Portraits of Survival at the Sydney Jewish Museum

 

My catalogue essay Portraits of Survival about Katherine Griffiths for the Sydney Jewish Museum’s exhibition ‘Closer’

Touch and vision are closely intertwined in photographs. The super-sensitive surface at the tip of each finger is intimately linked, perceptually if not physically, to the sensitive retina at the back of each eye. Just look at Katherine Griffiths’ photographs, as you look your fingertips will begin to almost tingle at the touch of the objects the survivors are holding. Recently this interest in ‘haptic vision’ has burgeoned amongst artists. In his widely influential book The Eyes of the Skin, Juhani Pallasmaa argues for the primacy of touch over all the other senses. ‘Touch’, he says, ‘is the sensory mode that integrates our experience of the world with that of ourselves.’ But not only does touch filter the outside world into our bodies, it also connects us directly to other humans, and to history:

The skin reads the texture, weight, density and temperature of matter. The surface of an old object, polished to perfection by the tool of the craftsman and the assiduous hands of its users, seduces the stroking of the hand. … The tactile sense connects us with time and tradition: through impressions of touch we shake the hands of countless generations.

Touch and the act of holding have long been integral to the history of photography. In early photographic studio portraits sitters were given leather-bound books or other items of social or religious significance to hold. These objects held symbolic power, but they also enabled the sitter to ‘perform’ their hands, their firm grip expressed the solidity of their place in the world. If touch connects us to identity, it also directly connects us to memory. In the nineteenth century bereaved mothers were frequently photographed holding photographs of their deceased children. Part of the emotional impact of these strange images is the paradoxical multiplication of time. The time of the child and the mother were split apart by death, but they are brought together again in the frozen instant of the photograph, which we, as viewers from the future, look mournfully back into. But their power also comes from the tragedy of touch. Instead of cradling the soft warm flesh of her child the bereaved mother can only grip a cold hard frame propped on her knee. In our contemporary mass media it is commonplace to see all types of victims gripping photographs of the dead, the missing, or the imprisoned in public acts of commemoration, mourning, or defiance. Some clutch their photographs protectively to their chests, others hold them up high and proud. Even in these press images it is the act of touching which again becomes the fulcrum of the image, pivoting between inner personal experience and outer public declaration.

It is therefore a rich tradition Katherine Griffiths has entered. But her photographs are not mournful, not defiant, and not ‘heavy’. Instead they are warm and even friendly. The survivors are photographed against an ordinary portrait studio backdrop, with ordinary portrait studio lighting. These are not stark mug shots of monumentalized faces, nor are they gritty evidence of the pathos of elderly people. Instead we see a rapport and collaboration between photographer and subject, all of whom look comfortable, neatly dressed, and … well … nice. They have been through a famously unrepresentable period in history, and hold objects freighted with an unbearable weight of pain, yet they look … well … ordinary. But it is a marvelous, rich, wonderful ordinariness.

Eddie Jaku delicately uncurls a thin, crumbling leather belt — the belt he wore through four prison camps — as though it was a timorous animal curled up in his hands. The viewer’s sense of the texture of the belt’s splitting tongue against his fingers, and the weight of its buckle on his palm, powerfully reconstitute the experiences he endured and the now absent trousers the belt once held up. Egon Sonnenschein looks directly into our eyes as he holds out to us a postcard whose surface is covered with the coloured marks and inscriptions of its ricocheting around Europe. The wings of this ephemeral butterfly appear to have been delicately caught in mid-flight by the tips of his fingers.

When they are held in the birdlike hands of survivors, the yellowing passports, certificates, and identity papers from the past — the slips of paper that enabled the wheels of historical fate to turn — take on a higher charge. This is especially so when a photograph is found amidst the bureaucratic hieroglyphs. Helena Goldstein, aged 97, looks straight down the camera at us as she presents her identity card. Amongst the inky stamps and smudged signatures we find her ID photograph where, aged 24, she once again looks straight at us with a clear-eyed smile. The same looks travel to us in close parallel, though separated by oceans of time. In a reversal of the normal roles of mother and daughter Ilse Charny cradles a tiny image of her mother in the form of an identity photograph within a Shanghai Jewish refugee document. She holds more than just banal data but a direct, even fleshy, connection to history as we recognize family resemblances in both faces.

George Gronjowski holds up his concentration camp tunic for us to see, but his red-rimmed eyes are looking off into the past. This faraway look is also in the eyes of John Gruschka as he fans out, between the parchment-like skin of his fingers, the desiccated pages of the letters his mother wrote to him from Prague, as he sheltered in England, before her murder in Auschwitz. Joe Symon stares frankly ahead as he confidently flips up for us a photograph of his fifteen year old self, while Lotte Weiss, wearing her hair done elegantly in a salon, freshly applied lipstick, golden earrings, pearls, and a warm, open expression, holds her shaven-headed mug shots from Auschwitz across her chest while matter-of-factly displaying the identification number tattooed on her arm.

Peter Rossler gazes into our eyes as he shows us his Aunt’s Jewish star, clasped by its topmost point. It’s a badge, now a tentative emblem of pride, which perfectly plays off the school-crests stitched across his neatly tied neck-tie. In a similar way, Jaqueline Dale holds a model of a wooden ship, an incongruously bulky internment camp souvenir, against her pink top and pearls.

Although they are all humble, not all these precious objects come from the dark days of the Holocaust. Some contribute to other narratives, such as the broader history of migration to Australia. For instance Yvonne Engel ‘brings a plate’ to the exhibition, it was brought from Woolworths in 1949 as a humble wedding gift for the first marriage of child survivors on Australian soil. The weight of the decoratively cut glass Yvonne’s holds out to us makes us think of all the savouries and sweets this plate has carried to social functions over the subsequent decades as the couple put down their roots in Australian society.

The touch and feel of the domestic is a powerful thread throughout these survivors’ lives. Paul Drexler cradles the blanket which comforted him during the war over his knees as he looks off to one side in quiet, inner contemplation. Olga Horak also holds a blanket, this one made of human hair. Here we once again experience the transforming power of touch. Typically, human hair is beautiful on the head, but abjectly disgusting when detached from the head. But under the transformative power of Olga’s soft touch and equally soft eyes the blanket is no longer just a curious museum object, or historical evidence of cruelty and suffering, it becomes a beautiful warm, comforting, familiar thing.

In these portraits a photographer has collaborated with her subjects in the safe, respectful space of the studio. The photographs, although dealing with memories of historical cataclysm, approach the subject through touch — the most ordinary, the most intimate, and the most marvellous of all the senses.

Martyn Jolly

Katherine Griffiths, George Gronjowski, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Gerty Jellinek, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Ilse Charny, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Jack Meister, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Lena Goldstein, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Lotte Weiss, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Olga Horak, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Peter Rossler, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

“O.K. So it’s banal, but ‘The Family of Man’ set me off and I’ve been trying ever since.”

“O.K. So it’s banal, but ‘The Family of Man’ set me off and I’ve been trying ever since. Trying to become a photographer and not just someone who takes photographs. I became a diarist with a camera. I tried to simply record the things which interested me from day to day. I taught myself enough rough technique and practice continually. Even now I sit in front of the tele and watch junk through an 85mm, move dials, press buttons and go through all the motions. I honestly believe this helps. I became less conscious of the camera and it more a part of me. My prints are rough hard and grainy, which just what Sydney is like. The light is fierce, the summer hot and humid, the bush inhuman and the population complacently cruel enough to accept two decades of flabby self-congratulatory ignorance, cushioned and smothered by the soft folds of the Menzies arse. This is a harsh society with few shades of grey, where paradise is still a Monaro with four on the floor and up you Jack I’m alright.” — John Williams 1974

As John used to say: “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you”

Octavio Garcia

Catalogue essay for Cihuateotl’s Myth by Octavio Garcia, PhotoAcess, 26 May to 19 June, Canberra, gallery below.

Octavio Garcia

What kind of photograph is a chemigram? It’s made with an ordinary sheet of photographic paper, but negatives aren’t projected onto it in a darkroom. Instead, the lights are left on. This super overexposure ‘charges’ the paper with the maximum potential to react to photographic chemicals. To make the various tones and lines of a picture the photographer must manually modulate the amount of physical contact between the halides embedded in the paper and the chemicals in the developer and fixer baths.

The photographer applies resists of various sorts (lacquers, syrups, sprays and so on), which are then selectively removed to let the chemicals penetrate into the emulsion. Garcia applies a hard resist and makes intricate incisions with a scalpel, chemicals penetrate the cuts, leach through the emulsion, react with the halides, and lay down deposits of metal compound. Through alternating sequences of peeling, soaking, developing, washing and fixing complex images emerge in delicate tones and lapidary colours. The images form through obscure reactions deep in the subterranean strata of the emulsion. If you insist, it’s a process of drawing, but you couldn’t call it ‘mark making’ in the conventional sense. The photographer can direct, but he can never completely control, the slow leaking and leaching as his potent chemicals work their way through his intricate incisions.

Photographers often experience something transcendent in the normal light-based photograph, as the ‘pencil of nature’ delicately writes herself as an image. And I suspect chemigrammers feel a similar deep connection to similarly large, if not more chthonic, forces, as reagents migrate through emulsions and metals microscopically crystalize themselves. If conventional photographs come from the same family of images as paintings, perhaps chemigrams come from the same family of images as tattoos —at the endpoint of a long laborious physical process both tattoo and chemigram appear not on top of, but inside of, a sensitive surface.

Recently there has been a worldwide resurgence of interest in chemigrams and other cameraless photographs of their ilk. A major book Emanations: the Art of the Cameraless Photograph (in which quite a few Canberra-connected photographers get a guernsey) is about to be published, and an exhibition of the same name is currently on at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand. Late last year, The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg, was held at the Australian Centre for Photography; earlier the J Paul Getty Museum mounted Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography; the year before that the International Centre for Photography mounted What is a Photograph?; before that, the Aperture Foundation toured The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography and the Victoria and Albert Museum mounted Shadow Catchers: Cameraless Photography.

Looking back over all this diverse activity you get the sense that many cameraless photographers are seeking a connection to larger forces, often environmental or historical — not a ‘feeling’ of connection, or an ‘image’ of connection, but an actual connection. The sense of actual connection Garcia seeks is historical. Chemigrams are a process as much as they are an end result, and through the almost ritual process the chemigrammer undertakes in the darkroom he can almost feel as though he is continuing, in a way, other equivalent rituals from the past involving sacred libations of various sorts. In his head Octavio Garcia has distilled the chemigram process down to two sacred elements, paper and water: paper, through which the sacred symbols of humans are created and transmitted through the generations; and water, through which life itself is sustained.

Garcia is concerned with his ancestors. As a contemporary Mexican he feels a pull down through the generations, down through the layers of colonial and postcolonial disruption and dislocation, down through the genetic dilutions and recombinations of history, deep down to his ancestors — the ancient inhabitants of Veracruz. Garcia uses his scalpel to incise designs derived from his cultural past into the chemigram resist. Previously he has copied the drawings found in the paper codices collected from Pre-Columbian civilizations and now kept in museums. More recently he has recreated a colossal Olmec head, dating from a millennia before Christ and weighing several tons, which he reconstructed at original scale from a photograph he took on a pilgrimage to the Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa, where it now sits.

In the series exhibited here he has worked with sculptures in the same museum and made by his ancestors more recently (only one to one-and-a-half thousand years ago!). The sacred figures emerge from Garcia’s chemigrams with a kind of geological force. The gesture of Garcia’s wrist is there, as it has swiveled and turned the scalpel to manually inscribe the image of the museum aretefact into his resist layer, but through the darkroom process his drawing interacts in a physical way with the slow propulsions of chemical reaction and metallic deposit. The combination produces an image a bit like fossil suddenly revealed in a split rock, or the faint outlines of an ancient settlement only discernable from the air, or the eroded groove in a petroglyph revealed in a chalk rubbing, or any other of a chain of associations to do with the tangible presence of the ancient past.

The most popular tattoo designs for our deracinated age are ancestral symbols, Celtic braids or whatever. But Garcia goes much further, and much deeper, than these attempts at readymade off-the-shelf skin memory. In his endless search for the presence of his past through the chemigram he has invented both a new visual language and a new ritual process.

Martyn Jolly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration from 'Optics', Rene Descartes, 1637

Illustration from ‘Optics’, Rene Descartes, 1637

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whites Hill, from 'The Pocket Brisbane', 1913

Whites Hill, from ‘The Pocket Brisbane’, 1913

View of the Observatory restaurant at Camp Hill Brisbane, 1924

View of the Observatory restaurant at Camp Hill Brisbane, 1924

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] ibid, pp364-365

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

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

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

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

[8] The Telegraph, 1 June 1935, p13

[9] The Telegraph, 18 July 1936, p30

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

Rowan Conroy, John Ruskin, climate change, photography

Storm Clouds of the Twenty-First Century, my essay for:

Rowan Conroy: Natura Naturans

Barometer Gallery, 13 Gurner Steet Paddington

27th September – 11th October  2014

Storm Clouds of the Twenty-First Century

I’m sure Rowan Conroy wasn’t the only person photographing the sky from the bottom of Glebe Point Road that Thursday afternoon of 17 October 2013. As the dense smoke from the fires raging in the Blue Mountains rolled back over Sydney, I’d bet that plenty of people were using their cameras or iPhones to photograph the blotting out of the sun. Stranger may have even talked to stranger about the phenomenon, perhaps muttering under their breath words such as ‘awesome’, ‘apocalyptic’, ‘sublime’ or ‘portentous’. In a human gesture that goes back to the time of Stonehenge they all, including Conroy, looked deeply, and anxiously, into the sky. There was a sign there, the sky was telling us — the human race — something, but what? The sky portended doom, certainly, but what kind of doom exactly — was it nothing more than the business-as-usual doom of a cruelly cyclical mother nature, simply enacting the familiar Australian narrative of drought and flooding rains; or was there an additional doom, where climate change had already permanently pushed the weather into new realms of extremity.

 

Conroy’s carefully printed photographs are probably more terribly beautiful than the souvenir snaps other people took that afternoon. In some of his images, pewter-coloured puffs of smoke in the foreground chromatically shift the flame-tinged smoke in the background from copper to gold, giving the image a scaleless virtuality, like you see when you stare into the coals of a campfire for too long. In other shots, taken looking up towards the sun, we get the vertiginous feeling that we are a medieval sinner staring down into the bowels of hell. Still others stack up horizontal banks of cloud like an aerial geology that compresses the ragged remnants of dusky blue beneath. But each of the different terrible beauties of these photographs poses the same question — a question that worries many people: what is happening to our world?

 

Another worrier who looked into the skies was the nineteenth century art critic John Ruskin. To Ruskin nature was the origin of beauty on every level: aesthetic, moral and spiritual. But, in the early part of his career Ruskin warned his readers against a poetical conceit he called the ‘pathetic fallacy’, where weak people who are ‘over-clouded or over-dazzled’ by passionate emotion falsely attributed human feeling to nature itself. However to Ruskin this mistaken projection onto nature, where a flower is not a flower but a ‘a star, or a sun, or a fairy’s shield, or a forsaken maiden’, was still higher than the dull perception of an unfeeling person for whom the flower could never be anything but an unloved, symbolically inert organism. But, on a level higher than both these states, Ruskin placed the perception of one who was able to see the natural fact of the flower simultaneously intertwined with the spiritual associations and human feelings it evoked. Conroy does not succumb to the pathetic fallacy, his clouds are more than empty symbols of a fantasy apocalypse, they are also observed meteorological records, but records demanding a human response: this day happened, and it told us something.

 

About thirty years after writing on the pathetic fallacy, and towards the end of his life as he began to suffer bouts of mental illness, Ruskin wrote about the skies he had been observing and painting for decades. In the lecture The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century he claimed to have observed a new meteorological phenomenon that had arisen in the early 1870s. He called it the ‘plague wind’: a ‘dry black veil which no ray of sunshine can pierce’, looking as though ‘it were made of dead men’s souls’. When it blew, it blew tremulously, and made the leaves of trees shudder with a fitful distress. Its clouds, made of ‘sulphurous chimney-pot vomit’, were ‘thin, scraggy, filthy, mangy [and] miserable’; they did not redden the sun, but instead blanched it. In the scientific record of England’s climate there is scant actual evidence for the phenomena Ruskin observed (although temperatures in those decades were slightly lower than usual and rainfall slightly higher). But Ruskin’s observations weren’t scientific, they had succumbed to something like the pathetic fallacy he had previously condemned. His lecture, though based in close and highly-tuned personal observation, does more than just record the effect of industrial pollution on the environment, it also claims to see the moral and spiritual decay of England actually written in the sky.

 

Ruskin’s lecture was slightly mad, certainly, but it is a compelling, and relevant, read even today. In the last paragraph Ruskin says: ‘What is best to be done, do you ask me? The answer is plain. Whether you can affect the signs of the sky or not, you can the signs of the times. Whether you can bring the sun back or not, you can assuredly bring back your own cheerfulness, and your own honesty.’

 

Standing at the beginning of the climatic revolution of the twentieth-first century, rather than in the middle of the industrial revolution of nineteenth, perhaps ‘cheerfulness’ is no longer the best word to describe the ongoing communal resilience that will be required of us, but ‘honesty’ certainly is the best word to describe the change needed in our public discourse. To respond appropriately, and scientifically, to the threat of climate change we may need to embrace something like the revelatory vision of Ruskin. Conroy has.

 

Martyn Jolly

 

John Ruskin, ‘Of The Pathetic Fallacy’, Modern Painters, Volume 3, Part 4, 1856

John Ruskin, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, 1884

Brian J Day, ‘The Moral Intuition of Ruskin’s ‘Storm-Cloud’’, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Volume 45, Number 4, Autumn 2005, pp917-933

 

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Australian Photography Commissions

Talk at Australian Parliament House 20 June 2014 for Anne Zahalka Parliament House commission forum

Australian Photography, Corporate Commissions and Australia’s Parliament House

When Parliament House was being built the scene for art photography was very different to the scene now. Now photography has become just another imaging-option within art, and it really only gets public profile as a medium in its own right through a set of annual photography competitions, in which anyone — amateur, professional or student — can take their chances. But, twenty-five years ago, photography was still relatively ‘hot’ as an art medium and, as well as being seen to be publicly accessible, it was also associated with the young and innovative. Rather than today’s large photographic competitions, which are largely funded by the entry fees of photographers themselves, in the eighties corporate sponsorship was very important in offering new photographers their first break, and offering established photographers further opportunities. Companies such as Polaroid and Kodak sponsored photographers, but the biggest sponsor of the period was the cigarette company Philip Morris, who aligned itself with the National Gallery of Australia and, through its director James Mollison, purchased 700 photographs by over 100 photographers between 1976 and 1980.

Other industries also saw the advantage of using photographers to not only document their activities, but also to gain a corporate shine from being seen to be with-it philanthropists to a young and exciting art medium. Of course photography has always been completely bound up in industry. From the early twentieth century onwards photographers and factories were close acquaintances. Photographers such as George Lewis, who features in the current NGA exhibition of Indonesian photography, was exemplary in importing the visual logic of the portrait studio onto the factory floor. Even before the industrial photographer unpacked his camera gear the machinery had to ‘photograph itself’ by momentarily pausing in its ceaseless whirring so that it would register solidly on the film rather than become a liquid blur. Workers, machinery and lighting were then choreographed, as in a portrait studio, to give just the right impression for the client.

George Lewis 1902

George Lewis 1902

As was the case globally, Australian photographers have also always been associated with industry and architecture. Harold Cazneaux undertook a commission for BHP in 1935; and in 1973 the publisher Oswald Ziegler used Max Dupain’s photographs for one of his celebratory and commemorative volumes, Sydney Builds and Opera House. This exemplifies what could be called a modernist-heroic genre of architectural photography, celebrating industry and architecture primarily, and including workers as a function of the industrial process. Workers are certainly present and even celebrated, but they are a figured within the machinery of construction, a human accent to the formal architecture of the image. In this heroic mode it is the historical force of modernity itself which is the generative power, producing the ‘sculptural forms’ of the architecture which define the photograph, which in turn are ministered to by the supplicant workers who provide a fleshy torque to the composition’s hard architectonics. This heroic genre was getting a fair bit of profile twenty-five years ago. For instance in 1976 David Moore reprinted some photographs taken by Henri Mallard of the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for an Australian Centre for Photography travelling exhibition. Perhaps the last example of this heroic mode is David Moore’s own documentation of the building of the Glebe Island Bridge, published in 1996.

1976

1976

1973

1973

Sydney Builds an Opera House

Sydney Builds an Opera House

Sydney Builds an Opera House

Sydney Builds an Opera House

However, in 1978 one company, CSR, saw the advantage of uniting the benefits of the corporate philanthropy of Philip Morris with the opportunity to directly document the variety of their industrial activities. The story goes that they originally contacted the Australia Council to help them find a painter to celebrate the centenary of their Pyrmont refinery with a great big painting of the refinery. The council steered them toward getting more bang for their twelve thousand bucks by spending the same amount on a group of six photographers. The project, auspiced through Christine Godden, director of the Australian Centre for Photography, went on for a further four iterations. The project was structurally very similar to the future Parliament House Project, it commissioned emerging photographers, but also featured established photographers ‑ even towards the end getting Max Dupain to reprint some images originally taken in the 1950s. The emphasis was on a variety of approaches, from the traditional fine print to the more art school trained style of creative photography. Thus in 1978 Sandy Edwards broke the masculinist mold of the previous heroic mode by photographing the multicultural women on the production line. Micky Allan also broke the heroic mold of picturing workers as a mere manifestation of the Modernist imperative by incorporating noise andvibration — stilled in previous industrial photography — in her production line photographs. Even Bill Henson enveloped the younger workers in his trademark entropic twilight, making them not the vigorous propellers of progress, but the romantic bearers of a lugubrious weight. David Moore even assembled portrait-rows of them, matching the leatheriness of their multicultural faces with the marks on their multifunctional gloves. Also notable in the CSR collection was some of what was called at the time ‘constructed photography’, exemplified by Debra Phillips, who a decade before photoshop blended two separate photographs into the one experiential landscape; or Merryle Johnson who made multiple-viewpoint scenes of ordinary life. However the CSR commission also gave the opportunity for photographers like Grant Mudford to explore the formal properties of the medium using industrial materials and gravel.

Debra Phillips on CSR catalogue cover

Debra Phillips on CSR catalogue cover

Sandy Edwards 192 Cubes 1978. AGNSW Collection

Sandy Edwards 192 Cubes 1978. AGNSW Collection

Micky Allan 1978. AGNSW Collection

Micky Allan 1978. AGNSW Collection

Grant Mudford 1981. AGNSW Collection

Grant Mudford 1981. AGNSW Collection

The Parliament House commission had a lot in common with the CSR commission, and many photographers who worked on Parliament House had previously worked at CSR. However some, for instance Bill Henson, who worked on the CSR commission unfortunately did not come back for Parliament House, I wonder what he would have done if he had? Many of the twenty-eight photographers who shot on the site around the year 1986 worked in a hyper formalist style. One example amongst many is Tony Perry who revelled in the mud and hard shadows, and formally played the white of the concrete off against the dark patterns of reinforcing mesh. For others, like Steven Lojewski, on-camera flash often flattened space, and horizon lines were often pushed way up to force a tension between the 3D space depicted in the image, and the 2D surface of the print. To anybody who lived through this period this is all very, very, familiar, but scrolling through the images now the viewer feels the clench of a claustrophobic air. But nonetheless this style dominates the collection. Other examples in black and white are: Fiona Hall, Glen O’Malley, John Elliot and Charles Page ; and in colour: Douglass Holleley and Ed Douglas. In many of these shots workers are excluded entirely, and in others, such as Fiona Hall’s, they are reduced to tiny ciphers.

Steven Lojewski C1986 Parliament House Collection

Steven Lojewski C1986 Parliament House Collection

Only some photographers seem to capture the full scale and spatial weirdness of the building, most notably Gerrit Fokkema who gave his photographs his trademark surreal irony; and Debra Phillips who seems to have begun her photography by responding to the spaces she entered, rather than imposing her own pre-determined formal sensibility, like a net, over the spaces she looked down into— which many of the other photographers seemed to do.

Gerrit Fokkema C1986 Parliament House Collection

Gerrit Fokkema C1986 Parliament House Collection

Debra Phillips C1986 Parliament House Collection

Debra Phillips C1986 Parliament House Collection

This was a national commission, photographers went anywhere in Australia from which Parliament House’s construction materials were sought, but there was a politics here too. Take for example the sourcing of timber: Anthony Green photographed the dense Huon pine forests of Tasmania as though it was just another formalist exercise, and Richard Stringer’s photographed in the jungles of Kuranda, in far north Queensland, as though it was a postcard; but Gillian Gibb took individual tree portraits in Tasmania, baptising each one with their proper botanical name.

Gillian Gibb C1986 Parliament House Collection

Gillian Gibb C1986 Parliament House Collection

Anthony Green C1986 Parliament House Collection

Anthony Green C1986 Parliament House Collection

Workers are not excluded entirely: Mark Kimber did Sanderesque portraits of them, while Richard Woldendorp and John Williams photograph them emeshed in their environment. (It is only after a little while that we realize with a shock what is missing from these twenty-five year old images of workers, where are the hi-viz vests, today’s instantly recognizable symbol of labour worn by everyone from the prime minister down— here totally absent?). Merryl Johnson, one of several overtly feminist photographers who were chosen, places them as part of a dynamic environment.

Mark Kimber C1986 Parliament House Collection

Mark Kimber C1986 Parliament House Collection

Merryle Johnson C1986 Parliament House Collection

Merryle Johnson C1986 Parliament House Collection

Standing out from all of the rest of the work is Sandy Edwards, who photographs workers not ‘on the job’, but involved in the controversial de-registering of the Builders Labourers Federation. She took photograph of three union members and other union activities in saturated colour. Beneath the images she placed labels filled with her own querulous first-hand experiences. I was around when this collection was first exhibited, and I’ve forgotten most of it, but I still remember the shock of seeing Sandy’s photographs. What comes through is her own tentative self-questioning, a self-conscious awareness of the fragility of the temporary relationships she forged with the unionists and strikers she photographed, and an acute awareness of the politics of the commission itself. (But now, encountering them 25 years later I can’t help but see them through the filter of all the all massive iconography of Thatcher’s Britain that has come out, particularly in cinema, since then. As always, it’s a tragedy that so much of Australia’s visual heritage remains hidden and dormant, while that of other countries spreads across the world.)

Sandy Edwards C1986 Parliament House Collection

Sandy Edwards C1986 Parliament House Collection

Sandy Edwards C1986 Parliament House Collection

Sandy Edwards C1986 Parliament House Collection

Sandy Edwards C1986 Parliament House Collection

Sandy Edwards C1986 Parliament House Collection

So, in these collections we can see larger political dramas — between feminism and patriarchy, between environmental consciousness and the perception of nature as imply a ‘resource’, between the historical project of modern development and the human experiences caught up in it — directly played out in the dialogue between the photographs.

Zahalka has inherited all of this. She, like photographers before her for over a century, has imported the logic of the studio into the workplace. Make no mistake, hers is an industrial photography. She, like photographers before her, has had to work out where to find the ‘dignity’ of labour. Not in the heroic tradition, where a worker’s labour and therefore their dignity is merely a product of a historical project far greater than the individual; and not either — at least in this case — in an oppositional tradition where the worker is cast as an actor in another historical drama of oppression resistance and rebellion. But rather, somewhere between them.

Martyn Jolly

 

 

My Anne Zahalka Parliament House 25th Anniversary Commission catalogue essay

Parliament House at Work, 25th Anniversary commission, Anne Zahalka

Anne Zahalka at Work

Everybody wants a behind the scenes tour. Documentary filmmakers and photographers have always catered to this desire to lift the hood on an institution and see how the human machinery underneath works. We all remember seeing documentaries about, for example, the ‘below stairs’ bustle of majestic mansions, the below decks drills of mighty warships at sea, the behind the scenes dramas of great opera houses, or the backroom machinations of political campaigns. Our Parliament House combines all of these aspects — from the aristocratic to the bellicose to the operatic to the Machiavellian  — in the one magnificent site that virtually every Australian has visited, or will visit, at one time or another. And even when we aren’t there in person — trailing through the public level in school groups, queuing for a spot in the public galleries, or attending a function in the Great Hall —we still see one or another of the several tips of the Parliamentary iceberg every night on TV: a shouting match in the chamber, a doorstop interview on a chilly Canberra morning, or the forced chit-chat of caucus or cabinet before the doors are closed on the cameras.

But how does it all run? Or, more specifically, who runs it all? Last year, twenty-five years after it opened, Anne Zahalka was commissioned to photograph Parliament House and, through a process of discussion and experimentation, eventually decided to work with the staff, the ordinary but essential people who keep the vast machinery of the legislature running day in day out, from year to year and from government to government. Of course Parliament House is an extraordinary piece of architecture, not so much a building set in a landscape as a citadel which is part building and part hill, a self-contained city voyaging through time on its own temporal rhythms driven by the imperatives of parliamentary sittings and legislative agendas. And photographers have always loved it; its flat planes, hard edges and abutted textures are made for the camera. Nor was Zahalka the first photographer to be commissioned to photograph it. As it was being built in the 1980s the Parliament House Construction Photography Project commissioned twenty-eight emerging and established photographers to respond to the construction process and the building as it grew into the hill. Most of the photographers concentrated on the tangled formal patterns which the concrete, reinforcing mesh, formwork, and so on made against the mud and bedrock. Only some, most notably Sandy Edwards, photographed the workers themselves — union members in her case — who were needed to actually do the work. As hill mutated into building other photographers, for instance Debra Phillips, got the opportunity to photograph the vast and complex cathedral like spaces that were opening themselves up beneath the buttresses and aprons of concrete above. These photographers can be seen as precedents to Zahalka’s anniversary commission.

But that heroic construction phase was long ago, the building and its staff have long since settled into a regular rhythm, chugging efficiently along as political storms rage above, and it is that on which Zahalka has concentrated. However in her work we still get a sense of the building’s full architectural scale, which so fascinated the construction phase photographers, through the building’s employees. A worker checks her phone in a storeroom for old furniture which has been built, at the lowest level of the building, into the roughly excavated bedrock of the hill itself. In another photograph another worker tugs apart the bus-sized flag which is about to fly high above the swards of rooftop grass, from the top of the massive quadrapod flagpole.

The architecture of the building has also written itself into the very compositional structure of Zahalka’s images. Like the building itself all of her images are strictly symmetrical and organised around a central axis which drives itself straight through the middle of her photographs. Some of her images are even bicameral like our Parliament house. The panoramas, made by digitally gluing several separate exposures together, seem to conjoin two visual halves into one unified image; and one image of the Parliamentary Library, made from two adjacent points of view, allows us to look down two bookshelf aisles at once.

There has always been a tableau-like quality to Zahalka’s photographs. For example in her series Welcome to Sydney, 2002, commissioned by Sydney Airport, new migrants to Sydney from different countries were posed against panoramic Sydney skylines as though they were giant postcards. Within the rectilinear pyramids of these Parliament House images the staff are arranged like actors on a well-lit stage waiting for the curtain to rise. Working with her subjects, Zahalka posed them in their work-settings, sometimes art-directing the furniture and ornaments, and sometimes styling vital details such as the orange electrical lead of the cleaner’s vacuum-cleaner which leads our eye in as it snakes across the carpet of the Prime Minister’s suite. As Zahalka works on the digital files after they had been captured she further controlled the final image.

This sense of the choreographed enactment of dignified work, rather than the instantaneous grabbing of workers from the midst of the mundanity of their labours, is not new in Australian photography. The photography of Wolfgang Sievers is another precedent to Zahalka’s approach. (Sievers did not participate in the 1980s Parliament House Construction Photography Project, though his contemporaries Max Dupain and David Moore did.) Sievers built his reputation constructing elaborate promotional photographs in factories, from which the worker-subjects were often sent home for clean shirts, shaved and cleaned-up, and posed as though they were masters of their machinery, which was dramatically lit against darkness. In front of Sievers’ camera even the grottiest factory looked dramatic, and the most grueling work felt heroic. No wonder Sievers’ photographs, originally taken to promote individual businesses, eventually became iconic images for Australia as a whole. Although not as extreme and artificial as this, Zahalka’s photographs do endow the staff of Parliament House with worth and national value. The image of the pond cleaner scrubbing the bottom of the ceremonial pond in the House’s forecourt, as the hose loops around his legs like a lazy eel, is not ironic. All edifices, no matter how grand, and all institutions, no matter how complex, require dedicated staff from top to bottom, and from outer perimeter garden to inner sanctum. All play their part. Even the cabinet table, around which crucial decisions will shortly be made ‘in camera’, needs to be cleaned, by somebody.

With a formally tuned, but visually witty, sensibility Zahalka has documented these diverse staff members in their diverse work environments; describing, twenty-five years after it was built, Parliament House not as simply a piece of architecture, and not as simply the seat of our government, but as a place, a symbiosis of people, power and architecture.

Martyn Jolly

Canberra Times article on the Canberra Museum and Art Gallery photography exhibition I’m in

New Canberra Museum and Gallery exhibition Lens Love explores the self, subject and environment

Sally Pryor

Canberra Times

November 30, 2013

CT article

Marzena Wasikowska’s Jess, Oskar, Kai and Mia.

It’s one of the most common complaints of modern life – the increasing tendency to photograph life when you should be living it instead. Snapping images of weddings and babies and parties and soon-to-be-devoured meals, as a way of affirming life’s existence when just being there isn’t enough. And why wouldn’t we, when cameras are constantly on hand, be moved to capture every single meaningful moment?

But when photography is more than just an impulsive social interaction, the process of living through images can be much more complicated. A new exhibition at Canberra Museum and Gallery shows how six local photographers have negotiated the porous boundaries between the self, the subject and the surrounding environment.

Gallery director Shane Breynard, who curated the show, says he set out from a cerebral standpoint – photographic film theory from the 1970s and ’80s that focuses on ”the gaze” as ”a concept for that period where the infant becomes aware of themselves”.

kml-na-lens-20131129183214699204-300x0

Lee Grant, from the series Belco pride.

”They get a shock that they’re an object in the world among other objects – they’re not just a flood of sensation. So I’ve had fun using that as a bit of a thread to select and group works together,” he says.

”Indeed, it’s something that is common among these photographers, that they all have a real sensitivity to the way today, in the modern world, we live half of our lives through an awareness of ourselves in images … we kind of live across time and in the relations of how we might be seen in an image.”

The six artists he chose have ta common anthropological vision of people and their place in the world as well as distinctive preoccupations.

kml-na-lens3-20131129183401202791-300x0

Denise Ferris’s The long hot summer.

Polish-born artist Marzena Wasikowska has three series of photographs in the show, and all relate to her family, including large-scale montages showing her three adult children, and their friends, spouses or children.

The images are immediately striking, and not just because of the instantly recognisable face of her middle daughter, actor Mia Wasikowska, but because of their careful, painterly composition. These are people who have grown up under their mother’s watchful, artistic eye, and their resulting lack of self-consciousness is palpable.

She also presents a study of a recent trip to Poland, her third since leaving her homeland at the age of 11, with images presented in grids that are made all the more poignant through their disconnectedness from each other.

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Detail from Martyn Jolly’s ACT Bushfire Memorial Images

Wasikowska’s husband, John Reid, also has works in the show, including his classic Fishman and Walking the Solar System series, both eccentric conceptual forays into the wilderness that immerse him as a subject at the mercy of the elements.

The youngest artist in the show, Lee Grant, is already known for her Belco Pride works – a series exploring her connection to the suburban Canberra of her childhood and adolescence. But her academic past as an anthropologist also shines through in the wary gaze of her subjects, from a group of teenage girls in a fast-food restaurant, to a well-dressed African family lined up in front of their house. Her Korea Project and Oriental Dinnerseries – Grant has a Korean mother – is also an examination of the refracted identity of Asians in Australia.

Head of the ANU school of art Denise Ferris presents works that are as inextricably bound up in the landscape as she is. From where she lives in the Perisher Valley, she has recorded the beauty and the fragility of the often harsh landscape of the mountains, in the midst of winter or the blaze of summer. Her images are sometimes populated with human figures, sometimes partially obscured by snow and thick clothing.

”This picks up on Lens Love, the title of the exhibition,” says Breynard. ”This is a place that Denise adores, and as she’s taking these photographs, there’s something there that she’s searching for and wants to grab and articulate. And it’s not just the landscape without people in it – there’s something about the connection and the way people use the landscape.”

Martyn Jolly has long been fascinated by archival images, and the effect created when he zeroes in on particular details, and removes the surrounding context. His series Faces of the Living Dead uses images from an archive at Cambridge University, images that are today known to be fakes – men and women caught up in the 1870s craze of ”communing” with dead relatives through photographs. The images, which include hazy presences floating around the faces of the grieving hopefuls, are cropped in for maximum and pathetic effect. Jolly also includes his series commissioned as part of the 2003 bushfire memorial – a reproduction of the columns of images he produced depicting the aftermath and recovery. He has used the same technique to crop the images close as a way of highlighting the drama and pathos.

Cathy Laudenbach is fascinated by how stories and experiences interact with particular places, leaving marks that aren’t always discernible to the naked eye.

In one series, The Beauty and the Terror, she has been inspired by the story of Daisy Bates, the Australian journalist who, in the early 1900s, retired to the Australian bush to devote herself to protecting Aboriginal people. Laudenbach includes no people in the images, but a presence is implied through shadows and objects.

”She’s divining, almost, a colonial inhabitation of this landscape,” says Breynard. ”There’s a sense in these photos of something that you can’t grasp – a story unfolding, or a mystery you can’t quite get, or a presence of a spirit.”

Like Jolly, she is also taken by notions of the supernatural, and in another series, The Familiars, she photographs rooms in which people have reported ghostly encounters.

”Today, it’s something characteristic of our time with our smartphones – we point at something and say, ‘That’s a good photo’, and we take it and file it away, and then we look at it again to connect with a time,” says Breynard. ”But these artists, I think, really slow down that time. There’s awkwardness in that, it’s their own searching … They slow you down, and they connect you with the mystery and ineffability of stuff you think you know.”

■ Lens Love, at Canberra Museum and Gallery, runs until February 23.

Read more: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/entertainment/new-canberra-museum-and-gallery-exhibition-lens-love-explores-the-self-subject-and-environment-20131129-2yh6m.html#ixzz2mD9WrG5n

Edward Cranstone, Photographer

EDWARD CRANSTONE, PHOTOGRAPHER

Photofile, c1984

Recently the Australian National Gallery benefited from a gift by the photographer Edward Cranstone of seven spiral bound albums containing approximately 350 of his photographs from the Depression and Second World War years.

The albums contain three main groups of work: freelance photography from the late 1930s; photographs taken for the Department of Information between 1939 and 1941; and documentation of the work of the Allied Works Council in building strategic roads, aerodromes, etc. in Australia’s interior between 1942 and 1944.

The Second World War saw a flowering of documen­tary photography in Australia, with photographers like Max Dupain, Frank Hurley, Damien Parer, George Silk, Laurie Le Guay and Edward Cranstone all extensively documenting various aspect of the War. Little of this material has yet been seen in its entirety, and none of it has received the attention in deserves. In the case of Edward Cranstone a body of excellent photography and a fascinating document from war-time Australia’s visual culture is only now coming to light.

Born in 1903, Cranstone took up photography seriously at the onset of the Depression to supplement his income as a jazz drummer.’ Around 1935. to learn more about photographic technique, he approached the famous pioneering Melbourne Pictorialist John Kauffmann, who at the time, perhaps himself in straitened circumstances, was offering lessons. These lessons came for a fee Cranstone could not possibly afford, however a com­promise was soon reached whereby Cranstone worked un­paid in Kauffmann’s studio, and Kauffmann taught Cranstone photography. The relationship suited both par­ties: Kauffmann was still primarily involved in making art photographs, mainly close-up flower studies and views of picturesque Melbourne. The relationship, which lasted a year, is remembered as a very profitable one by Cranstone. Kauffmann lectured him about composition and lighting, took him to exhibitions, lent him books and showed him Pictorialist techniques.

Cranstone was soon freelancing, concentrating on portraiture. When Kauffmann retired in 1938, he sold his studio to one of his pay ing pupils who took Cranstone on as an assistant at a pound a week. Thereupon Cranstone’s work appeared under the studio owner’s name in a rented showcase in Collins Street, where Melbourne’s most prestigious photographic studios were located. At this time Cranstone also began a long association with Edna Walling, the avant-garde landscape gardener well known for her informal, naturally Australian gardens which Cranstone was to photograph for the rest of her career.

Later, towards the end of the war, Cranstone was to join the social circle that gathered around Danila Vassilieff, the flamboyant Russian painter who was a significant influence and inspiration to the expressionistic and politically left wing Melbourne painters of the 1940s. Cranstone’s closest photographic confederates at this time were Geoffrey Powell, Axel Poignant and Damien Parer. Although all were documentary photographers, approached their photography from significantly dif­ferent directions. Powell, politically active on the Left, pro­duced his photography within a particular political and social ideology. Poignant, on the other hand, developed a humanistic and pantheistic basis to his imagery. Damien Parer, who Cranstone first met at Kauffmann’s studio, photographed and filmed within ideas of clear, unen­cumbered reportage.

The polyphony of voices that Cranstone listened to and appreciated at this time reflected the unresolved and dissonant nature of the photographic discourse of the 1930s and ’40s. Pictorialism, which located photography within a traditional art discourse, was still a vital force; however it was increasingly being opposed by Modernist photography, the spare, reduced, flattened forms of which became the parlance for the fashion and magazine in­dustries both overseas and in Australia during the 1930s. The possibilities of a revitalized documentary photo­graphy, actively engaging in the world, were also being discussed at this time. Examples reached Australia mainly through such magazines as Life and Picture Post, for which photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt worked.

Cranstone’s own photography from the ’30s echoes this commotion. His photographs range from extreme close-ups of Rolex watches to views of pastoral Australia elegantly seen through framing gum trees. Bird’s-eye views of bathers at the beach and documentary snapshots of life on Melbourne’s busy streets also feature. His most successful photographs from this period, however, are portraits. Waiting for the skipper, for in­stance, is a sophisticated Modernist image, being broken into strong verticals and horizontals by the yacht’s mast and the horizon line. As is characteristic of many of Cran­stone’s images, the space behind the figures is flattened into a single planar backdrop which emphasises the primary forms of the figures and mast.

In 1937, Cranstone joined the Department of Commerce, which with the beginning of the Second World War in 1939 became the Department of Information. As head photographer, Cranstone recruited two other photo­graphers to cover the War overseas, Damien Parer, who later became well known for his newsreel coverage of the War in New Guinea, and George Silk, who went on to photograph for Life magazine. Frank Hurley later took charge of these photographers in the Middle East.

For the first two years of the War, Cranstone photo­graphed in Australia, documenting the manufacture of munitions and Australia’s own ill-fated warplane, the Wirraway, as well as military training and embarkations. These two years saw the rapid development of Cranstone’s photography into very precisely evocative im­ages of strength and heroism constructed around strong diagonal compositons and severe upward looking camera angles. For instance, in one image a Wirraway sits on a tar­mac silhouetted against a backdrop of brooding storm clouds, its body and wing thrusting up and out of the photograph. In Making of an Anzac. originally taken for, but never published in, American Vogue, all the signs of ‘Australianness’ are present: the jaunty stance, the cocky look, the casually held cigarette, the gum-tree and the far horizon. But the extreme camera angle pushes the horizon line down so that the soldier almost floats above it against a clear sky; similarly, the gum tree becomes a dislocated com­positional element. This exaggerated viewpoint draws at­tention to the ‘gaze’ of the camera and gives an almost iconic force to the figure of the soldier, making him signify “Australian soldiery”.

Two of the best images from this period similarly give the figure iconic status. Both employ an upward looking camera, flattened space, and a backdrop of clear sky. In Naval training, (semaphore) elements of the ship frame the figures, and in their upward movement complement their actions. In Naval training, (foursailors) the figures casually disport themselves across the image, all emphasis is placed on their clear, angelic expressions as they gaze into space, connoting youth, strength and purity. In Munitions manufacture gleaming bomb shells are photographed so that as they are stacked in a spatially receding row they simultaneously fill the picture plane in an aggressive diagonal movement. All of Cranstone’s photography from this period has remarkable internal consistency; and is also consistent with much other imagery that had been produced in Europe, particularly Germany and the Soviet Union, dur­ing the 1920s and 30s.

The deployment of this particular, explicit form of ‘photographic seeing’ that characterises Cranstone’s im­agery had been an issue in Europe for thirty years. The story of its development, progress, and various permuta­tions is an extremely complex one. Briefly, its origins can be traced to the ideas of ‘ostranenie’, or ‘making strange’, developed by the pre-revolutionary Russian Futurists, which were subsequently taken up in the Soviet Union by such photographers as Alexander Rodchenko. These ideas also found voice in Germany, (with photographers like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy), where through the Bauhaus and New Objectiviey movements they eventually merged with the general Modernist canon, which by the 1930s had become thoroughly integrated into the cultural hegemony of the West.

Originally, this radical formalism was seen as being in­herently revolutionary, in fact an optical analogue of political revolution. However, this form of ‘photographic seeing’ began to come under attack in Europe in the 1920s and ’30s. The Russian Society for Proletarian Photojourn­alism and the German Worker Photographer movement accused it of being merely bourgeois formalism inaccess­ible to workers. However, some of its elements can still be found in the official propaganda imagery of both Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany right up to the Second World War. These elements, (most notably the upward-looking camera angle, strong rising forms, and clear, direct lighting), became part of the rhetoric of the heroisation and iconisation of the worker, soldier and machine. At this particular historical instant, revolutionary formalism permutated into na­tionalistic formalism.

Cranstone’s specific access to this imagery is difficult to determine. Some sources, however, are clear. Through­out the War, Cranstone saw and was very impressed by the films of the Soviet Revolutionary director, Sergei Eisenstein, which were shown in Melbourne by the Australia-Soviet Friendship League, an organization of the Com­munist Party of Australia. He was particularly impressed by such films as “Ten days that shook the world” and “Bat­tleship Potemkin “. He may also have had access to official Soviet propaganda imagery, some of which was published in The Tribune during 1-9-39 and 1940, and which bears a close resemblance to his own work. From 1944, Cranstone himself contributed photographs to the Tribune. In any case his imagery has much in common, both conceptually and structurally, with the most sophisticated European propaganda photography of the 1920s and ’30s.

Early in 1942, Cranstone was transferred to the posi­tion of official photographer for the public relations depart­ment of the Allied Works Council (A.W.C.). The A.W.C. was formed as a result of General Macarthur’s discussions with Australia’s Prime Minister John Curtin, held in an ef­fort to expand Australia’s till then somewhat tardy war ef­fort.’ The A.W.C. was modelled on the Soviet Stakhanovites, the Nazi Todt Organization and the U.S. Civil Construction Corps. Under the leadership of the retired politician E.G. Theodore it called up men from the ages of 35 to 55. usually excluded from military service, to form the Australian Civil Construction Corps (C.C.C.). After call-up. men were sent to distant camps in Australia’s interior to begin work on strategic aerodromes, roads, etc. Conditions were harsh, and the conscripted men often in­itially unwilling. In addition there was considerable, and continuing, suspicion of the A.W.C.’s management: E.G. Theodore, who had a chequered past in politics and business, employed as his Director of Personnel a close business associate Frank Packer, the newspaper owner.3

The Unions involved frequently campaigned against what they saw as mismanagement, wastage and favouritism within the A.W.C. Disputes and stoppages were common. The A.W.C. management, in turn, accused the Unions and workers of hindering the war effort. In March 1943 a Commission of Inquiry was held under the National Security Regulations into “Certain Allegations Concerning   the   Administration    of   the   A.W.C.”* Although the Commission found no basis for the allega tions, the inquiry itself is indicative of considerable discon­tent.

A memo from Packer’s department in 1942 stated, “You should realise first that these men are human, and in many instances the circumstances of their call-up creates a certain quite natural feeling of resentment. Brusque, discourteous and overbearing methods in dealing with them only tend to aggravate this feeling. The result is a deep seated discontent which colours their whole future outlook and can cause an immense amount of trouble for officers of the C.C.C. who have to exercise authority over them.”5

All of this added up to a serious P. R. problem for the A. W.C. both internally and externally, and it was into this situation that Cranstone was transferred. Cranstone moved into premises in Collins Street with a small darkroom and an assistant, Vera Hodgson (whom he later married), to process the films, print the negatives and file the photographs. Cranstone was able to move quite freely around Australia with the full support of the A. W.C. He always travelled with the public relations officer, Frank Clancy, who planned the team’s itinerary and wrote the captions for the photographs. In the far north they travel­led very lightly, with only one Rolliflex, a few filters and film kept dry in bags of tea.

Cranstone exposed almost 2,000 negatives for the A.W.C, and approximately 7,000 prints a year were distributed from the department, both in Australia and overseas. At the end of the war it was estimated that ap- proximately 6,000 inches of Australian newspaper space were occupied by Cranstone’s photography per year.6

The most successful publicity project, however, was a travelling exhibition which toured to Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra in 1944. It comprised up to 500 of Cranstone’s photographs, some enlarged to 1.5 x 2.0 metres, with accompanying texts. Paintings by William Dobell and Herbert McClintock were also exhibited. The exhibition was enthusiastically received by the press and seen by approximately 80,000 people.

Cranstone’s photography can therefore be seen to have played a vital role in an extensive and well-orchestrated public relations campaign. The thrust of the campaign is summed up in another memo emanating from Packer’s department. “In so far as it is possible to do so you must, at all times, strive to impress on the men that they are not mere drudges performing a dull and routine task, but Australians, carrying out work of the first importance, without which the nation’s ability to defend itself adequately, or to launch an offensive, will be hamstrung. Everything possible should be done to make the men see themselves as civilian shock troops standing immediately behind the fighting services.”7

These themes of the “army behind the army”8 and “white collar shock troops”‘ are taken up in Cranstone’s photography of the C.C.C. workers and their projects. His imagery exhibits strong affinities with images of the pro­letariat worker used in Europe and the U.S.S.R. between the wars. It redeploys this imagery from a revolutionary, class-conscious context into the context of Australia’s na­tionalistic war-effort. In C.C.C. worker, a diagonal composition and up­ward looking camera angle are again used. Strips of shadow twisting across the worker’s bare torso emphasise his strength and physicality as he pushes a spanner forward and out of the picture plane. This action links, composi-tionally and connotatively, his right hand, as it easily grasps the tool, to his face, as it looks up into the distance. All this iconises the worker — his strength, his skill and his commitment to his task.

Cranstone also photographed the machinery and con­struction work of the C.C.C. In C.C.C. Construction the workers are supported, both physically and compositional-ly, by the beams of a building firmly criss-crossing between the edges of the photograph. In another image of a worker with a drill the worker almost becomes part of the machine, connoting a symbiotic relationship between workers and their tools (front cover). Cranstone’s photography can therefore be seen to have operated along two axes. In his highly codified treat­ment of the specifics of the A.W.C.’s activities he con­structed nationalistic metaphors for strength and commit­ment that could then be metonymically deployed within the documentary narrative structures of contemporary newspaper reports on the A.W.C. as well as the travelling exhibition. Or, to use a different terminology, Cranstone’s photographs were deployed syntagmatically as documents of the strategic works of the A.W.C. and paradigmatically as evocations of a nationalistically committed Australian worker. This paradigm excluded the worker as a classed, aged or self-aware individual.'”

As a reviewer of the exhibition for the Melbourne Herald wrote, “it would be surprising if most people did not take away a warm impression of that typical Australian, stripped to the waist, working on untouched land, levelling it, digging into it or building up from it. In a real immediate way, the show tells the story of how Australia — the coun­try itself — has gone to war.””

After the war Cranstone became a cinematographer for the Commonwealth Film Unit, now Film Australia, until his retirement in 1966. Immediately following the war he continued some politically conscious documentary photography in the slums of Sydney for a short time. However he eventually gave up serious photography.

He regards his photography for the A.W.C. as his most important work, and it remains an impressive body of imagery even today. As he wrote at the end of the spiral bound albums that are the only remaining record of the ex­hibition: “Exhibitied in the capital cities of Australia, they have been able to change completely the attitude of the public towards the C.C.C. This attitude, created entirely by the repeated attacks of the newspapers, persisted right up to the time the exhibition was first shown. This demonstrates very plainly that documentary photography can be a real factor because of its ability to bare the truth.”13

1. I would like to thank Edward and Vera Cranstone for the time they have spent with me. Most of the following biographical information is obtained from an interview recorded with them in March 1983 and an autobiographical manuscript supplied by Edward Cranstone. See also Edward Cranstone, “Documentary Assignment”, Contemporary Photography, vol. 1, no. 2, 1947.

2. Lloyd Ross. John Curtin — a biography. Macmillan. 1977. p.288 See also J.A. Morley, “The Allied Works Council”. Rydge’s Magazine. November 1942.

3. Irwin Young. Theodore — his Life and Times. Alpha Books.! 971. pp.

4. H.P. Brown (Commissioner). Inquiry under the National Security Regulations into the Administration of the Allied Works Council. 5 March 1942. National Library of Australia.

5. W. Steward Howard Manner of dealing with recruits. A.W.C. Person nel Department Circular No. 1. Australian Archives. Brighton, Victoria, ac cession no. M.P. 72, series 1-18.

6. F. Clancy. A Report upon the Photographic Activities of the Allied Works Council 15/12/42 — 30/6/45. Department of Works. Australian Ar chives, op. cit.

7. Quoted in ” “White Collar” Troops Carry On” The Sun 3/8/42.

8. “The civilian army behind the fighting army.” The Sydney Morning Herald 1/8/42.

9. The Sun op. cit.

10. See Roland Barthes. Elements of Semiology. Hill and Wang, 1968.

11. K..K. “Australia Portrayed Stripped to the Waist”. Herald. 3/8/44.

12. Edward Cranstone. Design for War. Vol. 3. Collection: Australian National Gallery.     MARTYN JOLLY

Martyn Jolly is Curatorial Assistant in the Depart­ment of Photography, Australia National Gallery.

The Lives of Max Dupain, 1986

The Lives of Max Dupain

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

‘Photofile’, Vol 4, No 4, 1987

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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