but so are contemporary queer photographers. The book could have been even more engaging if it had relied even less on stock examples from the European and American avant-garde, and gone even further into alternative, vernacular or local photographies.

Marsh spends most of her time using Lacanian psychoanalysis to develop her theoretical position out of the last twenty-five years or so of structuralist and post-structuralist theory (Foucault, Barthes and so on). Even though these sections are leavened with the occasional new and unexpected example (such as the media self-performance of the 1920s celebrity-crim Squizzy Taylor) she never seems quite able to make the multifarious secondary-sources she uses her own, and she jumps around a fair bit between them. The reader waits with anticipation for a pay-off in the final section where she deals with contemporary queer performance and photography, as well as some current Australian photographers. There is no doubt that her take on Gordon Bennett, Tracey Moffatt, Linda Sproul, Deborah Paauwe, Anne Ferran and Polixeni Papapetrou will be a crucial contribution to discussions of the way racial, sexual and maternal subjectivities, inherited from the ‘optical unconscious’ of the photo archive, are being re-written in Australia. Yet at this point her analysis becomes slightly selective and equivocal, she never seems quite willing to grapple with the work of these photographers in all of its disparate physical complexity, perhaps ultimately having reached the extent of her psychoanalytic methodology.

Martyn Jolly

Martyn Jolly is an artist and a writer. He is head of Photomedia at the ANU School of Art. He has a Phd in Visual Arts.

Lee Grant’s Belco Pride

‘Belco Pride’, introductory essay for Lee Grant Belco Pride, 2012, pp6-9, ISBN 978-0-98734-950-7

Let’s start with the graffiti Lee Grant photographed, now erased, which gives this book its title. When it was first established in 1966, Canberra’s new town of Belconnen took its name from an original 1837 land grant to the explorer Charles Sturt. The origins of the name are obscure, but its undulating syllables seem to contain aboriginal vowel sounds, while also ringing with hints of English-styled pastoral beauty. As the various suburbs of Belconnen were progressively surveyed and gazetted during the next forty years, the new residents (or ‘first settlers’ as local historians insist on calling them, as though they were heroically following the westward-ho migration of our colonial pioneers) fanned out and made them their own. In typically Australian fashion they began to contract the three syllables of Belconnen down to two. Their affectionate name for the place is now a wry belch that refuses all pretension. The fact that the graffitist should choose to declare their pride in the swathe of suburbs they call home by vandalizing them is also a claiming by refusal. Their act of unruly defiance re-reverses the metaphoric effect of the barbed wire that had been bolted to the top of the wall. The barbed wire had turned this part of Belconnen into a grim parody of a prison, however with the graffiti added the wall becomes part of a local suburb once more. These processes of refusal and reversal are typical of the ways that new suburban ‘settlers’ make a chthonic connection for themselves to the places in which they spend every day, within the larger civic aspirations of the governments, planners, and architects who had initially designed those places, and then moved on.


In many ways Belconnen is like so many other outer suburbs around the world: sprawling in the sun across hills and ridges till finally petering out in a farmer’s back paddock; fed by tributaries of Cul-de-sacs, Places, Closes, Circuits, and Streets, which trickle into Roads, Ways and Drives along which a bus will occasionally lumber. It has posher areas — the hilly, breezy, leafy older suburbs closer to the centre of the city and the cycle paths and dog walking tracks of Canberra’s Nature Park; and it has bogan areas — the outer suburbs which are flung a further ten minutes drive away. One of these outer suburbs, Charnwood (or Charny as it know to its residents), has even become a synonym, universally recognized across Canberra with an unspoken micro-twitch of the eyebrow, for the crime and poverty of social disadvantage.


Yet if Belconnen shares many of these social dynamics with so many other suburban areas in so many other cities in the world, it is also in many ways unique, because Canberra itself is unique: Canberra, barely one hundred years old, the planned, artificial capital of a new nation, which has only two other comparators — Brasilia and perhaps Washington; Canberra, the repository of the symbolic dreams of generations of bureaucrats and politicians; Canberra, the experimental laboratory for the utopian plans of generations of civic planners and architects, at least until it was forced to govern itself after 1988; Canberra, the seat of parliament from which all those unpopular laws emanate; Canberra, the national byword for middle class, privileged insularity, supposedly permanently out of touch with the ‘real Australia’; and Canberra, two hours from the nearest decent beach. While these caricatures have very little day-to-day reality for those of us who actually live here, they nonetheless persist as a kind of distant horizon, something we occasionally catch an unexpected glimpse of. For example when they aren’t bestowed with Aboriginal names, Belconnen’s suburbs are named after former Prime Ministers — Holt, Scullin, Page and Bruce; or former worthies — Melba and Florey.


Canberra was conceived along garden city principles, with semi-autonomous new town satellites such as Belconnen connected to the city centre by freeways. Accordingly, Belconnen has one of everything: one university, one mini-lake, one arts centre, one community centre, one remand centre, one shopping mall, and one Bunnings. Beneath this town level Canberra’s planners designed smaller neighbourhoods, with streets curled around primary schools and sets of shops. These carefully planned neighbourhoods, in this carefully planned new town, connected by long curving freeways to this carefully planned city, have now become just Belco to the people who live there. Yet the legacy of the idea of Canberra remains, in Belconnen’s planning successes, and in its failures. Benjamin Way, the main drive through the ‘town centre’, turns off the main route leading northwest from Canberra’s CBD. It may lead past a familiarly generic Westfield shopping mall, but the lake it is heading towards, Lake Ginninderra, is entirely artificial, made by damming a creek in order to continue the overall plan of making Canberra a landscape city. On the way to the lake the road has passed the remains of the Cameron Offices which, when they were built in the 1970s to provide a centre of government employment for the new town, were at the forefront of architecture. However their brutalist concrete flying buttresses and large interior voids created wind tunnels and an acute sense of isolation, and they were unloved by both the public servants who worked in them and the Belconnen residents who drove past them. They have now been demolished, with only one architecturally representative fragment, protected by the Commonwealth Heritage Register, remaining. Between the benighted Cameron Offices and the mall was once the Belconnen Bus Interchange. In 1980 it was linked to the surrounding civic infrastructure with what was at the time a futuristic innovation, an aerial network of enclosed walkways like plastic tubes running above the street. But unfortunately these, too, turned out to be windy, dangerous, unloved and unmaintained until they were finally demolished in 2009. Recently the ACT government have placed an eight-metre tall sculpture of an Owl at the beginning of Benjamin Way as a new ‘gateway marker’ for the town centre, it remains to be seen whether this bold gesture, which appeared on their streets unbidden, will be embraced by the people of Belconnen or not.


Narratives like these, of larger ambitions within bigger historic frameworks, inevitably affect in a unique way the experience of living in what is really a relatively small cluster of suburbs. Although none of these narratives are directly referred to in Grant’s photographs they nonetheless form the distant horizon to the everyday suburban activities which Grant, who herself grew up in Belconnen amongst all of those histories, has documented.


Since it became the dominant mode of living in the West in the 1950s, suburbia has been one of documentary photography’s natural homes. Bill Owens’s seminal 1972 book Suburbia set the tone for much of this genre. His wide-angle black and white photographs, with captions written underneath by their subjects, were shot in Livermore California by a photographer who was an outsider. He approached his subjects like an anthropologist might, with a point to make about the new tribe he had discovered. Many other photographers since have shared Owens’s distant fascination with suburbia, its quaint rituals and its kitsch pomposities. Others, who may have grown up in suburbia but then left it for the ‘real world’ of the big city, have returned, but they usually view it with a residual sense of estrangement. The dominant moods of this suburban photography are either Gus van Sant ennui or Stepford Wives satire. Clichés are beginning to emerge. William Eggleston’s picture of a man sitting with a gun on his quilt-covered bed in Mississippi from his 1976 book William Eggleston’s Guide set the paradigm for thousands of other lone figures sitting in enigmatic contrast to the business of the ordinary rooms around them. Thousand of other photographers have photographed suburban houses, often at dusk with glowing, glaucomal windows, barely protected in their manicured quarter-acre patches from the glowering sky above them. Hundreds more have photographed discarded toys and tricycles, shot from low angles tipped over in hallways or driveways, their young owners portentously absent.


Australians have carved out their own strong traditions of suburban photography. Some, like Grant, have immersed themselves deeply and very personally into its rituals, such as Ruth Maddison in Christmas holiday with Bob’s Family, Queensland, 1978, or Trent Parke’s more recent The Christmas Tree Bucket, 2008. Others such as Darren Sylvester, Tracey Moffatt or Glenn Sloggett have used suburbia as a way of staging a particular state of mind. Broader Australian culture has a rich tradition going back at least forty years of suburbia being a site where all of its anxieties about national identity were played out, in TV sit-coms from Kingswood Country to Kath & Kim; in films from Don’s Party to The Castle; in painting from Howard Arkley to Reg Mombassa, and in theatre from Patrick White to Dame Edna Everage..


But Grant is not a returning nostalgic, nor an anthropologist visiting for a fieldwork project, nor somebody acting out her own psychodramas within a suburban mise en scéne. She lives there, and she has always lived there. And like everybody else in Belconnen she’s more concerned with day-to-day realities Belconnen shares with every other suburb, rather than Canberra’s status as the nation’s capital. The people of Belconnen are front and centre in Grant’s photographs. She uses a square format camera, but not to swirl a vertigo of space around her subjects as, say, Diane Arbus might have, but to catalogue the home ground in which her subjects are located. Thus, the colour of Sophie at Snippets’ eye shadow chromatically rhymes with her shampoo bottles and the beaded curtain to her parlour. Still in Charnwood, the white shirts of Dennis and Lesley team with the white of the faux marble bench top and the kitchen curtains in a confection of pure suburban honesty, which sets off the raw pink of their skin and their kitchen cabinet doors. The colour white is also crucial to her portrait of Aja, Adau, Mary and Nankir, Sudanese refugees now of Dunlop. There the white of the dresses, curtains, and walls contrasts with the warm mahogany of the regal chairs they sit on, the floral patterns on their carpet, clothes and sandals, and also their skin. There is very little arrogance displayed by the people in this book, even the eyes of the Graffhead that Grant has photographed — hands thrust into his hoodie pockets, face hidden behind his protective mask — are slipping sideways. The most tattooed and bearded character in the whole book, Cons, is clearly still a kidult, although a father he still likes to scoot his low riding dragster bike around the streets of Latham before tea time. Grant also avoids condescension. The young stilt walker — standing in front of an irredeemably ugly wall at the Charny Carny, whose red circus jacket rhymes with a transportable ice-cream stall manned by a child and precariously resting on some pallets — still manages to maintain the dignity of her elevation. The most common aspect her subjects show us is a shy cock of the head, and a slightly formal hitched-up stance, from which a clear-eyed gaze at the camera eventually emerges.


Many of Grant’s interior portraits rely on an all-over mapping of edge to detail, but many of her exteriors are organised in horizontal bands from ground to sky. In keeping with Canberra’s overall plan, Belconnen is a town set in a landscape, and that landscape is over half a kilometre above sea level where the air is crisp and dry, the sky china-blue and distant edges retain a piercing acutance. The traditional suburban banding, familiar since Eggleston, of horizontal road, inclined driveway, vertical brick wall, and infinite sky, stands out in hyperreal clarity beneath the cool Canberra sun. Refugees from Sudan, the Duot Family, stand in their sandals, runners and suits in front of their new Dunlop home. With its Georgian styled aluminium windows, freshly inserted shrubs and patches of grass, it looks like it could be the hastily built display from a home show. In Pipeline, Ginninderra Creek, the creek that was dammed to form Belconnen’s artificial lake picturesquely winds off below the weir towards an overhead pipeline that cuts across the landscape below a ridge full of houses. In Ginninderra underpass a cold light arrows in, turning the creek into mirror flawlessly reflecting the graffitied walls.


Grant has documented the experiences of people in suburbia which are at once specific, belonging to a particular set of suburbs in the ‘new town’ of a planned capital with a particular history, and universal, part of a global experience shared by millions of people around the world, from China to South Africa, who are all adjusting to their new suburbs. The ‘pride’ of these people has nothing to do with the jingoistic huffing of local political demagogues, nor the confected hysteria of the ‘tribal’ allegiances of corporatised sporting competitions. But it has everything to do with confirming a sense of abiding occupation amongst the ridges and valleys, streets and drives, emptinesses and amenities, forgotten histories and unrealized futures, of Belco.

Martyn Jolly

Review of ‘At Home in Australia’ and ‘In a New Light’

Review of ‘At Home in Australia’, National Gallery of Australia publication by Peter Conrad, and ‘In a New Light’, National Library of Australia exhibition, Art Monthly Australia, December, 2003, pp 5  — 10

At Home in Australia, written by Peter Conrad, Canberra and London, National Gallery of Australia and Thames & Hudson, 2003

In a New Light: Australian Photography 1850s – 1930s, curated by Helen Ennis, National Library of Australia, until January 16, 2004.

Gael Newton has conducted perhaps the boldest and most extraordinary experiment in Australian photography for a long time. Rather than writing her own sober and authoritative account of the Australian photographs in her collection at the National Gallery of Australia, or mounting a blockbuster exhibition showcasing their diverse styles and qualities, she instead invited confirmed expatriate Peter Conrad to make a two week excursion to Australia to look at all the photographs and write a 256 page 70,000 word book about Australia through them.

Conrad is the youngest and last in the line of Australia’s celebrity expatriate writers — Clive James, Peter Porter, Germaine Greer, et al — who have made it in the UK, but have still retained a fraught relationship with the country of their origin, making re-appearances from time to time, as if to deal with unfinished business, and then disappearing again.

Conrad’s text begins with the primal origin du monde which has been the elusive font for so many recent accounts of photography: the box of snapshots his parents kept on the family mantelpiece. Conrad left that maternal hearth, and Australia, for good in 1968, escaping conscription on a Rhodes Scholarship. He left home for what he regarded as a return to his cultural centre in England in an adolescent high dudgeon at the banality, boredom and brutalisation Australia had subjected him to. And when his parents eventually died, their box of photographs was one of the few objects which he transferred to his own mantelpiece in England. But, inevitably, these few images, which went back only one or two generations, weren’t up to the task of reconciling the doubly-deracinated Conrad to his natal home. He therefore adopts the National Gallery collection as a surrogate family album, and declares an intention to write about them as if the were our collective family album since, after all, “remembering, which involves making mental photographs, is a collusive, contagious activity, because our memory is interchangable.” And indeed Conrad has been fearless in weaving much of himself and a lot of his own memories through the photographs. The reader is encouraged to empathise with Conrad’s homesickness and dislocation through the mnemonic vignettes he extrapolates out of the photographs. And he has such a facility with the language that this is not hard to do, even when the occasional spleen he vents on those who were obviously his main childhood tormenters — young ocker men and their girlfriends — has tipped his writing over into petulant displays of colonialist disdain. For instance he describes Peter Elliston’s, admittedly complacent and smug, sunbathing Couple on Platform at Giles Baths, Coogee, as ‘cave dwellers’ who have ‘not yet learnt to walk upright’, at home amongst a sprawl of non-biodegradable filth and pollution

Conrad built his reputation on expansive, encyclopaedic books such as his account of the twentieth century, Modern Times, Modern Places, which like many other popular history books at the moment paints a larger picture through piling up telling anecdote upon telling anecdote, significant detail upon significant detail. And in looking at the photographs in the National Gallery’s collection it is the details in the images, the unnoticed ‘punctums’ from which he can spin a felicitous turn of phrase or an intriguing speculation, that he homes in on again and again. His eye for the detail is acute. So acute that often the incidental details his hungry eye had grasped as he was going through the original prints barely survive their reproduction at much smaller scale in the book. For instance most people wouldn’t have even noticed the front wheel and fender of a car reflected in the window of one of the run-down buildings which the fashion photographer Henry Talbot had used to recreate colonial Australia for a Wool Board Fashion shoot.  But Conrad did, and in his fantasy the 1970s fashion models will leap into this reflection and use it to propel themselves back to the future. 

The hundreds of details such as this from which Conrad likes to launch his writing are primarily literary ones, visual puns and rhymes, disjunctions of scale, and eccentricities of pose. Hence photographers who hitherto have been relatively minor members of the canon, like Eric Thake who loved discovering linguistic tropes in the real world, figure prominently in Conrad’s book, whereas well and truly canonised Australian art photographers, such as Bill Henson and Carol Jerrems, with their self-enclosed theatres of private desire, don’t appear at all.

There is no doubt that Conrad is a virtuoso writer, his technique in this book is to riff off each photograph he has selected — the two hundred that are reproduced and as many more that are not reproduced — and to run these riffs together into improvised passages that move roughly chronologically through several different nation-defining themes, such as ‘Tree People’, ‘National Characters’ and ‘Remaking the Map’. Occasionally, experiencing the dexterity with which he works these riffs together is exhilarating and refreshing, particularly towards the beginning of each theme. For instance the 1970s Henry Talbot Wool Board fashion image occurs in the middle of a progression of extrapolations on Australian’s attitude towards ‘display’, which Conrad had introduced with what had previously been a thoroughly inconsequential Pictorialist image from 1928 of a white egret preening itself, for which the photographer had chosen the anthropomorphic title Mannequin.

But the longer he continues his verbal glissades, the more the connections between the images tend to become attenuated and the prose indulgent. Conrad’s reputation is as a polymath, his books and his haute journalism cover an enormous amount of territory with ease. Inevitably a certain necessary glibness goes with the job for all polymaths. Nonetheless, there are many extraordinarily glib statements in this book that quickly begin to rankle with the Australian reader. For instance, spinning out from a 1973 Eric Thake photograph of a poster advertising the Guru Maharaj-ji peeling off a building site hoarding he says, “new countries are touchingly innocent, and vulnerable to such confidence trickters”. Oh yeah, and old countries aren’t? Trying telling that to the high-placed Brits like Fergie and Cherie Blair who got involved with our own home-grown slimming-tea conman Peter Foster.  Further on he talks of the “happy-go-lucky recruits who volunteered to be slaughtered at Gallipoli”. Well being slaughtered at Gallipoli wasn’t exactly in the job description when the Australians responded to recruitment campaigns to join the AIF and defend the empire. In reading the book the cumulative effect of these throw-away lines — the feeling that one is being patronised — is mitigated somewhat by the fascinating historical tit-bits Conrad has also salted into his text, often supplied by the research of Gael Newton. For instance he mentions what must have been a fascinating exchange of letters, larded with classical allusions, between Norman Lindsay and the young Max Dupain in 1935. I’d also like to know more about the contribution Axel Poignant’s photographs of Arnhem Land Aboriginal ceremonies made to the London choreography of The Rite of Spring in 1962. But there are no references for these facts, and not even a bibliography for the work of other writers who Conrad has quoted. For a major publication by a major institution this is bordering on insulting, and doesn’t dispose the reader kindly to the tone of Conrad’s text as it continues its nimble pirouetting from photograph to photograph across the pages.

If At Home in Australia is the nation’s family album then the story Conrad wants it to tell is that of a settler nation, attempting and failing, attempting and failing again, and finally attempting and succeeding, to make a home for itself in an alien land. And it is essentially the limitations of that story which leads to the book’s central problem. Conrad’s colonialist narrative seems to have been developmentally arrested in the 1960s, when he left Australia. He completed his growing-up in England, and the historical frameworks and preconceptions about Australia he has brought back with him seem to still belong to the conflicted adolescent rather than the mature man. His main protagonists are settlers and the land, battling it out in a kind of Old Testament agony to engender the nation. But throughout his narrative the settlers largely remain cast as pioneers, and the land remains distant and obstinate. Certainly, a lot of attention is paid to Aboriginal perceptions of the land, but they are used as the mystical counterpoint to this struggle. Speaking of the nature shown in the 1958 Hal Missingham photograph Child’s grave, Broome, WA, Conrad says in another one of his perhaps too glib lines: “White Australians die into it, whereas Aboriginal people are born from it.” Notions like this might be serviceable when used with the nineteenth century and early twentieth century photographs in the book, which are what Conrad is best at working from, but they can’t carry him into the present. What about urban Aborigines, or those from the stolen generation, or the spiritual belonging white Australians now instinctively feel for their land?

The writers he likes quoting the most are people like Patrick White. Recent writers who we might have thought had taken us well beyond such dichotomies —Paul Carter, Ken Inglis, Greg Denning, Inga Glendinnen, Peter Read and so on — aren’t mentioned at all. Even old faithfuls like David Malouf, who launched the book, are used surprisingly sparingly, and his 1998 Boyer lectures about the Australian character, A Spirit of Play, are mentioned only in order to re-use the title. Of course Conrad liberally uses plenty of other contemporary references, but they are often events like the opening ceremony from the 2000 Olympics or the film Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which attract Conrad precisely because they recast Australia’s familiar colonialist imagery

When it comes to describing contemporary Australia, Conrad is less assured, hesitating to describe anything more than the potentiality for the country to finally become reconciled to its geography, its history and its land. In attempting to update the Australian colonial characteristics which he has previously described with such facility, he is reduced to identifying things like our hedonism as being somehow our replacement twenty-first century national characteristic. He asks: “Is Australia, which began as Britain’s cloaca, now the pudenda of the envious earth?” Surely Australia has come further in a century and a half of photography than a short swing on a perineal pendulum down under?

To illustrate Australia’s supposed national hedonism he had described, but hadn’t illustrated, some William Yang photographs of Sydney parties and the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. But if he had gone further into Yang’s work, for instance into the images from some of his famous slide performances, he would have discovered an important south/north trajectory, from Sydney, through the Queensland cane fields, to China, which counteracts the east/west trajectory of the settler explorers.

To be fair to Conrad his text was necessarily constrained by the images in the National Gallery collection. Numbering eight thousand or so, the photographs in the collection he has adopted as a surrogate ‘family album’ have all been carefully and self-consciously scrutinised and vetted before acquisition. The collection dates from the 1970s, when it began with James Mollison purchasing large quantities of the newly hot medium of art photography with sponsorship from the tobacco company Phillip Morris. Since then a succession of art-museum curators have diligently purchased a good representation of work from the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, but have purchased contemporary work from the eighties, nineties and now more sparingly and erratically. These strengths and weaknesses undoubtedly had their effect on each of the book’s thematic chapters, which become less assured the closer they get to the present moment in our nation.

The National Library of Australia’s collection, on the other hand, numbers over 600,000 photographs, and is still growing apace. They have been collected in a much more wholesale manner for over fifty years, not for arts sake, but to illustrate the life and development of the country. The experienced curator Helen Ennis has selected the first of two major exhibitions from this democratic depository. Ironically it is the Library exhibition, called In a New Light: Australian Photography 1850s – 1930s, with its teeming and complex display of photographs of different sizes and techniques as well as albums, panoramas and stereographs, which foregrounds the auratic material qualities of the images themselves; while the Gallery project has not exhibited the original images at all, but has instead conscripted them to be homogenously embedded in a fast flowing text.

Like Conrad’s book, this is also an exhibition to pore over, straining to reach into the images, to find and grasp the elusive detail. Conrad searched for recognition, empathy, familiarity, and personal reconciliation in the photographs he chose. The National Library exhibition, however,  is not so demanding of its photographs. It lets them be obdurate, obstinate, and disruptive. Ennis has thought of the photographs as nodes of residual historical energy, working both backward and forwards in time. This approach suits a collection that is already so vast that it is a humanly unknowable terrain. It is only when cutated from a collection this big that an exhibition can let a viewer stumble upon a small image that almost takes the breath away in its otherworldy strangeness. For instance a tiny snap taken by James P Campbell at Gallipoli of three diggers looking like the trapped citizens of Pompeii as they sheltered from bursting shells, lies waiting to surprise the viewer like a piece of twisted shrapnel.

Other photographs are also included to deliberately confound the present and the past. Several medical photographs taken by Dr Gabriel at the Gundagai Hospital in the early 1900s are included in the exhibition. The Library had previously published Gabriel’s Gundagai photographs in a handsome volume of 1976. But that book, it now turns out, was a sanitised reflection of the original collection of glass plates. Because it saw itself as a social history of the townspeople, and an account of Dr Gabriel as an auteurial photographer, it hadn’t included many of the photographs he had taken purely for medical reasons. But now in this exhibition we see an aboriginal child with distended belly held up like a puppet for the camera by a starched nurse. We are affronted by the jagged angularity of the ratcheted bed-frame the child is propped on, and the pincer grip of the nurse. But this was originally a thoroughly benign photograph taken, presumably, for the best of reasons of an Aboriginal child receiving the very latest in scientific medical care. Why does it now disturb us so shockingly? Other photographs of Aborigines in the exhibition, say the formal heads of the ‘last’ Tasmanian Aborigines, Truganini and William Lanney, were far crueller at the time because they sarcastically produced their subjects as celebrities in order to be a public valedictory for the dying race. Yet now these images have shrugged off the photographer’s original sarcasm to preserve an enduring nobility. What had happened before, and what has happened since, to invert the values in these photographs?

Ennis’s approach to photographs is an affective one. Rather than forensically plumbing a photograph for clues, she lets its totality as an object work an affect on her, which she then attempts to know. Sometimes this technique makes the text in the exhibition seem over-determined, but it does work when it leads to the assemblage of clusters of images: aboriginal portraits and pioneer portraits, war reconnaissance photographs and soldier’s scrapbooks, for instance, which work off each other in a mute counterpoint.

At a photography forum a few months back a lad got up and told us all in an slightly aggrieved tone that even after doing a course in photography he still didn’t know very much about the development of Australian photography, why hadn’t anybody ever written a history of Australian photography? A panel member helpfully explained that in fact there had been several attempts, one published in 1955 by Jack Cato, and two still serviceable histories published in 1988 by Gael Newton and Anne Marie Willis, which should be in any college library. But, I silently calculated to myself, these books were last available in the shops fifteen years ago, when this enthusiastic young photographer was still probably a toddler.

Since then our major collecting institutions have produced several exhibitions and catalogues cutting a broad historical slice through some aspect or other of Australian photography. For instance, last year the National Gallery of Victoria published a survey of their collection of Australian photography, called 2nd Sight. Those institutions have also managed to squeeze out a trickle of monographs on contemporary and historical Australian photographers. But there has been nothing like the slew of heroic histories that continue to come out of the United States, and nothing giving readers a sense of the full historical scope or national sweep of Australia’s photography collections. But at the same time, never has the scholarship of photography been more lively, albeit dispersed across many disciplines. People right across the country, in cultural studies, anthropology, English, and history, as well as the fine arts, are working in a variety of archives — big and small, public and private — and are amazed by what they are turning up. Some Australian scholars are also writing with élan and vigour on the biggies of photo-history globally — Catherine Rogers on Fox Talbot and Catherine de Lorenzo on Nadar for instance.  Last year the Edinburgh-based editor of the dour academic journal History of Photography asked me why he kept getting so many manuscripts from Australians. Where else can they send them? I answered.

We need some histories of Australian photography to update the existing ones. But it is now clear that they can’t be a procession of the names of photographic auteurs and their styles, and they can’t be a social or political history simply told with the aid of photographs. Our photographic heritage is not simply the work of those who self-consciously defined themselves as photographers, and it is not simply those photographs that belong to recognisable styles, nor is it simply those images that happen to verify other historical narratives. Our photographic heritage has its own ontology, it is deposited in archives big and small across the nation: collecting institutions like the State and National Libraries and Galleries, middens of specialist photographs tucked away in filing cabinets everywhere, the negative-files of individual photographers and, yes, also all those shoe-boxes on mantelpieces. We are well used to the idea of ‘accessing’ these archives, delving into them to find the images we want for whatever our purpose is. Now we now also need to find ways of writing these archives, writing them in their own obduracy and specificity. Both the National Library and the National Gallery have made bold moves in this direction.

Martyn Jolly

 Martyn Jolly is a photographer and a writer about photography. He is head of Photomedia at the ANU School of Art.