Figure 21. Detail from Centennial Photographic Company, Philadelphia International Exhibition, ‘Queensland Court, Philadelphia ’76, Evening Before Opening’, 1876.
Richard Daintree is well known as an Australian colonial photographer and geologist. I look at six international exhibitions he created from 1872 to 1879 that promoted the colony of Queensland by systematically integrating spectacular grids of painted photographs with displays of scientific samples. By analysing installation views, I argue that the popular success of these exhibitions came from the use of various new photographic technologies within the space of the exhibition, where the frontier directly interacted with the metropole. Further, I argue that Daintree’s personal passion for the science of geology profoundly structured the colonialist narrative of his exhibitions, which combined the latest apparatuses of scientific knowledge and imperial communication, revealing him to be an innovative and internationally significant creator of synthesised exhibitionary experiences.
Volume 43, Issue 1, 2019, pages 60-83
Martyn Jolly & Daniel Palmer
Among the various new modes for making photographs that were explored by Australian photographers in the first decades of the twentieth century, three in particular – Pictorialist images, authentic records, and personal snapshots – had far-reaching implications for the institutions of Australian photography. Pictorialist photographs are now the foundation of many Australian art museum collections; photographic records produced at the time have become iconic in Australian public history, forming the backbone of many social history collections; and personal snapshots from the period are increasingly reproduced in social histories. Historians of Australian photography have discussed and analysed each of these modes1, but they have tended to treat them separately, or even in opposition to each other, and to concentrate on the distinct careers of individual photographers. This article looks at this crucial period, and these key photographic modes, from the point of view of the worldwide networks and systems for the distribution, exhibition, collection, and indexing of photographs. We show how these modes, far from being distinct, overlapped one another as each grappled with the same issues of nation, history, and memory, and as each articulated their nationalistic concerns through international networks and idioms.
For Vivid Ideas, Vivid Festival, Sydney. ‘Kings Bloody Cross, Surface Glitter and Underground Guts’, at The World Bar, Saturday 3 June, 2017 (I’ve stuck the power point slides in amongst the text)
Today I want to sing the praises of a small and obscure photography book published in 1971. Australia doesn’t have a particularly big tradition of photobooks, perhaps our population has always been too small to sustain local publishers who specialise in photobooks. So it’s pretty hard to call to mind any important Australian photobooks, whereas European ones like Brassai’s Paris by Night, or American ones like Robert Frank’s The Americans, spring readily to mind. Nonetheless there are a few Australian photobooks that, in their own way, are significant and integral works of art as well as being important cultural documents. And it pains me that they are not remembered, particularly by today’s young Australian photographers who all profess to be into photobooks, but only it seems if they are imported from Europe or the US. Of course Mathew Sleeth’s Tour of Duty from 2004 is a classic, and there are a few others which are celebrated perhaps. But remembering Australian photobooks from their heyday, the period from the mid 1960s until the early 1970s, when they were part of mainstream culture as well as being sites for experimentation, is particularly important.
In the history of Australian photography it is not the 1960s, but the 1970s that is commonly celebrated as the watershed decade where, following the 1972 election of a socially enlightened Labor government, there was a creative flowering entailing both a renaissance in the Australian film industry, and a ‘photography boom’ consisting of new photography galleries, new photography collections, new funding opportunities, and a new role for a younger generation of art-school trained photographers. However, if attention is paid to the many photobooks that were produced, distributed, bought and read in large numbers before the magical date of 1972, the picture we can form of not only Australian photography, but also of Australian culture as a whole, deepens considerably.
There were two absolutely cracker books published in that period, one was Southern Exposure published by David Beal and Donald Horne in 1967, and the other was Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross published by Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey in 1971. And today I want to celebrate the latter.
During this period Australian photobooks tended to be coffee table tourist souvenirs. They were the kind of book an aunt you never saw during the year might give you for Christmas; or you would send back to your grandparents in the UK or Greece; or you would put in you bag after a few weeks of R&R ion case you needed a souvenir for someone. But during this period some photobooks began to be published which attempted to go beyond the standard Australiana tourist genre. They began to be timely, about Australian society as it was at the time, rather than timeless, about a generic Australia; and they were quite explicitly about the new Australian identity that was emerging in the post war period. Driving this change was unprecedented wealth flowing from a mining boom, continuing mass migration from Southern Europe, and a geopolitical realignment towards the US, evidenced by an escalating commitment to the Vietnam War from 1966 onwards and, in the case of Kings Cross, the presence of a quarter of a million American servicemen in Australia, who spent seventy million dollars on their R&R leave between 1967 and 1971.
Significantly, the Australian film industry did not undergo its renaissance until the 1970s. There were only a handful of feature films made in Australia during the sixties, and most of those were made by overseas directors. A good example of this is They’re a Weird Mob. Featuring Kings Cross, it was based on an extraordinarily popular Australian novel, and starred some of Australia’s best-loved actors, but it was made by an English director.  However, although Australian feature films were few in number in the 1960s, at least sixty significant Australiana picture books were published during the same period.
The sixties also saw a radical increase in the number of independent, start-up publishers, historically analogous to the internet startups of today. The value of Australian publishing increased eight fold between 1961 and 1979; and from 1961 to 1971 membership of the Australian Book Publishers Association increased from thirty-seven to sixty-seven, of which nearly forty were Australian owned. Many of these publishers, such as Rigby, Lansdowne, Nelson and Jacaranda were substantial, while others were more like today’s internet start-ups and were literally kitchen table operations. Horwitz, whose books sold for less than a dollar, catered to the lurid pulp fiction market. However not all of Horwitz’s books were pulp fiction. Some, such as the gritty Vietnam: The Cruel War by Anthony Syme, which sold for 65 cents, engaged with the politics of the period.
Other start-up publishers who also focussed on the cheaper end of the market, such as Sun Books, explicitly addressed the burgeoning of intellectual interest in issues of Australian history identity.
In many ways these book publishers formed a continuum with the magazine publishers, who published middle class travel magazines like Walkabout, domestically oriented magazines such as the dominant Women’s Weekly, and barbershop magazines such as Australasian Post, People or Pix. From 1965 this suburban newsagent’s range was joined by a burgeoning of inner city street magazines which focussed on satire, sex and radical politics. These included Oz, which reached a circulation of 30,000, but also magazines like Kings Cross Whisper, which reached a circulation of 100,000, and the quickly banned sex magazines like Sexy, Searchlight, Obscenity, Ribald and Censor, as well as student magazines that dealt with radical politics like Honi Soit and Tharunka.
Kings Cross was already featuring in this explosion of Australian publishing. It already had, since at least the 1920s, become a media trope within Australia. It was a locus of a powerful kind of ‘aspirational anxiety’ within Australia. Louis Nowra has described Kings Cross as:
a piece of urban DNA where the two spirals interweave the safe and the dangerous, the Australian and the foreign, the old-fashioned glamour and trashy sexual exploitation, the underworld and city professionals, the seedy and glamorous, the hetero and gay, sexual freedom and commercial sex, the underclass and the rich, the beautiful and tawdry.
And, as an emerging popular media spectacle, Kings Cross was similarly a place of Bohemian artiness and Parisian boulevards, at the same time as it was a place of crime, drinking and sex. It was where airy aspirational fantasies of Australia finally graduating as a cosmopolitan country were mixed with deep atavistic fears of rampant sexuality and lawlessness.
The popular iconography of the Cross had been developing in the 1940s and 50s. Max Dupain contributed photographs of women in pretty print dresses strolling under the plane trees of Macleay Street to many Sydney books during those decades. But it really took off in the 1960s — on a broad visual front. The Cross not only featured in the film They’re a Weird Mob, it also became the staple location for Horwitz pulp fiction novels, and in 1965 was the subject of a Channel Nine TV documentary called The Glittering Mile.
The Glittering Mile in many ways sets a template for subsequent Cross iconography. It starts with a bit of history: the convict windmills and colonial villas on the ridge above the town reached by an aboriginal track through the scrub which eventually became William Street, and so on. It interviews what had already become a familiar cast of characters: the 1920s flapper Dulcie Deamer, the witch Rosalee Norton, the manager of the Pink Pussycat Last Card Louie, and so on. But it also adds a new character, a stunning looking Carlotta barely out of her teens, and before her sex change, who was interviewed backstage at The Jewel Box, a predecessor to Les Girls. And, like many other documentaries it takes us through a twenty-four hour period in the life of the Cross: from the the day when we surveil the same pretty print dresses we had seen in Max Dupain, to the night where we track strippers rushing between jobs. We are shown, on our TV screens in 1965, strippers performing inside strip clubs, and men soliciting prostitutes. It might have been these brief glimpses which led to calls for the TV documentary to be banned.
In 1965 the first book to be devoted entirely to the Cross was also published. Life at the Cross featured an anodyne text by Kenneth Slessor. Slessor had popularised ‘Bohemian Sydney’ in 1933 with his book of poems Darlinghurst Nights, and in the post war period had become the go-to laureate for poetical musings on Sydney. He was 64 by this time, and phoned in a text which is yawningly behaved. The book had an introduction by the Lord Mayor, so there is no imagery of prostitution, as there had been in The Glittering Mile, but nonetheless Robert Walker’s by now familiar imagery of ‘Parisian’ streets is spiced up with some tasteful strip club imagery, and even some drag act imagery. But all the stripper photographs are printed very small, and visually recuperated into images of suburbanites having a touristic fun night out, which are printed larger and dominate the pages.
There is an obligatory excursion to the Cross in my other pick for best-Australian-photobook-ever, an acerbic take down of Australian complacency called Southern Exposure published in 1967 by Donald Horne, author of the excoriating book The Lucky Country, and the photographer David Beal. Their book which, as we can see from the cover, is dedicated to inverting Australian complacencies, also breaks down the unspoken wall between day and night which all previous visual representations of the Cross had adhered to in order to sustain the aspirational anxiety it represented — to keep separated the Cross’s twin helixes of cosmopolitanism and sleaze. In previous Cross representations the daytime is for Parisian boulevardiering, the night-time for frenetic excess. However in the double page spread of Beal’s obligatory Cross photos a fashionable young coffee drinker suspiciously glowers at the camera through narrowed eyes, wordlessly telling us to f… off, and we get a portrait of the Pink Panther’s garbage bin primly sunning itself in the bright morning.
As the sixties progressed the idea of youth — young people as a distinctive cultural category — began to occupy inner city iconography. Some young people began to bring a kind of hallucinogenic approach to inner city Sydney. For instance in 1968 the thirty-five year old left-wing writer and social analyst Craig MacGregor had got the job of writing the text for the tourist souvenir book To Sydney With Love. McGregor attempted a very personal beat-poetry howl on Sydney. He opened his text, meant to be read by ordinary Australians, with a cosmic experience of Sydney he had late at night standing on the roof of a block of flats in Potts Point looking into Woolloomooloo:
I know this city, I comprehend it utterly, my guts and mind embrace it in its entirety, it’s mine. It was a moment of exhilaration, of exquisite and loving perception, my soul stretched tight like Elliot’s across this city which lay sleeping and partly sleeping around me and spread like some giant Rorschach inkblot to a wild disordered fringe of mountains, and gasping sandstone, and hallucinogenic gums.
While the Cross sprouted these ecstatic visions, middle class Australia continued its fascination with it from a distance. For instance the tourist magazine Walkabout did a Cross story in 1969, adding yet another member to the cast of characters: Ted Noffs from the Wayside Chapel, which had been established in 1964 and had become a Cross institution. The following year Walkabout did yet another Cross story, this one by Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis and called ‘Wild Night in Big Bad Sydney’. Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey also contributed Kings Cross photographs to The Bulletin and The Sydney Telegraph.
Their contributions to these magazines were to become part of a larger project, a whole book aimed at a new market made up of the traditional market for Australiana, R&R servicemen, and the emerging hipster class. When the book Ellis and Stacey had been shooting finally came out in 1971, published by Nelson, it was badged as Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross. It was going to be their vision of the cross in photography. The blurb on the dust jacket capitalizes on the edginess of the project:
Over a period of six months the authors made frequent forays in the Cross armed with their cameras and a tape recorder. It was only by becoming known to the locals that they were able to record some of the remarkable scenes in this book. Nevertheless, there is much that they learned about the Cross which can only be hinted at. The laws of libel and the threats of bashing ensure a diplomatic silence. As one of the authors put it: ‘When a guy pulls a pistol on you and says that he’s going to shoot you, you know that it’s time to put away your camera and retire gracefully.
The young photographers, in their early thirties, took the reader right into the strip clubs and hippy pads of the area, using graphically dynamic and tight picture groupings and pungently personal text. Their book had a decidedly hallucinogenic feel to it. Most significantly, the focal length of their lenses changed, while Robert Walker had been shooting with a something like a telephoto 135mm lens, Stacey and Ellis were shooting wide angle at 35mm. Walker’s strippers are seen from the back of the room, Stacey and Ellis take us into their dressing rooms
Ellis’s text for the book begins with a picaresque personal memory from 1958, when he came to the Cross after leaving a Melbourne grammar school. There he and his mates meet Babs. She is ‘training to be a strip-tease artiste’ and gives the boys a show they will never forget. From this mnemonic deflowering Ellis takes us back to the obligatory history of colonial windmills and villas, before plunging us into the present day, 1970. Like a Beat poet he introduces us to the people themselves:
Hippies and heads and spades; dog-walkers and cat-feeders; witches, warlocks, painters; poets, philosophers, pensioners, painters, prostitutes, perves; soldiers and sailors; strippers; gamblers and gunmen; camps and conmen; craftsmen, chefs, shopkeepers, foreigners, bikies, jewellers, junkies, nuns, schoolkids, tourists; princes and paupers and chicks on the make, cops on the take and even an Irish Jew or two. p6
For me this exhilarating list has echoes of a similar list Carol Jerrems made three years later in her Book About Australian Women, where she said she had photographed:
“…….artists – painters, sculptors, writers, poets, filmmakers, photographers, designers, dancers, musicians, actresses and strippers. Others included women’s liberationists, Aboriginal spokeswomen, activists, revolutionaries, teachers, students, drop-outs, mothers, prostitutes, lesbians and friends.”.
Although we meet the same cast of characters introduced in previous Cross publications, including the aging flapper Dulcie Deamer, and the aging witch Rosalee Norton, Ellis’s text take us down onto the street where his own libidinal gaze is roused:
The streets are busy with shoppers, especially determined little old ladies with straw hats and gloves and, in summertime, perhaps a parasol, and itinerant kids brushing from one to another killing time or maybe stretching it out. The girls are extraordinary nymphets—cascades of hair, bare feet, and erect nipples denting T-Shirts over faded Levis or perhaps they wear long tie-died dresses or Indian gear. For most, the bra is passé. They amble along the street, breasts jiggling like delicious jellies, features open to the world. The boys are hairy and hip. They look like ancient warriors and act like troubadours. p8
On pages like this we see the ambition of the book, but also its graphic naivety. Unlike all previous Australian photobooks, Ellis’s text is linked closely to his images of the same experiences, which are often printed on the same page as the text. The book’s design attempts to break out of the staid stolid design of the previous decades, so occasionally it creates centrifugal layouts of small images across double page spreads. These small images are also run along the top of the pages which carry his text, but they are a bit too small to be seen properly by the reader.
On other pages Ellis indulges in long Beat-style riffs that encapsulates not so much a visually captured scene, as a personally experienced moment:
Keep your eyes and your mind wide open and you’ll see it all— the passing parade, a perennial Mardi Gras with no threat of Lent to follow. Across the road—hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare hare—there are eight of them, the men with shaven heads, except for a tuft on the crown, the girls pretty and gentle with long plaits over their shoulders, all in flowing robes, their foreheads symbolically marked in white. Together they sway from foot to foot, a devoted chorus line of the Hare Krishna movement chanting their mantra to a drum beat and a hand clap— hare krishna hare krishna—it’s an infectious rhythm and people stop to stare, and wait for something to happen, while others join in and chant. Some hurry past as if it wasn’t really happening at all. Several Japanese businessmen leave a restaurant and climb into a long chauffeur driven car. They glance momentarily at a curvy girl in a Superman T-shirt—rama hare rama rama—while another with a gold-lettered satin sash across her shoulder walks past, handing out Whisky a Go Go invitation cards: ‘$2 includes food and drink for the sock-it-to-me happy hour and quarter and admittance all night until 3 a.m.’. People accept them indifferently. The hairy ones in their Levis are floating past, stalking shadows and followed by chunky-nippled girls in two and threes and solo, oblivious, I think, to the heads they turn. One girl in a crocheted top actually has her brown nub poking through the open knit like it’s coming up for air. You try not to look too hard and glance at the Back to Godhead magazine which you have been given—hare krishna, hare krishna—and before you’ve recovered another nymphet comes into view, beautiful and blonde, her stomach bare, her friend a willowy black soul brother bebopping along just like he was on 125th Street. Then, revving big Trummpies, a couple of Very Heavy bikies glide past, their leathered and crash-hatted ladies hunched on the back, defying the world. There are tourists in bermuda shorts with sunglasses and Instamatics and snappy little hats and next to me this jet-set guy with film star good looks and tinted hair, and his girl chain-smoking her unbelievable mauve cigarettes, and back in the street the ubiquitous little old Cross ladies tottering along all dressed up under ritzy white summer hats. And there goes Caddy, that white haired leprechaun with the side levers who carries the strippers’ bags and knows all their little secrets. Girls for a private show? Go see Caddy—hare hare rama hare—Hey man! Leonie, Jill of all trades, master of the quick con and sweet, sweet lady, mouths greetings, her snakey tatoo showing an inch above the neckline of her black satin shirt. Kerry the dog girl is shopping, and the Black Prince, with lovely young Veronica, is off downtown to flog his silver roach clips. Pilly the Dill and Fearless Fred the Drug Squad stalwarts cruise past, eyes piercing the crowded streets; Michael and Roger—Mimi and Ruth— triss by on their way to their favourite camping spot, and a thousand other people go about their daily shopping. On Thursday afternoon the scene will be the same but different, if you know what I mean. p30
It is no wonder that the following year Ellis said:
Much of my pleasure in photography is not in looking at the photographs, which I find boring, but my involvement in the actual situation of taking the shots, of preventing the moment from escaping forever.
On other pages Ellis gives us extraordinary intimate vignettes:
At her home in Victoria Street, Michele, one of the strippers, talks about her job. She is English, very likeable and in her own style intelligent and articulate. She sits in her bra and pants on the couch under an Uncle Sam Wants You for The US Army poster and plays with her kitten. ‘Well actually I arrived in Australia with only $6 so I caught a cab, told the driver I danced, he told me he knew where I could get a job and took me to the Paradise Club and I started the next day waitressing and stripping. I used to do tables, jump up, get my gear off, then back on the tables. It was quite hard work really. But I liked it in the Cross. Compared with places like Soho and the Reeper-bahn in Hamburg it’s much more friendlier, not so vicious. It’s closer knit. Everyone knows everyone. And the bosses, the big guys, are more approachable here, you know, more like people. ‘Quite a lot of women come in to the shows. Sometimes they’re in long dresses after some fancy ball and they giggle and hide their faces. It’s funny to go up and shake your fanny around and embarrass them. And we have lots of middle-aged married couples up from Melbourne. Then there’s these downright perves who just sit there having wanks. It’s awful. They come in and sit in the front row, they’ve got glassy eyes, and they just pull it out and away they go. It’s so embarrassing. I look at them as I dance past and say “put it away you filthy bastard” and they just look at you blankly. They’re miles away in a sexual fantasy of their own. Mostly they’re young guys. Then there are the old regulars of course, great characters who think it’s great if the girls talk to them.’
At other times Ellis reports from within his own experience, like a gonzo school boy.
The Whisky a Go Go claims to be the Biggest Night Spot in the Southern Hemisphere. … You walk in under an explosion of neon in William Street, past a couple of tuxedoed and handsome dandies who scrutinise each and everybody. The last thing the Whisky wants is trouble, buddy. You pay your $2 and then, like jumping through the looking glass, you’re plunged into a maelstrom—a total environment that impinges on the senses like an electrical storm. Partly it’s manufactured by the management—light balls whirling in the dark, incredibly sexy go-go girls performing in chained and mirrored cages, forty near-nude waitresses, and the thundering amplified sounds of a rock group— and partly by the people themselves, shaking and shimmying on the dance floor as if they’re caught up in the electronic vibrations that burst out in waves from the huge speakers. The Whisky has been a big favorite with R & R boys, especially the Negroes. And black girls too. And they form their own turned-on little clique, dancing like mad with their big lit up spade smiles, flowing limbs and a knowing sensuality that stirs the loins. In contrast the rest of the Whisky oozes with a sort of contrived, but nonetheless effective, sexuality. The waitresses in a kind of bikini-sarong outfit, bend over your table and their boobs just about fall out all over you. The go-go dancers in their cages, reflected all angles several times over, are curvy ladies too, and they know how to make the curves work. In g-strings and bras they writhe away for ten minutes then take a twenty minute break. Six nights a week, six hours a night they work like convulsed marionettes.
Race is one issue that the book is completely uninhibited about displaying. The other issue is the changing role of women in Australia. Although Ellis’s libidinal gaze is never far away from the book, and although we see him developing this pervey gaze in the 1980s in the extraordinarily popular books Life’s a Beach and Life’s a Parade, in fact the experience of women becomes a focus for the Kings Cross book in a way which is totally unprecedented in other published Australian photobooks of the time. It is there in Ellis’s text. But also there in some of the striper shots, where they are pictured a adrift in a lonely void.
A stripper hurries across the road from one club to another. Her red panties are three inches lower than her mini skirt and as she walks they seem to flicker like a danger signal. Under her arm she carries the inevitable record that will set her in motion once she hits the stage. As she enters the door, Freddy the midget wrestler comes out and they exchange a nodded hullo. Freddy pushes his way through a knot of people who are staring across the road at a young woman and her baby. She is barefoot and in short shorts and carries her little boy on her hip. He is naked, save for a singlet that just covers his navel. Suddenly she places a square of newspaper on the ground and sits him on it while she stares into a shop window, resting her forehead on the glass. Then she’s off again. She stops and starts, stares at windows and a weighing machine, places her baby on the ground and picks him up again. Those who know drugs know she is tripping. Her shorts are very short and you can see the cheeks of her bottom grind together as her impatient steps take her from one manhole cover to the next. Each time she reaches her goal she stands stock still, staring and seemingly unaware of the impression she’s making on the crowd. Some are watching her because of the naked curve of her bottom. Others show genuine concern for her condition and for her baby, especially when she walks out into the traffic. But no one tries to help.
Like every account of the Cross, ever, Stacey and Ellis’s book ends on a Requiem for a lost Cross of the past, a Cross they experienced, but we can’t, we were too late.
Requiem: And so it goes on. Everywhere there are signs — Summit, Westfield, Mainline, Bank of NSW, Palisades, Home Units — proudly announcing the new projects. Many others are on the planning boards and in a few years time the Cross we know today will be unrecognizable. In place of the village will be a new satellite city. And much of the atmosphere that suggested this book will have vanished with the brick dust.
Kings Cross Sydney didn’t sell. It was an experiment that failed. In many ways it is a transitional publication, halfway between the tourist photography of the 1950s and 60s and the personally inflected photography of the 1970s. In 1974, just three years later, Morry Schwartz’s Outback Press published Carol Jerrem’s A Book About Australian Women with text by Virginnia Fraser, and Robert Ashton’s Into the Hollow Mountain, about Melbourne’s Fitzroy which combined text and poetry. The next Australian photobook to feature Kings Cross was thoroughly embedded in radical politics, it was Marion Marrison and Peter Manning’s Green Bans, which covered the fight to save Victoria Street, and was published by the Australian Conservation Foundation in 1975. Ellis submitted some more junkie pictures to an Ilford Photographic competition called Concern, and then opened up a photography gallery in Melbourne, and further honed his libidinal gaze to produce the extraordinarily popular books Life’s a Beach and Life’s a Parade in the 1980s.
Kings Cross Sydney is certainly is a flawed book. The layout seems extraordinarily amateurish to us now, but at least we can begin to see the photographers wrestling with the problem of deploying images across a page, although they can never seem to make up their minds what to do design-wise from page to page. We also see Ellis himself trying to work his photographs and his writing together. The book has disappeared to history almost completely, and though it is great that Ellis’s individual photographs are coming back to us through the work of the Rennie Ellis Archive, I think that Stacey and Ellis’s book project also is very important for the history of Australian photography. This is becasue, in the book Stacey and Ellis:
identified a market that might straddle both existing mainstream genres as well as newly emerging beat/hippy/gonzo modes;
shot the project in an unprecedented embedded process over a defined period of six months;
tried (and failed) to produce a designed book package integrating text and image;
all at the crucial historical juncture of 1970 as the R&R days of the late sixties were rolling over into the counterculture of the 1970s.
So I think it’s good.
 Gael Newton, Shades of Light : Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Canberra: Australian National Gallery: Collins Australia, 1988. Helen Ennis, Photography and Australia, London: Reaktion Books, 2007. Anne-Marie Willis, Picturing Australia: A History of Photography, North Ryde, N.S.W.: Angus & Robertson, 1988.
 Examples include: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Leslie Norman, 1959; They’re a Weird Mob, Michael Powell, 1966; Age of Consent, Michael Powell, 1969; Walkabout, Nicolas Roeg, 1971; Wake in Fright, Ted Kotcheff, 1971
 Frank Thompson, ‘Sixties Larrikins’, Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia 1946-2005. Ed. Craig Munro, and Robyn Sheahan-Bright. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2001.
 Dominic Bowes, Exposing Indecency, BA (Hons) thesis, University of Sydney, 2012
 Louis Nowra, Kings Cross: A Biography, 2013)
 Rennie Ellis and Wes Stacey, Kings Cross Sydney; a Personal Look at the Cross, Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1971
 Virginnia Fraser and Carol Jerrems, A Book About Australian Women. Outback Press. 1974 Outback Press was founded by Morry Schwartz, amongst others. Morry Schwartz is currently owner of the Black Imprint.
 Concern, edited by Harry Marks, Nelson, p48
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.
“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”
Catalogue essay for Cihuateotl’s Myth by Octavio Garcia, PhotoAcess, 26 May to 19 June, Canberra, gallery below.
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.
(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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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!
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. 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. 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.
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.
 Leonardo Da Vinci, Notebooks, Oxford University Press, 2008, p115
 Giambattista della Porta, ‘Of Strange Glasses’, Natural Magic (English translation), Thomas Young, 1658, pp363-364
 ibid, pp364-365
 Karl Marx, A Critique of The German Ideology, 1846, np
 ‘Passing of a Pioneer, Mr John White, of White’s Hill, Glimpses of early Brisbane, The Telegraph, 25 February 1927, p9)
 ‘Excursionist, Trips Around Brisbane, The Australasian, 20 February 1892, p44; The Brisbane Courier, 31 July 1929 p14.
 ‘Illustrations, Sixty Years Married, The Whites of White’s Hill’, The Queenslander, 24 January 1925, p40
 The Telegraph, 1 June 1935, p13
 The Telegraph, 18 July 1936, p30
 Judy Rechner, Where Have All The Creeks Gone: Camp Hill Heritage Drive Tour, Brisbane East Branch, National Trust of Queensland, 2001.
Storm Clouds of the Twenty-First Century, my essay for:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.