Calling the Shots: Aboriginal Photographies

It was great being amongst the panel at a symposium to celebrate the fab new book Calling the Shots: Aboriginal Photographies .  As I said on the day, if you had told me back in the 1980s, when we were cataloguing Lindt’s Portfolio of Australian Aboriginals  at the National Gallery and endowing his portrait of Mary-Ann of Ulmarra with the poetic description ‘Bust Portrait of an Aboriginal Woman’, that one day I would meet her great great niece, I wouldn’t have believed you. And I’ve lost count of the number of time I’ve shown the Picturesque Atlas of Australia’s hand-engraved (on steel I think, by W Hirschmann) reproduction of Lindt’s typological portrait to my students as an example of nineteenth century multimedia, but again never imagined I would meet a descendant. What I found most fascinating about Jane Lydon’s book was the way that indigenous Australians seem to invest the ancestral portrait photograph as object — with all its dog-eared, cardboardy, historically-patinated density  — with an ontologically greater weight than the digital copy, which is not as jealously guarded within mnemonic rituals of recollection and story-telling. However, as was raised by Shauna Bostock-Smith, young aboriginal people now have all their contemporary photographs of friends and family in their phones, just like everybody else of course, and they are devastated when they think they have lost their phones. What this book needs is its own Facebook page.

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Art from Archives

‘Art from Archives’

 Shaping Canberra, Humanities Research Centre, ANU, 17-20 September 2013

This is the age of the archive. It is the age when newly discovered collections of idiosyncratic or vernacular oddities are brought to light virtually every week; it is the age of the dataset; it is the age of the digitization and dissemination of vast, previously subterranean, institutional archives in massive labour-intensive projects of scanning and metadata matching; it is an age when those same institutions develop interfaces on their websites to encourage visitors to add their own metadata to the archive; it is the age when institutions, desperate to hit the KPIs of the their funding masters, hire ‘creatives‘ — what an odious term — to do funky things with their archival images in order to attract a younger audience.

Paradoxically, to be contemporary now is to be archival. Archives are everywhere, and in art archival strategies are ubiquitous. To quote from the back cover of the recent ‘Documents of Contemporary Art’ anthology The Archive:

Among art’s most significant developments worldwide since the 1960s has been a turn to the archive — the nexus of images, objects, documents and traces through which we recall and revisit individual and shared memories and histories. … the archive has become central in visual culture’s investigations of history, memory, testimony and identity.

But I want to spend some time sketching out how I think the notion of archive is operating at the moment in Australia, but particularly in Canberra. During the last thirty years more and more contemporary artists have been using archival strategies. They usually work in one of two modes.

The first  mode is to create your own archive. This takes the normal personal declarations of the artist and sublimates them within an archival structure. Instead of composing a work or moulding a form, the artist simply nominates and then assembles a collection of found objects or images in a rudimentary taxonomic structure. Examples of this mode could be the work of David Wills who, for instance, produced a very moving work about grandmotherly love and growing up. Called B3 he brought  thirty-three different Bananas in Pajamas from op shops. All had been knitted from the same Women’s Weekly pattern by different loving grandmothers, and all had eventually been abandoned by their recipients. Wills’ website, Turnstile, is an interactive interlocking database of his own continual process of collecting and archiving through the camera, which the viewer jumps around in via hyperlinked metadata. Another example could be Patrick Pound who collects snapshots from junk shops and places them into idiosyncratic categories.  His po-faced taxonomy draws attention to the profound individuality and uniqueness of the relationship between the anonymous photographer and subject found in each image. A third example could be Maureen Burns, who cruises Ebay and downloads and reprints the photographs people have posted selling items of mid twentieth century design. This becomes a comment on history, design, taste and domesticity. In these cases the art’s meaning or content becomes potential, rather than stated. It  is up to the viewer to navigate the archival structure, do their own aesthetic research amongst the idiosyncratic taxonomies the artist has folded into the collection, and find their own meaning. And in these cases also, the artist’s work borrows some of the prestige of the archive as a complete, autonomous, and somehow authentically ‘natural’ structure which automatically generates meaning independent of overt authorial intention.

The second mode of archival work is to work within an existing archive. There are two distinct approaches within this mode. Some artists  ‘mine’ or ‘sift’ archives to reclaim lost memories or reconnect severed filaments of time. An example of this may be my own 1996 work 1963: News and Information, from where I cropped small samples of material texture and details of body language out of an archive of government propaganda photographs held in the Australian Archives. (When I did this work in 1996 I used the same archive which the National Archives of Australia has subsequently mined for their exhibition Faces of Australia.) Other artists ‘interrogate’ the archive to ask questions of the historical assumptions that underpin its structure. An example of this might be Fiona Macdonald’s 1993 work Universally Respected, where she wove together two archival photographs of white colonists and black labourers in a process of photographic miscegenation.

The mining or sifting approach sees the archive as a positive, generative presence, a material heritage which needs to be refined, distilled or concentrated in order to have its signal to noise ration enhanced, or to tune into the different frequencies which are hidden within it. The second approach, the interrogative approach, takes a more critical stance to the authority of the archive, it sees the archive as a negative presence, a subterranean power that in its very structure reproduces old politics in the present. Yet in both these approaches to working with existing archives, the generative approach or the interrogative approach, the archive remains an almost occult presence. It has its own power, its own personality, its own presence. Far from being inert or passive, it seems to have an almost autonomous agency to conceal or reveal, to generate spectres or exhale miasmic atmospheres.

The most popular photographic archive in Australia by far is the Justice and Police Museum archive of 130,000 police photographs. It has spawned exhibitions at the Justice and Police Museum itself; history books by Peter Doyle; a mens clothing range by Ralph Lauren;  the production design of documentaries like Utopia Girls; and, not least, inspiration for artists. For over ten years the Sydney artist Ross Gibson and Kate Richards have made works based on the collection under the general title of ‘Life After Wartime’, this has included performances with a live soundtrack and generated haikus performed at the Opera House, as well as various computer coded interactive installations and site specific projections in the windows of an old house at the Rocks

Writing in 1999 Gibson acknowledged that he felt a kind of occult power coming from the archive:

Whenever I work with historical fragments, I try to develop an aesthetic response appropriate to the form and mood of the source material. This is one way to know what the evidence is trying to tell the future. I must not impose some pre-determined genre on these fragments. I need to remember that the evidence was created by people and systems of reality independent of myself. The archive holds knowledge in excess of my own predispositions. … Stepping off from this intuition, I have to trust that the archive has occulted in it a logic, a coherent pattern which can be ghosted up from its disparate details so that I can gain a new, systematic understanding of the culture that has left behind such spooky detritus. In this respect I am looking to be a medium for the archive. I want to ‘séance up’ the spirit of the evidence. [1]

In seeking to be a voodoo spiritualist ‘medium’ for the archive, the work was not trying to quote from it, or mine it for retro titbits ripe for appropriation, so much as to make contact with it as an autonomous netherworld of images.

Indigenous Australians have always had the strongest stake in our photographic archives. As early as 1986 Tracey Moffat was entering into direct and explicit dialogue with J. W. Lindt’s photographs in her series Some Lads, where her sexy dancers playfully appropriated and parodied the stiff colonial gaze built into Lindt’s studio tableaus.

However as aboriginal activism grew in intensity and sophistication during the 1980s and 1990s, anthropological portraits began to be conceived of not only as the theoretical paradigm for colonial attempts at genocide, but also as acts of violence in themselves, technically akin to, and instrumentally part of, that very process of attempted genocide. They began to be used by young aboriginal artists to ‘occult up’ their ancestors. Rather than just creating a feeling of active dialogue with past photographs, these new forms of indigenous reuse attempted to use photography to create a two-way corridor through time, a sense of New Age channelling back to the actual subjects of the photographs. For instance, in a meditation on the archive of nineteenth-century anthropological photographs left behind by the Northern Territory policeman Paul Foelsche, the indigenous photographer and curator Brenda L. Croft retroactively invested the agency of political resistance in to the 140-year-old portraits.

Images like these have haunted me since I was a small child … [and] were instrumental in guiding me to use the tools of photography in my work … The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest.[2]

But, rather than laying their ancestors to rest, many aboriginal artists have photographically raised them from the dead to enrol them in various contemporary campaigns of resistance. One of the first Australian aboriginal photographers to receive international attention was Leah King-Smith. Her 1992 exhibition Patterns of Connection travelled throughout Australia as well as internationally. To make her large, deeply coloured photo-compositions she copied anthropological photographs from the State Library of Victoria, liberating them from the archive to be superimposed as spectral presences on top of hand-coloured landscapes. For her, this process allowed Aboriginal people to flow back into their land, into a virtual space reclaimed for them by the photographer. In the words of the exhibition’s catalogue: ‘From the flaring of velvety colours and forms, translucent ghosts appear within a numinous world.’[3]

King-Smith held spiritualist beliefs which she enacted in her photographs. She concluded her artist’s statement by asking that ‘people activate their inner sight to view Aboriginal people.’[4] Her work animistically gave the archival photographs she reused a spiritualist function. Some of her fellow aboriginal artists thought the work too generalist. It lacked specific knowledge of the stories of the people whose photographs were reused, and it didn’t have explicit permission from the traditional owners of the land they were made to haunt. But the critic Anne Marsh described that as a ‘strategic essentialism.’

There is little doubt, in my mind, that Leah King-Smith is a kind of New Age evangelist and many serious critics will dismiss her work on these grounds …But I am interested in why the images are so popular and how they tap into a kind of cultural imaginary [in order] to conjure the ineffable … Leah King-Smith’s figures resonate with a constructed aura: [they are] given an enhanced ethereal quality through the use of mirrors and projections. The ‘mirror with a memory’ comes alive as these ancestral ghosts … seem to drift through the landscape as a seamless version of nineteenth century spirit photography.[5]

A new age spirituality also permeates the recent work of the indigenous artist Christian Thompson. As part of a large ARC project returning digital copies of nineteenth century ethnographic portraits back to the communities from which they came, he was invited to work on the collection of nineteenth century photographs held in one of the most famous anthropological archives in the world, the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford. The curator of photographs at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Christopher Morton, puts the original photographs as artefacts, as distinct from their reproducibility as images, on the same continuum as the actual remains — the skulls or bones — of aborigines. He says:

But in the case of archives – and in particular photographs – those ancestors held in the images remain in the storerooms of remote institutions even after copies have been returned or shared online.The reproducibility of the photographic image means that the surface information it holds can easily be shared, especially in the digital age. But the images of ancestors, as ethnographic studies around the world now show us, are more than the chemical traces of light on a surface – they have a direct and spiritual connection to the person photographed, and so hold significant spiritual and emotional qualities. It is this creative tension, between the archive as a permanent ancestral resting place, and yet as a reproducible, re-codable, and dynamic historical resource, that lies at the heart of Thompson’s concept of the exhibition space as a spiritual zone. (Catalogue essay to We Bury our Own)

For his part Christian Thompson saw his role as an artist in shamanistic terms:

I wanted to generate an aura around this series, a meditative space that was focused on freeing oneself of hurt, employing crystals and other votive objects that emit frequencies that can heal, ward off negative energies, psychic attack, geopathic stress and electro magnetic fields, and, importantly, transmit ideas. …. I asked the photographs in the Pitt Rivers Museum to be catalysts and waited patiently to see what ideas and images would surface in the work, I think with surprising results. Perhaps this is what art is able to do, perform a ‘spiritual repatriation’ rather than a physical one, fragment the historical narrative and traverse time and place to establish a new realm in the cosmos, set something free, allow it to embody the past and be intrinsically connected to the present?

Another example in this mode of intergenerational animism is the drawings which Vernon Ah Kee exhibited last year based on the Tindale collection of aboriginal portraits taken in the 1930s. For many years this archive has been a genealogical resource for aboriginal people trying to stitch back together the torn connections to their sibling, parents and grandparents, but in Transforming Tindale Ah Kee re-drew the photographic portraits of his own family members. Through the loving ministrations of his soft pencil graphite the images were humanized, transformed from ‘ethnographic samples’ or ‘genealogical evidence’ to ‘human portrait’.

While not buying into such direct visual spirituality as Leah King Smith or Christian Thompson, or direct family connection as Vernon Ah Kee, other aboriginal artists have also attempted to use the power of old photographs to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from the past.

Most recently Brook Andrew has worked in the personal archive mode, curating an exhibition for the MCA called Taboo, where racist imagery from around the world was gathered together into a cabinet of curiosities. However earlier, in the mid 1990s, Andrew had made some of the most iconographic imagery re-using archival photographs. In a series of works from the mid 1990s, Brook Andrew invested his nineteenth-century subjects, copied from various state archives, with a libidinous body image inscribed within the terms of contemporary queer masculinity, and emblazoned them with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as , I Split Your Gaze (1997), Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr [I See You] (1998) and Sexy and Dangerous (1996) Andrew exploits the auratic power of the original Aboriginal subjects to re-project the historically objectifying gaze straight back to the present, to be immediately re-inscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse. Although Andrew was also criticised for using the powerful portraits of the aboriginal subjects without appropriate consideration for their original tribal and geographical identity, these works have since become almost iconic in contemporary Australian art.

The iconicity of these archival art works is beginning to feedback into the historical archive itself. For instance, in May this year Sotheby’s put an ad in the paper advertising their upcoming auction of six albums of ethnographic photographs by Kerry and King. Out of all the images they could have chosen from the albums for the ad they chose the same one Brook Andrew had chosen 17 years before. Perhaps, like Andrew, they were attracted to the sexiness of the man; but I think also that the fame that Andrew’s appropriation had given to this man, and his posthumous conscription to the identity debates of contemporary Australia, had changed the value and valency of the original photograph as historical document in a kind of reverse historicism.

These transcultural uses of the archive by contemporary indigenous artists, who put themselves in the front line of contemporary debates around Australian identity and historical obligation, may seem a long way from the genteel streets of Canberra. But nonetheless I think the strong shadows they cast  help to illuminate the way we all relate to the photographic archive, even on a day-to-day level.

Canberra is an archival city. Not only in the sense that it houses some of the nation’s biggest archives, but that an archival presence continually pinpricks our civic space. Perhaps back in some utopian Old World, Europeans like me may have walked down urban precincts with their mixture of old and new buildings and felt a chthonic connection to time and place. But now we need memory markers, picture boards that remind us of what buildings or precincts once looked like. This attempt to create a collective sense of place and time is now no longer performative, but archival. Archival photographs are found, reproduced and irrupted into our streets on sign boards, to be more or less ignored by passers by. Thus, marginalised urban precincts, seen in need of a relevance injection, are embellished with evidence from the archive which hopefully reminds people that they are walking through a lieux de mémoire with a rich and rounded history.

Similarly, in acts of national commemoration the archive is replacing other modes of memorialization, such as symbol, prayer or song. Since the the Vietnam Memorial of 1992, many other memorials such as the Nurses Memorial, the Airforce memorial and Reconciliation and Federation place, have followed its lead in reproducing the momentary slice of time of the photograph within various ageless, either vitreous or lithic, surfaces. Lately, also, Canberra’s national memorial architecture is increasingly becoming a screen for the projection of archival photographs. Charles Bean had always put a library of photographs at the heart of his conception for the future Australian War Memorial, but I doubt that even he could have imagined the outside walls of the Memorial becoming a screen for the projection of Archival photographs in the lead-up to the Dawn Service, as happened this year.

For these reasons it perhaps was inevitable that photographs should feature  in the ACT Bushfire Memorial. Because of my interest in re-using archival photographs I was invited to submit a proposal to design the proposed Memorial, I realized I had no chance of getting the gig until I teamed up with Tess Horwitz and Tony Steele; their public-art smarts combined with my photographic credentials meant we had an unbeatable proposal. We held two sausage sizzle days where victims of the fire came in to meet the artists and look at our maquette, as well as inscribe a brick and show me the snaps they had taken on the day of the fires and in the aftermath leading to their recovery. I got a scan of the photos I liked, and got them to fill out a sheet giving me copyright permission and relevant metadata. One of the textural themes of the Memorial was the humble house brick, so I cut out brick-sized details from my scans and laid them out vertically into five glass columns. The palette ran from earthy and fiery tones at the bottom, up to images of people and incidents at eye level, and then up to the greens and blues of regeneration towards the sky. Captions giving the photographer’s name and a short title were placed in the ‘mortar’ between the images. I still think that this memorial is rather unique because, rather than choosing one image to be iconically embody the whole experience of the event being memorialized, as in the Vietnam Memorial, or doing an impressionistic collage of different elements, as in the Nurses or Air Force memorials, individually tagged and identifiable photographs, albeit details of them, are presented in a grid which retains their individual specificity. I think this approach worked because the victims were all fairly homogenous — middle class suburbanites with cameras — and the event was concentrated and coherent in its narrative meaning — ‘fire comes, community suffers but regenerates’ — with only some minor counter-narratives — of the financial culpability of various governments — around the edges. This approach may not have worked in memorials to more complex disasters, or addressing more heterogenous constituencies.

I’ll finish by talking a little bit about a small installation I have in the show which is opening tonight. In my head I divide the history of Canberra into two periods. There is the utopian period from its foundation to self-government, where Canberra was used by the Commonwealth Government as a model of an ideal Australian polity, and a kind of ideal template for a future Australian city. During this utopian period, which in my imagination peaks in the 1960s,  Canberra was tolerated as a noble experiment by most Australians. Then there is the distopian period from self-government till now, where Canberra is regarded by Australians and governments alike as parasitical, perverse, pretentious, indulgent and ‘out of touch’. In both these Canberras there are no actual people. In the distopian Canberra of today the people who live here are despised as a vitiated, degenerated, foppish sub-category of the real Australian. They are people of literally no account. As Clive Palmer said last week:‘In Canberra they have the best roads, but nobody to drive on them’. However the utopian Canberra was also devoid of actual people, the few people that appear in the photographs are national cyphers, actors in a political fantasy, like the schematic figures that occur in architectural drawings.

So I’ve collected tourist brochures and NCDC publications from the utopian period of Canberra, making my own archive. Using an ‘Office Works’ aesthetic I have covered up the generic photographs with coloured sheets of A4 paper, obscuring the various civic vistas of national potentiality but revealing hapless pedestrians or passers by accidentally caught in the photographer’s camera, thereby pulling them out of their unwitting role as national cyphers, an perhaps returning to them their individuality as people.

My work is cool and ironic, it is a million miles from the fervent spiritual juju of indigenous artists. It is affectionate, rather than interrogative. But nonetheless I think that on some level we are all engaged with the same occultish power of the archive.

Martyn Jolly


[1] R. Gibson, ‘Negative Truth: A new approach to photographic storytelling’, Photofile 58, 1999, p30.

[2] B. L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, in Portraits of Oceania, ed. by J. Annear, Sydney, 1997, p9, p14.

[3] J. Phipps, ‘Elegy, Meditation and Retribution’, in Patterns Of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992, np.

[4] L. King-Smith, ‘Statement’, in Patterns of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992, np.

[5] A. Marsh, ‘Leah King-Smith and the Nineteenth Century Archive’, History of Photography, 23, 2, 1999, p117.

Before Carol, Australian photography of the 1960s

‘Before Carol, Australian photography of the 1960s’,

Carol Jerrems symposium, National Gallery of Australia, 8 September 2012. The images that accompanied the presentation can be found below the text as either a PDF or a Powerpoint

Before I begin I’d like to thank the National Library of Australia, who gave me a fellowship to do some of this research, and Gael Newton, who gave me access to some of her research materials.

As the great Shirley Strachan once put it, I feel a bit like ‘I’m in a payphone without any change’ standing up here, because I don’t really have very much to add to the discussion of Carol Jerrems. I think many excellent people have done a lot of excellent work on Jerrems and her milieu, and I don’t really have a problem with any of it. The only thing I do have a slight problem with is: whatever happened to the sixties? Even though Jerrems did her art school training in the closing years of the sixties she is rightly seen as the quintessential seventies photographer.  But, too often I think, the early seventies, of which Carol is the preeminent photographer, is seen to be the Edenic origin of contemporary Australian art photography, with the decade before being simply some undifferentiated primordial slime of bad commercial and worse amateur photography.  There certainly was a lot of bad photography in the sixties, but it wasn’t all undifferentiated slime.

It’s understandable why this view would slowly become the norm. All of the infrastructure which we still more or less enjoy  — the galleries, the collections, the funding — began in either the very late sixties or the very early seventies. 1968: The Australian Council for the Arts established. 1972: the NGV photo department commenced, and Rennie Ellis’s Brummels Gallery opened. 1973: the Australian Centre for Photography opened. 1974: four, count them, four books of Australian photography came out, two in Sydney published by the brand new government funded Australian Centre for Photography, and two in Melbourne published, with the assistance of Australia Council grants, by Outback Press, a small start-up publishing company which had emerged out of Melbourne University student publications, and which also published poetry and politics. The two ACP books classily surveyed the extraordinary efflorescence over the previous couple of years of purely ‘personal’ photography by the new generation of art school trained photographers; while the two books by Outback Press combined the photography of two of that new generation with new writing. Into the Hollow Mountains combined Robert Ashton’s photographs of Fitzroy with poems and experimental literature about the suburb by the likes of Helen Garner; while A Book About Australian Women combined the writing of Virginnia Fraser with the photographs of Carol Jerrems

In her 1973 application to the Visual Arts Board Jerrems had said of the proposed book:

The emotions, attitudes, sexuality and intellect of Australian women through the eyes of women has not been considered in the anticipated format, and a greater depth will be achieved by going beyond the single picture concept, and by intermeshing of photographs and words concerning themes personally experienced by the artists involved.

In the end however, as was the case for many other picture books before them, the words and photographs weren’t as enmeshed as the grant application had envisaged. Rather than in tandem, Fraser and Jerrems worked separately on their sections, which were alternated on different paper stock throughout the book. But in her layout for her sections, printed on glossier, thicker stock than Fraser’s, Jerrems certainly did go ‘beyond the single picture concept’, with cinematic sequences of shots being laid out like frames from a film. The sister book, Robert Ashton’s Into the Hollow Mountains, also separated text and word. But although, like Jerrems, Ashton also experimented with multiple picture layouts, he didn’t do it as consistently as she had. Jerrems even retained the book’s layout unchanged when she worked on the wall for the Brummels exhibition the two held together at the launch of their respective books.

In the years before the book came out Jerrems had had the opportunity to experiment with multiple picture layouts when she contributed several photo series to the Melbourne University magazine Circus, on which the publishers at Outback Press cut their teeth. For instance in the final issue of Circus Jerrems interspliced the photoseries Hanna, about Ross Hannaford, with the Photoseries Hanging About, with Pearl, and in addition, experimented with repeating the image from the previous page in Hanging About, with Pearl as a kind of thumbnail afterimage on each new page.

A year after A Book About Australian Women, Jerrems worked on a much smaller scale for the cheap, hip-pocket sized paperback, Skyhooks: Million Dollar Riff. Jerrems’ sections of back-stage photographs, again printed on gloss stock and bound in between Jenny Brown’s prose, retained the same sequential layout structure as her previous work.

The popularity of these small paperbacks had been promoted in the sixties by publishers such as Sun books. There were a wide variety of book experiments being undertaken in the late 1960s, as small publishers jostled against each other for new angles onto the market. Even film tie-ins were experimented with. In 1968 Tim Burstall made a semi-autobiographical feature film about a creative young man feeling stultified by, but bound to, Australia. Called Two Thousand Weeks, the film bombed at the box office, with audiences rejecting its subject matter and European art-house stylings as self-indulgent and pretentious, so probably the accompanying photo-roman produced by Mark Strizic bombed in the bookshops as well, even though in the tiny arena of the double page spread Strizic tried to integrate film dialogue and sequential photographs in a new way.

A Book About Australian Women, produced during the international year of women, and launched by Margaret Reid, Australia’s first commissioner for women, was a feminist project. But it was intended to be feminism from the ground up, through the eyes and the mouths of as wide a range of women themselves as possible. Had women been considered before in Australian photography, if not quite in Jerrems’ anticipated format of ‘themes personally experienced by the artists involved’? Well, yes they had. By way of complete contrast I can’t resist taking a cheeky look at the Sydney photographer David Mist’s Made in Australia, which in 1969 stole an idea from a 1967 British book called Birds of Britain. It responded to the emerging independence and self-assertion of women throughout the 1960s by packaging up different young Australian women into a useful compendium aimed at the aspirational, cravat-wearing, bachelor-playboy market. The Outback Press books were cheap, cheap, cheap, printed cut-price at a suburban newspaper and imperfectly bound so that they fell apart almost immediately. Mist’s book, on the other hand, was printed in Hong Kong by the British publisher Paul Hamlyn who was seeking new angles to access what was a very healthy Australian market for books about contemporary Australia.

However in 1969, the same year as Made in Australia came out and was launched by Patrick MacNee, the dapper star of the 1960s TV series The Avengers, another major international publisher with offices in Australia, Nelson, published a series of feminist essays on the new 1960s woman called In Her Own Right. This book, well bound and printed in Hong Kong, was edited by Julie Rigg, and illustrated with photographs by the unknown photographer Russell Richards. Perhaps it was the visual approaches of books such as these that Jerrems had in mind when, four years later, she counterposed against them the ‘greater depth’ of her multiple picture approac’ taken as though through the eyes of women themselves. However, amongst the stilted studio shots that illustrate In Her Own Right’s essays there were also long-lensed portraits taken in photojournalistic style. These, in their frankness and frontality, are effective; even if they convey no sense of the personal connection or warmth feminist photographers like Jerrems were to seek for later.

The unnamed designer of Julie Rigg’s book had clearly been greatly influenced by the single most important book of the 1960s, The Australians, which was still a best seller in 1969 three years after it was first published. Shot by a hot-shot National Geographic photographer called Robert Goodman, and funded by the mining and tourism industries, The Australians dominated the photographic landscape well into the 1970s and initiated a slew of imitations, such as the design and photography of In Her Own Right.

If the ‘new woman’ was a major topic in the late sixties and early seventies, ‘woman’ in general had become a category of mainstream interest even earlier. In the early sixties a group of three male amateur photographers, Albert Brown, George Bell, and John Crook, broke away from the camera club movement and formed their own group called Group M. They were particularly inspired by the Museum of Modern Art’s Family of Man exhibition that had finally made it to Melbourne in 1959. In 1963 they staged an exhibition of their work in the Melbourne Town Hall under the theme Urban Woman.  Like the Family of Man it was arranged from youth to age, but it failed to get close to its subject, relying on telephoto lenses. Even the woman invited to open the show, Myra Roper from Melbourne University’s Women’s College, complained that: ‘a lot of the pictures show women just waiting — waiting for buses, waiting in queues, or waiting for a man to finish his tea.’

Because of exhibitions such as this and books like The Australians, the long-lensed street-shot became a major trope of late sixties photography; so much so that, in talking to the journalist Craig McGregor for Men Vogue in 1977 Jerrems told him that, because she was looking for sympathetic warm portraits, she did not use a wide-angle lens because it distorted, nor a telephoto lens because, to quote her, ‘it seems like you should have walked up closer’.

Jerrems’ period, the early 1970s, came immediately after a period from the mid sixties on when there had been a real thirst for photography books about Australia. The sixties were a period of economic boom because of mining and manufacturing, and a period of social transformation because of wealth and immigration. While there were only a handful of feature films made during the period, there were tens upon tens of picture books published. If the main topic of the 1970s was the personal — personal relationships, personal politics, personal journeys, personal spiritual experiences — the main topic of the 1960s was national identity — what was an Australian, what did they look like, how were they different to other nationalities, what was special about them, how did they collectively define Australia? (When this national 1960s anxiety persisted into the 70s it was usually as caricature or parody.) The new publishers of the 1970s, like Outback Press, followed on from their start-up predecessors in the 1960s, like Sun books, by also being small, lean, front-room publishing operations. But they differed from 1960s publishers because they were able to produce even cheaper large-format offset paperbacks for distribution, as well as apply for government grants to support their books.

It was the journalist Craig McGregor who had first suggested the idea of In Her own Right to Julie Rigg, and who had covered the new generation of Australia photographers, including Roger Scott, John Williams, Richard Harris, Wesley Stacey and Carol Jerrems for Men Vogue. In the same year he used a detail from Vale Street on the cover of his novel The See-Through Revolver. In the 1960s McGregor had written books attempting to statistically measure Australian society and define Australian identity as a whole, but he also had sympathy for the kind of intensely personal experience that characterized the 1970s. In 1968 he worked with Helmut Gritscher on the photobook To Sydney With Love. The photographs themselves were prosaic, but they allowed McGregor the opportunity to attempt a very personal beat-poetry meditation on Sydney that predicted the expressionistic writing of the 1970s. Unusually for the period, he opened the book’s text with his experience of a late night epiphany 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.

The two Outback Press photobooks of 1974 both concentrated on Australia’s social and political demimonde, as well as on notorious areas of urban pressure and social change. In fact a poem by Peter Oustabasadis on the final page of Into the Hollow Mountains, complained about the very process of groovy gentrification that the book itself was part of:

Get out of Fitzroy/ you’ve side-stepped the blood pools/the pus holes &/raised the rents/classed the restaurants/closed down the hamburgers/gouged the stomachs out of houses/& photoed the bedrooms of drunks/you’ve made this place hell/WE’LL BURN THE STREET SIGNS/we know our way around

But other earlier books had identified similar sub-cultures and potent urban sites. For instance in 1965 the poet Kenneth Slessor and the photographer Robert Walker produced the first picture book about Kings Cross. It was pretty boring, but six years later Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey produced a much more vivid and lively portrait published by Nelson, the same publisher as In Her Own Right. Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal look at the Cross by Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey, 1971, used the double page spreads of the book in a graphically exciting way, and took the reader into the dressing rooms of Les Girls, as well as into the bedrooms of junkies.

Institutionally, sixties phtography was dominated by two major formations. The Institute of Australian Photographers, represented the commercial photographers — the industrial, illustrative, fashion and advertising photographers; and the Australian Photographic Society, representing the amateurs — still largely pursuing Pictorialism through their camera clubs. By the late 1960s and early 1970 this photographic divide had produced two distinctive strands when it came to the category of ‘creative’ photography, both of which relied on very high contrast printing. The 1972 book Concern: The Ilford Photographic Exhibition showcased both approaches. The overall winner of the competition to address the theme of ‘concern’, who walked away with prize money of $1000 and a round the world plane ticket for two, was Barrie Bell. He had submitted four gritty street-drunk shots, which were well and truly clichéd even in 1972. A photographer with Melbourne’s Channel 9, Bell took the opportunity to defend his patch against the prominence of the new generation of personal photographers, he said: ‘I hate to see photography abused, particularly by those with no professional training, offering photography from a backyard, doing poor stuff, taking work from the pro, and giving photographers and photography a bad name.’ There were other more effective photographs from this genre of gritty realism in Concern, for instance Rennie Ellis submitted four junkie photographs from the Kings Cross

The other dominant ‘creative’ style during these years was a quasi-surreal, darkroom crafted, graphically designed, high-contrast negative composite. This style had been showcased three years before Concern in 1969, in a publication from the Melbourne University Photography Club called Spilt Image. With layout design by Suzanne Davies, it juxtaposed experimental short stories with photo-sequences that were described by the Melbourne Herald at the time as ‘quite sick’, “way out”, and ‘weird’. The style was represented again in Concern by the Gordon de’Lisle with a series that attempted ‘to show the raped land, Australia, as it would appear to a woman who returns from the dead to discover that her country, too, is dying.’ (Although why the woman is beautiful and nude, de’Lisle didn’t explain.) Paul Cox, Carol Jerrems’ mentor at Prahran CAE, straddled both well-worn genres with three sets of photographs accepted into Concern — negative double exposures, window lit portrait tableaus, and journalistic travel photographs. A year earlier Cox too, like Stacey and Ellis, and Julie Rigg, also produced a book with the publisher Nelson. His was based on two trips to New Guinea, described by him in his autobiography as ‘a romantic journey in search of man’s childhood’. In Home of Man: The People of New Guinea his high contrast images were juxtaposed by the writer Ulli Beier with poetry by New Guinean students.

So the few years around 1974 were certainly a watershed for Australian photography. Even looking forward one year to 1975 we have the publication of the crucial and very sophisticated book Green Bans by Marion Marrison and Peter Manning, published by the Australian Conservation Foundation; as well as the first of the widely popular Rennie Ellis books, Australian Graffiti. And by the late seventies, of course, museums were collecting heaps of photos and the boom was well and truly on. However, clearly, any direct causality between the Australian photography of the 1960s and that of the 1970s was minor, obviously what was happening in the US and to a lesser extent the UK was far more important to Jerrems and her generation. But nonetheless if we widen our scope out from just gallery exhibitions and museum collections to books and magazines we can see that the transition in Australia itself was not from nothing to something, but from something to something else.

During the transition the telephotos and fisheye lenses were dropped; the contrast of photographic paper went down from grade 4 and 5 to grade 2 and 3; the darkroom faux-surrealism and neo-pictorialism by-and-large faded away — at least until the invention of Photoshop; and the figure of the personally expressive photographer became central to progressive Australian art and culture, not marginal to it. But, lest we forget, there were at least a handful of important Australian photography books published before that key date, back in the mid to late sixties.

Martyn Jolly

Click here for a PDF of the pictures:

Before Carol

Click here for a Powerpoint of the pictures:

Before Carol

Spirit Photography and Australia

A Spiritualist’s carte-de-visite album’, paper delivered at  Spiritualism and Technology in Historical and Contemporary Contexts, a AHRC funded conference at the University of Westminster, London, September 26, 2009.

In 1878 by an enthusiastic member of the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists assembled a carte-de-visite album, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Victorian Spiritualists, like Spiritualists everywhere at the time, believed that the human personality survived beyond death, and that departed spirits were seeking to communicate with the living via specially endowed people called mediums. In the nineteenth-century they combined this modern religious belief with a progressive social agenda that included new ideas about education, social organization and gender roles.

Like every carte de visite album, this one is a collection of cartes of distant celebrities, social acquaintances and close friends. For instance the album includes a stiffly formal carte of the American A. J. Davis, who wrote one of the foundational texts of the movement. It also included cartes of celebrity mediums, including the most famous medium of all, Kate Fox, who as a girl was the first to apparently hear raps from the Beyond in New York State in 1848. It included cartes of the British trance medium J. J. Morse, as well as his spirit guide, Yun Sen Lie, present in the form of a photographic reproduction of a portrait-drawing based on the detailed self-description of the spirit, who ‘controlled’ and spoke through the medium while he was entranced.

It included portraits of the English slate writing medium, Henry Slade, who visited the Colony in 1878 to demonstrate how spirits were able to write messages on sealed slates in the darkness of a séance. (Although a Sydney surgeon Dr Samuel Knaggs secreted a mirror into one of his séances and by holding it between his knees saw Slade remove his foot from his kid slippers, and write on the slate under the table with a pencil held between his toes.) It included portraits of the well know platform proselytisers, William Denton and James Peebles, who in 1878 also visited Melbourne from the US to lecture to halls packed with Spiritualists.

The album also featured portraits of Melbourne’s own Spiritualists, including William Terry, the founder of the Association, who had arranged and financed the tours. It also included a spirit photograph of another Melbourne Spiritualist, Dr Walter Richardson, the first president of the Victorian Association. The photograph was taken during a visit to London in 1873, when Richardson visited the spirit photographer Frederick Hudson for a photographic séance. Hudson captured the transparent spirit of Richardson’s departed sister on the plate, perhaps by previously coating the plate with another layer of collodion and exposing it with an accomplice before Richardson arrived, or perhaps by double printing two negatives in the darkroom as Richardson waited for his carte-de-visite. (Incidentally, Richardson died of Syphilis back in Melbourne in 1879, and was the basis of the character Richard Mahony in the novel by his daughter Henry Handel Richardson.) At about the same time Hudson had used the same technique to photograph two London Spiritualists, Samuel Guppy and the Medium Charles Williams, with a spirit, which is also in the album.

We can see the same ornate chair as in Richardson’s carte in Hudson’s voluptuous photograph of the young London medium Florence Cook (although this image is not in the Victorian album). Cook was a materializing medium, meaning she would entrance herself in a ‘cabinet’, a curtained off enclosure, and behind the curtain supposedly materialize a fully embodied spirit which would step out from behind the curtain while the medium would supposedly remain entranced in the cabinet. In 1874 the London physicist William Crookes photographed Cook’s spirit, Katie King, by incandescent lights driven by galvanic batteries. This very rare photograph is not in the Victorian album, but an image of Katie King’s spirit father, the 16th century pirate John King, is in the album.

How did these cartes find there way to Melbourne and into the album? Some were probably brought in Melbourne during tours, some exchanged with fellow Spiritualists, and some perhaps purchased through the London magazine The Spiritualist. Georginia Houghton, for instance, who worked with Hudson over an extended series of photographic séances, financed the sittings by retailing his photographs of her though the magazine. (The VAPS also acquired a set of Houghton’s spirit paintings, which she had painted during the mid 1860s in various trance states.)

The album also includes a carte of two other materializing mediums Miss Wood and Annie Fairlamb, who came from Newcastle in the north of England. Hudson has photographed them with the spirit of the Indian, Syna. The pair did automatic writing, trance speaking, and materializations. By  1890 the two had quarrelled and Miss Fairlamb was working alone. The Edinburgh photographer J. Stewart Smith photographed her with the partially materialised Cissie, the spirit of a little African girl who was one of her spirit guides. Shortly afterwards, after several embarrassing exposures, Fairlamb left on a tour of New Zealand and Australia, married a J. B. Mellon in Sydney, and set up as a professional medium, charging ten shillings a sitting.

She not only materialized Cissie, but also Josephine, a beautiful young woman, and Geordie, a gruff Scotsman. On her visit to Sydney the prominent Theosophist Annie Bessant was impressed by one of Mellon’s séances at which, Sydney’s Sunday Times reported, she exchanges flowers with Cissie and conversed with Geordie. The Sunday Times participated in a series of experiments with Mellon, which attempted to establish the truth of her materializations by clearly capturing both a spirit and the medium at the same time and on the same photographic plate. The séances were held at the home of the prominent Sydney spiritualist Dr Charles MacCarthy, who had already photographed Josephine by herself in 1894. They were conducted under test conditions, which meant Mellon’s clothing was searched by two lady Spiritualists beforehand; and, rather than wearing white underclothing, she wore coloured flannels which would remain recognisable under a thin drapery of muslin.

Rather than the near-darkness usually required, the séances were conducted in daylight for the camera. Daylight may have been necessary because artificial light was still expensive and experimental in Sydney at the time. Big studios such as Charles Kerry, for instance, had used galvanically driven arc-lights for portraits at a ball, and magnesium flares in Jenolan Caves, but artificial light worked best in large open spaces because of the smoke, and was hard to control. So although twenty years earlier Crookes, as Britain’s leading physicist, was able to construct his own galvanic batteries and incandescent lights for the documentation of Katie King, and 15 years later, in 1909, a materialization at a séance in London was photographed by the light of a burning magnesium ribbon, for the Sydney séances the Sunday Times was compelled to use daylight as illumination

Normally spirit materializations took place in very dim light. The mediums conveniently claimed that anything other than a very brief ruby light damaged the sensitive spirit materializations, and caused them great pain. But because Mellon’s photographic séances for the Sunday Times had to be conducted in daylight for the camera, rather than darkness, the sitters were requested to sit with their back to the cabinet because, Mellon claimed, that in the daylight their direct gaze would bore holes into the spirits. Although the first test was photographically inconclusive, two sitters managed to obtain a clear view of the materialization by surreptitiously using hand mirrors to look over their shoulders. At the second test-séance all the sitters came equipped with mirrors. As a result, two whole hours of hymn singing failed to produce a single spirit, and only the gift of some valuable jewellery mollified the offended medium afterwards. Four days later, on 9 August 1894, while the sitters sat with their eyes tight shut, the camera which had been pre-focussed on the curtains of her cabinet, photographed her standing beside the partially materialized, flat, form of Geordie.

Mellon reported that during materializations she felt a chilling and benumbing sensation as the psychoplasm came out of her left side and from her fingertips. The vapoury mass first fell at her feet in waves and clouds and then slowly assumed a distinct human shape. She became weaker, and as the form reached completion it staggered as though it would fall.

The telepathist, clairvoyant and mesmerist Thomas Shekleton Henry had been working with the editor of the Sunday Times in the photographic tests. He was initially a devotee of Mellon’s, writing an ode to Josephine’s beauty and becoming possessed himself by Geordie’s spirit as he held the spirit’s photograph in his hand. He said he was planning to write a pamphlet about Mellon’s abilities to be called Mysteries in our Midst. However he began to become suspicious of the constrained movements the spirits made, the doll-like appearance of their faces, the sewn hems visible in their psychoplasmic drapery, and the fact that they could not leave footprints on the sooted slates he placed under them. At a séance in Mellon’s own house, after the singing of hymns, a form appeared and nodded when it was asked if it was the deceased niece of Mrs Gale, one of the sitters. Sobbing with great emotion Mrs Gale came forward and kissed the spirit on its forehead. Later, after more singing and more apparitions, the form of the child-spirit Cissie appeared between the curtains of the cabinet. Henry suddenly got up and seized Cissie, crying: “light up!” An accomplice immediately struck three matches. Henry had hold of Mellon who was on her knees with muslin over her head and shoulders, black material over her face, and her skirt turned up over her stockingless legs. The matches were blown out. The accomplice struck another, which was also blown out. Finally, struggling against several male Spiritualists, he managed to light the gas jets above his head. Henry was set upon by several other spiritualists in the audience, and Mellon’s husband, who at all of her séances was always at the back of the room regulating the gaslight, rushed forward and grabbed him by the throat. Mellon hid what she could under her petticoats, though some more muslin, a false beard, and a flat black bag with tapes attached to it was glimpsed insider her cabinet. She scrambled back into the cabinet and squatted on top of her properties. Surrounded by three female Spiritualists who drew the cabinet’s curtains, she pushed the beard down between her breasts and pinned something up between her legs, under her petticoats.

In a subsequent interview with the Sunday Times Mellon explained that as the delicate spirit form had been interfered with, the science of materialization dictated that either the spirit form must be reabsorbed back into the medium, or the medium be absorbed by the form. As the form was held fast by Henry, her remaining matter had to be pulled forward off her chair and had shot into the spirit form. The spirit drapery then rapidly dissolved in a steam off her. Since the psychoplasmic matter had been drawn from the lower part of her body her legs had shrunk, which had caused her shoes and stockings to fall off. The black bag was a duster for her music box.

In the kafuffle Mellon’s husband hastily agreed to give a test séance in the offices of the Sunday Telegraph under the paper’s own conditions. The paper built a wire cage in their offices. Mellon was searched and seated herself on a chair inside the cage, which was then padlocked and the curtains drawn. After half an hour of hymn singing had produced no manifestations Mellon was discovered prostrated in a swoon.

Henry’s planned paean to Mellon became the triumphal record of his exposure, the pamphlet: Spookland ! A record of research and experiment in a much-talked-of realm of mystery, with a review and criticism of so called Spirit Materialisation, and hints and illustrations as to the possibility of artificiality producing the same.

The Spiritualists quickly replied with A Counterblast to Spookland, or Glimpses of the Marvellous which ridiculed the erratic and volatile nature of his Henry’s own mediumship, lampooned him as a snake in the grass, and produced voluminous counter-testimony from Spiritualist adherents.

However Mellon continued to practice well into the twentieth century. At a Melbourne séance a doctor from Darwin called Dr Haworth saw “a spot of mist on the carpet which rose into a column out of which stepped a completely embodied human being who was recognized.” (Fodor 239)

Thus in these two Australian instances — an 1878 carte-de-visite album and a 1894 pamphlet — we have photography being used in three ways by spiritualists:

  • The international exchange and circulation of carte-de-vistes bound Spiritualism together as a global movement, and expanded the role of the personal album as a keeping place where friends, peers and celebrities all surrounded and supported the album’s unknown compiler, only in this case some were living and some were dead.
  • We also see photography become a kind of performance, a way of expanding on the ritual of the séance and providing an emulsive arena where the living and dead can be re-united once more.
  • Finally, we have the photograph’s veracity used forensically, satisfying a public curiosity about mysterious phenomena, and providing supposedly incontrovertible truth that the dead live.

Alfred J. Gabay, Messages from Beyond: Spiritualism and Spiritualists in Melbourne’s Golden Age, Melbourne University Press, 2001.

T. S. Henry, Spookland ! A record of research and experiment in a much-talked-of realm of mystery, with a review and criticism of so called Spirit Materialisation, and hints and illustrations as to the possibility of artificiality producing the same, (Sydney: W. M. Maclardy and Co, 1894)

Psyche, A Counterblast to Spookland, or Glimpses of the Marvellous, (Sydney: W. M. Maclardly & Co., 1895)

The Face of Australia NPG

INTRODUCTION

In this talk I want to look at a neglected aspect of Australian photography, that is the photo books published about Australia. I think these ‘Australiana’ picture books, which have been published in a steady trickle from the 1930s till the present, are particularly interesting. In particular these books had their heyday in the 1960s and 70s. These books generally aren’t high quality art books. They were often cheaply printed and poorly designed and they were usually the product of several authors, not only the photographer, but also the publisher, book designer and writer. Many of the photographs were radically cropped and resized, and many of the photographers works for which they are now best known weren’t published at all. Nonetheless they provide us with a rawer and more immediate access to the visual culture of their time.  They were what picture editors and photographers thought their readers wanted at the time the photographs were taken. They only reproduce photographs as they were selected and laid out by picture editors at the time, rather than as today’s curators and dealers have subsequently excavated them from photographer’s archives.

Secondly, the photographers, writers, designers and picture editors on many of these books took it upon themselves to either implicitly or explicitly attempt to explain and document for their readers what kind of society Australia was, and what typical Australians looked like. These books, which had titles like This is Australia, or The Australians were, in a period before the burgeoning of Australia’s TV and film industry, were often the only forum Australians had to picture themselves to each other. Many of the books saw themselves as on a social mission to describe ‘the face of Australia’.

I hope to prove to you that they were largely successful because we can all, now, readily conjure such a face in our mind’s eye — the weathered skin, the stubbly chin, the tousled hair, the craggy profile, the thousand-mile stare.

Although such an idea has recently been made very fraught by debates around multiculturalism, the idea is still a live one in our popular culture. For instance,` would this famous photograph of a Cronulla rioter be as effective semiotically if the head and face of the boy who is wearing the flag like a cape wasn’t of such a fresh-faced anglo type, if for instance he had dark curly hair, sallow skin and glasses?

THE 1960s

Mny things changed in Australian visual culture in the 1960s. There was a burgeoning of overseas interest in Australia because of our involvement in the Vietnam War, and the use of Sydney as an R & R base by American servicemen. There was also a massive increase in the publishing industry because Australian publishers could use Asian presses for cheaper printing, and aggressive overseas publishers like Paul Hamlyn entered the market aiming books at a popular supermarket audience. An explosion of interest in all things Australian —Australian history, Australian wildlife, Australian touring holidays (think Bill Peach and the Leyland Brothers) — combined with the effects of postwar immigration, the baby boom, the increase in wealth, and the shift in our allegiance from Britain to America, to put questions of national identity and national character on the popular agenda. Examples of this popular discussion were the publication of Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country in 1964, the massive popularity of Michael Powell’s film They’re a Weird Mob in 1966, and the unpopularity of Wake in Fright from 1971.

Some of the books were aimed at Australians who were loading up their Holdens and Falcons and heading round Australia. Examples are Rigby’s 1966 book Around Australia on Highway One. Others were aimed at an overseas audience, for instance in 1964 David Moore shot widely for an assignment on Australia and New Zealand for the LIFE World Library. The writer for the LIFE book, Colin McInnis describes the Australian type thus:

Certainly the Australian male is tough — very tough — and in appearance lean-eyed, hatchet-jawed, relaxed and slightly ungainly. The girls generally come in two types — either a rather stringy, small-breasted leggy girl with a sun-baked complexion, or else one with a large-hipped figure and an easy grace of posture.

ROBERT GOODMAN

But the watershed book came in 1966. Called, significantly, The Australians, it was the first true coffee table book in the Australiana genre. A ruminative, fifty-thousand word text by the novelist and journalist George Johnston supported an extended photographic essay shot over two years by the American National Geographic photographer Robert Goodman. Their stated objective was,

 [T]he fair and unpropagandised presentation of the Australian in his unique and many-faceted setting. The essential image, if you like, of a race apart from the others.’[i]

It had a budget of $200,000, fronted up by twelve of Australia’s biggest companies such as BHP and QANTAS, and ended up printing ninety thousand copies, which sold in the shops at the upmarket retail price of $8.95.[ii]

The book’s chapters followed a similar trajectory to Ziegler’s, from the ‘land’, to the ‘land’s people’ (meaning white settlers, more than Aborigines) through to ‘the economy’, ‘science’, ‘the arts’, ‘sport’, and culminating in ‘Anzac’. But its photographs home in on the faces of Australians, who look out from the pages in frank close-up. Their faces are enlarged right up into full-page or double-page spreads, often bleeding to the edge in the contemporary style of picture-magazine layouts. The cast of characters was cosmopolitan. There was the familiar dusty-but-lithe stockman, the craggy farmer, and the sweaty worker, but also the winsome office girl, and the intense artist.

The centrality of art and artists to popular accounts of Australian identity in the sixties might come as something of a surprise to those of us who have got in to the lazy historical habit of identifying the beginning of the renaissance of post-war Australian culture with the signal ‘It’s Time’ campaign in 1972, prior to which everything cultural was cringing. In The Australians, Johnston confidently asserted that there were already:

… more good painters in Australia than there were good jockeys’. ‘Australians’, he claimed, perhaps a tad over-optimistically, ‘who like to think of themselves as easy-going people, rough and ready, physical rather than cerebral, who are deeply suspicious of the longhair and the intellectual, also pay the greatest respect, homage and even, of late, cash, to their artists. There is no country in the world, not even in Scandinavia, where the easel painter of even reasonable competence can survive as comfortably as in Australia.[iii]

A few pages on, spread across both pages in full and virulent colour, Russel and Maisie Drysdale lean toward the camera. One of Drysdale’s desert-red canvases is behind them and, because of the book’s advanced six-plate colour printing, their blue eyes seem to pop out from behind their extravagantly rimmed glasses as they warmly smile at us. There’s a cigarette jammed between Drysdale’s fingers and a can of Resch’s slammed on the table beside the crumple of Masie’s hankie, house keys, cigarettes and matches.

The most powerful spread in Goodman’s book is a chiaroscuro tableau of anxious faces called ‘Immigrant arrivals, Sydney Harbour’. These shipboard faces don’t engage the reader’s gaze, as Russell and Maisie Drysdale do, but search the unknown space of the dock beyond the reader. (A very similar, and now much more famous, copycat photograph was taken in the same place the following year by the Australian photographer David Moore, whilst on assignment for the National Geographic article ‘New South Wales: The State that Cradled Australia’.[iv] )

SOUTHERN EXPOSURE

Other books followed Goodman’s lead. In 1967 Donald Horne collaborated with the photojournalist David Beal on a book called Southern Exposure, which in its acerbic treatment of Australia was almost like a pictorial version of The Lucky Country. Horne wrote in the book’s introduction:

Neither of us — photographer nor writer — could be bothered producing the ordinary kind of picture book on Australia. There are no photographs of koala bears in gum trees here. We are trying to get down in pictures and words the Australia we see — a nation in which more people live in big cities than happens in any other nation, but which is set in a largely empty continent, a continent which seems very strange to non-Australians. In this nation people lead a life not quite the same as the life led anywhere else, but they are so indifferent to it that they hardly care what kind of life it is that they lead. … We have a special theme — to suggest some answers to the following question: What happened to European civilization when it came to Australia?

The chapter headings don’t follow the usual triumphalist trajectories of most over picture books, but capture the text’s acerbic tone: ‘A transported Civilization’; ‘Deserts of Disaster’; ‘The Same but Different’; ‘Boxes of Brick’; ‘Mates’; ‘Non-Mates’; ‘Bosses’; ‘The New Australia’; ‘Existential Australia’.

OUTBACK IN FOCUS

In the following year Jeff Carter’s Outback in Focus a travel book aimed at the rising market of tourists and campers was nonetheless not shy in commenting on Australian civilization in general. In the book physiognomic close-ups are arranged across the pages for comparison. The dryly cynical captions to some of his sequences include:

This Wailbri Tribesman is amongst the last generations of Aborigines still capable of a nomadic life;

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

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

KINGS CROSS SYDNEY

Occasionally younger photographers attempted to modify the mould that had now been well established for picture books about Australia. For instance in 1971 Rennie Ellis and Wes Stacey self published a small 81-page book about the effect of the R & R day on Kings Cross called Kings Cross Sydney. This book takes a deliberately cosmopolitan, bohemian approach to the idea of an Australian type.

MADE IN AUSTRALIA

In 1969 the commercial photographer David Mist produced a kind of Playboy guide to Australia, punningly titled Made in Australia, it claimed to be:

… a book of Australia’s bird life (of the non-feathered variety).

And it saw Australian women as a multiracial cocktail.

The beauty of Australian woman is unlike that found in any other nationality, yet its unique style is a combination of the characteristics of every nation. Beginning with the elegance of the English and the tranquil dignity of the Aboriginal, we have since added Italian vivacity, Slavic warmth, German discipline, Greek joi de vivre, Asian serenity and American ingenuity — what emerges is ‘Australian’ — a look that has claimed the Miss International and Miss World titles.

A BOOK ABOUT AUSTRALIAN WOMEN

Five years later a rejoinder came with the feminist A Book About Australian Women with photographs by Carol Jerrems and text edited from interviews with various women by Virginia Fraser. Fraser wrote of her interviews:

They can’t represent the whole experience of all women in Australia. There is not just one way of being a person. They are some individual experiences of being a female in this society, dominated by a culture that sees biological gender as a decisive difference between people, instead of one aspect of human possibility and individual uniqueness; in which the institutions traditions and mythology are defined and controlled by men, out of their experience and in their interests.

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF AUSTRALIA

Despite these counter-cultural efforts even in subsequent mainstream picture books the city largely remains a dystopian place and true character still lies out in the bush. For instance on Friday March 6 in 1981 seventy top international photojournalists joined thirty Australian photographers to shoot Australia across a 24 hour period for A Day in the Life of Australia, but the pattern of coverage has not significantly changed in 20 years.

However these books did solve the problem of picturing the character of a multicultural Australia by gridding photographs up into mosiacs. However they still persisted in locating bush types as the baseline against which to contrast shifts in identity.

NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

To my knowledge there have been no significant picture books about Australia since then. The resurgence of the film industry in the 1970s, and the continuing dominance of television, have taken over the task of visually defining and redefining what might be our national character. But our bookshops are still awash with biographies of Australian heroes and anti-heroes. And the interest in the face, captured in the frame for scrutiny, remains. In 1998 the National Portrait Gallery opened in Canberra with the vision that at least in part took up where the Australian picture books left of, the gallery’s mission was to:

increase the understanding of the Australian people – their identity, history, creativity and culture – through portraiture.

The inaugural National Portraiture award attracted nearly 1500 entries.

AUSTRALIAN TYPE

Is there still such a thing as a ‘typical Australian’. Let’s see. In Australian Photography 1947 Laurence le Guay published a studio portrait of the film actor Chips Rafferty, craggy, unshaven, staring off into space. Rafferty made his name playing lank ANZACs in films like Forty Thousand Horseman in 1940 and the Rats of Tobruk in 1944, and a drover in the Hollywood film The Overlanders in 1946. Twenty years later Chips Rafferty played the cranky patriarch in They’re a Weird Mob who begrudgingly allowed the Italian migrant to marry his beautiful daughter.  For me Chips is an ur-type for a distinct lineage of men that travel through Paul Hogan, to Les Hiddens the Bush Tucker Man, up to Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter (Whose portrait now hangs in the NPG). What are the physiognomic characteristics of this type? I think they are:

  • A no-nonsense non-cosmopolitan haircut
  • Laugh-lines or sun-creases around the eyes
  • A weathered complexion — freckles, sunburn, etc
  • A clear-eyed, open gaze
  • A sinewy, lanky body

In essence these are the characteristics which make the face and the body a synecdoche and an analogue for the continent of Australia itself. It is a type where the weather seems to have indexically inscribed itself onto the face to turn it into its own Australian landscape. And they are also the characteristics which physically materialize the supposedly decent, frank personality of the Australian.

Significantly, even though this type obviously had its origins in some kind of Aryan racial ideal, beneath even its digger and drover manifestations, I think it has now transcended it. In the sixty years since it emerged it has now crossed ethnic, racial and even gender lines. Steve bequeathed it to Bindii. And I see the net-baller Liz Ellis as very much of the type, as, perhaps was Fred Hollows. I’m even going to go out on a limb and include Ernie Dingo in my category.

The type is always susceptible to self-parody. Jack Thompson first appeared as a drunken kangaroo shooter in Wake in Fright, but I was startled to see Jack Thompson’s face being used by the Byron Bay Chilli Company on their new range of BBQ sauces. Our Jack is no Paul Newman, and there is something about the implied sexual rapacity of his unruly beard which undermines he fundamental decency of the type.

As yet I haven’t been able to think of any celebrities who represent migrant communities, although I think somebody from the South-East Asian communities must be ready for it. For instance Ahn Do has certainly captured the larrikin aspects of the type, but he is too metropolitan and lacks the embodiment of the outdoors and the bush that is there even in the suburban girl Liz Ellis, via the netball court.

OTHER TYPES

Perhaps there are other types that I could have explored, for instance the stolid, indomitable woman — the middle aged woman built on a sturdy framework of bone, and with a secure layer of subcutaneous fat. Max Dupain and David Moore specialized in this type, though I can’t think of any current examples.

CONCLUSION

Now of course these types aren’t really types in the old nineteenth century mode at all. They now no longer grow up from the national soil, but are constructed by the national media. Yet I think that they are more than just superficial media stereotypes as well. While there is a level of self-parody in many of these figures, there is still a way in which in their very physiognomies they persist in embodying a material, physical history that goes back a century.

I think also that if we look back at the picture books about Australia we certainly find a very fragmented, interrupted, and meagre history. But nonetheless it is one that has been totally ignored until now, and it demonstrates that photography played an important role in the popular conversation around national identity well before the recent art photography boom.

Martyn Jolly


[i] George Johnston and Robert Goodman, The Australians, Rigby, 1966, p292.

[ii] John Currey, ‘Australian Books Are Selling FAST!’, Walkabout, March 1970. (My thanks to Gael Newton for this reference)

[iii] p 214, p210.

[iv] Howell Walker, ‘New South Wales: The State that Cradled Australia’, National Geographic, November 1967

The Face of Australia

The Face of Australia’, lecture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, with accompanying exhibition floor talk, January 16, 2008.

INTRODUCTION

August Sander wanted to produce an atlas of the German people based on social typologies. The ability to interpret facial physiognomy was crucial to his project, and his landmark book of 1929 Face of the Time explicitly linked the human face to national and historical destiny. Can similar ideas be detected within Australian photography? Although nobody embarked on a project as extensively or methodically as Sander, an incipient desire to photograph ‘the face of Australia’ can be detected in the work of many of our most famous photographers. (We can all readily conjure such a face in our mind’s eye — the weathered skin, the stubbly chin, the tousled hair, the craggy profile, the thousand-mile stare.)

Although such an idea has recently been made even more fraught by debates around multiculturalism, the idea is still implicit in our popular culture. For instance would this famous photograph of a Cronulla rioter be as effective semiotically if the head and face of the boy who is wearing the flag like a cape wasn’t of such a fresh-faced anglo type, if for instance he had dark curly hair, sallow skin and glasses?

Using Sander’s extraordinary project as a model I will try to trace the ‘face of Australia’ through Australian photography in the full knowledge that my attempt, like Sander’s is doomed to ultimately fail. Because I will be taking Face of Time and his unpublished monumental opus Citizens of the Twentieth Century as my models, I will confine my survey to picture books published about Australia from 1930 to the present. I will only be looking at photographs as they were selected and laid out by picture editors at the time, rather than as they have been subsequently excavated from photographer’s archives by today’s curators and dealers.

SANDER

For my understanding of Sander I am relying on the Getty’s fabulous book August Sander in Focus. The ideas of physiognomy — that a person’s innate character manifests itself and is legible in their features — consistently run through Sander’s commentary on his own photographs, and dominated the critical reception of Face of the Time in 1929. Physiognomy had a long history that had received considerable scientific attention in the nineteenth century from Charles Darwin and other biologists. Social ethnologists also used it as a key principal to describe and document both European ethnic minorities as well as indigenous peoples in the European colonies. It was of broad popular interest in Sander’s time.

Of course genetic science has long since disapproved that there is any biological basis to the idea to physiognomics. And as the twentieth century progressed the thoroughly bogus physiognomic science was about to receive heaps of even more bad press, particularly on the left, through its association with eugenics and racism. Nonetheless, it remains a compelling undercurrent throughout the twentieth century.

Sander seems to have used the ideas in a loose and contradictory way, for him the face showed individual social experience which was layered on top of inherited traits that belong to pre-given ‘types’. In a radio lecture in 1931 he said:

every person’s story is written plainly on their face, though not everyone can read it. These are the runes of a new, but also ancient language. … More than anything physiognomy means an understanding of human nature. We know that people are formed by light and air, their inherited traits, and their actions, and we recognize people and distinguish one from the other by their appearance. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled, for life unavoidably leaves its trace there. … Each group carry in their physiognomy the expression of their times and the mental attitude of their group. Individuals who display these qualities in a particularly obvious manner can be called types.

Sander grounded his monumental physiognomic schema, which he intended to call Citizens of the Twentieth Century, in the peasantry from around his birthplace in Westerwald. In the 1910s many of these peasants had commissioned him to take their individual and family portraits. In preparing the sixty portraits in Face of the Time Sander returned to the portraits he had been commissioned to make earlier and re-used them within his grand typology. He re-cropped them more tightly to create a standardised, ‘anthropological’ format. The cropping emphasised the shape of the head, the arrangement of the features, the outline of the profile, and the set of the expression. This allowed physiognomic markers such as ears, noses, lips and brows to be read and compared and ‘types’ identified. As the introduction to Face of the Time stated:

Just as there is a comparative anatomy which enables one to understand the nature and history of organs, so here the photographer has produced a comparative photography, thereby gaining a scientific standpoint which places him beyond the photographer of detail.

In the 1930s he continued to work on the monumental Citizens of the Twentieth Century which was to contain 500 photographs in seven sections totally 45 portfolios. He planned to preface the work with a ‘portfolio of archetypes’ or a ‘generative folio’ made from the cropped details out of the photographs the Westerwald peasants had been commissioned he take. In 1954 he wrote that he classified all the types he encountered in relation to this basic, generative, type who, by virtue of their strong connection with nature had all the characteristics of mankind in general. These peasants were the physiognomic baseline against which all other social classes and professions would be measured. Sander planned to arrange the portraits in Citizens of the Twentieth Century in a circular system. Beginning with the earthbound farmer the photographs would ascend through all the social classes and professions to ‘the representatives of the highest civilization’ before descending through the unemployed and the vagrant to the ‘idiots, the sick … and the dying’. This arrangement reflected his belief that civilizations develop in circular patterns, an idea popularised by the historian Oswald Spengler in his two volume Decline of the West (1918-22). According to Spengler, who was avidly read by Sander, all great cultures are rooted in the country, gradually evolving to sophisticated urban markets before collapsing in the soulless bureaucracies of rhe city. Accordingly, Sander entitled the final section of his photographic inventory, containing the mentally ill, the physically disabled and the dead, ‘The Last People’. However in contradiction to this idea of a civilization in inevitable decline, Sander also saw all of the occupations he photographed as arranged into a fixed hierarchy, a kind of  ‘estate’ or ‘guild’ system.

Sander’s own brilliant photography undermined his classificatory project. For instance his photographs of bohemia provided vivid proof that social identities in Weimar Germany were far more complex and fluid than any typology could contain. They began to undermine his classificatory system, by resisting precisely the certainties that his ‘types’ were supposed to provide, namely that people could be documented, classified, and thus understood. Sander’s project recognised that physiognomy was mobile.

HOPPE

So there’s a magnificently fraught, dangerously ambitious, massively contradictory model as our guide. Let’s now turn to Australia.

A photographer who was imbued with many of the same interests in physiognomy as Sander, and who came form a similar cultural background, came to Australia in 1930 in order to shoot a travel book about Australia aimed at the English and German markets. He was E. O. Hoppe, and his time in Australia has recently been researched by Erika Essau.

Born in Germany Hoppe emigrated to England in 1900 at the age of 22, and by the 1910s had become a famous society photographer. He kept up a strong connection to German culture and also became interested in physiognomic typologies. In his autobigraphy he wrote:

I became interested in the psychology of the by-products and offshoots of the social order and spent much time looking for and photographing character types.

He contributed  character studies of the lower strata of society to the sociological book Taken from Life, 1922 by J. D. Beresford, and in 1926 published a book called London Types. He produced luxury travel books on England in 1926 and the Unites States in 1927  and came to Australia for ten months in 1930 on commission from a German publisher. The resultant book, The Fifth Continent, came out in German and English in 1931.

Hoppe shot many Australian types during his 10 months here, focussing in on their heads in a physiognomic manner. However the German Picture editor saw  it as primarily a travel book and concentrated on scenery, as well as having a concluding section on Aboriginal culture. However five ‘types’ did made it into the book: The Man From Outback, Mine Host at Eden, NSW; a 90 year Young Fruit Grower; Old Miner, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia; Young  Axeman, Pemberton, WA. In accordance with Spengler’s circular historical schema of civilizations rising from the agrarian and declining into the metropolis, the types from the young country of Australia reproduced in The Fifth Continent are all connected to the land. In the introduction Hoppe wrote:

The character of the Australian is a surely moulded as much by the sun as by his Northern ancestry. In a land of almost perpetual sunshine he is inclined to invest his life with a roseate hue and push troubles aside in a gay impersonal way which is the prerogative of abiding youth. Although he may not be strongly addicted to the discipline of long hours at routine work, he has none of the indolence of the languid East.

Hoppe sees the Australian character as being formed by the impact of a new landscape on a predetermining racial substrate.

ZIEGLER

The subsequent history of photographic Australiana is fascinating, though largely unwritten. For instance from the 1930s to the 1970s the editor and publisher Oswald Ziegler produced lavish publications such as This is Australia, 1946 or Australia from the Dawn of Time to the Present Day, 1964[i]. These massive picture books were often sponsored by various governments, and compiled from photographs supplied by their publicity departments. The photographs were cut and collaged together, by European-trained designers like Gert Sellheim or Douglas Annand, into modernist graphic friezes that leapt across each double-page spread. It is hard to know now who were the intended audience for these books. Like all government publicity they were probably largely unwanted by those who were forced to gratefully receive them, either as official gifts, or patriotic presents from well-meaning relatives.

In Ziegler’s books people were mere actors in national scenarios of industrial and agrarian development, and the photographers themselves mostly anonymous. The sequence of chapters told a story of European development which was briefly prefaced with a chapter on Aborigines and the geology of the continent itself which were seen to be inertly waiting for the colonists to arrive. They then rapidly followed in a sequence with industrial and pastoral development, ending with modern city, sport and culture. There is little or no interest in physiognomy or typology. In these books the Australian character doesn’t reside in the people themselves who are still regarded as being innately nothing more than another variety of British citizen. Rather, national personality and character is generated by the landscape and the climate. Accordingly, the nationalistic panoramas in which Australians themselves do predominantly feature are those panoramas to do with aspects of the country that had already been established as ‘character forming’, those to do with the outback, or the beach, or sport, or, most significantly, war.

HURLEY

The explorer photographer Frank Hurley firmly attached the imprimatur of his name to his enormously successful series of Camera Study books, which ended up selling 168,500 copies by the time of his death 1962. In the 1950s Hurley was a household name because of his expeditions to Antarctica, New Guinea and both world wars. To market the books he leveraged his youthful explorer’s reputation for journeying into the unknown into the returned man’s patriotic touring of each state and territory of the commonwealth. But in Hurley’s books Australia is still the star, not Australians. People are the spear-carrying extras, the scale markers placed in the picture in order to be dwarfed by the grand proscenium arches of cliffs, valleys, buildings and factories.

BEAN

An interest in Australian character types hadn’t entirely disappeared from Australian photographic publishing, however. In the 1930s the visual image of the ANZAC soldier began to take predominate in Australian visual culture as memorials were built in every town. In 1937 Charles bean capped of his monumental twelve volume official history of the Great War with a volume devoted entirely to official photographs. It was the biggest selling volume of the series, and featured photographs of typical diggers, dressed in informal workman like uniforms, or stripped to the waist and engaged in strenuous work. These images were meant to be photographic proof that the heroic, knockabout digger Bean had describe din his histories actually did exist.

AUSTRALIAN PHOTOGRAPHY 1947

An interest in typological character portraits persisted in the real of commercial and pictorial photography as well. In 1947 Ziegler published an annual of photography drawn from 700 submissions from amateur and professional photographers, and selected by himself, Hal Missingham, Max Dupain, Athol Shmith and Russell Roberts. The gold plaque was awarded to Axel Poignant’s, Mary (Since re-titled Aboriginal Mother and New Born Baby) and his Head Stockman was also reproduced. Both were shot in 1942 on the Canning stock route where he had documented other Australian types. A digger type from George Silk, Man of Crete, was also reproduced in the annual. As was a typological character study by Olga Sharpe.

THE 1960’S

Ziegeler and Hurley’s panoramic style of Australian picture book, which had dominated the market for twenty years, changed dramatically in the mid 1960s. Many factors came together at this point. There was a burgeoning of overseas interest in Australia because of our involvement in the Vietnam War, and the use of Sydney as an R & R base by American servicemen. There was also a massive increase in the publishing industry because Australian publishers could use Asian presses for cheaper printing, and aggressive overseas publishers like Paul Hamlyn entered the market aiming books at a popular supermarket audience. An explosion of interest in all things Australian —Australian history, Australian wildlife, Australian touring holidays (think Bill Peach and the Leyland Brothers) — combined with the effects of postwar immigration, the baby boom, the increase in wealth, and the shift in our allegiance from Britain to America, to put questions of national identity and national character on the popular agenda. Examples of this popular discussion were the publication of Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country in 1964, the massive popularity of Michael Powell’s film They’re a Weird Mob in 1966.

Some of the new, overseas printed, picture books, such as Rigby’s 1966 book Around Australia on Highway One, simply updated the old panoramic formats of Ziegler and Hurley. And in 1964 David Moore shot widely for an assignment on Australia and New Zealand for the LIFE World Library.

ROBERT GOODMAN

But the watershed book came in 1966. Called, significantly, The Australians, it was the first true coffee table book in the Australiana genre. A ruminative, fifty-thousand word text by the novelist and journalist George Johnston supported an extended photographic essay shot over two years by the American National Geographic photographer Robert Goodman. Their stated objective was,

[T]he fair and unpropagandised presentation of the Australian in his unique and many-faceted setting. The essential image, if you like, of a race apart from the others.’[ii]

It had a budget of $200,000, fronted up by twelve of Australia’s biggest companies such as BHP and QANTAS, and ended up printing ninety thousand copies, which sold in the shops at the upmarket retail price of $8.95.[iii]

The book’s chapters followed a similar trajectory to Ziegler’s, from the ‘land’, to the ‘land’s people’ (meaning white settlers, more than Aborigines) through to ‘the economy’, ‘science’, ‘the arts’, ‘sport’, and culminating in ‘Anzac’. But its photographs home in on the faces of Australians, who look out from the pages in frank close-up. Their faces are enlarged right up into full-page or double-page spreads, often bleeding to the edge in the contemporary style of picture-magazine layouts. The cast of characters was cosmopolitan. There was the familiar dusty-but-lithe stockman, the craggy farmer, and the sweaty worker, but also the winsome office girl, and the intense artist.

The centrality of art and artists to popular accounts of Australian identity in the sixties might come as something of a surprise to those of us who have got in to the lazy historical habit of identifying the beginning of the renaissance of post-war Australian culture with the signal ‘It’s Time’ campaign in 1972, prior to which everything cultural was cringing. In The Australians, Johnston confidently asserted that there were already:

… more good painters in Australia than there were good jockeys’. ‘Australians’, he claimed, perhaps a tad over-optimistically, ‘who like to think of themselves as easy-going people, rough and ready, physical rather than cerebral, who are deeply suspicious of the longhair and the intellectual, also pay the greatest respect, homage and even, of late, cash, to their artists. There is no country in the world, not even in Scandinavia, where the easel painter of even reasonable competence can survive as comfortably as in Australia.[iv]

A few pages on, spread across both pages in full and virulent colour, Russel and Maisie Drysdale lean toward the camera. One of Drysdale’s desert-red canvases is behind them and, because of the book’s advanced six-plate colour printing, their blue eyes seem to pop out from behind their extravagantly rimmed glasses as they warmly smile at us. There’s a cigarette jammed between Drysdale’s fingers and a can of Resch’s slammed on the table beside the crumple of Masie’s hankie, house keys, cigarettes and matches.

The most powerful spread in Goodman’s book is a chiaroscuro tableau of anxious faces called ‘Immigrant arrivals, Sydney Harbour’. These shipboard faces don’t engage the reader’s gaze, as Russell and Maisie Drysdale do, but search the unknown space of the dock beyond the reader. (A very similar, and now much more famous, copycat photograph was taken in the same place the following year by the Australian photographer David Moore, whilst on assignment for the National Geographic article ‘New South Wales: The State that Cradled Australia’.[v] )

SOUTHERN EXPOSURE

Other books followed Goodman’s lead. In 1967 Donald Horne collaborated with the photojournalist David Beal on a book called Southern Exposure, which in its acerbic treatment of Australia was almost like a pictorial version of The Lucky Country. Horne wrote in the book’s introduction:

Neither of us — photographer nor writer — could be bothered producing the ordinary kind of picture book on Australia. There are no photographs of koala bears in gum trees here. We are trying to get down in pictures and words the Australia we see — a nation in which more people live in big cities than happens in any other nation, but which is set in a largely empty continent, a continent which seems very strange to non-Australians. In this nation people lead a life not quite the same as the life led anywhere else, but they are so indifferent to it that they hardly care what kind of life it is that they lead. … We have a special theme — to suggest some answers to the following question: What happened to European civilization when it came to Australia?

The chapter headings don’t follow the usual triumphalist trajectories of most over picture books, but capture the text’s acerbic tone: ‘A transported Civilization’; ‘Deserts of Disaster’; ‘The Same but Different’; ‘Boxes of Brick’; ‘Mates’; ‘Non-Mates’; ‘Bosses’; ‘The New Australia’; ‘Existential Australia’.

OUTBACK IN FOCUS

In the following year Jeff Carter’s Outback in Focus a travel book aimed at the rising market of tourists and campers was nonetheless not shy in commenting on Australian civilization in general. In the book physiognomic close-ups are arranged across the pages for comparison. The dryly cynical captions to some of his sequences include:

This Wailbri Tribesman is amongst the last generations of Aborigines still capable of a nomadic life;

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

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

KINGS CROSS SYDNEY

Occasionally younger photographers attempted to modify the mould that had now been well established for picture books about Australia. For instance in 1971 Rennie Ellis and Wes Stacey self published a small 81-page book about the effect of the R & R day on Kings Cross called Kings Cross Sydney. This book takes a deliberately cosmopolitan, bohemian approach to the idea of an Australian type.

MADE IN AUSTRALIA

In 1969 the commercial photographer David Mist produced a kind of Playboy guide to Australia, punningly titled Made in Australia, it claimed to be:

… a book of Australia’s bird life (of the non-feathered variety).

And it saw Australian women as a multiracial cocktail.

The beauty of Australian woman is unlike that found in any other nationality, yet its unique style is a combination of the characteristics of every nation. Beginning with the elegance of the English and the tranquil dignity of the Aboriginal, we have since added Italian vivacity, Slavic warmth, German discipline, Greek joi de vivre, Asian serenity and American ingenuity — what emergesis ‘Australian’ — a look that has claimed the Miss International and Miss World titles.

A BOOK ABOUT AUSTRALIAN WOMEN

Five years later a rejoinder came with the feminist A Book About Australian Women with photographs by Carol Jerrems and text edited from interviews with various women by Virginia Fraser. Fraser wrote of her interviews:

They can’t represent the whole experience of all women in Australia. There is not just one way of being a person. They are some individual experiences of being a female in this society, dominated by a culture that sees biological gender as a decisive difference between people, instead of one aspect of human possibility and individual uniqueness; in which the institutions traditions and mythology are defined and controlled by men, out of their experience and in their interests.

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF AUSTRALIA

Despite these counter-cultural efforts even in subsequent mainstream picture books the city largely remains a dystopian place and true character still lies out in the bush. For instance on Friday March 6 in 1981 seventy top international photojournalists joined thirty Australian photographers to shoot Australia across a 24 hour period for A Day in the Life of Australia, but the pattern of coverage has not significantly changed in 20 years.

However these books did solve the problem of picturing the character of a multicultural Australia by gridding photographs up into mosiacs. However they still persisted in locating bush types as the baseline against which to contrast shifts in identity.

NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

To my knowledge there have been no significant picture books about Australia since then. The resurgence of the film industry in the 1970s, and the continuing dominance of television, have taken over the task of visually defining and redefining what might be our national character. But our bookshops are still awash with biographies of Australian heroes and anti-heroes. But the interest in the face, captured in the frame for scrutiny, remains. In 1998 the National Portrait Gallery opened in Canberra with the vision to:

increase the understanding of the Australian people – their identity, history, creativity and culture – through portraiture.

The inaugural National Portraiture award attracted nearly 1500 entries.

AUSTRALIAN TYPE

Are there any remnants of a Sanderesque typology in any of this? A group, which in Sander’s words carries “in their physiognomy the expression of their times and the mental attitude of their group. Individuals who display these qualities in a particularly obvious manner can be called types.” Let’s see. In Australian Photography 1947 Laurence le Guay published a studio portrait of the film actor Chips Rafferty, craggy, unshaven, staring off into space. Rafferty made his name playing lank ANZACs in films like Forty Thousand Horseman in 1940 and the Rats of Tobruk in 1944, and a drover in the Hollywood film The Overlanders in 1946. Twenty years later Chips Rafferty played the cranky patriarch in They’re a Weird Mob who begrudgingly allowed the Italian migrant to marry his beautiful daughter.  For me Chips is an ur-type for a distinct lineage of men that travel through Paul Hogan, to Les Hiddens the Bush Tucker Man, up to Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter (Whose portrait now hangs in the NPG). What are the physiognomic characteristics of this type? I think they are:

  • A no-nonsense non-cosmopolitan haircut
  • Laugh-lines or sun-creases around the eyes
  • A weathered complexion — freckles, sunburn, etc
  • A clear-eyed, open gaze
  • A sinewy, lanky body

In essence these are the characteristics which make the face and the body a synecdoche and an analogue for the continent of Australia itself. It is a type where the weather seems to have indexically inscribed itself onto the face to turn it into its own Australian landscape. And they are also the characteristics which physically materialize the supposedly decent, frank personality of the Australian.

Significantly, even though this type obviously had its origins in some kind of Aryan racial ideal, beneath even its digger and drover manifestations, I think it has now transcended it. In the sixty years since it emerged it has now crossed ethnic, racial and even gender lines. Steve bequeathed it to Bindii. And I see the net-baller Liz Ellis as very much of the type. I’m even going to go out on a limb and include Ernie Dingo in my category.

Unfortunately I think the type is being debased. I was startled to see Jack Thompsons face being used by the Byron Bay Chilli Company on their new range of BBQ sauces. Our Jack is no Paul Newman, and there is something about the implied sexual rapacity of his unruly beard which undermines he fundamental decency of the type.

As yet I haven’t been able to think of any celebrities who represent  migrant communities, although I think somebody from the South-East Asian communities must be ready for it. For instance Ahn Do has certainly captured the larrikin aspects of the type, but he is too metropolitan and lacks the embodiment of the outdoors and the bush that is there even in the suburban girl Liz Ellis, via the netball court.

OTHER TYPES

Perhaps there are other types that I could have explored, for instance the stolid, indomitable woman — the middle aged woman built on a sturdy framework of bone, and with a secure layer of subcutaneous fat. Dupain and Moore specialized in this type, though I can’t think of any current examples.

CONCLUSION

Now of course these types aren’t really types in the old nineteenth century mode at all. They now no longer grow up from the national soil, but are constructed by the national media. Yet I think that they are more than just superficial media stereotypes as well. While there is a level of self-parody in many of these figures, there is still a way in which in their very physiognomies they persist in embodying a material, physical history that goes back a century.

I think also that if we look back at the picture books about Australia we certainly find a very fragmented, interrupted, and meagre history. But nonetheless it is one that has been totally ignored until now, and it demonstrates that photography played an important role in the popular conversation around national identity well before the recent art photography boom.

Martyn Jolly


[i] Oswald Ziegler (Ed.), This is Australia, Oswald Ziegler Publications, 1946; Australia from the Dawn of Time to the Present Day, Oswald Ziegler Publications, 1964.

[ii] George Johnston and Robert Goodman, The Australians, Rigby, 1966, p292.

[iii] John Currey, ‘Australian Books Are Selling FAST!’, Walkabout, March 1970. (My thanks to Gael Newton for this reference)

[iv] p 214, p210.

[v] Howell Walker, ‘New South Wales: The State that Cradled Australia’, National Geographic, November 1967

Haunted Australia

‘Haunted Australia’, catalogue essay in Trace Elements: Spirit and Memory in Japanese and Australian Photomedia, 2008, Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery and Performance space edited by Bec Dean. English version, pp 52 – 57 of 142 page catalogue, ISBN 978-4-925204-22-4 C 0070

Every country has its ghosts, every country is haunted by spirits and memories. Even countries who once thought of themselves as being young, but are now realizing that they are in fact old, are finding themselves to be as haunted as anybody else. Thirty or so years ago if you had asked an Australian if there were many ghosts here they would have laughed — compared to England or Japan, no way! Sure, there was a ghost in our most popular national song, Waltzing Matilda — the ghost of a poor, sheep-stealing swagman who committed suicide rather than be caught by the colonial police — but that was about it. Recently, however, we have begun to see a persistent tradition of Australian ghosts emerging.

The swagman’s ghost stayed around the billabong in which he had drowned himself, mournfully repeating the refrain from his once cheerful song to warn and remind passers by of the injustice which had been done to him. And this pattern of repetition, mourning, warning and reminding conforms to many other ghost stories from the nineteenth century. On 16 June 1826 an ex-convict and successful farmer named Frederick Fisher suddenly disappeared, a few days later his ghost was seen sitting on a fence rail and pointing to a spot on the ground.  When the spot was dug up his body was found, leading to the arrest and hanging of his neighbour for murder. Fisher’s ghost survived in colonial society as an urban myth until 1859 when John Lang published an elaborated form of the story as The Ghost Upon the Rail. In 1924 Australia’s pioneer filmmaker Raymond Longford made a silent film of the story, and in 1960 Douglas Stewart wrote a play. Ken Gelder discusses Fisher’s ghost and others like him in The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories.

Fisher’s ghost appeared at the disjunction between the new convict-based settler society of Australia, the old established home of Britain from which the convicts had been cast out, and the prior possession of the land by Aborigines. In Lang’s version, in order to cover up his crime and get his hands on Fisher’s wealth, the murderous neighbour, an ex convict equally as successful in his new life as Fisher, used forgery and impersonation to create the elaborate ruse that Fisher had granted him power of attorney before disappearing home to England. To expose this delusion the spectre does not simply point to his own grave, as in the urban myth. Rather, he is seen sitting on the fence-rail with a gash on his forehead. But the light appears to shine straight  through him, and he is as impalpable to the touch as empty air.  An aboriginal tracker from the local tribe identifies ‘white man’s blood’ on the rail, then follows some faint tracks for nearly a mile to a dark pond scummed with ‘white man’s fat’. At the bottom of the pond is found a bag of bones, the rotting remains of Fisher’s body kept together only by his clothing. He wasn’t a world away in old England after all, but still here in new Australia all the time, demanding that justice be done. In addition, the ancient knowledge of the land held by the radically dispossessed Aborigines is needed to track his rotting body down. As Gelder says, ghost stories are one way ‘in which white settlement in this country is shown to be, in fact, fundamentally unsettled.’ [1] Ghosts are able to bring into conjunction times and spaces which are conventionally separated. They can reveal what was previously hidden, or dormant, or ignored.

In the early twentieth century Australian ghosts took on a greater role in bridging vast distances of time and memory. After 60,000 Australian Soldiers died and were buried on the distant battle fields of World War One an extraordinary cult of the dead grew up amongst those that were left to mourn them, but who had no grave to grieve at. This collective grief became focussed on the Anzac memorials being built in each town, and in the annual ritual of the Anzac Day Dawn Service and Commemorative March. Just before Anzac Day 1925 Melbourne Punch described Anzac Day as ‘that solemn day, on which … the spirits of the nation’s gallant dead come back again for a space, on ‘Home Leave’.’[2] Two years later the famous war artist and cartoonist Will Dyson published his best-known cartoon in the Melbourne Herald. In A Voice from Anzac two ghostly Australia soldiers left behind on the beachhead of Gallipoli draw solace from hearing the feet of the Returned Men marching in Australia. One of them says to the other: ‘Funny thing, Bill—I keep thinking I hear men marching!’.

By far the most popular painting of the period was Will Longstaff’s Menin Gates at Midnight, 1927, which depicted a psychic vision Longstaff had experienced during a midnight walk after the unveiling of the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres, when he saw soldier spirits rising from the cornfields around him. When the painting toured Australia in 1928 and 1929 it was seen by perhaps half a million people, who filed reverently past it to the accompaniment of sombre organ music.[3] To this day the spooky painting still hangs in its own darkened grotto in the Australia War Memorial.

The emotional power of Dyson’s and Longstaff’s  spectral imagery derived at least some of its legibility from Spiritualist photography. Spiritualist ideas were pervasive after the war. The period’s most famous proselytiser of Spiritualism was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the famous detective and arch rationalist Sherlock Holmes. Doyle had been a jingoistic propagandist during World War One, during which he lost his son and his brother. After that war, when virtually every other family was experiencing similar grief, the ‘sight of a world which was distraught with sorrow and eagerly asking for help and knowledge’, had compelled him to use his fame and personal wealth to proselytise the Spiritualist cause in lectures delivered from platforms across the world.[4] In 1920 and 1921 he travelled throughout Australia, eventually speaking to a total of 50,000 people. His most popular lecture was on spirit photography, where he showed lantern-slides of photographs taken by mediumistic photographers at photographic séances. In these images the faces of the dead where captured floating above the living, they seemed to have finally returned to join their loved ones once more within the photographic emulsion. When projected onto the lantern-slide screens of packed meeting halls these photographic ‘proofs’ of the ‘truth’ of spirit return provided implicit comfort to the bereaved families in Australia, whose sons had died thousand of miles away. The Melbourne Age reported:

Unquestionably the so-called ‘dead’ lived. That was his message to the mothers of Australian lads who died so grandly in the War, and with the help of God he and Lady Doyle would ‘get it across’ to Australia.[5]

Since that time the Anzac tradition has developed radically. It has changed from being a collective cult of memory for the dead intensely focussed on the physical absence of fallen soldiers, to being a more generalised set of nationalistic and quasi-religious rituals through which every Australian is meant to feel bonded to their country.

At the same time the mechanisms through which ghosts are conjured has developed and widened. Images of people from the past increasingly pervade the present through the power of photography. In the photographic archive the past lies hidden and buried, whilst always containing the potential for exploration and retrieval. The archive has increasingly become a terrain in which some artists feel as though they can meet people from the past and even, in some sense,  bring them back to the present.

For example in 2003 two Sydney artists, Kate Richards and Ross Gibson, presented Life after Wartime at the Sydney Opera House. The work was an interactive  ‘performance’ of an archive of crime-scene photographs that had been assembled by Sydney’s police force in the decades following the Second World War. The artists sat at laptops and midi keyboards and brought up strings of images which, combined with evocative haikus, were projected onto two large screens. Beneath the screens, The Necks, a jazz trio well known for its ominous movie music, improvised a live soundtrack of brooding ambience. Although not directly picturing spectres, the texts and images generated open-ended non-specific narratives around a set of semi-fictionalized characters and locations in Sydney. These characters became invisible presences occupying the creepy emptiness of the crime scenes. The element of automation, in the way the story engine generated the loose narratives, preserved the integrity, the historical artefactuality, of the original archive. Ross Gibson wrote:

Whenever I work with historical fragments, I try to develop an aesthetic response appropriate to the form and mood of the source material. This is one way to know what the evidence is trying to tell the future. I must not impose some pre-determined genre on these fragments. I need to remember that the evidence was created by people and systems of reality independent of myself. The archive holds knowledge in excess of my own predispositions. … Stepping off from this intuition, I have to trust that the archive has occulted in it a logic, a coherent pattern which can be ghosted up from its disparate details so that I can gain a new, systematic understanding of the culture that has left behind such spooky detritus. In this respect I am looking to be a medium for the archive. I want to ‘séance up’ the spirit of the evidence. [6]

In seeking to be a voodoo spiritualist ‘medium’ for the archive, the work was not trying to quote from it, or mine it for retro titbits ripe for appropriation, so much as to make contact with it as an autonomous netherworld of images. This sense of the palpability of other times preserved in the archive also informs the work of the Sydney photographer Anne Ferran. In 1997 she made a ‘metaphorical x-ray’ of a nineteenth-century historic house. She carefully removed items of the colonial family’s clothing from its drawers and cupboards and, in a darkened room, laid them gently onto photographic paper before exposing it to light. In the photograms the luminous baby dresses and night-gowns floated ethereally against numinous blackness. To Ferran, the photogram process made them look ‘three-dimensional, life-like, as if it has breathed air into them in the shape of a body … With no context to secure these images, it’s left up to an audience to deal with visual effects that seem to have arisen of their own accord, that are visually striking but in an odd, hermetic way.’[7]

Other Australia artists have gone beyond the generalised, enigmatic, uncanny ambience of the photographic archive, and have used archival photographs to directly create ghostly images. But these contemporary spectres — photographically produced apparitions from the past superimposed on the present — are not being invoked in order to console the living, as in the Anzac spectral tradition, but to cajole them, beseech them, or imprecate them, just as Fisher’s ghost did in the nineteenth century.

In 1980 Australia’s most eminent art historian, Bernard Smith, gave a series of lectures under the title ‘The Spectre of Truganini.’ In the nineteenth century, Truganini had been a much-photographed colonial celebrity as the ‘last’ of the ‘full-blood’ Tasmanian Aborigines. Smith’s argument was that, despite white Australia’s attempt to blot out and forget the history of its own brutal displacement of Australia’s aboriginal population, the repressed would continue to return and haunt contemporary Australia until proper amends were made.[8]

As aboriginal activism grew in intensity and sophistication during the 1980s and 1990s, anthropological portraits such as those of Truganini, began to be conceived of not only as the theoretical paradigm for colonial attempts at genocide but also as acts of violence in themselves, technically akin to, and instrumentally part of, that very process of attempted genocide. They began to be used by young aboriginal artists to ‘occult up’ their ancestors. Their reuse attempted to capture a feeling of active dialogue with the past, a two-way corridor through time, or a sense of New Age channelling. In a meditation on nineteenth-century anthropological photographs, the aboriginal photographer and curator Brenda L. Croft retroactively invested the agency of political resistance in the 140-year-old portraits.

Images like these have haunted me since I was a small child … [and] were instrumental in guiding me to use the tools of photography in my work … The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest.[9]

But aboriginal ghosts face a lot of work to do yet before they can finally rest. Aboriginal ghosts are needed to remind Australia that there is unfinished business, that the process of reconciliation with the past is not complete. Rather than laying their ancestors to rest, many aboriginal artists have photographically raised them from the dead to enrol them in various contemporary campaigns of resistance. One of the first Australian aboriginal photographers to receive international attention was Leah King-Smith. Her 1992 exhibition Patterns of Connection travelled throughout Australia as well as internationally. To make her large, deeply coloured photo[compositions she copied anthropological photographs from the State Library of Victoria, liberating them from the archive to be superimposed as spectral presences on top of hand-coloured landscapes. For her, this process allowed Aboriginal people to flow back into their land, into a virtual space reclaimed for them by the photographer. In the words of the exhibition’s catalogue: ‘From the flaring of velvety colours and forms, translucent ghosts appear within a numinous world.’[10]

King-Smith holds spiritualist beliefs of her own. She concluded her artist’s statement by asking that ‘people activate their inner sight to view Aboriginal people.’[11] Her work animistically gave the museum photographs she reused a spiritualist function. Some of her fellow aboriginal artists thought the work too generalist. It lacked specific knowledge of the stories of the people whose photographs were reused, and it didn’t have explicit permission from the traditional owners of the land they were made to haunt. But the critic Anne Marsh described that as a ‘strategic essentialism.’

There is little doubt, in my mind, that Leah King-Smith is a kind of New Age evangelist and many serious critics will dismiss her work on these grounds …But I am interested in why the images are so popular and how they tap into a kind of cultural imaginary [in order] to conjure the ineffable … Leah King-Smith’s figures resonate with a constructed aura: [they are] given an enhanced ethereal quality through the use of mirrors and projections. The ‘mirror with a memory’ comes alive as these ancestral ghosts … seem to drift through the landscape as a seamless version of nineteenth century spirit photography.[12]

While not buying into such direct visual spirituality, other aboriginal artists have also attempted to use the power of old photographs to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from the past. In a series of works from the late 1990s, Brook Andrew invested his nineteenth-century subjects, copied from various state archives, with a libidinous body image inscribed within the terms of contemporary queer masculinity, and emblazoned them with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as Sexy and Dangerous (1996), I Split Your Gaze (1997), and Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr [I See You] (1998). Andrew exploits the auratic power of the original Aboriginal subjects to re-project the historically objectifying gaze straight back to the present, to be immediately reinscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse. Although Andrew was also criticized for using the powerful portraits of the aboriginal subjects without appropriate consideration for their original tribal and geographical identity, these works have since become almost iconic in contemporary Australian art.

Since 1999 the photographer Darren Siwes, of aboriginal and Dutch heritage, has performed a series of spectral self portraits in Australia and the United Kingdom. By ghosting himself standing implacably in front of various buildings, he refers to an aboriginal haunting, certainly; but because he is ghosted standing to attention while wearing a generic suit, he also evokes the feeling of being surveilled by a generalized, accusatory masculinity – exactly the same feeling that a memorial Anzac statue gives. Like much other contemporary aboriginal photography in Australia, Siwes’s photographs are mannered, stiff, and visually dull, but they have proved to be extraordinarily popular with curators in Australia and internationally. It is not the intrinsic quality of the art that is so persuasive, but the rhetorical force of the spectres. As overwrought and histrionic as they are, ghosts are still able to directly address historical and cultural issues of broad contemporary concern.

In their book Uncanny Australia Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs use Australian ghost stories to describe the uncanniness of Australia’s relationship to aboriginal spirituality. Although it is supposedly a settler country, in many ways Australia remains ‘unsettled’. In Australia both aboriginal and non-aboriginal relationships to the land have to co-exist, while its often violent history of possession, displacement and oppression underscore both relationships in different ways. For over two hundred years generations of non-aboriginal, settler Australians have forged strong spiritual bonds to the land, but aboriginal claims for the full recognition of their prior occupation of the continent, and for the precedence of their sacred relationship to the land, often give non-aboriginal Australians the uncanny feeling they are ‘foreigners at home’. In these postcolonial terms Gelder and Jacobs see hauntings as a productive occurrence, a means of acknowledging the inherent postcolonial contradictions in modern day Australia:

‘Ghosts’ simply could not function in a climate of sameness, in a country which fantasises about itself as ‘one nation’ or which imagines a utopian future of ‘reconciliation’ in which … all the ghosts have been laid to rest. But neither can they function in a climate of nothing but difference, where the one can never resemble the other, as in a ‘divided’ nation. A structure in which sameness and difference solicit each other, spilling over each other’s boundaries only to return again to their respective places, moving back and forward in an unpredictable, even unruly manner—a structure in which sameness and difference embrace and refuse each other simultaneously: this is where the ‘ghosts’ which may cause us to ‘smile’ or to ‘worry’ continue to flourish.[13]

Ghosts have re-emerged because both white and black Australians are now spiritually immersed in their country in a way which goes beyond the mutually exclusive binary of possession versus dispossession.

The haunting experiences of everyday Australians are explored by the historian Peter Read in his book Haunted Earth. He uses oral history interviews with over forty non-aboriginal and aboriginal Australians to explore their relationship to what he calls ‘inspirited places’. These are places defined by the nexus of place and history, time and spirit. For Read ‘inspiriting’ is a reciprocal process between the Earth and humans, where both old and new Australians bring inspiriting mythologies, rites and beliefs with them to the land they inhabit, just as particular landscapes are experienced by the humans who inhabit them as ‘haunted’ with a kind of soul or essence. Like many contemporary cultural historians Read is trying to go beyond hackneyed ‘paranormal’ explanations for some people’s intense experience of spiritual presence. He wants to understand these uncanny feelings as something more interesting and complex than the self-limiting notion that they are just the ‘epiphenomena of an excited or deluded brain’.

He recounts the vivid experience of people living in the suburbs built on the sandstone ridges north of Sydney which were once intensively occupied by Aboriginal people. He meets three separate families who believe they have either seen or felt the direct presence of Aboriginal spirits. ‘To the haunted families, the land itself, and the memories that the land holds independent of humans, carry profound meanings clearly related to invasion, dispossession and violence.’ However this haunting is not something to be banally expiated. If all the ghosts were ever to be exorcised then something would be lost to our contemporary experience. As he comments, ‘Those untroubled, those unhaunted, by the ghosts of the past have missed something profound.’ [14]

Australia has a long and persistent history of haunting. And its ghosts are a long way from being laid to rest, indeed more seem to be accumulating. The means through which we make these ghosts appear might have changed — from the genre of storytelling, to drawing and painting, to photographic superimposition. And the uncanny, unsettled worlds between which the ghosts communicated may have changed — from distant countries sundered by space, to not-so-distant pasts sundered by historical forgetting. But in all their over the top kitschiness, in all their histrionic posturing, ghosts have always continued to contribute to our sense of ourselves.


[1] The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories, selected by K. Gelder, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. xi.

[2]  R. McMullin, Will Dyson: Cartoonist, Etcher and Australia’s First War Artist, London, Angus & Robertson, 1984, p226.

[3]  A. Gray, Will Longstaff’s Menin Gates at Midnight, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, nd, np.

[4] N. Fodor, Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science, London, Arthurs Press, 1933, p106.

[5] ‘Conan Doyle in Australia’, Light, December 18, 1920, np.

[6] R. Gibson, ‘Negative Truth: A new approach to photographic storytelling’, Photofile 58, 1999, p30.

[7] A. Ferran, ‘Longer Than Life’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 1, 1, 2000, pp166 -70.

[8] B. Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: 1980 Boyer Lectures, Sydney, Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1980.

[9] B. L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, in Portraits of Oceania, ed. by J. Annear, Sydney, 1997, p9, p14.

[10] J. Phipps, ‘Elegy, Meditation and Retribution’, in Patterns Of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992, np.

[11] L. King-Smith, ‘Statement’, in Patterns of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992, np.

[12] A. Marsh, ‘Leah King-Smith and the Nineteenth Century Archive’, History of Photography, 23, 2, 1999, p117.

[13]. K. Gelder and J. M. Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation, Melbourne University Press, 1998, p42.

[14] P. Read, Haunted Earth, Sydney, University of New South Wales, 2003, p59.

Cardinal Points: The Significance of Visual vectors in Australian landscape Photography

‘Cardinal Points: The significance of visual vectors in Australian Landscape Photography’, Art Gallery of New South Wales photography symposium, 9 April, 2011

For Australia’s landscape photographers of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the acknowledgment of their point of view as photographers suddenly became very important. They all used very different strategies, but their intentions were strongly aligned.

For instance Wesley Stacey, shooting one-handed out of the windows of his Kombi as he freewheeled across Australia, often included his rear vision mirror or his window frame in the shot. And the shots themselves were presented as artefacts, instamatic ‘snaps’ with rounded corners like you’d get from the chemists, simply mounted onto long boards.

Douglas Holleley also travelled across Australia in a kombi, courtesy of the Australian taxpayer on an Australia Council Grant. He packed a quick-shooting Polaroid SX-70 camera as well as Polaroid film for an 8 x 10 view camera. Of course his rigorous grids are much more formalistically structured than Stacey’s deliberately spontaneous compositions, yet they also draw attention to the point of view of the photographer, incorporating what Gael Newton and Robert MacFarlane called a ‘geodesic perspective’, a subjectively imposed geometry to interpret raw nature. Yet Holleley’s geometry, combined with his rich gelatinous chemical pigments and the shifts in focus and angle of view in each segment also created an almost three-dimensional, optically induced, phenomenological environment almost as immersive as Stacey’s hyperactive hippy instamatics. As Newton and McFarlane say; ‘…forms often explod[ing] on the consciousness of the viewer’. (And I remember Douglas demanding that I squint and align my eyes to the separate vanishing points in order to get the full retinal wallop.)

Although using different photographic materials, a sense of the viewer’s direct involvement was often the same objective for every photographer. On his travels across Australia Jon Rhodes took traditional 35mm images. But in his magnificent album Australia he, like Holleley, recommends paying attention to the optical effect on the retina of the a wide-angle, deep focus, and dense assertive grain structure of his images: “I think the best viewing distance for these pictures is at least 10 to 12 inches — the closer the better. Try also looking at them with one eye (instead of two) for most wonderful 3-D effects …”

The viewer’s acting of looking became important for Marion Marrison in her underrated 1979 series Bonnet Hill Bush taken in a patch of suburban scrub near where she lived in Tasmania. Four years before, Marrison had worked on the Australian Conservation Foundation’s documentation of the union Green Bans on various acts of environmental vandalism in Sydney. For that book she photographed Kelly’s Bush, a piece of Sydney Harbour foreshore saved from development, as well as cemtennial Park and the Botanic Gardens. Rather than undertaking epic pilgrimages across Australia, Marrison found a microcosmic Australia literally in her own backyard. And rather than imposing a geometry on it, she finds a geometry within it, visually curating the fallen trunks and branches into an order which registers her own personal point of view, and her own presence as an aesthetic appreciator immersed in the environment — however modestly scaled.

But the most explicit, constructed acknowledgement of ‘point of view’ was in Lyn Silverman’s series Horizons. It was reprinted, along with two short texts written for the photographs by Meaghan Morris in 1980 as: ‘Collecting ground sample and locating them in relation to the horizon from where the were photographed’ and ‘Two types of photography criticism located in relation to Lynn Silverman’s series’ in Art & Text 6 1982. The scientistic vibe of the titles was augmented by an explorer’s map tracing the photographer’s outback journey. On the pages of the journal the bottom row of photographs, each one primly pinned into position by the photographers own hiking boots, was rhymed by an informal text by Morris about Silverman’s photographs; while the top row of photographs, of the distant horizon and sky, was rhymed by a more ‘theoretical’ text by Morris about the role of the desert in Australian culture.

The top text deals with how the urban imagination invests the desert with meaning. The desert is a site for the mythic construction of the ‘real’ Australia, while in contradiction it is also experientially constructed as elusive, self-effacing, boring and repulsive. “The wanderer, artist, tourist who goes there repeats the great itineraries of the predecessors, follows the broken lines on the map of a trap which has already been made. The generalized space of the inland solicits an act of repetition which is always, in the beginning, a rediscovery of the same.” (pp71-72)

The bottom text describes how the photographs reconstruct the viewer’s experience of inland space. They contrast the familiar scan of a generalized horizon with the lingering difference and precision of the exact details of the bushes and stones at the photographer’s/viewer’s feet. “The work then confronts us, not with objective and subjective interpretations of the same space, but with two different ways of manipulating subject-object relationships. One makes myth, the other makes personal statement; one includes us, the other addresses.” (pp67-68) The horizon addresses a universal ‘us’ with an imperial view, while the ground includes us individually into the photographer’s particular place and time. “What remains is a set of tracks. Not the single broken line of the traveler marking progress on a map; but a double line, an exploration of reversibility, the trace of a movement on a strange, still space in which everybody looks at elsewhere, and somebody looked at here.”

The photographs themselves, while shot with a 35mm camera, were developed in the high acutance developer Rodinol, which gives each tiny clump of film grain a distinctly sharp edge, so while not having the simmering granular tactility of Rhodes’ 35mm shots, or the creamy emulsive pigmentation of Holleley’s Polaroids, or the raw instamatic casualness of Stacey’s snaps, they produced their own retinal qualities — a sharp microscopic mesh anchoring the field of vision equally across the entire surface of the photograph.

So, why were these distinct formal and optical strategies used at this time? Because the landscape had long been the neglected poor cousin in Australian photography. While there had been lots happening in fashion photography, street photography, photojournalism, and magazine editorial photography from the 1960s into the 1970s, landscape photography had remained stagnant since the 1950s, cycling through the same formats of the picturesque, the picaresque, the pastoral and the aerial. At the same time however the landscape continued to serve the function it had always served in Australia culture, of being the site where issues of Australian identity were debated. And Australian identity, a perennial hot topic, became even hotter in the 1970s with the political resurgence of the Left; feminism; the resurgence of Aboriginal activism; the impacts of globalization on regional identities; the beginnings of a shift in focus from Europe  and America to Asia; and the beginnings of the modern Green movement with green bans and campaigns to save the wilderness. All of these issues were set against post modern discourses which were

References:

Gael Newton and Robert McFarlane, ‘Introduction’, Visions of Australia, Douglas Holleley, Angus and Robertson, 1980

Marion Marrison and Peter Manning, Green Bans, Australian Conservation Foundation, 1975

Lyn Silverman, ‘Collecting ground sample and locating them in relation to the horizon from where the were photographed’ and Meaghan Morris ‘Two types of photography criticism located in relation to Lynn Silverman’s series’, Art & Text 6, 1982.

Down Turn

‘Downturn’, book foreword to Downturn, 2009. edited by Lee Grant, unpaginated one page ISBN 978-0-646-51556-4

Documentary photography’s prime responsibility is to take the abstract and make it concrete, to put a ‘human face’ to broad historical events, and create from raw actuality something understandable and legible. Documentary photography came into its own and consolidated its central precepts during another global turn down, the Great Depression of the 1930s, when photographers such as Dorothea Lange shot the key icons of the style — emotionally charged images of hapless individuals caught up in global currents they could barely comprehend that tugged at the heartstrings of sympathetic viewers.

Our own global down turn is even more abstract than the Great Depression, which is its only comparator. It has no time for the plangent majesty of the phrase ‘the great depression’, instead it goes by a brisk acronym: the GFC. It started only last year when a chain reaction was suddenly triggered in the interlocking money markets, and it may be even be over by the end of this year. I have hardly felt it effects at all, I haven’t lost my job and in fact the cost of my mortgage has gone down while I have received two refreshing splashes of cash. Yet I know that it has been historically catastrophic in some way or other, because I have seen the jagged red lines plunging downwards again and again, on my TV screen and in my newspaper. And I’m vaguely aware that perhaps it has directly affected people I might know. Perhaps some of my students have found it harder to get shifts at wherever they have to work to pay their way through uni, perhaps the relatives of some of my friends might have lost their jobs, perhaps….

So there is a task here for documentary photography. And there is particularly a task for young documentary photographers. Young people are continually being accused of being disengaged from the world, insulated from social responsibility by the upholstered solipsism of youth. Yet, as they are also being constantly reminded, it is they who will inherit and have to solve the seemingly intractable problems we have created for them.

How then, do they respond to the assignment of documenting the GFC? Each in their own individual way, of course. But some themes do emerge. For instance there is a persistent concern with stuff — the end residue of that urgent impulse to consume that drives the modern economy. Why do we need all this stuff, what are we going to do with it, what does it look like? And notice how it hangs around even after we ourselves have gone and have no use for it. Another visual trope is the threshold, the spatial barrier of the gate or the fence that either separates people or forces them together. Fences, gates and walls define spaces, and many photographers in this book are sensitive to the nuances of space — both the social space of the street and the private space of the home. Those spaces are where people are forced to live together, and with economic down-turns edges get sharper and surfaces get rawer as people rub up against each other. So we have the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ studiously ignoring each other on the street an in other public spaces, while developers continue to push the suburbs out further and further by building individual houses separated from each other by darkness. Meanwhile within those houses people continue to just about manage their lives in congested and claustrophobic rooms.

Having seen these photographs I now feel I know just a little bit more about the great economic downturn of our time.

Martyn Jolly

Head, Photography and Media Arts

ANU School of Art