Glossy 2: Faces Magazines Now

‘National Portrait Gallery, Glossy 2’, review in Photofile 77, 2006 p67

National Portrait Gallery
Commonwealth Place
25 November 2005 — 9 April 2006

Nobody can resist the allure of the celebrity for long. Even if we refuse to waste our own money on the slippery wad of a glossy magazine, we can’t resist sliding one out of the pile at the hairdressers, or having a quick flip at a friend’s place. Although it is as old as the mass media itself, celebrity culture has never been as complex, or as pervasive, as it is now. Celebrities may exist in a world far above that of you or I, but their planet has always been a democratic one where every inhabitant is equally endowed with the same intangible divinity, whether they have earned it through a long career involving spectacular achievement, or by simply being a model who goes to parties a lot. Now, however, access to this world seems at least potentially available to all of us. Fantasies of instant celebrity are regularly actualised in reality TV shows, and the pages of glossy magazines now await not just the precociously talented, the obscenely wealthy, or the hereditarily endowed, but also those who have accidentally found themselves in the news, and who have been able to parley their momentary fame into longer term celebrity status. But the increased porosity of the world of the celebrity comes at the price of a higher speed of celebrity turnover, as more faces come and go in a crueller and crueller economy of public admiration, envy and disdain — an economy of extravagant production and consumption the only raw material of which is the hapless celebrity themself.

With its characteristic nose for a good show, the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) has identified the rise in the importance of the celebrity as a defining part of our national culture, and the key role that the magazine photographer plays in it as something needing extended examination. Glossy 2 not only follows on from Glossy 1, of 1999, but also another important exhibition of 2002, POL: Portrait of a Generation, which examined in depth the seminal seventies magazine POL. The NPG has always teemed with celebrities — celebrity astronauts, celebrity chefs, pop stars and models — just as it has always moved quickly to honour celebrity photographers, such as Lewis Morey, who other institutions were slower to pick up on. But the NPG is smart enough to know that celebrity photographs aren’t ‘portraits’ in the traditional sense of the word, they don’t plumb the depths of an individual’s personality, or record the marks their lifetime of achievement has inscribed into the lineaments of their face. They are staged-managed confections, fictional tableaus created by teams of stylists to be consumed and discarded on a weekly or monthly cycle. But collectively, the NPG argues, they form an accurate historical portrait, not so much of the celebrities, but of us — our desires, our obsessions, and our sense of whom we would like to be.

This version of Glossy introduces the work of seven new Australian magazine photographers, some of who trained in Australia and now work overseas, and some of who were trained overseas but are working in Australia. (One interesting question this show raises is whether there is such a thing as a definable ‘Australian photography’ any more.) The show has eschewed the temptation to display the magazine pages for which these images were shot in the first place, which with their graphic layout, editorial content and varying print quality would have added interest to the installation. Instead, in order to focus attention on the individual styles of the photographers themselves, it has opted for a gallery-style hang. But few of the images themselves are powerful enough to justify such treatment, and many shots, such as US trained Ellen Dahl’s vapid pop portraits, are too slight and boring for a gallery wall.

It is true that each photographer has developed their own distinctive look which the gallery hang emphasises, but this is more a photographic ‘styling’ that involves developing a reliable way for each image to have a visual hook with which to capture the distracted eye of the reader as they flip through pages of the magazine. For instance Daniela Federici, trained in Melbourne but based in New York, digitally endows her images of contemporary beauties such as Natalie Imbruglia, with a monochrome air-brushed surface reminiscent of classic Hollywood glamour photography. On the other hand Ingvar Kenne, trained in Sweden but based in Sydney, frequently uses fill-flash or oblique afternoon lighting to deep-etch his subjects, such as a narcissistic Angus Young, against their square-format background. While the Sydney Morning Herald photographer Sahlan Hayes embeds his subjects, such as the regal Smokey Dawson waltzing with his wife, into satisfyingly complex backgrounds. Whereas Ben Baker, based in New York, is able to construct the impression that his subjects have been photojournalistically grabbed off the street, even though we know there are squads of publicists and press agents poised just off camera.

Few photographs in this show, however, have much sustaining power beyond their initial visual conceit. The show isn’t nearly as good as Glossy 1. Nothing comes close, for instance, to the power of Polly Borland’s fantastic shot of an alluring, but startled looking Monica Lewinski, which was the highlight of the 1999 show.

To continue the NPG’s commitment to examining celebrity culture they should consider next not a Glossy 3, but a Trashy 1. The paparazzi’s grubby, blurry shots of scurrying celebrities, which we guiltily flick through not at the hairdressers, but in the supermarket checkout line, are just as vital a part of the brutal celebrity economy as the art-directed publicity portrait. And Australia is host to its fair share of international paps, such as the notorious Jamie Fawcett, against whom our Nic was forced to seek an Apprehended Violence Order last year. A show devoted to the compelling, schadenfreudenish allure of this photography would indeed be interesting.

Martyn Jolly

Martyn Jolly is head of Photomedia at the Australian National University School of Art. His book Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography will be published this year.

Warming up the cold hard evidence: Place and identity, memory and history—and all those old photographs

‘Warming up the cold hard evidence: Place and identity, memory and history—and all those old photographs’, Exploring Culture and community for the 21st Century, Global Arts Link opening publication, Ipswich, 1999.

Places are built on shared histories. Identities are constructed from collective memories. Our sense of a collective past lays the foundation for our sense of location in the present. Increasingly, historic photographs (or films) are being called upon to provide the factual evidence for this shared past. Images have long been central to news reportage, but now they are essential to any retelling of history. Images have long been key repositories of personal memories; but now, through the mass media, in museum displays, and as part of public celebrations, they are becoming fundamental to collective memory as well.

The photographic image has contradictory qualities when it comes to its uncanny ability to document history and evoke memory. The historic photograph is intimately and completely of the past in a way no other written record or collected artefact can be. It is a direct optical and chemical impression of an actual scene from the past. Yet, in its ability to substitute its frozen tableau for the past, the photograph also raises the suspicion that it is casting us adrift from a full, rich experience of living memory and authentic history.

As a result of our technological development the past is all around us as never before—but only as an image. No longer do we experience the past in the form of spontaneous rituals, shared habits, or inter-generational knowledges passed down hand-to-hand and mouth-to-mouth.  Now we see the past as a myriad dislocated fragments: retro-styled images used to sell products or political parties, iconic media images perpetually reprinted or rebroadcast on every historic anniversary, huge on-line image data-bases with instantaneous touch-screen accessibility, old film clips shown as part of the manufactured nostalgia of ‘Where Are They Now’ TV shows, and so on. In the process of this massive eruption of the past into the present, images are swept away from their initial contexts, fictional and documentary sources are interchanged, films are re-sequenced, photographs are re-juxtaposed, and historic moments are morphed together into a lubricous phantasmagoria of yesterdays.

But ironically, just as photography and film have destroyed the orderly progression of time and our sense of embeddedness in tradition and history, so we are forced to rely on them more and more to return to us some sense of a stable place in history and collective memory. The last few decades have witnessed a memory boom like never before—from family genealogists searching through library microfiche for that elusive record of a distant ancestor, to cool retro-hipsters rummaging through market stalls for that perfect object from their favourite decade. Both are impelled by a sense of loss, a desire to not so much know their history, as to feel a palpable connection with the past, to set foot once more on a solid shore after the temporal turbulence of the present. To these amateur mnemonists the past is entirely about the present, it is a demonstrable alternative to it, a fantasy means of escape from it, and, most importantly, the place for perhaps meeting somebody, somewhere else in time, who is reaching out towards them.

In all of these processes the photographic image is fundamental. Historic photographs are performing more vital functions for collective identity than ever before. For instance personal photographs have long stood on mantelpieces in improvised household shrines to remembered dead and acknowledged ancestors, but now historic photographs also have the unprecedented privilege of being the centrepieces of virtually every official commemoration. In these public ceremonies official photographs are performing the same role for the nation, city or town, as the faded snapshot or sepia studio portrait does for the family.

In some instances they have even become literally monumentalised. Photographs have been etched into stone in Australian war monuments such as the Vietnam War Memorial, 1992, on Anzac Parade, Canberra; the Kokoda Memorial, 1996, in Concord, Sydney; and the Monash Memorial, 1998, in France. For most of this century the photograph, as a form of media reportage, has traded on the fact that it was able to pluck a fleeting instant out of the rush of time. But in the case of the Kodachrome slide which was cropped, enlarged to cinematic size, and etched into granite for the Vietnam War Memorial, the evanescent instant captured by the army public relations photographer has been literally turned into eternal stone. Within this commemorative context the shutter blade’s slice of time acquires not only an architectonic presence, but becomes the locus for the same contemplative temporal dilation as a roll call of the dead, or a minute’s silence.

Certain film and TV images also aggregate into lithic media presences through ritual repetition: every ANZAC day we are shown the same few seconds of weary feet pushing down through the mud of the Kokoda Track, or the same lone bugler against the sunrise. Repetition becomes the key factor in this commemorative use of images. Media images which are not repeated are not remembered. When media memory has substituted for our organic memory we cede over our ability to remember. Because images package up experiences of the past, they can just as easily be used to dispose of it as to retain it. (Remember how you were glued to the telly during the Gulf War? How much of it can you remember now?) Every photographic image is therefore a function of an archive, an archive in which photographs are much more likely to lie dormant and forgotten, as to be retrieved to reintroduce the past to the present.

Even counter-hegemonic memory relies on the evidential substrata of the photographic archive. Aboriginal Australians have long cherished a collective memory resistant to white forgetting. Their long term memories of invasion, dispossession and social destruction have evaded, over a period of generations, the deliberate attempts at extermination by both history and public memory. Their memories have so far survived organically: through individual transference hand-to-hand and mouth-to-mouth, and through stories, songs, and art. Recently photographic archives have also become crucial to Aboriginal counter memory. Photographs are being used to allow individuals to forensically retrace lost family. They are being used collectively to recreate and share a sense of larger blood ties. In this process anonymous ‘historic’ photographs of Aborigines, which were once part of the very process of colonial dispossession and which, like their subjects, were dispersed to various public collections, are being gathered, radically re-inflected, and imbued with the warmth of memory.

Many contemporary Aboriginal photographers have initiated a one-on-one dialogue with these mute survivors from the past. They have attempted to evade the colonial scrutiny of the original photographers, and the enforced pantomime of the subjects, to discover something that has long lain dormant in the image. By focussing on the returned gazes of their lost ancestors contemporary Aborigines are recognising a defiant challenge returned across the generations.

Many aboriginal artists directly incorporate historic photographs into their work. For instance in the exhibition Patterns of Connection 1990-91 Leah King-Smith used superimposition to liberate Aboriginal ancestors from the nineteenth century photographic collection of the State Library of Victoria and return them as ghostly presences to contemporary images of her own country; while in Native Blood 1994 Fiona Foley took upon her own living body the subjugated poses of her Badtjala people as photographed in the nineteenth century and collected by the Queensland Museum.

Whether one is consolidating an established sense of place and identity, or re-establishing such a sense after a history of dispossession or dislocation, the silent tableau of the photograph, itself cast adrift in time, is being desperately re-animated with the most important thing of all: our memories.

Martyn Jolly

The World War Two Experience. Multimedia in the new Australian War Memorial Galleries

‘Past Projections: multimedia in the new Australian War Memorial galleries’ Real Time 33, October/November, 1999.

The Australian War Memorial’s new WW11 galleries were opened in March this year, after a two and a half year development period at a cost of five million dollars. They replaced a venerable display which had been there since 1971, and have already been credited with increasing attendance by 35%.

The Memorial’s original function was to show grieving relatives the experiences their lost loved one’s had had overseas; to allow mates to remember mates; and to tell the story of a nation and its historical destiny. However its recent audience research indicated that it’s audience, and therefore its function, has now changed. Visitors now come to the Memorial from radically dispersed trajectories. Only 10% of visitors are old enough to have lived through WW11, and the ethnic composition of Australia has radically globalised in the fifty years since it was at war.

The purpose of the new display is no longer to reconnect relatives and friends, revive memories, and explain national destiny; it must now create experiences, generate memories and tell subjective stories. The Memorial is no longer the geologically hulking edifice at the bedrock of our common national identity, it is now one institutional attraction competing with others for audience share. The display therefore incorporates a much broader selection of artefacts and information, foregrounding a wider range of personal experiences from the War. And it also relies on multimedia and immersive technologies as never before—deploying over 100 audio, video and sensory devices. The objective of these technologies is to, in John Howard’s opening words, create “a very moving experience … to reach out to younger generations”.

Approaching the WW11 galleries you hear a cacophonous roar, a bit like a shopping mall on a Saturday morning. Entering the galleries there’s a sense of bombardment: sound leaks out from a multitude of hidden speakers and bounces from the many hard surfaces. (This problem is now being addressed) Ambient lighting is low and the objects on display are individually picked out by spotlights giving a visually fragmented, subjectively dislocated, feel to the display. Although there is an attempt to create quieter contemplative ‘pavilions’ and chapel-like spaces within the display, generally these cannot withstand the barrage.

The core of the display is the artefacts collected by the Memorial during the War and donated to it since. As always these provide the indexical charge to the display; but they are surrounded and harassed by technology. The display cases are crowded with flat screen TVs showing newsreel footage. Data projectors are extensively used to animate maps and models. Few objects are left to their own devices, to mutely exist in their own time. Even the dark wooden top of the table on which the surrender of Singapore was signed is used as an inappropriate screen for a newsreel projection.

The War Memorial produced it’s own content using audience focus groups, but outsourced the design and installation of the displays to Cunningham Martyn Design, Australian Business Theatre and multimedia consultant Gary Warner. Previously the memorial was a special experience for visitors, its unique model dioramas and uncanny, sepulchral atmosphere permanently marked many a childhood psyche. This new display is brighter and livelier certainly, but it also conforms to a standard corporate display style — the plate glass, steel rod look — that exists in any number of shops and museums. There is now a bigger phenomenological gap for visitors to cross between these didactic history displays and the sacred mnemonic heart of the Memorial — the cloisters and the Hall of Memory (into which Paul Keating conveniently inserted a pacemaker when he buried an Unknown Soldier  there in 1993). The Memorial’s original didacticism, the attempt to convey an historical understanding of war — however ideologically compromised — and to encourage a transference of empathy back across the generations, is being replaced by an attempt to technologically create a sense of immediate, individuated sensory experience.

Sometimes this works, if a sense of temporal distance is maintained, as in the disembodied voices of Australian POWs telling their stories in a reconstruction of an empty sleeping hut. But sometimes it doesn’t. The most problematic part of the display is a simulation of a bombing run over Germany in which the floor shakes as though by the airplane’s engines and we look down through the bomb bay doors at WW11 Europe sliding below. This recreates the fear felt by young Australian air force servicemen at being shot down. Reportedly, Returned WW11 air crew visiting a preview of the installation found it so affecting they had leave during the experience. Certainly the kids love it. But they love their experience of it is in the present. I didn’t see any emotional transference to, or identification with, the servicemen’s fear which this ‘ride’ was meant to commemorate. It was ironic, too, that the aspect of War chosen for the most ‘realistic’ simulation was the one where the original experience was already most virtual, remote, and technologically mediated.

For me a more successful use of technology was in the new Orientation Gallery where a large, looped, digital video of spectral diggers coming ashore at Gallipoli and fading into History to the thud of sniper bullets, which was projected behind an actual Gallipoli landing boat, created a suggestive atmosphere rather than a descriptive experience. It let the landing boat exist in its own historical time, rather than be dragged into a perpetual present of technological performance. The use of Digger ghosts (played by keen Memorial staff in costume shot against blue screen, then digitally montaged over video of the actual Gallipoli landing place by the Sydney firm Audience Motivation) grows from an evolving, long standing, visual tradition of ANZAC memory — for instance the freeze frame in Weir’s film Gallipoli and William Longstaff’s creepy Menin Gates painting.

Clearly the displays of national museums do need to changes as audiences change.  And clearly technologies of video, projection and simulation must inevitably play a major part in these changes. Particularly as so much of our past is know to us through film and video anyway, and technologies have always been excellent at producing phantasmagoric spectacles and virtual spectres. Yet technology must still be made to do what it has only partially done at the War Memorial: create historical knowledge not just immediate experience; and leave a space for viewers to make an imaginative leap and project themselves into time, rather than be the passive screens for a dislocated series of projections from the past.

Martyn Jolly

Martyn Jolly is Head of Photomedia at the ANU Canberra School of Art

The Eight-Storey Flats

Artist’s statement Social Capital, group exhibition at Canberra Contemporary Art Space, curated by Lisa Byrne. , 9 March to 15 April. Catalogue, 32 pp,  ISBN 1 921 157 02X.

Martyn Jolly

The eight storey flats, 2006.

Eight inkjet prints on rag board

(Images sourced from National Archives of Australia)

900 x 1112 mm

Eight framed inkjet prints

200 x 250 mm

The Eight-Storey Flats

With the onset of the cold war in the 1950s the government’s attempts to transfer reluctant public servants to Canberra took on a new political urgency. The families of senior public servants uprooted from their lives in Sydney and Melbourne needed suburban bungalows, and flats for the younger transferees also needed to be built — quickly and in quantity. A model was provided by the new medium and high-density housing schemes of Britain. These modernist town plans featured groupings of walk-up flats that would hopefully create community environments, as well as tall apartment blocks spaced widely apart in park-like landscapes.

Unfortunately, the government’s lack of proper funding, lack of time, lack of understanding and lack of imagination meant that Canberra’s experiments with these modern developments were yet another opportunity wasted. To the architectural critic Phillip Jackson the pleasant sense of scale that could have been created by grouping the three-storey Allawah Flats north-east of Civic, was absolutely destroyed by the huge and completely unrelated eight-storeyed blocks of the Currong Flats right behind them.

Nonetheless, when they were completed in 1959, the two hundred or so small flats in what was then the tallest building in Canberra, with their views over the Molonglo River toward the Brindabella Ranges, as well as their central heating, delivery hatches and incinerator chutes, were highly sought after by Canberra’s newly transferred single workers. As Canberra matured during the 1960s, the flats formed a modern architectural backdrop to Civic, they became a kind of bachelor machine generating Canberra’s much needed urban life.

In the 1970s and 80s public housing policy in the nation’s capital shifted to become more in line with the rest of Australia — a service for low-income social welfare clients. By the 1990s the flats were tenanted by elderly people still ensconced from its halcyon days, along with short-term tenants who were often involved in the criminal justice or mental health systems, all toxically mixing within buildings that were themselves suffering the effects of long-term neglect. Although many support services and community activities were taking place within the complex, to the rest of Canberra the flats came to be regarded as a kind of a Dickensian eyrie hulking over the burgeoning shopping malls of Civic.

Today, a new wave of high-density housing has swept over Canberra, as every week newspaper ads for yet another fomecore development offer us the chance to invest in ‘stylish apartment living’. However the old Currong Flats stubbornly remain a Canberra landmark. They are still right behind Civic, and they are still eight storeys high. But at the end of their life the impetus of their vertical vector has pivoted. They no longer elevate their tenants to a pleasant prospect over a growing city, instead their high balconies provide a readily accessible spot from which to commit suicide — a final plummet no safety net can catch.

Martyn Jolly

Sources: Architecture in Australia, December 1959. Cornerstone of the Capital: A History of Public Housing in Canberra, Bruce Wright, 2000. If these walls could speak…, Mary Hutchison, 2005.


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.


‘Motels’, exhibition catalogue essay in Motel, edited by Paul McInnes, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, pp3 – 5. ISBN 1 875526 67 6

The book Australia: From the Dawn of Time to the Present Day, published in 1964, devotes a whole page to what it calls “The Motel Trend”.

Domestic travel in Australia has taken a tremendous upsurge during the last six years, the greatest contributing factor being the ease of securing comfortable accommodation at moderate prices. This has been brought about by the advent of motels, which have virtually taken command of the accommodation race. Australia’s largest accommodation organisation is Motels of Australia Ltd., a company which operates a chain of Travelodge and Caravilla motels stretching from Northern Queensland to Tasmania and across the continent to Western Australia, with the capacity to comfortably rest some 4,000 travellers every night. The architectural pattern of these motels tends to variety, but all offer individual car parking facilities, and each has an air of charming informality which ensures complete privacy and comfort. Every room is equipped with tea making facilities, and special features include refrigeration, and bedside control of air conditioning, radio, television and background music. Many of these motels have swimming pools and a smart and comfortable restaurant provides first class meals for travellers and their guests.[1]

The Travelodge motel chain was itself part of a chain of related socio-cultural phenomena in Australia: post war prosperity, the family Holden, a national highway system, the American style business franchise, and technologised modernity.

Yet the motel didn’t arrive in Australia without a considerable amount of dark psychic baggage. In Hollywood’s imagination highway motels were already seedy, sexy and dangerous. They were places where those an the lam hid out, bending one or two slats of the venetian blinds with an anxious finger. They were places where blood was staunched and wounds hastily dressed as sweat broke out. By the time Janet Leigh made her particularly bad choice of motel accommodation in Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil, 1958, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960, the motel’s place as a mythic site of delay or decay was fully established.

Motels are so mythically rich becasue they are paradoxically suspended in the tension between travelling and lodging, propulsion and pause, extension and encirclement. The word ‘motel’ itself, like its most famous corporate brand name, is constructed by overlapping two antonyms: the motel is a hotel for lodging the travelling motor car. Generically, motels are nondescript places built nowhere in particular. They are either left on a lost highway after the new freeway has been built, or found just over the rise beyond the edge of town. Their location does not follow a geo-cartographic logic as much as a spatio-narrative one. They emerge out of darkness and intrude themselves into the driver’s peripheral vision just when they are needed the most—or perhaps the least. They are narrative interruptions, psycho-sexual vortexes lying in wait on the edge of someone’s story.

To Meaghan Morris motels are “transit spaces, charged with narrative potential. A motel should promise a scenario, and exactly the one you want: a hiding place, a good night’s sleep, a stint of poignant alienation, a clandestine adventure, time off housework, a monastic retreat … promise that need not have anything to do with what one subsequently does. Veering off the road and into the drive of any motel setting, we seek shelter, yes, and safety, but we also assess a script.[2] Australia: From the Dawn of Time to the Present Day tried (in vain as it turned out) to rewrite these scripts into just one — controlled domestic comfort. Travelodge incorporated ‘20th century concepts of comfort and design’ into their motels, their ‘charming informality’ was produced technologically and systematically.[3] Their architectural pattern did not, in fact, tend to variety; instead it was self-referentially repeated, with serialised differences, along the chain. By architecturally subscribing to a myth of the ‘Modern Universal’[4] they reterritorialised the Australian open road, and domesticated its randomly awaiting terrors. It is the psychic reassurance of standardised industrial management that I remember most from my few childhood motel experiences. For instance to order breakfast you ticked boxes on a slip of paper — a ‘continental breakfast’; cereal (in a little box) and juice; toast and tea (or coffee); or bacon and eggs — and left it at reception. The next morning a laden tray was anonymously slipped through a hatch by the door.

But it only took a few decades for Australia’s motley travelling public to do a thorough rewrite on the original Travelodge script and introduce desires and compulsions far beyond domesic comfort. By the 1990s precocious painters were OD-ing in seaside motels, prominent politicians were having fatal coronaries whilst on the job in Sydney motels, and mad letter bombers were hiding out in Canberra motels. Australian films like Kiss or Kill were also nationalistically inflecting the Hollywood myth of motels as the sites of ‘road-runner angst’[5] by placing them in outback settings.

Motel rooms are always very clean, but they are never entirely clean. For the psychic well being of their guests, motels have to erase the presence of the previous occupant. Surfaces are wiped and air freshener is sprayed, the first square of toilet paper is folded into a point, and a hygienic sash is placed over the toilet seat. Only rarely do guests encounter the abject horror an a unnamed, unknown, previous occupant’s pubic hair in the shower stall; but nonetheless the ghostly emanations of all the previous occupants, each as diaphanous as the residue of Jiff on a ceramic tile, slowly accumulate in each motel room. No matter how starched and stiff their sheets, sleeping at a motel is simultaneously private and communal; serial not only spatially, but temporally.

In the particular case of the Canberra City Motor Inn (formerly, as can be ascertained by the redundant signage left around the place, the Manuka Motor Inn, formerly a Flag Inn, formerly a Travelodge) the temporal accretion of historical presences is met, coming the other way as it were, by the crumbling, flaking decay of the building itself. This gives a pathos to the motel, an atmosphere at once full of the presence of the past, and empty of any projection into the future. In a sense this motel is equivalent to the many other spatial and temporal lacunae in our urban fabric: for instance those undefinable areas of waste ground on the edge of cities, or those abandoned inner urban industrial areas before they have been nominated for redevelopment as trendy housing or historical precincts. These littoral zones have long been used by artists, writers and photographers because they are empty places but potential spaces. Artists love to write new scripts for these locations and fill them with their own stories, images and associations.

This particular motel, however, is still being used. The artists installing work here will be guests amongst other guests (who are mostly lone public servants saving money on their Travel Allowances). Rooms are still cleaned. The systems originally set up to ensure domestic comfort still, more or less, operate like clockwork, even if the motel itself has run down. All this automatic activity gives a air, not of charming informality, but of suspended animation, like a space station that has drifted out of its orbit.

So this motel is not, yet, a picturesque ruin. Its state of functioning decay suspends its historical potential. The real probabilities that await it, of being renovated, or historically ‘themed’, or even bulldozed, are held in abeyance. But, ironically, the various uses to which it will be put by the artists in this exhibition presage all of those potential futures, which it will eventually be up to the motel’s corporate owners to plan — with an eye to the bottom line. Any artist who memorialises a poignant childhood motel memory, invites the finality of the bulldozer. Any artist who is pierced, as I was, by mnemonic punctums such as the painted corner reinforcements on the weary traveller kangaroo’s Globite suitcase in the original motel street sign, invites the reifying connoisseurship of the scavenging collector. Any artist who delights in the Brady Bunch styling of the architectural facade invites the trendy retro-marketeer to renovate the motel into a hyper-kitsch image of itself for the newly rich camp-savvy tourist market.

The franchise chains of the sixties have transcended themselves and are now a universal presence in our collective memory. But, at the same time, on every day of the week any piece of our built environment is up for grabs in the crass politics of urban renewal. This project exists at the necessary intersection of those two planes.


Martyn Jolly

[1]Australia: From the Dawn of Time to the Present Day, Oswald Ziegler, Sydney, 1964.p43

[2] Meaghan Morris, “At Henry Parkes Motel”, Too Soon Too Late: History in Popular Culture, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1998. p32.

[3]Australia: From the Dawn of Time to the Present Day. p43

[4] Morris, p35

[5]Ibid. p34