Counter morphologies of the male body in Australian photography

‘Sorely Tried Men: The male body in Australian photography’

paper delivered at the Art Gallery of New South Wales photography symposium, 27 July, 2013.

Powerpoint accompaniment:

Counter morphologies of the male body

Powerpoint gallery:

I love ANZAC biscuits. I usually make my own, but when I was in Woden Woolies last April I couldn’t resist buying this tin of ‘limited edition’ pre-made biscuits. The tin would be so handy, I thought, I could put my own biscuits in there; and it was so handsome, adorned with a photograph of a tower of soldiers, stripped to the waist and embossed into the lid. It’s a long journey from the Borneo of 1945 to the shelves of Woolies in 2013, but these men had taken it, and I couldn’t help thinking it was the nature of their bodies which had sent this photograph on its way.

Almost seventy years later, the male body remains central to our culture: from the affectless cyborg of the blue-tied corporate type, to our future Prime Minister in red speedos, to the blurred body of the drunken footballer caught on CCTV. But it has long been argued by historians of Australia’s visual culture that it is the modernist male body, epitomized by the ANZAC Soldier on my biscuit tin lid, against which all these variants are now defined.

The interwar period, from the 1920s to the 1940s was crucial in creating the template of the nationalistic Australian body, both male and female. The best analysis of the construction of the male body in photography during this time is Isobel Crombie’s wide-ranging analysis of Max Dupain’s photography in her important book Body Culture. In this period the national body of Australia as a whole and the individual bodies of each Australian were seen as one. Australia, it was claimed, was becoming not only a sovereign nation within the British Empire, but also a distinct race. The race was Anglo-Saxon, and was defining itself by both looking into the past, and into the future. The emergent Australian type could be recognized when it seemed to conform to either ancient classical ideals, the Apollonian upright ‘noble’ figure, or modern streamlined forms, made pneumatic with sexual energy. During this period metaphors of health, vitalism, purity and fitness, along with their opposites — contagion, vitiation, pollution and degeneracy — constructed the body at three interpenetrating levels, the physical level of individual bodies, the national level of the Australian race, and the spiritual level of human connectedness with larger life forces.

At the background of all these metaphors were strong currents of social Darwinism, which threw up two specific sciences: eugenics, the deliberate selection for breeding of the fittest and purest part of the population in order to aid the evolutionary advancement of the race; and anthropometrics, the diagnostic measurement of the human body. Because their simultaneous popularity with the Nazi regime in Germany made them suddenly and deeply unfashionable with the onset of World War Two and the Holocaust, it is easy to forget how pervasively popular and mainstream these sciences were in the interwar period. But popular they were: for example suburban surf carnivals mimicked militaristic displays of standardized ideal racial types, and in1926 the corsetry company Berlei in collaboration with physiologists from the University of Sydney undertook an anthropometric study of 6,000 Australian women, some of whom were measured at a special tent erected at Bondi Beach. Termed the National Census of Women’s Measurements it analysed twenty-three different measurements from each woman, which led to the development of the Berlei ‘five Australian figure type’ classification scheme and the ‘figure type indicator’ which was sent out to retailers who would take the customer’s exact measurements and then use them to classify the woman’s figure type for corset selection. As Sue Best has pointed out, the average type was not a statistical average at all, but was a physiologically arbitrary ideal which most Australian women would necessarily fail to live up to.

In the interwar period bodies were things to be sculpted — carved by the ocean, or re-moulded by new corsetry technologies. Bodies were generally seen as moving along one main vertical axis, from degeneracy to regeneracy. The type of body at the top of this axis, the Apollonian body, was most often what was pictured. There are far fewer pictorial examples of the bottom, degenerate end. Crombie illustrates two in her book. She reproduces two 1939 images by Dr Julian Smith from his Pictorialist ‘character studies’: The Blonde, by implication an Aryan type at the top of the racial axis, and ‘Leaf Music’, where the hapless sitter has had his hair styled and has been lit and posed by Smith to imply that he is at the bottom of the axis. The other illustration of degeneracy is A. O. Neville’s well-known and chilling illustration Three Generations, where a happy family portrait is turned into a eugenically genocidal prophecy for Australia.

So far so familiar. I don’t think anything I have said so far would be news to any one here. So I want to spend some time adding some small tangents to this vertical Apollonian axis, specifically in relation to the male body. The force of the ideal male body is upward and outward, a vertical pressure of racial vitality funneled by a tight column of torso muscle and tightly sheathed in a smooth membrane of tanned skin. At its most extreme it is a pneumatic phallus. But even during WW11, just a few years after the classic Modernist photographs of the 1930s, this norm was given surprising new meanings which showed how wobbly the Apollonian axis was.

From 1942 the Civil Construction Core conscripted men between the ages of 35 and 55, who were otherwise ineligible for military service, to work on large building projects in northern and interior Australia. However they quickly began to attract adverse publicity. There was industrial unrest on many projects with workers accusing the management of inefficiency and rorting, and management accusing the workers of unpatriotic union activity. Against this background the Department of Information sent the photographer Edward Cranstone to all the CCC projects. His photographs were published in everything from the communist newspaper the Tribune to the Women’s Weekly, and were eventually formed into a large exhibition, which also included paintings of CCC workers by Dobell and other artists, that toured capital cities in 1944.

As a member of the Communist Party of Australia Cranstone was exposed to a rich source of propagandistic imagery. Soviet socialist photographs were regularly published in the Tribune, and their influence can be clearly seen in Cranstone’s Modernist visual rhetoric — his use of upward looking camera angles, strong diagonal compositions, bright sunlit forms and heroic poses. As one article reviewing the exhibition stated:

The Australian worker—bareheaded, steady-eyed, stripped to the waist—is the dusty, sweating keynote to a display [….] It would be surprising if most people did not take away a warm impression of that typical Australian, stripped to the waist, working on untouched land, levelling it, digging into it or building up from it. In a real immediate way, the show tells the story of how Australia—the country itself— has gone to war.

Cranstone’s men are heroic soldier/worker/pioneer hybrids. The battle they fight is in the industrial workplace and on the colonial frontier. Cranstone has to strive very hard to fit his workers, which were by definition not Australia’s finest, into the Apollonian type. In some images skin is pumped out by muscle, sheened by sweat, and ribboned by shadow as the men vigorously swing crowbars and work machinery, however in other images the visual rhetoric seems too extreme for the men’s actual bodies to live up to.

This may have been what led some commentators to react against their overt visual rhetoric and mechano-machismo, which had been clearly imported from elsewhere and applied externally to their subjects. In Canberra the exhibition was displayed hidden away in the basement of Parliament House rather than in the usual exhibition space of Kings Hall. The Speaker of the House, complaining about the Modernist paintings of William Dobell with their thick fleshy strings of paint, claimed that the show ‘was a grave reflection on the manhood of Australia generally, and particularly the fine types who have discharged essential duties during a critical period in Australia’s history.’ He added, in reference to Cranstone’s brand of photographic Modernism, that a ‘photograph allegedly taken in a quarry made me feel that I was in Dartmoor [Gaol].’ In using an internationalist visual rhetoric to rehabilitate the Australian worker Cranstone had stretched the Apollonian model to breaking point.

Damien Parer was also employed by the DoI, but as a war cameraman. The footage he shot in New Guinea was supplied to newsreel companies to be cut into their weekly newsreels. Parer’s most famous newsreel, Cinesound’s Kokoda Frontline, was essentially a collaboration between himself and the head of Cinesound Ken Hall. Damien Parer appeared as the ‘star’ to introduce the newsreel. After some titles telling us that Parer has already been responsible for some of the ‘classic footage’ of the War and that he is a reliable witness, Kokoda Frontline opens on Parer, in his uniform, in an empty domestic room, leaning casually against a table. The camera slowly moves in on his handsome face as he speaks directly to the camera, attempting to explain to his audience how close the war is:

I’ve seen the war, and I know what your husbands, your sweethearts and brothers are going through.

After this introduction the film cuts to some spectacular combat footage, but most important to the film are the intimate close-ups of the soldiers in retreat down the Kokoda Track with which the film ends. The soldiers either pass in slow procession past the camera, or compose themselves into tableaus as they have their bandages tenderly applied by their mates, or their cigarettes lit. Cut into these sequences are extended close-up shots of the faces of native bearers and Australian soldiers which act as still portraits of various emotions. The hortatory voice over commentary during these scenes contrasts with Parer’s tender pain, but it re-emphasises the theme he established:

This is war, the real thing. The utter weariness of sorely tried men is evident in their faces. […]Half the distance from Sydney to Melbourne men are sweating, suffering, dying in that jungle so that it cannot happen here. Are they getting all the support they deserve, from the mines, from the factories, from the ordinary civilian? […]

In the final seconds Parer’s soft face of concern returns, angelically superimposed over shots of the feet of the soldiers pushing down through mud. He repeats, but now in ghostly tones:

I’ve seen the war, and I know what your husbands, your sweethearts and brothers are going through.

The soldiers in Parer’s films are very different to Cranstone’s workers. The frontline on which they fight is not the domesticated colonial frontier of the purifying, astringent desert, but the dark uncannily wet tunnels of a jungle beyond the borders of Australia. The men are not assertively doing, but passively suffering. Parer’s soldiers are sick, bleeding and blinded. They rely on the tenderness of comrades or natives to survive. Their feet slip through mud as they lean on sticks or each other. They are not symbolic nationalist cyphers like Cranstone’s men, they are individuals, suffering psychological, as well as physical privations on our personal behalf. Parer was a devout Catholic and many have seen spiritual and religious connotations in his work. Many historians have linked Paper’s Catholicism to the composition of one of the final shots of Salvation Army Major Albert Moore lighting a cigarette for a wounded soldier, which is similar to a medieval or renaissance Deposition of Christ painting. The religious analogy is strengthened by the fact that the soldier is naked, covered from the waist down by an army blanket

Through their suffering these men will lead us to redemption. We, the audience of Parer’s newsreels, are feminised: we are wives, mothers or sisters who weakly complain at home and don’t acknowledge the danger from overseas. We see with our own eyes that our delusion and triviality has personally dispirited Parer, when he arrived back he was ‘full of beans’ with ‘the spirit of the troops’ but now he has experienced our complacency, he is worried and upset, his voice drops, and his face tightens.

There is abjection here too, not the auto-phallicisation of man and machine as in the CCC, but a polymorphous blending of mate into mate and man into mud. Australians would have easily recognised this abjection as already part of the ANZAC myth, Australian men similarly suffered together on the beaches of Gallipoli or in the trenches of France.

Parer’s trinity of ‘mother, wives and sisters’ are always present whenever the sacrifice of soldiers is evoked been evoked. For instance the sculptural centrepiece for the memorial which Sydney had built for its WW1 ANZACs was Rayner Hoff’s Sacrifice 1934, in which a symbolic Australian mother, wife and sister hold aloft a lithe, cleansed and perfect male body crucified on a sword, successfully borne up out of the miasma of battle and into a transcendent erotic masculinity. However in Kokoda Frontline Parer is sadly compelled to inform the women of WW11 Australia that, unlike these women, they have abandoned their soldiers to an abject eroticism.

The newsreel’s powerful message is that, in the darkest hour of the War, while their women are still enthralled by false images and trivial concerns, it is up to desperately abjected soldiers, redeemed by the spiritually defined eroticism of mateship, to defend Australia. In contrast to Parer’s psychologically specific homo-eroticism, Cranstone’s internationally symbolic, stylised auto-eroticism attempted, not always successfully, to redeem the home front labours of another potentially unstable category of Australian male — the worker.

Whilst these two types of male body were produced at a particular extraordinary juncture of Australian history and culture I cannot resist the temptation to extrapolate them into later manifestations. The obvious place to look is not the battlefield but the sporting field. In 1963 the Fairfax photographer John O’Gready photographed two captains coming off the field after the Rugby League Grand Final. The coating of mud turned the footballers into bronze statues, while also referring to the battlefield mud of World Wars One and Two, where sublime mateship was forged in abjecting slime. In 1982 the cigarette company Winfield used the photograph for their Grand Final trophy. The enveloping of the Apollonian body within the abject still pervades contemporary sports photography. Many photographs, particularly around the State of Origin games, reprise the abjecting mud and eroticizing intimacy of war, as well as extreme pneumatic auto-phallicization.

If, back in the interwar period, the abject and the rhetorical complicated the simple Apollonian narrative of the supposed Australian race, revealing it as nothing more than a portable nationalistic rhetoric, in the case of Cranstone; or one which could be quickly supplanted by other models of masculinity in extremis — the abject and feminized, in the case of Parer, where there other forces also at work? The Berlei corsetry company had identified five different types of Australian female bodies, were there other types of male body? Two comedians dominated the Australian vaudeville scene in the interwar period. One, Roy Rene, was a slump-shouldered Semitic type in heavy make-up who slyly simpered lewd double-entendres. The other, George Wallace, played a naively optimistic, child-like, working class, everyman character. Wallace had a low-slung body, short legs, and a stomach hanging over his belt, which was a direct contradiction to the upward torso-led thrust of the Apollonian body.

Wallace’s low centre of gravity was perhaps a nascent beer-gut, and the beer grew to become more important in Australian culture as the decades progressed. In the compilation Australian Photography of 1947 virtually all of the bodies are Apollonian, however ten years later, in Australian Photography of 1957, there is a whole double paged spread devoted to humorous or pathetic images of fat people. In another ten years, in the extremely important book Southern Exposure, by David Beal and Donald Horne, the beer gut makes it to the front cover, as a national trope of self indulgence, which is contrasted with an image of interior aridity on the back cover. By then the beer gut had become a perverse image of Australianness, for instance in a 1961 a Tanner cartoon connected it to conservative older generations standing in the way of women’s progress, an opposition homage in 1993 in a Nicholson cartoon where the beer gut was directly contrasted to the proudly black Apollonian body of the indigenous footballer Nicky Winmar. In a further ten years after Southern Exposure the beer gut, which had been used by the young firebrands Horne and Beal to indict Australia, had been adopted by the Australian Government in their national fitness campaign Life Be In It, attached to the archetypally unfit, but loveable Australian — Norm. Lately, however there have been signs of a the beer gut coming in a complete cycle, with men reclaiming their beer guts as an ironic part of a new metropolitan, feminized, masculinity.

In conclusion it is clear that the Apollonian axis, identified by so many historians, is still the dominant one, but it is not the only one, the male body is more complex that that, and has taken up many different morphologies throughout its history from the high points of Modernity, until now.

H.P. Brown,(Commissioner) Inquiry under the National Security Regulations into certain allegations concerning the administration of the Allied Works Council   5 March 1943.

K.K. ‘Australia Portrayed Stripped to the Waist’ Melbourne Herald 3 August 1944, p5.

Massey Stanley ‘Art Critic’ Sunday Telegraph 24 September 1944, p10.

Neil McDonald War Cameraman: The Story of Damien Parer, Lothian 1994, pp157-158.

Leigh Astbury ‘Death and eroticism in the ANZAC Legend’ Art and Australia Spring 1992 Vol 30 No 1, pp68-73.




Networking the Tradition: Curating Photography in Australia


Vol. 95, Spring/Summer, pp48-55.

(with Daniel Palmer)

Australia’s big galleries and libraries have been seriously buying and curating photographs for over forty years now, during a period when the medium itself has undergone profound transformations. It’s time now to take an overview of the interaction between the institutional imperatives of our state and national collecting institutions and the changes in photography as a medium.

Although the institutional curating of photography did not begin in earnest until the 1970s, in the five or so decades before then the powerful idea of collecting photographs was intermittently discussed, at various levels of institutional authority, and with various degrees of vigour. For instance, at the end of the First World War, the amateur photographic magazine the Australasian Photo Review called for a ‘national collection of Australian photographic records’. The Mitchell Library was one of several institutions who responded positively to this idea, even suggesting a list of twelve different categories of photographs which amateurs could take for a future repository. However the librarians did not follow through on their initial positive noises and collections failed to materialise.

Thirty years later, at the end of the Second World War, the idea of a national collection was raised again. Laurence le Guay, the editor of the new magazine Contemporary Photography, devoted an entire issue to new sharp bromide enlargements Harold Cazneaux made from his Pictorialist negatives of Old Sydney, and declared that they ‘would be a valuable acquisition for the Mitchell Library or Australian Historical Societies.’ However, once more the library failed to follow through, and Cazneaux’s photographs remained uncollected.

Nevertheless, the interest in photography as an Australian tradition and the persuasiveness of the idea of significant public collections of historic photographs continued to build. By the 1960s both libraries and state galleries were beginning to make serious policy commitments to collecting photographs. The aims were to both collect photographs as documents of Australian life, and to record the importance of photography as a visual medium. For instance, the National Librarian of Australia, Harold White, began to work with Keast Burke who in 1956 had proposed a two tier national collection: one part to be purely about the information which photographs contained, and assembled by microfilming records and copying images in the library’s own darkrooms; the other part to be about the medium itself, made up of ‘artistic salon photographs’ and historic cameras.

The National Gallery of Victoria, under Director Eric Westbrook, became the first state gallery to collect photography. Despite forthright opposition from some members (one of whom referred to photography as “cheat’s way of doing a painting”), the Trustees approve the establishment of Department of Photography in 1967.[ii] The first work to enter the collection – David Moore’s documentary photograph Surry Hills Street (1948) – was acquired through a grant from Kodak. In the same year the NGV imported The Photographer’s Eye, a touring exhibition from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which had been the first art museum to establish a Department of Photography in 1940.[iii] The exhibition was curated by MoMA’s John Szarkowski, undoubtedly the most influential photography curator of the second half of the twentieth century, as a statement of his formalist position on photographic aesthetics. Its title was adapted for a local version, The Perceptive Eye (1969–1970).

By 1973 the yet-to-be-opened National Gallery of Australia had purchased its first photograph, an artistic confection by Mark Strizic (Jolimont Railway Yards, 1970) that looked more like a print than a photograph. Two years later the AGNSW was laying the foundation for its collection with the acquisition, exhibition and book on the early twentieth century photographs of Harold Cazneaux, collected by them as fine-art Pictorialist prints, rather than as the sharp bromide enlargements that had been published by Contemporary Photography in 1948.

In this period the dual nature of the photograph as both a carrier of historical and social information, and an aesthetic art object and exemplar of a tradition, which had co-existed within the formulations of the previous decades, was finally separated between libraries and galleries. Library collecting focused on the photograph as a document of Australian life. For example in 1971 the National Library of Australia clarified its collection policy: it would only collect photographs as examples of photographic art and technique from the period up to 1960, leaving post-1960s ‘art for art’s sake’ photography to the new state and federal gallery photography departments.[iv]

The stage was set for the much-vaunted ‘Photo Boom’ of the 1970s, when, as Helen Ennis has pointed out, the baby boomer generation turned to photography for its contemporaneity in the context of a counter-cultural energy.[v] Galleries and libraries found themselves embedded in the newly constructed infrastructure of the Whitlam era: the newly established Australia Council, rapidly expanding tertiary courses in photography, new magazines and commercial galleries, and the establishment of the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney in 1974.

In this context the need to define photography as both a tradition and a new language became more urgent. Such initiatives were largely driven by photographers themselves, whose leading figures made themselves aware of what was happening internationally. Thus Athol Shmith, a key member of the NGV Advisory Committee set up in the late 1960s, corresponded and travelled regularly to Europe. David Moore, one of the key figures in the establishment of the ACP, was familiar with plans for the International Centre for Photography in New York. The first director of the ACP, Graham Howe, was brought back from a stint at the London Photographers’ Gallery. Developments were typically framed around a broadly didactic mission: that photography is central to visual culture but ‘the public needs educating’ in the art of photographic seeing. In addition, the longed-for acknowledgement from overseas materialised in the form of John Szarkowski himself, who was invited on a ‘papal’ tour by the ACP in 1974. Szarkowski gave six public lectures titled “Towards a Photographic Tradition’ (recently recounted in Photofile Vol 93). The purpose of the national tour, as Howe put it at the time, “was to liberate photography from the world of technique and commerce and to suggest that it could also be of absorbing artistic and intellectual interest.”[vi]

Although Szarkowski’s approach was put under sustained stress during the period of postmodernism – especially by feminist critics – his ‘formalist’ approach to the medium continued to dominate the way that photography was understood in the art museum for the ensuing decades. Even as the discourse emerged of an Australian tradition with, for instance, the NGV’s investment in Australian documentary photographers in the late sixties, this became embedded in a model of Euro-American modernism. As Ennis put it, “The argument for ‘photography as art’ was based on the critical position of Modernism. Photography was considered to be a medium with its own intrinsic characteristics”.[vii] At the AGNSW Gael Newton deployed a clear art historical teleology, with the acquisition of Pictorialist photography by Harold Cazneaux and other members of the Sydney Camera Circle forming the foundation for the collection. Pictorialism was important to Newton because it was a: ‘conscious movement, aimed at using the camera more creatively’[viii] Her exhibitions of Harold Cazneaux and Australian Pictorial Photography in 1975 closely followed by a monograph on Max Dupain in 1980, seen as the modernist successor to the Pictorialists. However, the galleries also engaged with the contemporary art photography of the graduates from the new art schools, as well as emerging postmodern ideas. For instance the title of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ 1981 exhibition Reconstructed Vision defined this new style of work against, but within the overall trajectory of, the newly established historical traditions.

In Melbourne a slightly different but equivalent art historical strategy was taking place within the institution of the NGV. This included the mass importation of canonical images from overseas. For instance, shortly after her appointment, the NGV’s inaugural curator (and first ever curator of photography in Australia), Jennie Boddington, ordered Farm Security Administration re-prints from the Library of Congress’s reproduction service. However at the same time the NGV also held solo exhibitions by the young, art school-trained artists Carol Jerrems in 1973 and Bill Henson in 1975.[ix]

While galleries were using art historical strategies to embed photography within their structures, libraries were also confirming their commitment to photography, but as a non aesthetic-object based, content-driven, curatorial strategy. The contemporary cultural relevance of the subjectivist photo boom of the seventies, combined with Modernist and Postmodernist teleologies, drove the aesthetic strategies of galleries, but the nationalistic socially cohesive agendas of events like the 1988 Bicentenary drove the content-based strategies of library photo collecting. In a forerunner to today’s participatory online photographic projects, in 1983 Euan McGillivray and Matthew Nickson proposed a snapshot collecting project, Australia as Australians Saw It, which would copy photographs in the possession of individuals, then index them and make them accessible through the latest technology. During the Bicentenary year Alan Davies, curator at the State Library of New South Wales, travelled to twenty-three country towns and copied about seven thousand vernacular photographs from 576 individuals. Under the title At Work and Play, they were made accessible by a videodisc keyword search (a forerunner to today’s digital database).

Fast forward to the present. Over the intervening 40 years, since the establishment of various departments and the ACP, the boundaries of photography have expanded. However, galleries have largely kept to the historical trajectories inaugurated in the 1970s. In the 1980s, photographic reproductive processes became central to postmodern art, which had the flow-on effect of boosting photography’s place in the art museum (Tracey Moffatt, Bill Henson, Anne Zahalka, etc.). But postmodernism did not fundamentally alter the increasing focus of departments of photography on ‘art photography’. Indeed, as many writers have observed, the wholesale acceptance of photography as art by the institutions and market occurred precisely at the moment of the critique of art photography, as it had been defined within the ‘formalist’ tradition, by artists and postmodern critics.

Photography’s potential as a protean medium to disturb or at least promote a dialogue between institutional disciplines and ordering systems has only rarely been explored by curators. Perhaps the most notable is the disruptive placement of contemporary Indigenous work, like Brook Andrew’s Sexy and Dangerous (1996) – which appropriates an image by the Charles Kerry photography studio – within galleries of nineteenth-century colonial painting at the NGV. Into the 1990s and 2000s, departments of photography essentially continued a monographic and consolidation phase, aided by the international prominence of large-scale colour photography as art, such as the Düsseldorf School (including photographers such as Andreas Gursky), or what Julian Stallabrass dubs “museum photography”.[x]. Meanwhile, we have seen the ongoing integration of photography as part of interdisciplinary art practice which may also include sculpture, performance or installation (sometimes dubbed the ‘post-medium condition’). Simultaneously, we have witnessed the rise of digital photography, which has produced a whole new generation of photographers using online photosharing services like Flickr and Instagram, whose effects are much more widely felt outside the museum. In response to these complex historical changes libraries have invested institutional effort into digitizing their image collections and making them available online, while art museums have embraced photography’s status as an object to be experienced in the flesh, hung in exhibition galleries.

If the primary aim of photography curating in the 1970s was to establish photography as art, this has clearly been achieved. Photography is ubiquitous within contemporary art, but not as an autonomous tradition – rather as a mode integrated within wider practices. And if the now forty-year old institutional structures are still largely with us, if museums continue to have departments, curators and galleries of photography, this is largely for the history of photography, for the knowledge of specific collections and conservation techniques. However, even if photography is now deeply embedded in the art museum, its precise role is still up for grabs. For instance, in 2013 the dedicated photography gallery at the NGV International was given up without any controversy (along with prints and drawings). In the early 1970s, photography enthusiasts had fought for a dedicated area, even just a corridor outside the Department of Prints and Drawings in 1972.[xi]Recently, in a delicious irony, the former photography space was occupied by Patrick Pound’s installation The Gallery of Air (2013) – which the wall label described as a poetic “site specific installation comprising 91 works from the collection of the NGV and 286 works from the collection of the artist” organized around the idea of air. Pound’s work included a wide variety of media in its playful exploration of collecting (both personal and institutional), but its inspiration lay in photography’s role as an ordering system. Various inclusions (such as Man With a Tie) were included in a previous work of found photographs, Portrait of the Wind (2010).

Clearly, museum departments can no longer work in isolation. However, what the mere integration of photography into the newly contemporary art museum all too easily elides is that photography’s place there has always been unstable, its ambiguous status as object and information continually threatening the grounds of the art museum’s hierarchies and collection policies. This instability manifests itself in different ways in different periods, but as we have already hinted at, one of the underlying themes in photography in the museum is the constant exclusion of the vernacular and of reproducibility itself. As Douglas Crimp argued in the late 1970s, the inclusion of photography within the canon of modernist art practice, by its own logic, excludes photography as reproduction.[xii] We have seen this in Australia in relation to the location of photography between the library and the art museum, in terms of a split between information and aesthetics, a documentary database versus an aesthetic object. Photography’s recent insertion into digital networks reveals these tensions yet again, in a new guise. Within a modernist logic, the networked digital image, circulating as reproducible information, is guaranteed to be excluded. The potential for different kinds of photography in the art museum goes largely unnoticed.

It could be argued that similar issues are faced by other Departments such as Painting, in the ‘post-medium’ age. And indeed that the sway of the MoMA Photography Department could be compared to the influence of the massively influential travelling show Two Decade of American Painting in 1967. However, we argue that the protean and unstable nature of the medium of photography makes its placement more problematic. As a result, within the rapidly growing discourse of curating contemporary art, we argue that more attention needs to be paid to the specific situation of photography and the history of photography exhibitions. This is not to regress into conventional medium specificity. It is simply to acknowledge that photography’s multiple, democratic and ambiguous presence as image and object within our culture complicates its place in the art gallery. Photography as a creative art has a more or less integrated tradition that we can and should continue to value because it drives further developments. But we should simultaneously recognize that this tradition is based on a series of exclusions, and addressing these exclusion can also energize the medium. As Peter Galassi once put it, the tradition is both indispensable and inadequate.

In identifying the future potential of photography in the art gallery, perhaps we can learn from the popularity of ‘metaphotographers’ such as Patrick Pound, working with the (always incomplete) archive.. Furthermore, if curators are engaged in creating innovative contexts for public engagement, networked photography opens up new possibilities for this to happen. We are not arguing that the art gallery ought to emulate the hyper-linked experience of the Internet, or the swipe-based logic of mobile media. However, we are proposing that authoritarian presentations of a connoisseurial canon need to become part of a larger project: exploring photography’s protean nature as a medium and its potential to complicate spectatorship and activate audiences in new ways.

Daniel Palmer & Martyn Jolly

[i] This essay derives from early research into the various forces currently influencing photography curating in Australian art galleries, funded in the first instance by an Australian Council grant.

[ii] Isobel Crombie and Susan van Wyk, 2nd sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2002), 7.

[iii] Founded in 1929, MoMA presented its first photography exhibition in 1937 (the major Beaumont Newhall exhibition on the history of photography in 1938–1937). MoMA held their first one-person exhibition, by Walker Evans, in 1938, and established their Department of Photography in 1940, then the only one in any art museum.

[iv] Helen Ennis, ‘Integral to the Vision: A National Photographic Collection’ in Peter Cochrane (ed.), Remarkable Occurrences: The National Library’s First 100 Years (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2010), 210

[v] See Helen Ennis, ‘Contemporary Photographic Practices’ in Gael Newton, Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839–1988 (Canberra : Australian National Gallery, 1988), 134.

[vi] Graham Howe, ‘The Szarkowski Lectures, Art & Australia, July–September , 1974, 89.

[vii] Ennis, ‘Contemporary Photographic Practices’, 136.

[viii] Gael Newton, Silver and Grey: Fifty Years of Australian Photography 1900-1950 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1980), np

[ix] In Canberra the National Gallery not only purchased photographs from young art-school trained Australian photographers through the largesse of the Phillip Morris Arts Grant, but also, in 1980, before it even opened, gained Ministerial approval to spend $150,000 for the Ansel Adams Museum Set from an American gallery.

[x] Julian Stallabrass, ‘Museum Photography and Museum Prose’, New Left Review, no. 65, September-October 2010, 93–125.

[xi] Crombie and van Wyk, 2nd sight, 10

[xii] Douglas Crimp, ‘The Museum’s Old/The Library’s New Subject’ in Richard Bolton, ed., The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1989), pp. 3-13. See also Andrew Dewdney, ‘Curating the Photographic Image in Networked Culture’ in Martin Lister, ed., The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, Second edition (London: Routledge, 2013), 95–112.

Catalogue Essay: The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg

The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg

Australian Centre for Photography

Essay by Martyn Jolly, Cherine Fahd, Suzanne Buljan

Full catalogue below


It is often said that it was the painters who invented Photography (by bequeathing it their framing, the Albertian perspective, and the optic of the camera obscura). I say: no, it was the chemists. For the noeme “That-has-been” was possible only on the day when a scientific circumstance (the discovery that silver halogens were sensitive to light) made it possible to recover and print directly the luminous rays emitted by a variously lighted object. The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. Roland Barthes. [1]

Photographs are both pictures of things and emanations from things. Over the last twenty years all the buzz has been on the ‘picturing’ side of photography: we are astounded by the latest estimate of the astronomical number of smartphone images uploaded to the internet every second, we are shocked by the latest sickening images tweeted from a violent war zone, we are awed by the majestic detail in the latest mural photograph mounted behind pristine acrylic in an art museum, and we are habituated to the sleek look of digital images — either Photoshopped into high-dynamic-range conformity or with one selection from a convenient menu of retro Instagram-filters laid on top.

But lately a global movement of artists has been building around the world, not so much interested in the medium as the endless iteration of separately framed scenes, but rather fascinated by it as an ongoing process of chemical and visual becoming. The works they are producing are not photographs of things, they are photographs as things. In various ways these photographers are directly re-approaching the core power of photography — the touching of time and light.

This core power was present at the medium’s birth. Many of William Henry Fox Talbot’s first images in the 1840s were photograms — of lace or leaves laid directly on salted paper in the sun — so that object physically touched the resultant image. Photograms went on to become a staple of high modernism in the 1920s and 30s, with photographers such as Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray and Max Dupain producing a ‘new vision’ out of pure light. To the modernists these darkroom impressions were a future orientated extension of the technical capacity of new photographic technology; but to subsequent photographers, photograms and other images of their ilk became a way of bypassing the whole corporate apparatus of photography and getting back to the elemental forces of nature itself.

After the rise of industrially manufactured amateur photography in the 1890s, signaled by the invention of the Kodak, Pictorialists began to make their own emulsions in gum-bichromate, or produce ink impressions in bromoil transfer, to declare their independence from the emerging mass photography, and their allegiance to fine art. In the 1970s, handmade emulsion and photograms returned to art schools, which were beginning to teach fine-art photography alongside other media such as printmaking. Courses in so-called ‘alternative techniques’, along with their accompanying ‘darkroom cookbooks’, became very popular.[2] Similarly, pinhole cameras and the construction of camera obscuras have been integral to thousands of introductory photography courses around the world for decades. And, in the 1990s in the immediate wake of the digital revolution, ‘post-photographers’ such as Adam Fuss used pinhole cameras, photograms and other ‘obsolete’ processes to stage spectacular conceptual deconstructions of the transforming medium.

But in the last ten years these longstanding and historically disparate tendencies have combined with new energy and conceptual force. Not only have a thousand instructional YouTube videos from enthusiasts around the world replaced the darkroom cookbooks of old, but more photographers are more seriously exploring the fundamentals of the medium. Many of the artists in the The Alchemists had their initial student training in digital photography, but felt a curiosity for learning about ‘analogue’ photography that replaced the dry, precise, virtual environment of the computer screen with the liminal and wet laboratory-place of the darkroom. This discovery of the darkroom was paralleled by the discovery of vintage cameras and retro processes, not only by art school trained photographers, but by amateur photographers as well, who were able to buy Lomo cameras and refurbished Polaroid cameras from museum gift shops, or Sunprint cyanotype kits from craft stores.

What is ‘new’ about this photography is that: images are magically produced by the simple optical fact of the camera obscura, rather than the factory manufactured equipment of the camera; the photographic print is treated not as neutral screen for the image, but as a physical object layered with light sensitive halides and dyes — potential eruptions of colour waiting to be revealed; hand-made emulsions, such as collodion which is freighted with a hundred and fifty years of historical association because it was used for nineteenth century ambrotypes, tintypes and wet-plate negatives, are used in modern large-format cameras; and photographers continue to find enormous wells of inspiration in the photogram, where three-dimensional objects and two-dimensional images meet and mingle in cradles of light.

This is not just a nostalgic retreat to the past, a hipster reinvention of the outmoded, or a retro fad. Nor is it part of some redundant ‘debate’ between the lost ‘purity’ of the analogue in the face of the encroaching contamination of the ‘digital’. Rather it is a discovery of another mode of making — a slower making, a more curious making, and a making which looks, in the words of one young artist, ‘simultaneously backwards and forward.’[3]

A series of exhibitions and books from London, New York and Los Angeles have already showcased these artists internationally.[4] But, what is happening in Australia and our region? Recently there have been several thoughtful attempts to address the Australianness of Australian photography. While taking different approaches, two books, The Photograph and Australia[5], and Photography and Australia[6], both identify the relatively recent — compared to the US, for instance ‑— colonization of the continent and displacement of its indigenous inhabitants as crucial to our photography. While Australian photography is obdurately oriented to people and land, every realistic portrait and landscape remains nonetheless marked in some way by the ambiguities and complexities of colonization. As Helen Ennis suggests:

These [significant local] differences [of photography in Australia] stem from one inescapable historical reality: photography in Australia is not simply a product of the modern era, but is tied inextricably to the imperialist and colonialist underpinnings of modernity. This distinguishes Australian photographic practice from its counterparts in Great Britain and various European countries, aligning it in crucial ways with that of other colonized countries such as India, Indonesia and New Zealand instead. Of primary importance therefore is the interaction between Indigenous and settler Australians. This has given rise to some of the most potent images in Australian visual culture.[7]

All of the works in The Alchemists are driven by joy and pleasure: the joy of seeing the fundamentals of optics and chemistry magically manifest themselves; and the pleasure of being the one to ride the unleashed processes of transmission, projection, refraction, filtration, sensitization, exposure, impression, reaction, absorption, precipitation, development and fixation to the unknown destination of a material outcome. But at the same time every artist, to varying degrees, attempts to use that joy and pleasure to engage with some other aspect of Australia, New Zealand, or Asia, not to ‘take a picture’ of it, but to materially and critically participate in it.

As one example amongst many, we could cite the oldest work in the exhibition, Catherine Rogers’ The Nature of Evidence, from 1986. This work was an interrogation of the dodgy forensic evidence and popular witch hunt which eventually led to the conviction of Lindy Chamberlain for the murder of her baby Azaria at Uluru, rather than accepting that a dingo had taken it as she claimed. (The trial took place in a media frenzy that mobilized many Australian anxieties about living in a recently colonized country.) Through the bleeding of developer over darkroom projections of multiple negatives, as well as photograms of significant objects such as scissors, the works directly participated in the same ‘aesthetics of the forensic’ that had convinced the jury to wrongly convict Chamberlain in the first place. As Helen Grace identified at the time:

In The Nature of Evidence, each of the frames of counter-evidence [] interrogates both the ‘official story’ of the Chamberlain case and the ‘official story’ of photography itself, since the techniques of photography (at the level of the image rather than the camera) are laid bare.[8]

Like Rogers, other artists in this exhibition also unite various photographic processes with various political, historical, personal, and environmental processes. For example, collodion emulsion and daguerreotypes, literally the stuff of colonial photography, are used by contemporary Australian and New Zealand photographers, some of whom have indigenous heritage, with powerfully ironic results. In these works the past is not just re-enacted, but also, in a sense, optically re-materialized in the present.

Other artists simply mainline themselves into larger forces and expanded networks, either urgent bodily forces of sexuality, slowed-down spiritual forces of nature, or expanded cosmic forces of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Still others engage in the purely formal and abstract possibilities of lines and shapes and tones in a rectangle. But, in all of these works, beauty — the non-descriptive, non-referential, non-semiotic beauty of fundamental propulsions and ineluctable balances — is wordlessly reclaimed.

Finally, hovering above this exhibition, only occasionally directly referred to, but nonetheless always present — are the largest and most indefinable processes on the planet, but ones with the most tangible ultimate results. The processes of mixing, swirling, condensation, melding and melting, which we see at micro scale in so many of the works in The Alchemists, are the same as are happening at macro scale in our atmospheres, oceans and continents as ice caps melt, reactors leak, rivers break their banks, and the ground cracks apart.

Plenty of digital photographs have been taken, and will continue to be taken, of the environment we all share. But photography in the digital epoch can only show us our world as virtual pictures before our two eyes. Alchemical photography, on the other hand, attempts to manifest our world as physical events we must encounter with our whole body.

[1] Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes, Jonathan Cape, 1982, p. 80.

[2] Most popular was: Breaking the Rules: A Photo Media Cookbook, Bea Nettles, Light Impressions, 1977

[3] Kylie Banyard, ‘A Politics Of The Outmoded’, Photography & Fictions: Locating the Dynamics of Practice, (ed. V. Garnons-Williams), QCP, Brisbane, 2014, p.44.

[4] Shadow Catchers: Cameraless Photography, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2010-2011. The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography, toured by the Aperture Foundation, 2010-2013. What is a Photograph?, at the International Centre for Photography, New York, 2014. Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, at the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2015.

[5] The Photograph and Australia, Judy Annear, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2015.

[6] Photography and Australia, Helen Ennis, Reaktion Books, London, 2007

[7] Ennis, p8.

[8] Helen Grace, ‘A Shroud of Evidence’, Photofile, Summer 1986, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney.


Delicious Moments: The Photograph Album in Nineteenth Century Australia


Published in The Photograph and Australia, edited by Judy Annear, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2015

Photographs were never just images, they were always also things: objects to be touched or held, given or received, hidden or revealed, kept or destroyed. Photographic historians are paying increasing attention to objects such as photographic albums, and as they do so new insights into the way people once loved, shared and remembered are opening up to us.[1] But, as we look afresh at these old albums, connections with the way we use photographs today are also emerging, even though photographs are no longer the things they once were.

On 18 October 1860 a Sydney merchant announced: ‘We have received per mail a few photographic portraits of The Queen, the Prince Consort, and all members of the Royal Family. They have been taken from the life by Mr Mayall of Regent Street and are highly interesting from their truthfulness and unexaggerated appearance’.[2] The royal portraits were in the new carte-de-visite format – full-length portraits photographed in sets of eight by special multi-lens cameras and glued onto small mass-produced visiting cards. By early 1862 Sydney stationers were advertising another new commodity, the carte-de-visite album.[3] These albums had thick, decorated pages with pre-cut slots to hold cartes de visite. By July that year the Sydney photographers Freeman Brothers were announcing that they had ‘arranged a series of variable and appropriate backgrounds, so as to produce increased effect and add interest to the pictures […] in order to meet the increasing demand for these elegant varieties of the photographic art’.[4] The global carte-de-visite craze had hit Australia – the product of the coming together of an international postal service, a modular album, and a standardised photographic format. A popular poem that was placed on the first page of many Australian albums instructed the reader on how to use this new object:

Yes, this is my album

But learn ere you look:

That all are expected

To add to my book.

You are welcome to quiz it

The penalty is,

That you add your own portrait

For others to quiz[5]


The album was therefore a site of mutual obligation and reciprocal exchange. Mayall’s portraits, which reportedly sold in their hundreds of thousands around the empire, set up the royal family as the template for all the other families in the colony, while carte-de-visite albums became a physical manifestation of one’s place in a rigid social system. As she tucked images of the famed, such as those of the royal family with their ‘truthfulness and unexaggerated appearance’, into the same intimate pockets as the portraits of people she knew, each album’s owner stitched herself tightly into her immediate family as well as concentric social circles extending all the way up to the stratospheric reaches of royalty. The Sydney Morning Herald quoted one satirist who poked fun at the ‘claims to gentility’ the carte-de-visite album had unleashed; but his social vignette also points to how tactile the albums were, how startlingly immediate the portraits were, and how the combination of portraits was animated by a compiler’s narration:

 You place it in your friend’s hands, saying, ‘This only contains my special favorites, mind’, and there is her ladyship staring them in the face the next moment. ‘Who is this sweet person?’ says the visitor. ‘Oh that is dear Lady Puddicombe’, you reply carelessly. Delicious moment![6]

 There was much that was formulaic about the carte-de-visite’s iconography. The ‘series of variable and appropriate backgrounds’ Freeman Brothers arranged for their clients would have been necessarily limited, and the repertoire of poses, derived from paintings, equally formulaic.[7] But cartes de visite allowed the middle classes to ‘perform’ themselves as they wanted to be seen, then socially articulate themselves within the juxtapositions of the album, and finally even to see themselves ensconced in global networks. These were all powerful forces so, not surprisingly, albums themselves began to appear as talismanic objects within carte-de-visite portraits. Townsend Duryea, for instance, photographed a young Moonta woman gazing wistfully off into the distance; we don’t know whom she is thinking of, but we are certain their portrait is in the album which sits open in front of her (p xx).

Not all nineteenth-century albums followed the modular conventions of the pre-made carte-de-visite album; some were surprising informal. Around Christmas-time 1858 Louisa Elizabeth How, the wife of a wealthy merchant, briefly took up photography.[8] Her photographs of visitors to her harbourside home provide an insight into the day-to-day social life of friends in a domestic space. The settlers John Glen and Charles Morrison lounge with stereoscopes and stereo cards – an earlier photography craze – while William Landsborough, just returned from opening up new land for pastoral claims in southern Queensland, sits stiff-leggedly. His young Aboriginal companion ‘Tiger’ has obviously been told by How to wedge his elbow on the back of Landsborough’s chair in a fraternal gesture. He loosely holds his doffed cap in one hand, but hovers his other hand just above the explorer’s shoulder, barely touching it with his stiff fingers.

Albums such as How’s, which take us so closely into the bodily interrelationships of colonial Australians, are extremely rare. More common are the large, elaborately hand-painted, collaged scrapbook albums that became popular among middle- and upper-class women in the late 1860s.[9] Mrs Lambert, the compiler of one of these albums, Who and what we saw at the Antipodes, not only records the social circles of Sydney’s colonial elite, but also their houses and drawing rooms. For one photograph she flung open the curtains to her own drawing room at 46 Phillip Street. Though the streaming sun reduced the exposure time, Edith Gladstone, the young sister of Countess Belmore, the Governor’s wife, still has to hold her head to keep it from moving while she is photographed reading at a desk. There is an air of casual immediacy to the image, and a domestic informality is revealed as our eye wanders through the clutter of novels, albums and knick-knacks.[10]

Another album, from the Lethbridge family of Queensland pastoralists, contains a lovely, and remarkably modern-looking, portrait of a fresh-faced young girl leaning back in her chair and looking frankly into the camera with her fingers laced behind her head. Somebody, at a later date, has added the necessary metadata in pencil: ‘Effie Dalrymple, sister to Florence Lethbridge’. Thanks to those worker-bees of history, the family genealogists, and the digitisation of photographic collections, it only takes Google 0.45 seconds to find me another image of Effie, this one taken in 1900 after she had been married for twenty years and borne four children to the Mayor of Mackay, David Dalrymple. In the image that Google delivers, her face is now set hard and her hair tightly drawn back.

To jump from a nineteenth-century portrait album to the internet is now an automatic leap. And plenty of people have noticed the structural similarities between carte-de-visite albums and Facebook.[11] This comment from 1862 about the process of being turned into a carte de visite seems remarkably familiar today:


you have the opportunity of distributing yourself among your friends, and letting them see you in your favorite attitude, and with your favorite expression. And then you get into those wonderful books which everybody possesses, and strangers see you there in good society, and ask who that very striking looking person is?[12]


Slide02 Slide06 Slide05

Nineteenth-century albums mediated between the private and the public, allowing people to invent themselves and to feel connected with each other over vast distances of space and time, networked into global, virtual communities. Just like online photo-sharing today.


[1] See, for example: Geoffrey Batchen, Forget me not: photography and remembrance, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2004; Martha Langford, Suspended conversations: the afterlife of memory in photographic albums, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2001; Elizabeth Edwards, ‘Photographs as objects of memory’, in Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward & Jeremy Aynsley (eds), Material memories, Berg, Oxford, 1999, pp 221–36; Deborah Chambers, ‘Family as place: family photograph albums and the domestication of public and private space’, in Joan Schwartz & James Ryan (eds) Picturing place: photography and the geographical imagination, IB Tauris, London, 2003, pp 96–114; and Verna Posever Curtis, The album in the age of photography, Aperture/Library of Congress, New York, NY & Washington, DC, 2011.

[2] Sydney Morning Herald, 18 October 1860, p 8. For more on carte-de-visite albums in the 1860s see Warwick Reeder, ‘The stereograph and the album portrait in colonial Sydney 1859–62’, History of Photography, vol 23, no 2, summer 1999, pp 181–91.

[3] Sydney Morning Herald, 15 March 1862, p 2; Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Apr 1862, p 7.

[4] Sydney Morning Herald, 2 July 1862, p 2.

[5] A carte-de-visite copy of this poem appears in an album in the papers of Isobel Mackenzie, State Library of New South Wales, MLMSS 2996/SPG/1; another is in the State Library of Tasmania, TL.P 779.POR. The poem is also cited in Reeder 1999, p 182; Deborah Chambers 2003, p 99; and Risto Sarvas & David M Frohlich, From snapshots to social media: the changing picture of domestic photography, Springer, London, 2011, p 41.

[6] Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Oct 1862, p 8.

[7] For more on carte-de-visite conventions see Geoffrey Batchen, ‘Dreams of ordinary life’, Photography: theoretical snapshots, Routledge, London, 2009, pp 80–97.

[8] Isobel Crombie, ‘Louisa Elizabeth How: pioneer photographer’, Australian Business Collectors Annual, 1984; and Joan Kerr (ed), Dictionary of Australian artists: painters, sketchers, photographers, engravers to 1870, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992, pp 375–76.

[9] For international examples of these albums see Elizabeth Siegel, Playing with pictures: the art of Victorian photocollage, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, 2010.

[10] Martyn Jolly, ‘“Who and what we saw at the Antipodes”: who and what?’,, accessed 30 June 2014.

[11] See Martyn Jolly, ‘A nineteenth-century Melbourne spiritualist’s carte de visite album’, in Anne Maxwell (ed) Migration and exchange, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2014 (forthcoming); Esther Milne, ‘Magic bits of pasteboard: texting in the nineteenth century’, M/C Journal, vol 7, no 1, Jan 2004,, accessed 30 June 2014; Simone Natale, ‘Photography and communication media in the nineteenth century’, History of Photography, vol 36, no 4, Nov 2012, pp 451–56; and Risto Sarvas & David M Frohlich 2011, pp 35-42.

[12] Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Oct 1862, p 8.

Iconoclasm at the National Portrait Gallery

Why are the medieval forces of iconoclasm gaining strength in a visual environment which is reportedly becoming increasingly virtual and digital? After the spate of Rolfoclasm, previously reported on twice in this blog, comes Angus Trumble’s decision to remove Widodo’s portrait from the National Portrait Prize even though they don’t own it, and against the wishes of the person who does (and has already paid the gallery the competition entry fee and freight charges for the privilege of being considered for the prize) — Adam Ferguson. Part of Trumble’s reason was to protect it from rogue iconoclasm; and yes, Diane Arbuses were once spat on in New York, and Andreas Serrano’s Piss Christ was once attacked with an axe in Melbourne, but even if the worst happened Ferguson need only press the Start button on his printer once more to get his print back. However part of Trumble’s reason also appears to be to indulge in a bit of iconoclasm of his own, to align the Canberra gallery, and the honorific power of its walls, with the general anti-Wididodo mood of the nation and its politicians. But Trumble’s remarkable action does make us look at Ferguson’s picture again, with its heavy-handed use of photoshop to give Widodo’s face a Yousuf Karshian makeover of Statesman like gravitas. Trumble should have let Ferguson’s portrait remain on the wall, and let its overblown digital-Pictorialism provide the irony.

Canberra Times, 1 May, 2015

Canberra Times, 1 May, 2015


Rowan Conroy, John Ruskin, climate change, photography

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

Rowan Conroy: Natura Naturans

Barometer Gallery, 13 Gurner Steet Paddington

27th September – 11th October  2014

Storm Clouds of the Twenty-First Century

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


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


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


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


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


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


Martyn Jolly


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

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

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


Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

International Spotlight as National Mirror: Robert B Goodman’s Trajectory Through The Pacific and Australia

Powerpoint presentation at Broken Images: American Photography in the Asia Pacific, 1850-1950, Queensland Art Gallery, 3 July 2014



Robert B Goodman plunged through Australian photography like a comet — arriving in 1962 and departing in 1967 — and nothing was ever the same again. He inspired Australian photographers and designers, helped one of them get their first international gig, and expanded the horizons of all of them. He ‘raised the bar’, and ‘set new benchmarks’ in book production. He was a new model of photographer on the Australian scene: a wheeler and dealer, a mover and shaker, an inveterate publicist who saw photography not in terms of ‘art’, ‘documentary’, ‘advertising’ or ‘industrial’— the previous compass points between which Australian photography had languidly drifted for decades — but in terms of corporate publicity, marketing campaigns, sponsors, deals, promotions and pre-sales. He was a Yank in cohoots with mining companies, banks and tourist agencies; he was handsome and articulate, smooth talking, perpetually typing letters, always ready for the next meeting; he had an air that he could be anywhere in the world, really, but he was choosing, just at the moment, to be in Australia, because Australia was important, just at the moment. At the same time he was able to back up his talk — Goodman could efficiently and repeatedly nail high quality National Geographic style shots of anything: portraits, landscapes, industrial, street scenes, sport. Being a National Geographic photographer he understood 35mm film, and was completely at home with colour, at a time when most Australian photographers were still shooting on black and white, medium format film. And some Australian photographers were secretly jealous of him, so they set about publishing their own replies to his magnum opus, which they reviled as it kept selling month after month after month, from 1966 all the way through to 1970.



Goodman was born in Cincinnati and studied photography in Ohio, but was attracted to the romance of Hawaii and moved there in 1959 at the age of 21. His big break came when a National Geographic writer got him to photograph close to the mouth of an erupting volcano. His daredevil shots, published in March 1960, lead to them employing him. Although he travelled globally for the Geographic, he concentrated on the Pacific region. He contributed a substantial number of shots of New Zealand for an article primarily attributed to Brian Brake for National Geographic’s April 1962 edition, and by the October edition he had his own by-line for an article on Western Samoa. That year he was assigned to Australia for five months to work on a major article about the nation. In standard National Geographic style, and consistent with the previous New Zealand and Samoan articles, the layout for the Australian article played up the contrast between city and country, ancient and modern, aboriginal and western.


Whilst in Australia, Goodman met the Australian documentary photographer Jeff Carter. Carter remembered their meeting in the following vivid terms:


I was photographing Sydney’s Kings Cross, in particular the trendy, newly completed Rex Hotel in Macleay Street. … In order to get a dramatic low angle I crouched in the gutter opposite the entrance steps, honing in on a dapper male wearing an eye catching candy stripe suit exiting the building. After firing off a volley of rapid-fire exposures, I became aware the gentleman had halted directly in front of me. As I rose to my feet he addressed me in a strong American accent, ‘Say, you look like you can handle a camera. I’m Robert Goodman of the National Geographic magazine. Just arrived today. I’m here to contact some Aussie photographers, the names of David Moore, David Potts and Jeff Carter. You wouldn’t happen to know any of them?’


Carter’s and Moore’s subsequent National Geographic commission was published in 1966 and had a big impact on Carter’s career, he not only cleared $3200 from it, but he was left with an invaluable archive of three thousand colour slides to draw upon for years to come. David Moore already had international opportunities as a stringer for the Black Star agency, and was about to shoot a slim volume on Australia and New Zealand for Time Life World Library encyclopaedia; nonetheless his National Geographic article of 1967 enlarged his archive and his reputation.


Whilst on assignment in Australia Goodman conceived the idea of producing a high production-value coffee table photobook about Australia for a global market. The way Goodman told the story captures some of his charismatic style:

I was lying in my bedroom one afternoon at the Stuart Arms Hotel in Alice Springs, when it suddenly hit me that for all my travelling around I really knew nothing about Australia. I knew that to capture it in its entirety, its actuality, I needed more than just five months. For three days I stayed in that room trying to come to a decision. Here I was with a good job on the Geographic – I had only just joined them – a job any photographer would envy. Should I throw it up for what was only a hazy dream? How could I do it? Could I do it? I didn’t know, but the idea was there, and it grew stronger and stronger. You see, I didn’t think Australia was being publicised properly. … And, I reasoned, a stranger looking at the country and its people could possibly have clearer eyes than those who live here and perhaps cannot see the forest for the trees. So, there I was. I wanted to do a book on Australia.

After completing a National Geographic assignment on Jacques Cousteau in the Red Sea he resigned from the company and returned to Sydney to begin to raise money for the venture. He was an extraordinarily energetic entrepreneur and eventually, after a year, had gained the support of twelve leading travel, mining, banking and manufacturing companies who he persuaded of the benefit of having a book to promote Australia in general, and their industry in particular. They made $150,000 available over three years to finance the book, in return for ten thousand copies to be used as promotional gifts.



Goodman shot the book during 1963 and 1964, including a six-week caravan trip with his wife and young son. Sidney Nolan introduced him to the novelist George Johnston, who had just returned from living in Greece, and whose just-published sentimental autobiographical novel My Brother Jack was receiving critical and popular acclaim. He agreed to write the text. Goodman said:

George’s text for the book is the most moving I have ever read. His simple prose, every page verbally keyed to the pictures, is magnificent. I couldn’t have written any of it. I’m an American, and no matter how long I stay here I will always be one. But George is fifth-generation Aussie, and he talks of his country, its people, its future and past, and makes it all meaningful to his own people. Anyway, when we got lined up, I simply went out and took pictures —30,000 of them altogether — and as I took them George and I would go through them together.

Although many other Australian photobooks at this period were making use of the new Asian printers in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, Goodman ensured quality control by seeking out the Adelaide independent publisher Rigby and the Adelaide printery Griffin Press. He said:

I must have been as bold as brass then. There I was on four bob a day, talking to top-line printers, ink manufacturers, book-binders, telling them about my huge project, saying I would consider using them! It paid off, though. I really got the cream of the profession working for me.


The London trained modernist designer Harry Williamson designed the book. Goodman even returned to the Kodachrome rolls he had shot on his first trip to Australia, and Williamson flipped them and re-cropped them. Williamson established a unifying design grid based on the shape of Goodman’s 35mm slides which, compared to other books and magazines of the period, cleaned up and de-cluttered each spread while establishing a continuity throughout the book. Williamson also worked closely with the New York based, former Newsweek editor, Jonathan Rinehart who Goodman had hired to help him edit the text and image together so that, in his words, ‘the book, in its final expression would be neither picture nor word book, but rather a beautifully intertwined volume with a unity all of its own.’


Goodman had already made important media connections during his earlier visit, particularly with the middle-class travel magazine Walkabout who, a year out from the book’s publication, began to build anticipation for it by covering his travels around Australia with his wife as a photo story in its own right. In the lead up to the release date the publishers took out a series of ads in the booksellers’ trade journal Ideas.


When it finally hit the shops in September 1966 the book was supported by an unprecedented publicity blitz, with articles and mentions in almost every magazine and newspaper. The coverage was tailored to each magazine, the Women’s Weekly highlighted the support of his wife and young son, while Australian Photography showed a display of all the Nikon camera gear he had used. The book became a favourite corporate and government gift — the Queen and President Johnson received theirs bound in merino skin. Enlargements and transparencies from the book also became the centrepiece of the modernist architecture for Australia’s Expo ’67 pavilion.


The book used sequencing to comment on Australian identity in the 1960s. For instance, as we turn from a vertical colour shot of distant backlit figures walking down a Sydney street beneath a Union Jack, to the next page, we are suddenly confronted with a double-page full-bleed spread containing a black and white close-up shot of three southern-European faces looking ahead with keen, lip-biting trepidation — ‘Immigrant Arrivals, Sydney Harbour’, the caption tells us. This spread describes the demographic change happening in Australia with a startling telephoto intimacy unprecedented in previous Australiana books. (The image was copied about a year later by David Moore on his assignment for National Geographic, but Moore’s version Migrants Arriving in Sydney 1966, eventually became a national icon.) Williamson also used colour with confidence. For instance the series of vertical slices arrayed across two pages conducts a kind of kind of typological census, in pink, yellow and red, of three generations of Australian womanhood at the Melbourne Cup.


The flavour of The Australians was determined by its international context. The fact that Goodman was a visiting American was articulated by the publicity as an advantage — as an unprejudiced but internationally knowledgeable outsider only he could see us as we really were. The book’s chapters followed a trajectory very familiar from lots of other Australiana photobooks — from the ‘Land’ to the ‘People’ to ‘Industry’, to ‘Arts’, to ‘Sport’ and finally to ‘Anzac’ — but they were given personal colour by a series of short written vignettes mixing Johnston’s nostalgic recollections with anecdotes and social speculation.


Reviews confirmed that The Australians had set a benchmark because of the physical quality of the book and because it broadened the themes and issues which could be encompassed by an Australiana photobook. The Australian newspaper, picked up on the book’s fundamentally optimistic and nationalistically flattering message. Although the faces in the book had ‘the sun cracked texture of parched land’, nonetheless they ‘did us proud’ in a way ‘that may seem oddly old fashioned in these days of national self analysis and criticism’.


The book not only flattered Australians, it also flattered the mining, travel and finance companies who had backed it. Its unprecedented financial success encouraged other photographers to move into the market it had opened up, but it also goaded them into replying to its corporate jingoism. The most trenchant reply came the next year from Southern Exposure, a book with a text by Donald Horne, whose ironically titled The Lucky Country had been a talking point since its publication three years before, and photographs by David Beal, whose black and white images, rather than having the chromatic chutzpah of the classic National Geographic shot, had heavy doses of the gritty documentary acerbity of Bill Brandt and Robert Frank. The dust jacket blurb is clearly directed at a reader who is already thoroughly familiar with the success of of The Australians:


Southern Exposure is the most original picture book on Australia yet to be published. It marks a departure from the stereotyped, quasi-official, ‘coffee table’ productions which portray in verbal and visual clichés an idealised picture of Australia. […] ‘We are trying to get down in pictures and words the Australia we see.


The cover images are almost satirical. A beer-gutted Australian worker holds a shovel but incongruously licks an ice cream – almost a visual encapsulation of the argument of The Lucky Country – while on the back cover the ‘real’ Australia remains cracked and parched. The faces in Goodman’s The Australians were frontal and open with level gazes, whereas the faces in Beal’s Southern Exposure are belligerent or turned away. Their gobs are plugged with bottles, cans or cigarettes. Turning the pages doesn’t produce dramatic revelations, as in The Australians, but sardonic puns. For instance, a visiting English actress’s bejeweled décolletage at an opening night transmutes with the turn of the page into an empty beer glass shoved down a female pub drinker’s blouse. Other images, such as bleached animal skeletons, a major visual trope of postwar Australian iconography in painting and photography, seem to be out to trump Goodman’s more glamourised depictions. Compared to the ragged imprecation of Beal’s desiccated kangaroo in Southern Exposure, Goodman’s ‘Dead Ram, Witchelina Station, South Australia’ in The Australians begins to look almost choreographed. Rather than looking weary but quaintly proud as in Goodman, Beal’s returned Anzac soldiers just look smug and slovenly.


Southern Exposure raised the hackles of Walkabout, the travel journal that had doyens from the travel industry on its board which had directly supported Goodman’s The Australians. They complained:


The spate of picture books seems to be running into side-channels, not without stirring up mud. Southern Exposure is an example. […] This new genre of picture-book, solidly established last year by The Australians, was given an impeccable and sophisticated pattern by George Johnston’s text and Bob Goodman’s pictures. A welling, wholesome sanguineness swept through it. Australian frailties were admitted with grace, but Johnston’s pride in and Goodman’s American admiration for a people who had tamed but had been simultaneously moulded by a fiercely raw nature, and from scruffy beginnings had built a nation with no small part in the world’s affairs, arts, sciences and sports, seeped through unashamedly. Achievement was the keynote. [But] In [Southern Exposure], people will read what is tantamount to a lecture to Australians themselves from a superior posture of niggling, radical intellectualism.


Elsewhere I have argued that Beal and Horne’s reply to The Australians was followed by important books by Jeff Carter, and Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey, which were also not only published in the wake of, but defined against, The Australians. To quote Harry Williamson in a recent email to me: ‘David Beal, Jeff Carter, Wes (Stacey) and Rennie (Ellis) bring a gritty extension to what Bob Goodman started, and although in some ways he made it possible to get those books out and published, it was never something he would have intended to achieve himself.’



After the success of The Australians the trio of Harry Williamson, Jonathan Rinehart from New York, and Goodman stayed together and discussed other potential countries where businesses would want to invest money on publicising themselves and their country, such as South Africa, Mexico and Israel. However Goodman returned to his spiritual home Hawaii and the three worked on the book The Hawaiians, which came out in 1970. It closely followed the template set by The Australians: the cover also featured a frontal open face, the layout followed the same 35 mm shape across the double page spreads, there was a special deluxe edition, and presumably free copies for the thirty-four corporate sponsors.


Rather than using a small independent publishing company, in Hawaii where he intended to live, Goodman set up his own company, Island Heritage. He offered Williamson a position in the company but Williamson decided to stay in Australia. Back in Hawaii Goodman eventually became more interested in book publishing than photography per se. With his friend Robert Spicer he produced a series of children’s books based on traditional folk tales in Hawaii. He became part of the renaissance of Hawaiian culture through his publishing association with the Hawaiian artist Herb Kane. After working on an early Macintosh computer to design a 1986 book about the Hawaiian whaling industry Whalesong, he became an advocate for desktop computer publishing.



Goodman wasn’t the only photographer to publicise Australia to an international market. The world famous photographer E O Hoppe toured here in the late 1920s to add to his series of books on Britain, Germany and America with one on Australia. Called The Fifth Continent, it also mixed national typologies with landscapes; and from 1958 David Moore attempted to carve out Australia, S E Asia and the Pacific as his patch through The Black Star agency. And then of course there is Frank Hurley, who was similarly self-promotional, and who died in 1962, the year Goodman first arrived in Australia. However although Hurley exhibited his exploration films internationally, his Australiana books were aimed at modest domestic audience and had none of the social identity dimensions of Hoppe, Moore or Goodman. Ten years after Goodman left Australia another American National Geographic photographer came to our distant shores. Just like Goodman had before him, at some stage after photographing Robyn Davidson’s camel Journey for National Geographic in 1977, Rick Smolan (played by Adam Driver in the movie Tracks) conceived of his A Day in the Life of Australia book, where ‘one hundred of the world’s top photojournalists photographed Australia over twenty-four hours during 6 March 1981’. This was a similar to the business model Goodman had developed — both in its audacity, and in its invitation for the world to come and ‘show us to ourselves’. Goodman’s series only reached two countries, but Smolan’s A Day In The Life of … series extended from its beginning in Australia, to Hawaii (like Goodman) then to Canada, Japan, America, California, Spain and the Soviet Union.


Despite their differences all of these photographers deployed the same sets of elements: their own special personalities as galvanizing global photographers, their individual attempts to create new markets for photography, the compelling power of an international gaze trained upon Australia, which reflected back to a domestic audience tropes of Australian identity, such as national typologies or nationalistic landscapes, with increased intensity. In the case of all these photographers the international spotlight became a national mirror.


The memory of Goodman’s galvanizing effect on Australian photography has now been almost completely forgotten. For instance I myself remember, in 1981 as a Marxist, Foucaldian, Barthesian art student, attending a PR event about the production of Smolan’s A Day in the Life of Australia. As a postmodern cadet I was there to condemn and sneer at its clichéd depiction of Australia, but I still remember one bearded old photographer, I don’t remember who, saying that until A Day in the Life of Australia we had had no better picture book to send overseas than Goodman’s The Australians, which was at the time fifteen years old. ‘What was this book?’ I remember wondering at the time, ‘who was this Goodman? I had never heard of him.’ ‘Since I hadn’t heard of him, he certainly couldn’t be important’, I thought to myself at the age of twenty-two. But clearly Goodman’s trajectory through Australia had reverberated for at least fifteen years, and now I think it is time it is recognised again.


Martyn Jolly

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.


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