Celebrating Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis’s book ‘Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross

For Vivid Ideas, Vivid Festival, Sydney. ‘Kings Bloody Cross, Surface Glitter and Underground Guts’, at The World Bar, Saturday 3 June, 2017 (I’ve stuck the power point slides in amongst the text)

Today I want to sing the praises of a small and obscure photography book published in 1971. Australia doesn’t have a particularly big tradition of photobooks, perhaps our population has always been too small to sustain local publishers who specialise in photobooks. So it’s pretty hard to call to mind any important Australian photobooks, whereas European ones like Brassai’s Paris by Night, or American ones like Robert Frank’s The Americans, spring readily to mind. Nonetheless there are a few Australian photobooks that, in their own way, are significant and integral works of art as well as being important cultural documents. And it pains me that they are not remembered, particularly by today’s young Australian photographers who all profess to be into photobooks, but only it seems if they are imported from Europe or the US. Of course Mathew Sleeth’s Tour of Duty from 2004 is a classic, and there are a few others which are celebrated perhaps. But remembering Australian photobooks from their heyday, the period from the mid 1960s until the early 1970s, when they were part of mainstream culture as well as being sites for experimentation, is particularly important.

In the history of Australian photography it is not the 1960s, but the 1970s that is commonly celebrated as the watershed decade where, following the 1972 election of a socially enlightened Labor government, there was a creative flowering entailing both a renaissance in the Australian film industry, and a ‘photography boom’ consisting of new photography galleries, new photography collections, new funding opportunities, and a new role for a younger generation of art-school trained photographers.[1] However, if attention is paid to the many photobooks that were produced, distributed, bought and read in large numbers before the magical date of 1972, the picture we can form of not only Australian photography, but also of Australian culture as a whole, deepens considerably.

There were two absolutely cracker books published in that period, one was Southern Exposure published by David Beal and Donald Horne in 1967, and the other was Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross published by Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey in 1971. And today I want to celebrate the latter.


Southern Exposure, 1967

Kings Cross Sydney, 1971

During this period Australian photobooks tended to be coffee table tourist souvenirs. They were the kind of book an aunt you never saw during the year might give you for Christmas; or you would send back to your grandparents in the UK or Greece; or you would put in you bag after a few weeks of R&R ion case you needed a souvenir for someone. But during this period some photobooks began to be published which attempted to go beyond the standard Australiana tourist genre. They began to be timely, about Australian society as it was at the time, rather than timeless, about a generic Australia; and they were quite explicitly about the new Australian identity that was emerging in the post war period. Driving this change was unprecedented wealth flowing from a mining boom, continuing mass migration from Southern Europe, and a geopolitical realignment towards the US, evidenced by an escalating commitment to the Vietnam War from 1966 onwards and, in the case of Kings Cross, the presence of a quarter of a million American servicemen in Australia, who spent seventy million dollars on their R&R leave between 1967 and 1971.

 Significantly, the Australian film industry did not undergo its renaissance until the 1970s. There were only a handful of feature films made in Australia during the sixties, and most of those were made by overseas directors. A good example of this is They’re a Weird Mob. Featuring Kings Cross, it was based on an extraordinarily popular Australian novel, and starred some of Australia’s best-loved actors, but it was made by an English director. [2] However, although Australian feature films were few in number in the 1960s, at least sixty significant Australiana picture books were published during the same period.

The sixties also saw a radical increase in the number of independent, start-up publishers, historically analogous to the internet startups of today. The value of Australian publishing increased eight fold between 1961 and 1979; and from 1961 to 1971 membership of the Australian Book Publishers Association increased from thirty-seven to sixty-seven, of which nearly forty were Australian owned.[3] Many of these publishers, such as Rigby, Lansdowne, Nelson and Jacaranda were substantial, while others were more like today’s internet start-ups and were literally kitchen table operations. Horwitz, whose books sold for less than a dollar, catered to the lurid pulp fiction market. However not all of Horwitz’s books were pulp fiction. Some, such as the gritty Vietnam: The Cruel War by Anthony Syme, which sold for 65 cents, engaged with the politics of the period.

Other start-up publishers who also focussed on the cheaper end of the market, such as Sun Books, explicitly addressed the burgeoning of intellectual interest in issues of Australian history identity.

In many ways these book publishers formed a continuum with the magazine publishers, who published middle class travel magazines like Walkabout, domestically oriented magazines such as the dominant Women’s Weekly, and barbershop magazines such as Australasian Post, People or Pix. From 1965 this suburban newsagent’s range was joined by a burgeoning of inner city street magazines which focussed on satire, sex and radical politics. These included Oz, which reached a circulation of 30,000, but also magazines like Kings Cross Whisper, which reached a circulation of 100,000, and the quickly banned sex magazines like Sexy, Searchlight, Obscenity, Ribald and Censor, as well as student magazines that dealt with radical politics like Honi Soit and Tharunka.[4]

Jozel Vissel, Paper Seller, Kings Cross, From Life In Australia, edited by David Beal and Craig McGregor, 1968, p228

Kings Cross was already featuring in this explosion of Australian publishing. It already had, since at least the 1920s, become a media trope within Australia. It was a locus of a powerful kind of ‘aspirational anxiety’ within Australia. Louis Nowra has described Kings Cross as:

a piece of urban DNA where the two spirals interweave the safe and the dangerous, the Australian and the foreign, the old-fashioned glamour and trashy sexual exploitation, the underworld and city professionals, the seedy and glamorous, the hetero and gay, sexual freedom and commercial sex, the underclass and the rich, the beautiful and tawdry.[5]

And, as an emerging  popular media spectacle, Kings Cross was similarly a place of Bohemian artiness and Parisian boulevards, at the same time as it was a place of crime, drinking and sex. It was where airy aspirational fantasies of Australia finally graduating as a cosmopolitan country were mixed with deep atavistic fears of rampant sexuality and lawlessness.

Max Dupain, Soul of a City, published by Oswald Ziegler

The popular iconography of the Cross had been developing in the 1940s and 50s. Max Dupain contributed photographs of women in pretty print dresses strolling under the plane trees of Macleay Street to many Sydney books during those decades. But it really took off in the 1960s — on a broad visual front. The Cross not only featured in the film They’re a Weird Mob, it also became the staple location for Horwitz pulp fiction novels, and in 1965 was the subject of a Channel Nine TV documentary called The Glittering Mile.

The Glittering Mile in many ways sets a template for subsequent Cross iconography. It starts with a bit of history: the convict windmills and colonial villas on the ridge above the town reached by an aboriginal track through the scrub which eventually became William Street, and so on. It interviews what had already become a familiar cast of characters: the 1920s flapper Dulcie Deamer, the witch Rosalee Norton, the manager of the Pink Pussycat Last Card Louie, and so on. But it also adds a new character, a stunning looking Carlotta barely out of her teens, and before her sex change, who was interviewed backstage at The Jewel Box, a predecessor to Les Girls. And, like many other documentaries it takes us through a twenty-four hour period in the life of the Cross: from the the day when we surveil the same pretty print dresses we had seen in Max Dupain, to the night where we track strippers rushing between jobs. We are shown, on our TV screens in 1965, strippers performing inside strip clubs, and men soliciting prostitutes. It might have been these brief glimpses which led to calls for the TV documentary to be banned.

The Glittering Mile, Channel Nine, 1965

In 1965 the first book to be devoted entirely to the Cross was also published. Life at the Cross featured an anodyne text by Kenneth Slessor. Slessor had popularised ‘Bohemian Sydney’ in 1933 with his book of poems Darlinghurst Nights, and in the post war period had become the go-to laureate for poetical musings on Sydney. He was 64 by this time, and phoned in a text which is yawningly behaved. The book had an introduction by the Lord Mayor, so there is no imagery of prostitution, as there had been in The Glittering Mile, but nonetheless Robert Walker’s by now familiar imagery of ‘Parisian’ streets is spiced up with some tasteful strip club imagery, and even some drag act imagery. But all the stripper photographs are printed very small, and visually recuperated into images of suburbanites having a touristic fun night out, which are printed larger and dominate the pages.

Life at the Cross, Kenneth Slessor and Robert Walker, 1965

There is an obligatory excursion to the Cross in my other pick for best-Australian-photobook-ever, an acerbic take down of Australian complacency called Southern Exposure published in 1967 by Donald Horne, author of the excoriating book The Lucky Country, and the photographer David Beal. Their book which, as we can see from the cover, is dedicated to inverting Australian complacencies, also breaks down the unspoken wall between day and night which all previous visual representations of the Cross had adhered to in order to sustain the aspirational anxiety it represented — to keep separated the Cross’s twin helixes of cosmopolitanism and sleaze. In previous Cross representations the daytime is for Parisian boulevardiering, the night-time for frenetic excess. However in the double page spread of Beal’s obligatory Cross photos a fashionable young coffee drinker suspiciously glowers at the camera through narrowed eyes, wordlessly telling us to f… off, and we get a portrait of the Pink Panther’s garbage bin primly sunning itself in the bright morning.

Southern Exposure

As the sixties progressed the idea of youth — young people as a distinctive cultural category — began to occupy inner city iconography. Some young people began to bring a kind of hallucinogenic approach to inner city Sydney. For instance in 1968 the thirty-five year old left-wing writer and social analyst Craig MacGregor had got the job of writing the text for the tourist souvenir book To Sydney With Love. McGregor attempted a very personal beat-poetry howl on Sydney. He opened his text, meant to be read by ordinary Australians, with a cosmic experience of Sydney he had late at night standing on the roof of a block of flats in Potts Point looking into Woolloomooloo:

I know this city, I comprehend it utterly, my guts and mind embrace it in its entirety, it’s mine. It was a moment of exhilaration, of exquisite and loving perception, my soul stretched tight like Elliot’s across this city which lay sleeping and partly sleeping around me and spread like some giant Rorschach inkblot to a wild disordered fringe of mountains, and gasping sandstone, and hallucinogenic gums.

While the Cross sprouted these ecstatic visions, middle class Australia continued its fascination with it from a distance. For instance the tourist magazine Walkabout did a Cross story in 1969, adding yet another member to the cast of characters: Ted Noffs from the Wayside Chapel, which had been established in 1964 and had become a Cross institution. The following year Walkabout did yet another Cross story, this one by Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis and called ‘Wild Night in Big Bad Sydney’. Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey also contributed Kings Cross photographs to The Bulletin and The Sydney Telegraph.

Walkabout, 1969

Walkabout, 1970

Their contributions to these magazines were to become part of a larger project, a whole book aimed at a new market made up of the traditional market for Australiana, R&R servicemen, and the emerging hipster class. When the book Ellis and Stacey had been shooting finally came out in 1971, published by Nelson, it was badged as Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross. It was going to be their vision of the cross in photography. The blurb on the dust jacket capitalizes on the edginess of the project:

Over a period of six months the authors made frequent forays in the Cross armed with their cameras and a tape recorder. It was only by becoming known to the locals that they were able to record some of the remarkable scenes in this book. Nevertheless, there is much that they learned about the Cross which can only be hinted at. The laws of libel and the threats of bashing ensure a diplomatic silence. As one of the authors put it: ‘When a guy pulls a pistol on you and says that he’s going to shoot you, you know that it’s time to put away your camera and retire gracefully.

The young photographers, in their early thirties, took the reader right into the strip clubs and hippy pads of the area, using graphically dynamic and tight picture groupings and pungently personal text.[6] Their book had a decidedly hallucinogenic feel to it. Most significantly, the focal length of their lenses changed, while Robert Walker had been shooting with a something like a telephoto 135mm lens, Stacey and Ellis were shooting wide angle at 35mm. Walker’s strippers are seen from the back of the room, Stacey and Ellis take us into their dressing rooms

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

Ellis’s text for the book begins with a picaresque personal memory from 1958, when he came to the Cross after leaving a Melbourne grammar school. There he and his mates meet Babs. She is ‘training to be a strip-tease artiste’ and gives the boys a show they will never forget. From this mnemonic deflowering Ellis takes us back to the obligatory history of colonial windmills and villas, before plunging us into the present day, 1970. Like a Beat poet he introduces us to the people themselves:

Hippies and heads and spades; dog-walkers and cat-feeders; witches, warlocks, painters; poets, philosophers, pensioners, painters, prostitutes, perves; soldiers and sailors; strippers; gamblers and gunmen; camps and conmen; craftsmen, chefs, shopkeepers, foreigners, bikies, jewellers, junkies, nuns, schoolkids, tourists; princes and paupers and chicks on the make, cops on the take and even an Irish Jew or two. p6

For me this exhilarating list has echoes of a similar list Carol Jerrems made three years later in her Book About Australian Women, where she said she had photographed:

“…….artists – painters, sculptors, writers, poets, filmmakers, photographers, designers, dancers, musicians, actresses and strippers. Others included women’s liberationists, Aboriginal spokeswomen, activists, revolutionaries, teachers, students, drop-outs, mothers, prostitutes, lesbians and friends.”.[7]

Carol Jerrems, Virginnia Fraser, A Book About Australian Women, 1974

Although we meet the same cast of characters introduced in previous Cross publications, including the aging flapper Dulcie Deamer, and the aging witch Rosalee Norton, Ellis’s text take us down onto the street where his own libidinal gaze is roused:

The streets are busy with shoppers, especially determined little old ladies with straw hats and gloves and, in summertime, perhaps a parasol, and itinerant kids brushing from one to another killing time or maybe stretching it out. The girls are extraordinary nymphets—cascades of hair, bare feet, and erect nipples denting T-Shirts over faded Levis or perhaps they wear long tie-died dresses or Indian gear. For most, the bra is passé. They amble along the street, breasts jiggling like delicious jellies, features open to the world. The boys are hairy and hip. They look like ancient warriors and act like troubadours. p8

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

On pages like this we see the ambition of the book, but also its graphic naivety. Unlike all previous Australian photobooks, Ellis’s text is linked closely to his images of the same experiences, which are often printed on the same page as the text. The book’s design attempts to break out of the staid stolid design of the previous decades, so occasionally it creates centrifugal layouts of small images across double page spreads. These small images are also run along the top of the pages which carry his text, but they are a bit too small to be seen properly by the reader.

On other pages Ellis indulges in long Beat-style riffs that encapsulates not so much a visually captured scene, as a personally experienced moment:

Keep your eyes and your mind wide open and you’ll see it all— the passing parade, a perennial Mardi Gras with no threat of Lent to follow. Across the road—hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare hare—there are eight of them, the men with shaven heads, except for a tuft on the crown, the girls pretty and gentle with long plaits over their shoulders, all in flowing robes, their foreheads symbolically marked in white. Together they sway from foot to foot, a devoted chorus line of the Hare Krishna movement chanting their mantra to a drum beat and a hand clap— hare krishna hare krishna—it’s an infectious rhythm and people stop to stare, and wait for something to happen, while others join in and chant. Some hurry past as if it wasn’t really happening at all. Several Japanese businessmen leave a restaurant and climb into a long chauffeur driven car. They glance momentarily at a curvy girl in a Superman T-shirt—rama hare rama rama—while another with a gold-lettered satin sash across her shoulder walks past, handing out Whisky a Go Go invitation cards: ‘$2 includes food and drink for the sock-it-to-me happy hour and quarter and admittance all night until 3 a.m.’. People accept them indifferently. The hairy ones in their Levis are floating past, stalking shadows and followed by chunky-nippled girls in two and threes and solo, oblivious, I think, to the heads they turn. One girl in a crocheted top actually has her brown nub poking through the open knit like it’s coming up for air. You try not to look too hard and glance at the Back to Godhead magazine which you have been given—hare krishna, hare krishna—and before you’ve recovered another nymphet comes into view, beautiful and blonde, her stomach bare, her friend a willowy black soul brother bebopping along just like he was on 125th Street. Then, revving big Trummpies, a couple of Very Heavy bikies glide past, their leathered and crash-hatted ladies hunched on the back, defying the world. There are tourists in bermuda shorts with sunglasses and Instamatics and snappy little hats and next to me this jet-set guy with film star good looks and tinted hair, and his girl chain-smoking her unbelievable mauve cigarettes, and back in the street the ubiquitous little old Cross ladies tottering along all dressed up under ritzy white summer hats. And there goes Caddy, that white haired leprechaun with the side levers who carries the strippers’ bags and knows all their little secrets. Girls for a private show? Go see Caddy—hare hare rama hare—Hey man! Leonie, Jill of all trades, master of the quick con and sweet, sweet lady, mouths greetings, her snakey tatoo showing an inch above the neckline of her black satin shirt. Kerry the dog girl is shopping, and the Black Prince, with lovely young Veronica, is off downtown to flog his silver roach clips. Pilly the Dill and Fearless Fred the Drug Squad stalwarts cruise past, eyes piercing the crowded streets; Michael and Roger—Mimi and Ruth— triss by on their way to their favourite camping spot, and a thousand other people go about their daily shopping. On Thursday afternoon the scene will be the same but different, if you know what I mean. p30

It is no wonder that the following year Ellis said:

Much of my pleasure in photography is not in looking at the photographs, which I find boring, but my involvement in the actual situation of taking the shots, of preventing the moment from escaping forever.[8]

On other pages Ellis gives us extraordinary intimate vignettes:

At her home in Victoria Street, Michele, one of the strippers, talks about her job. She is English, very likeable and in her own style intelligent and articulate. She sits in her bra and pants on the couch under an Uncle Sam Wants You for The US Army poster and plays with her kitten. ‘Well actually I arrived in Australia with only $6 so I caught a cab, told the driver I danced, he told me he knew where I could get a job and took me to the Paradise Club and I started the next day waitressing and stripping. I used to do tables, jump up, get my gear off, then back on the tables. It was quite hard work really. But I liked it in the Cross. Compared with places like Soho and the Reeper-bahn in Hamburg it’s much more friendlier, not so vicious. It’s closer knit. Everyone knows everyone. And the bosses, the big guys, are more approachable here, you know, more like people. ‘Quite a lot of women come in to the shows. Sometimes they’re in long dresses after some fancy ball and they giggle and hide their faces. It’s funny to go up and shake your fanny around and embarrass them. And we have lots of middle-aged married couples up from Melbourne. Then there’s these downright perves who just sit there having wanks. It’s awful. They come in and sit in the front row, they’ve got glassy eyes, and they just pull it out and away they go. It’s so embarrassing. I look at them as I dance past and say “put it away you filthy bastard” and they just look at you blankly. They’re miles away in a sexual fantasy of their own. Mostly they’re young guys. Then there are the old regulars of course, great characters who think it’s great if the girls talk to them.’

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

At other times Ellis reports from within his own experience, like a gonzo school boy.

The Whisky a Go Go claims to be the Biggest Night Spot in the Southern Hemisphere. … You walk in under an explosion of neon in William Street, past a couple of tuxedoed and handsome dandies who scrutinise each and everybody. The last thing the Whisky wants is trouble, buddy. You pay your $2 and then, like jumping through the looking glass, you’re plunged into a maelstrom—a total environment that impinges on the senses like an electrical storm. Partly it’s manufactured by the management—light balls whirling in the dark, incredibly sexy go-go girls performing in chained and mirrored cages, forty near-nude waitresses, and the thundering amplified sounds of a rock group— and partly by the people themselves, shaking and shimmying on the dance floor as if they’re caught up in the electronic vibrations that burst out in waves from the huge speakers. The Whisky has been a big favorite with R & R boys, especially the Negroes. And black girls too. And they form their own turned-on little clique, dancing like mad with their big lit up spade smiles, flowing limbs and a knowing sensuality that stirs the loins. In contrast the rest of the Whisky oozes with a sort of contrived, but nonetheless effective, sexuality. The waitresses in a kind of bikini-sarong outfit, bend over your table and their boobs just about fall out all over you. The go-go dancers in their cages, reflected all angles several times over, are curvy ladies too, and they know how to make the curves work. In g-strings and bras they writhe away for ten minutes then take a twenty minute break. Six nights a week, six hours a night they work like convulsed marionettes.

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

Race is one issue that the book is completely uninhibited about displaying. The other issue is the changing role of women in Australia. Although Ellis’s libidinal gaze is never far away from the book, and although we see him developing this pervey gaze in the 1980s in the extraordinarily popular books Life’s a Beach and Life’s a Parade, in fact the experience of women becomes a focus for the Kings Cross book in a way which is totally unprecedented in other published Australian photobooks of the time. It is there in Ellis’s text. But also there in some of the striper shots, where they are pictured a adrift in a lonely void.

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

A stripper hurries across the road from one club to another. Her red panties are three inches lower than her mini skirt and as she walks they seem to flicker like a danger signal. Under her arm she carries the inevitable record that will set her in motion once she hits the stage. As she enters the door, Freddy the midget wrestler comes out and they exchange a nodded hullo. Freddy pushes his way through a knot of people who are staring across the road at a young woman and her baby. She is barefoot and in short shorts and carries her little boy on her hip. He is naked, save for a singlet that just covers his navel. Suddenly she places a square of newspaper on the ground and sits him on it while she stares into a shop window, resting her forehead on the glass. Then she’s off again. She stops and starts, stares at windows and a weighing machine, places her baby on the ground and picks him up again. Those who know drugs know she is tripping. Her shorts are very short and you can see the cheeks of her bottom grind together as her impatient steps take her from one manhole cover to the next. Each time she reaches her goal she stands stock still, staring and seemingly unaware of the impression she’s making on the crowd. Some are watching her because of the naked curve of her bottom. Others show genuine concern for her condition and for her baby, especially when she walks out into the traffic. But no one tries to help.

Kings Cross Sydney, Wesley Stacey and Rennie Ellis, 1971

Like every account of the Cross, ever, Stacey and Ellis’s book ends on a Requiem for a lost Cross of the past, a Cross they experienced, but we can’t, we were too late.

Requiem: And so it goes on. Everywhere there are signs — Summit, Westfield, Mainline, Bank of NSW, Palisades, Home Units — proudly announcing the new projects. Many others are on the planning boards and in a few years time the Cross we know today will be unrecognizable. In place of the village will be a new satellite city. And much of the atmosphere that suggested this book will have vanished with the brick dust.

Kings Cross Sydney didn’t sell. It was an experiment that failed. In many ways it is a transitional publication, halfway between the tourist photography of the 1950s and 60s and the personally inflected photography of the 1970s. In 1974, just three years later, Morry Schwartz’s Outback Press published Carol Jerrem’s A Book About Australian Women with text by Virginnia Fraser, and Robert Ashton’s Into the Hollow Mountain, about Melbourne’s Fitzroy which combined text and poetry. The next Australian photobook to feature Kings Cross was thoroughly embedded in radical politics, it was Marion Marrison and Peter Manning’s Green Bans, which covered the fight to save Victoria Street, and was published by the Australian Conservation Foundation in 1975. Ellis submitted some more junkie pictures to an Ilford Photographic competition called Concern, and then opened up a photography gallery in Melbourne, and further honed his libidinal gaze to produce the extraordinarily popular books Life’s a Beach and Life’s a Parade in the 1980s.

Marion Marison and Peter Manning, Green Bans, 1975

Concern, 1972

Kings Cross Sydney is certainly is a flawed book. The layout seems extraordinarily amateurish to us now, but at least we can begin to see the photographers wrestling with the problem of deploying images across a page, although they can never seem to make up their minds what to do design-wise from page to page. We also see Ellis himself trying to work his photographs and his writing together. The book has disappeared to history almost completely, and though it is great that Ellis’s individual photographs are coming back to us through the work of the Rennie Ellis Archive, I think that Stacey and Ellis’s book project also is very important for the history of Australian photography. This is becasue, in the book Stacey and Ellis:

identified a market that might straddle both existing mainstream genres as well as newly emerging beat/hippy/gonzo modes;

shot the project in an unprecedented embedded process over a defined period of six months;

tried (and failed) to produce a designed book package integrating text and image;

all at the crucial historical juncture of 1970 as the R&R days of the late sixties were rolling over into the counterculture of the 1970s.

So I think it’s good.


[1] Gael Newton, Shades of Light : Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Canberra: Australian National Gallery: Collins Australia, 1988. Helen Ennis, Photography and Australia, London: Reaktion Books, 2007. Anne-Marie Willis, Picturing Australia: A History of Photography, North Ryde, N.S.W.: Angus & Robertson, 1988.


[2] Examples include: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Leslie Norman, 1959; They’re a Weird Mob, Michael Powell, 1966; Age of Consent, Michael Powell, 1969; Walkabout, Nicolas Roeg, 1971; Wake in Fright, Ted Kotcheff, 1971


[3] Frank Thompson, ‘Sixties Larrikins’, Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia 1946-2005. Ed. Craig Munro, and Robyn Sheahan-Bright. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2001.


[4] Dominic Bowes, Exposing Indecency, BA (Hons) thesis, University of Sydney, 2012

[5] Louis Nowra, Kings Cross: A Biography, 2013)

[6] Rennie Ellis and Wes Stacey, Kings Cross Sydney; a Personal Look at the Cross, Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1971


[7] Virginnia Fraser and Carol Jerrems, A Book About Australian Women. Outback Press. 1974 Outback Press was founded by Morry Schwartz, amongst others. Morry Schwartz is currently owner of the Black Imprint.

[8] Concern, edited by Harry Marks, Nelson, p48

The Citizens of Canberra, 2013

An installation of Canberra travel brochures for the 1920s to the 1980s, each covered by a sheet of A4 paper in which had been cut a small window strategically revealing a hapless Canberra citizen, unwittingly conscripted to take part in the civic vista of the photograph, which remained obscured.

My City of Sydney, 1994

‘My City of Sydney’, 1994

Sydney Photographed catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. pp 59-67

A SECOND-HAND COPY OF FRANK HURLEY’S PICTURE BOOK Sydney: A Camera Study is held in the library of the National Gallery of Australia.1 Between its pages are four pieces of toilet paper.  Presumably they were put there by Derek, who, going by his inscription on the fly leaf, originally gave the book, ‘with love to Mum and Dad and Shirley’ at Christmas 1948.  He has used the toilet paper as improvised tracing paper to add a personal overlay to the grand civic vistas in the book.

For instance we can orient a square of paper over the full colour photograph ‘The Spit, Middle Harbour’2 by the traced outlines of Clontarf, Middle Head and a sail boat. Once it is positioned we can locate Derek’s superimposed comments. An arrow points from the inscription ‘This is where Jim Miller has his block of land where we nearly built a duplex’ to a spot in Clontarf. Another inscription above Spit Road says: ‘I pass along this road everytime I go to White’s’. And another, in the top left hand corner reads: ‘Arthur -Marjorie’s brother lives just off the picture’. This is a wonderful example of somebody tactically re-using civic photography to record their own sense of space within its hegemonic view of an urban place. But it also points to a dialectic which perhaps affects all Sydney photographers who try to photograph their city: ‘Sydney’ is both a space in which some of us live, and a place in which a certain national iconography is staged.

After its publication in 1948, Sydney: A Camera Study was reprinted three times, completely revised in 1958, and eventually sold 50,000 copies.3 Countless similar books, primarily intended to be given by Australians to friends and family overseas, have been published since, but none have the authority of Hurley. A veteran propagandist of the Antarctic, New Guinea, and various theatres of the First and Second World Wars, Hurley defined our official visual culture for decades, with his operatic stagings and heroic deeds and monumental edifices. Hurley’s photographs are horribly oppressive, monumental things.  Each of his images is arranged like an over-designed stage set: foreground forms frame a receding plane which forces the eye back towards infinity.  Every building is on the square, every landscape is crowned with piles of creamy cloud, and every citizen is frozen looking purposively somewhere, either diligently down at their work if it is a factory shot, or deeply into space if it is a landscape.  Every single element of every single one of his photographs is relentlessly bound into an obsessive, almost paranoid national enactment. Every beach, every lifesaver, every street, every building, every factory, every mountain, every valley, every koala – they all serve Australian progress.

Hurley roamed throughout Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, producing a whole set of picture books in every State of the Commonwealth. However, because Sydney is Australia’s pre-eminent city, Hurley’s Sydney images and similar images by other photographers had a defining role to play within a more broadly nationalist iconography. Sydney is the stage on which Australian progress has been primarily displayed. Unlike say, Melbourne’s discursive micro-mythologies of various gnostic places within the metropolis – this or that separate street or locality – Sydney’s special places are all oriented within the nationalist stage directions of Our Harbour, Our Beaches and Our Monuments.

But Sydney still has no equivalent to the Eiffel Tower, which is both a universal symbol of Paris as well as offering a panoramic perspective on it. Sydney may have its complement of skyscrapers built by ‘corporate high-flyers’, but these towers tend to constitute merely an undifferentiated vertical skyline, a generic backdrop to the ‘real’ Sydney rather than its central motif. Despite the recent popularity of Centrepoint Tower’s viewing platform there has been no consistent physical point from which to view Sydney panoptically. However, it is still remarkably easy to conceptualise Sydney in the mintd’s eye from an aerial perspective, with a panoramic view of its places. Because Sydney not only a physical, topographic, sociogeographic site for living, but also a giant, virtual amphitheatre of national imagining, it is easy to imagine it from this ideal perspective with all of its diverse places conceptually ordered within its twin destinies as Austral birthplace and gateway.

In the imperial histories of most Australiana picture books Sydney is not the scandalous Fatal Shore of recent popular historical revisions, but a sacred birthplace, a kind of 18th-century geo-political manger. And in the imagination of these books, Sydney’s manifest destiny reaches back deep into its rock strata. As L Cotton, Professor of Geology and Physical Geography at The University of Sydney, wrote in ‘As It Was

the Beginning’, the first chapter of Sydney: A Camera Study: ‘According to a time scale now generally accepted by geologists, it was nearly 200,000,000 years ago when nature laid the foundations of our city.’4 Those rocks then sat and waited, ignoring the Aborigines, for the First Fleet to arrive. As C H Bertie, past president and Fellow, Royal Australian Historical Society wrote in his chapter, ‘A City and a Nation are Built’: ‘We have no record of the ejaculations of the men as they entered the heads and discovered the extent and beauty of Port Jackson, but Phillip adequately summed up their impressions when he wrote, some months later in a report to Lord Sydney “We got into Port Jackson early in the afternoon and had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbour in the world”.’5

This kind of history telling has been described by Paul Carter in the Road to Botany Bay as ‘diorama history’: a mythological history which invents a point of view, a panoramic eye before whose gaze the historical facts unfold.  History becomes a sublime working model which renders time clockwork and miniaturises space.6 Diorama history continues to affect our relationship to our city. As John Thompson wrote of Sydney in his poem accompaniment to Max Dupain’s 1966 book Soul of a City:

Much of your pride is new-fangled, yet histories hide in your bricks.

Archway, balcony, staircase, paths of the poor and the rich,

Fill with echoes and shadows, the brave rough ghosts of the earlies,

Wherever a Sydneysider may pause and lean and muse.

A double lifetime ago there were trees where the traffic rolls;

A lifetime ago it was only the fearless who sped so far…7 Australian progress has always relied upon, but also feared, mass mobilisations of people.  For most of this century that unthinkable migration coming down upon us on a broad front from the north was only conceptually containable when countered by another controlled migration funnelled in through Sydney Heads. As John Thompson put it:

O beautiful, affirmative city!

O brooch on the breast of a continent in the caress of the sea!

Hub of exchanges, ideas and antilogies, eldest and freshest

Of all the brash clan of young cities that shine in the clean dry South!8 In this imagining Sydney was, in Ross Gibson’s words, safely South of the West, not vulnerably South of the East.9

Of course government policy has now changed our cultural longitude, and migration has made Sydney much more polyglot than in Hurley’s day.  But the carnival of nations is still drawn into the cradling arms of Sydney’s imperial history.  For example, there is currently a dispute between the multicultural festival Carnivale and the anglo-centric Festival of Sydney over just this question.  Should Carnivale stay dispersed amongst the various ethnic condensations on the invisible plain of Sydney’s flat suburbs, and remain a ‘community’ event for its participants; or should it be brought into coherent view within the already inscribed, defined, predetermined ground of Sydney City and become a ‘internationally prestigious’ event to benefit all of Australia?

Sydney has not only retained the original moment of colonisation, it has also remained the first point of penetration, physically and conceptually, into the heart of the country itself. To the rest of the world Australia is undoubtedly the Bush rather than Sydney, but nonetheless today’s tourists need to touch down at Kingsford Smith before flying on to the desert, and more importantly can only reach the ancient wonder of Uluru through a prior conceptualisation of the modern wonder of the Opera House.

To live in Sydney is to act as an Australian for others overseas. As Hurley says in his introduction to Sydney: A Camera Study. ‘I hope that those who study this book will feel a glow of civic pride, and appreciate more fully the splendid work done by our public services and institutions that have contributed so much to the citizen’s well being, safety, and convenience. I hope too, that when the pages of Sydney: A Camera Study are turned by friends overseas, the contents will rouse in them an urge to come and join us in Sydney, or in some other of our cities or towns.’10 Derek’s traced overlays, intended to illustrate his new spatial world for Mum, Dad and Shirley, are a personal, epistolary adumbration of this colonial relationship.

Since then, of course, Australia has become increasingly reliant on touristic, rather than colonial population mobilisation. As Meaghan Morris wrote in ‘Panorama: The Live, The Dead and The Living’: ‘Where imperialism wanted settlers for security, tourism needs visitors for endorsement. One regime values permanence and accumulation, the other transience and turnover, one fears invasion, the other metaphorically solicits it. Threatened by the ‘foreign’, the ‘primitive’, and by ‘ghosts’, imperialist discourse tends towards closure: it paranoically defends the borders it creates. A touristic space must be liberal, and open: the foreign and the primitive are commodified and promoted, ghosts are special effects: the only ‘barrier’ officially admitted is strictly economic.’11

The Sydney amphitheatre is still a node within this touristic space. Its job now is to be not so much a crowded city, as a city where crowds are deployed and made visible, just as the outback’s job in both nationalist and touristic imagining is to be empty except for either ghostly or intrepid presences.  Melbourne is a crowded city, but not a city of crowds. Its apocalyptic evacuation in On the Beach seemed to be its natural role (at least according to Ava Gardner), however the panoramic image of a nuked and desert-like Sydney on an old Midnight Oil record cover was meant to rouse us to indignation.

The crowds of Sydney aren’t just currents of teeming citizens, they are self-conscious festivals. Sydney’s crowds are there to enact a purpose: the crowds at the Mardi Gras, the Bicentenary, the footy, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, and the countdown to the announcement of the Olympic 2000 bid are all there to be seen to be there. Even when Sydney is exhorted to ‘let its hair down’ it does so in order to be admired by others.

The natural position for photographing this city seems to be up in the air, not only in a plane flying over the glinting harbour, but up with History itself, gazing over the shining events that make up the grand imperial narrative of Australia.  Countless images have pictured Sydney thus: ranged like stack seating around the Harbour, waiting for another First Fleet re-enactment or another Midget Sub attack. And countless other images -subversive collages or cheeky advertisements – have played with this repertoire, therefore reinforcing its primacy.

But of course if Sydney is a national diorama, for us who live here it is also a lived psychogeography.  Derek, in 1948, lived in the vista of Middle Harbour which he sent to his parents. He knew its contours, internal forces, and micro-histories intimately, and at the same time was proud of it as an abstract sign of his adopted country’s progress. Similarly we live, at one and the same time, in the abstract ‘Sydney’ and in our own locality, either on the North Shore, or in the Eastern Suburbs, the Western suburbs, or the Southern Suburbs. These sociomagnetic poles become the cardinal points of our: navigation: rich or poor, new or old money, working class or bourgeois, anglo or etr young or old, homely or trendy. Then there are the local ‘areas’, delicate atmosphe that ignore postcode boundaries. These are the sub-cultural enclaves: the residues outposts, the dying limbs and sprouting tendrils of any city. These differing urban densities and temperatures are the lacunae and folds of the city’s fabric which the panoramic view smooths away.

So the panoramic view of Sydney implies another, picturesque view, from down amongst it. It may be tempting to imagine that for every photographer ponderously positioning their camera on some eminent vantage-point in order to capture the monumental spectacle of Sydney, others have actively written their city of Sydney following personal paths within it. Many photographers appear to have inverted th unifying, prospective vision of Hurley’s dioramic photography of Sydney and sougf the fragmentary, the anecdotal, and the tangential.

There are several famous historical examples of this ‘other’ Sydney, for instance Harold Cazneaux’s middle-class dalliance with the besmirched, but pictorial, popp( the Rocks. Cazneaux lived on the North Shore, and in the 1900s photographed the children of the Rocks on his way to and from work in the city. In an article ‘In and i the City With a Hand Camera’ he described his techniques for hunting in these ne^ ‘picture grounds’ and warned his fellow amateur Pictorialists: ‘A trip down to the R | Area and Argyle Cut will convince any worker with pictorial imagination of what is I—I had, but photography is difficult in this neighbourhood. To be successful the work should have had some experience, as any nervousness of manner and lack of tact working here will only end by being ridiculed.  However go by all means and get broken in. Tact and expert manipulation of one’s camera is necessary if we wish to deal successfully with side street work in this locality.  Still the chances are that you may not like to return again.’12

Thirty-eight years later David Moore was out looking for American-style documentary poverty in Redfern on one of his weekends off from Max Dupain’s studio, with a Speed Graphic borrowed from Dupain. Suddenly he was yanked from the ‘cramped and sordid Redfern Lane’ and into the bedroom of Redfern Interior by a woman who mistook him for a newspaper photographer and demanded that he ‘take a picture and print it’.13

Although it may initially be tempting to see such photographic detours as the subjective, experiential reply to the demands of the panoptic, ideal Sydney, these photographers were not on a Situationist derive, or practising de Certeau’s ‘long poem of walking’.  If they were driven by any romantic desire it was the libidinous voyeurism of the flaneur. Their encounters were shot through with power, cliche, and stereotype, and were motivated by a pornographic desire to know the Other of civic place. Their reigning spatial metaphor is penetration, not drift. Thus they were always fully incorporated into Hurley’s imperial Sydney, analogous, in a way, to the discreet ads for ‘Naughty Sydney’s escort service’ at the back of the Tourist Guides left in hotel rooms.

Today Sydney has become as ‘overexposed’ as any other postmodern Western city. Our public life has shifted from the streets and plazas of our city to the screens and channels of our living rooms. Sydney’s famous crowds are now media, not civic events. In Meaghan Morris’s words, the media’s current demand ‘is for crowds, not population: people are needed to pass through a space (and be filmed or photographed), rather than inhabit it with communities.’14

The growth of the corporate towers that now form the backdrop in these images h meant that Sydney City has become evacuated of authentic ‘life’ (the town planner’s dreaded Doughnut Effect).  But although no longer ‘organically’ alive, Sydney City is i experientially dead. Those of us who may still, from time to time, walk in the cold an windy shadows of its office blocks, now find that its streets are being directly ‘theme a 1990s revision of Hurley’s dioramic national narrative.  For instance walkers occasionally come across a strategically placed sign-board, part of Westpac Bank’s Heritage Walk, which shows a photograph of the view from that exact spot a hundred years earlier.  If we wish we may go one step further and loll in a convict hammock at Hyde Park Barracks.  Soon, visitors to the Museum of Sydney, which has been incorporated into Governor Phillip Tower, will be able to interact with historical characters created by actors, scripts and computer technology. Visitors may even imagine them be phantoms rising directly from the soil of the archaeological site of first Govemment House, upon which the tower and the museum are built. Sydneysiders are no longer allowed to simply ‘pause and lean and muse’ on the ‘brave rough ghosts of the earlies’ as in John Thompson’s day. Now they must re-embody and re-enact, under controlled, sanitised conditions, the experience of those ghosts (now of both invaders, immigrants and Aborigines) as their civic duty to the commodified spectacle of Sydney.

Within the new historiographic logic of this theming, Sydney is now a compacted, archeological layering of contradictory historical moments, rather than simply the em stage for the perpetual unfolding of our imperial destiny. Yet it remains a mythic site the spectacle-culture of our nation.  Its potent vitality has been hollowed out into a shell a ruin. Sydney is now, more even than in Hurley’s heyday, an abstract space beyond contestation, waiting to be deployed within a primarily televisual spectacle of nationhood.  Reduced by cartoonist’s shorthand into the logo of a grafted Bridge/Opera House silhouette, or simply into an Opera House-shaped ribbon of exuberance for the Sydney 2000 Olympic bid, Sydney is now probably recognisable in a nano-second anywhere in the West.   Recent noisy conflict between the Federal, State and Local governments over the future of the Circular Quay precinct – the Cahill Expressway, the Customs House, East Circular Quay, even the Casino and the wharves – point to this intensifying national potency. The terms of the argument – universal aesthetic values,: amenability for promenading crowds, the need to have it all finished before ‘they’ arrive   in the year 2000 – all confirm Sydney City’s status as Australia’s televisual shop wine

It is this Sydney which is the site for current urban tactics. Some examples already present themselves. On Invasion Day 1988, Aboriginal protesters not only marched from Redfern to Hyde Park (tangentially, across the usual celebratory civic vectors, rather than, say, down George Street) but also invaded Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. What would have been a prime viewing balcony for proud white Australians became itself a stage for a protest which was televisually viewed by the world.

The televising of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras seemed to be the inevitable culmination of its history of contesting the straight’s hegemony over a particular urban place. After winning the right to march up Oxford Street, successfully claiming it as a gay and lesbian place, the next space to dance into is our living rooms, and the next place to claim a right to is television. But by covering the event in exactly the same way as an ANZAC Day march, perhaps the ABC withheld from the Mardi Gras the ultimate right to transform its televisual place.

It is within an urban dialectic that Sydney photographers work. Are they citizens or civic actors? inhabitants of a space they know like the back of their hand? or extras in perpetual civic festival? Or are they both?


Frank Hurley,  Sydney: A Camera Study, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1948

Frank Hurley,  Sydney: A Camera Study, p. 13

David P Millar, From Snowdrift to Shellflre, Sydney, 1984, p. 136

Frank Hurley,   Sydney: A Camera Study, p.10

Frank Hurley,  Sydney: A,Camera Study, p. 16

Paul Carter,  The Road to Botany Bay, London, Faber & Faber, 1987, pp. xix-xx

Oswald Ziegler, Max Dupain, John Thompson, Soul of a City, Sydney, Oswald Ziegler, 1966, unpaginated

Oswald Ziegler, Max Dupain, John Thompson, Soul of a City, unpaginated

Ross Gibson,  South of the West: Post Colonialization and the Narrative Construction of Australia, Indiana University Press, 1992

Frank Hurley,  Sydney: A Camera Study, p.7

Meaghan Morris, ‘Panorama: The Live, The Dead and The Living’, in Paul Foss (ed.) Island in the Stream, Sydney, Pluto Press, 1988, p. 182

Harold Cazneaux, ‘In and About the City with a Hand Camera’ in Australasian Photo Review, August and September 1910

David Moore,  David Moore: Australian Photographer, Sydney, Chapter & Verse, 1988, p.24

Meaghan Morris, ‘Panorama: The Live, The Dead and The Living’ p.182

The Disinfected City in Australia

‘The Disinfected City in Australia’, Eugene Atget Symposium, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 25 August, 2012

Disinfected Sydney
The Panoramic, the Evidential and the Picturesque
The idea of Atget and archival delirium in Australian photography

Of course there is no antipodean Atget. The very idea is ridiculous. Any relationship drawn between a singularly exceptional photographer working in early twentieth-century Paris, the city which as the ‘capital of the nineteenth century’ was central to global shifts in urban culture, and any other photographer working far away in the colonial settler society of Australia, at the dusty extremity of a European empire, must be attenuated in the extreme.

Yet nonetheless Atget is here, and perhaps the mystique that surrounds him can be used as a lens to look afresh at some aspects of Australian photography.

The idea of Atget

Firstly what have been the reactions to Atget? The surrealists saw Atget’s photographs as suspended between fact and dream, between the prosaic and the poetic. Subsequent interpretations, particularly in the US, emphasised the prosaic, factual pole of this tension. Atget’s commercial imperatives were seen to have produced an archive of empirically authentic documents.

Walter Benjamin was attracted to Atget because his photographs thematised the spatially and temporarily liminal. Both were interested in contested and transformed spaces; and in the outmoded, which has the capacity to erupt into the present at the very moment it is consigned to history, challenging the linear distinctions between past, present and future.

In 1931 Benjamin said of Atget:

‘ … he disinfected the sticky atmosphere spread by conventional portrait photography … He cleansed this atmosphere, he cleared it; …  He sought the forgotten and the neglected, … such pictures turn reality against the exotic, romantic, show-offish resonance of the city name; they suck the aura from reality like water from a sinking ship.  … Atget almost always passed by the ‘great sights and so-called landmarks’ … the city in these pictures is swept clean like a house which has not yet found a new tenant. These are the sort of effects with which surrealist photography established a healthy alienation between environment and man, opening the field for a politically educated sight, in the face of which all intimacies fall in favour of the illumination of details.’

Five years later Benjamin praised Atget once again for eschewing the nineteenth century portrait ritual and the romance of the human face:

To have pinpointed this new stage constitutes the incomparable significance of Atget … It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed [the streets] like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way.’

What I take from all of that is that Atget’s photographs are dreamlike, but also authentic documents. They create a ‘disinfected’ city cleansed of the cloying atmospheres of myth, and cleared of the ideology of romantic humanism. They are made up of details that need to be read with a ‘healthy alienation’, rather than contemplated within a comfortable aesthetic familiarity. They document liminal temporalities where the smooth flow of history is folded back on itself; and liminal spaces where the seamless ideologies of civic space are unpicked to reveal urban gaps and layerings.

Urban photography in Australia

During roughly the same period in which Atget was working there were three dominant modes in the picturing of Australian cities, and each I think resonates in different ways with Benjamin’s comments on Atget. The three modes are the panoramic, the evidential, and the picturesque.

The Panoramic

Colonial audiences loved panoramas, and photographers took every opportunity to take them. Charles Bayliss used Holtermann’s North Sydney Tower in 1875, the roof of the Garden Palace Exhibition Buildings in 1879, and the GPO Tower in the 1890s, as vantage points for his panoramas of the growing city. Even some of his terrestrial views were panoramic, working to extend the viewer’s eye across long and deep diagonals that led all the way to infinity down long vanishing streets which are completely delineated by the sun. In the twentieth century the American adventurer Melvin Vaniman also took a panorama of Sydney from a tethered balloon, as well as from the mast of a ship.

The Evidential

Tucked away on the far right of Vaniman’s ship-mast panorama is The Rocks area, which is the first site of the second mode of photography I want to discuss, the evidential. In 1900 the Department of Public Works assembled 300 ‘Views Taken During Cleansing Operations, Quarantine Areas’. They were taken by John Degotardi, under the supervision of the engineer George McCredie. They documented the cleansing of The Rocks area following the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in January 1900 from which 103 people died. The photographs were commissioned as evidence of dereliction to forestall possible litigation from slum landlords whose properties were to be either demolished or cleansed. The quarantined residents, unable to leave, were employed to cleanse their own streets, and to finish with whitewashing their own walls. Whitewashing had no sanitary value, but was purely a signifier of cleanliness. Degotardi himself often wore white, and often his photographs capture a face-off between cleansing official and hapless denizen of the quarantined area.  Indeed the scale of the project gives it now, in retrospect, something of the same moral force that Jacob Riis’s much more famous flash-lit reportage of New York’s slums had. Some of the basements and toilets are lit by flashlight, as Riis’s was, but Degotardi’s usual illuminant was the purifying sun angled into the backyards.

The actual identity of the photographer was only established in about 1980 by the sharp-eyed historian Max Kelly who recognized, eighty years after they were first taken, that Degotardi had exceeded his initial brief.

…  he offers us a way to know this previously unknown world rather more intimately than a literary or statistical account could provide. Here people are as they were. There is no artifice. Some are caught unawares, some are apprehensive. Others are just as interested in the photographer as he is in them. Most have only rarely, if ever, had their photographs taken. The same is true for the buildings — the terraces, shacks, doss-houses, warehouses and make-do shelters.’

In 1977 he published some of the archive in the important book A Certain Sydney which went into three printings. It began with the epigraph:

‘Most of the people pictured here are dead. Nearly all of the houses have been demolished and a number of the streets no longer exist. The book tries to resurrect an aspect of Sydney’s life which, even in its time, was largely forgotten.’

Thirty years after this statement, this period of The Rocks is now permanently remembered as part of the tourist’s heritage experience. If Max Kelly saw the collection as documents of city life, the cultural critic and artist Helen Grace saw them as documents of city politics. In a 1991 article she noted that the buildings themselves became suspects under interrogation. She claimed that many of the photographs are like mug shots, ‘portraits’ of the front of the buildings. But the buildings’ facades initially resist penetration by the official gaze. ‘This is the age of the façade’ Grace asserts, ‘a building which does not have a noble visage, a building which is hidden away from other buildings, in a side lane, for example, must have something to hide’. Therefore the official desire to see the building beyond the façade, as though unclothed, becomes almost pornographic. For Grace this penetration beyond the façade brings into view an ‘invisible city’:

[T]hat space which must be brought into existence so that the mechanisms of the modern city can begin to operate. Public health is the focal point around which revolves the impetus for discovery of the invisible city of unspeakable horrors and sanitary evils. Once the official has tentatively ventured down a side lane there is no stopping him; his curiosity is excited; he loses his fears of the inhabitants of these forbidden places. He is ready to enter the other side, the reversal of the facade.

But in Grace’s narrative the pleasure which the European bourgeoisie traditionally took in their own revulsion at the Dickensian squalor of the Other is complicated because such familiar and comfortable old-world squalor is not even supposed to exist in the modern cities of the new world. The threat posed to the optimism of the new world by the unexpected irruption of the old world put additional pressure on the photograph to be proof of a social evil. Therefore, in an emerging evidentiary paradigm, the photograph combined with writing so that they reinforced each other, the photograph adopted an anti-aesthetic, style-free visual rhetoric, while the accompanying text adopted the status of legal eye-witness testimony. The image was able to prove the meaning of the words, and this new authority was put to immediate use by the government.

In Grace’s analysis the outbreak of the plague, and the commissioning of the photographs, was a convenient excuse for the state to not only rid the city of the disease itself, but also of certain sections of the population, in particular the Chinese, and to reclaim land from the people through an ad hoc slum reclamation program.

Shortly after her political analysis of the plague photographs Grace herself made an art series that also used photographs and legal deeds to create a polyvalent archive that documented the politics and psycho-geography of land use in inner-city Sydney. In Secret Archives of the Recent Past she counterposed spookily radiant infra-red photographs of buildings which had been the sites of now mostly forgotten political activism, with a suspended parchment palimpsest of the official property deeds and changing ownerships of the same building. To quote from this Gallery’s guide to the collection: ‘In the space between image and manuscript lie the unrecorded activities of the site — ‘the ghosts which redevelopment attempts to exorcise but can’t’, writes Grace. (p296)

If, with her ‘politically educated sight’ Helen Grace was, like Atget, more focused on the activities of a site rather than the people per se, then Max Kelly, as an historian, was more interested in the people themselves who were caught in the emulsion.  A few years after the success of A Certain Sydney he produced another important book, Faces of the Street, based on another set of albums that were also taken for evidential purposes by another photographer ,Milton Kent, under the official authorship of the City Building Surveyor, Robert Brodrick.  These were the ‘Demolition Books’, compiled by the council to record condemned properties about to be demolished.

Kelly’s new book concentrated on photographs taken over a period of just one week, in 1916, of the building to be demolished for a widening of William Street inspired by Haussman’s improvements in Paris. Milton Kent’s photographs are not only a one-week snapshot of the south side of the street, but they could be extracted from the archive and re-assembled to form a new kind of terrestrial panorama of the lost street façade, a sort of proto Google Street View.

By entering this systematic space and enlarging sections from the evidentiary photos, Kelly performs a kind of retro street photography within the archive. Writing in Photfile in 1983 he argued for photographs as a new kind of historical document, a human document which objectively recorded things other forms of record couldn’t, importantly, intimate, contingent, human things. He noted:

[I]n an endeavor to tune the reader’s eye, and to motivate his and her mind, I included enlarged details from a number of the original photographs. It is interesting to note that it has been these details, thus isolated, that readers have remembered best.’  P10

Something of the sort had been done previously within Australian photographic historiography. In Keast Burke’s 1973 book Gold And Silver, based on the 1951 discovery of a cache of Bayliss and Merlin gold-field negatives, most of the reproductions were severely cropped, while Burke also occasionally selected extreme details for enlargement — ‘emphasizing elements of human or sociological appeal’ he said. (p57). (Of course this technique had been used in documentary filmmaking since the late 1950s. Ken Burns used it heavily throughout the 1990s, and his name is now irrevocably attached to the technique.)

But back in 1983 Kelly’s book took this technique a few steps further than even Keast Burke had. Like a documentary filmmaker he used literary texts and newspaper reports to add contextual ambience to the demolition photographs which he mined for as much evocative detail as possible. For instance, even though no working prostitutes were captured in the demolition photos, there was still a section of his book about the prostitutes of William Street. It used reports from The Truth newspaper, plus poems by Henry Lawson, Mary Gilmore and Kenneth Slessor, and was illustrated, not with images of real women, but with a tiny detail of shop window dummies the ever-vigilant Kelly had spotted in one facade.

While Max Kelly was concerned with the direct resurrection of the historical past, and Grace with our political education, other more contemporary artists are concerned with a more acknowledged fictionalized and poeticized evocation of history, but one with foundations still sunk deeply into the bedrock of evidential fact found in the photographic archive nonetheless. For instance Kate Richards and Ross Gibson have quarantined 3000 photographs off from the much larger collection at the Justice and Police Museum. They regard this data base of Sydney crime scene photographs from the 1940s, 50s and 60s as a self-contained ‘world’ which, under the title Life After War Time, they have iterated into various versions by introducing new poetic texts and various algorithmic sequencing techniques. Writing in 1999 Gibson described the uncanny relationship between artist and evidentiary archive.

The archive holds knowledge in excess of my own predispositions. This is why I was attracted to the material in the first instance — because it appeared peculiar, had secrets to divulge and promised to take me somewhere past my own limitations. 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….

The Picturesque — Harold Cazneaux

My third mode is the picturesque. At about the same time as Degotardi and Kent, the artistic photographer Harold Cazneaux trod the very same streets of Sydney. In 1910 he wrote an article called In and about the City with a Hand Camera. Although ostensibly a guide for other aspiring Pictorialists, it is really a very personal record of his own engagement with the streets which, he said, ‘have all the humour and pathos of life’.  However, unlike the evidentiary photographers, Cazneaux did not shoot with the cleansing sun over his shoulder, rather he shot into the sun, as well as into the mist, into the haze, into the steam and into the rain. In Cazneaux’s words this ‘[cut] down insistent detail, so that the masses and tones become more picturesque’, but it also immediately re-infected the city with an anachronistic yearning for the free-floating contemplation of a city built to a European blueprint. The article also took the reader along Cazneaux’s personal itinerary through the various areas of the city, each with its own pungent atmosphere, from the brisk CBD streets, to the smoky docks, to the bustling markets, to the steamy railway, and to finally to the secret alleys of the The Rocks. The article makes clear that while the streets do contain picturesque subject matter and artistic lighting effects waiting to be discovered by the intrepid Pictorialist, they are also resistant to the his gaze; and without the official authority of a engineer or a surveyor to back him up, the mute stand-off we have seen in the evidentiary pictures could quickly become an outright hostility that destroys the Pictorialist’s personal old world fantasy. As Cazneaux warned:

Hand and eye must work together, and to hesitate is sometimes to lose. If you are once caught in the act of presenting the camera, your work is almost invariably spoilt as expressions are not pleasant when the subjects are aware that the camera is pointing their way. It is much better to move about calmly, and knowing your camera, study any little group or street scenes. Whilst moving past, decide upon the best view point, mentally calculate the exposure and distance, adjust the shutter, stop the focusing scale. Then, returning to the chosen viewpoint, turn and bring the camera up, locate the image quickly on the finder and expose at once, with perhaps no one but yourself aware that an exposure has been made. …  A trip down to the Rocks Area and Argyle Cut will convince any worker with Pictorial imagination of what is to be had, but photography is difficult in this neighborhood. To be successful the worker should have had some experience, as any nervousness of manner and lack of tact whilst working here would only end up by being ridiculed. However go by all means and get broken in. Tact and expert manipulation of one’s camera is necessary if you wish to deal successfully with side street work in this locality. Still, the chances are that you may not like to return again.

Despite these dangers Cazneaux’s photography was part a larger genre of ‘Old Sydney’, and pretty soon a plague of artists like Sydney Ure Smith, Julian Ashton and Lionel Lindsay were congesting the streets and alleyways with their quaint and charming views.

In the 1910s and 20s Cazneaux had turned many of the negatives he exposed into pictorial gems, such as the wee little gum-bichromate print of North Sydney, which is positively putrid with old world atmospheres. However in 1948 the young photographer Laurie Le Guay, editor of Contemporary Photography magazine, saw some of these prints in Cazneauz ‘s studio. He suggested  Cazneaux make new prints for a special of the magazine. In the subsequent article Cazneaux relegates the Old Sydney of his youth to a past now decisively brushed aside by Modernism, rather than still caught in a bubble of the outmoded, and the ‘old worlded’, as it had been in 1910:

The old Sydney is changing. The March of Time with modern ideas and progress is surely brushing aside much of the old — the picturesque and romantic character of Sydney’s highways, byways and old buildings. Some still remain, hemmed in and shadowed by towering modern structures. ….

Cazneaux goes on to describe how he restored his 250, forty year-old negatives, and made new prints on modern, smooth contrastier bromide papers. Le Guay now saw the collection in documentary, historical and nationalistic terms. Once Cazneaux himself had willingly disinfected them of their Pictorialism, they became for le Guay, as Atget’s images were for others at the same time, exemplars for the Documentary movement that le Guay was promoting in Australia. He said:

[These prints] must assume the same importance as Atget’s photographs of Paris. As a document of early Sydney, they are undoubtedly the finest prints of the period, and would be a valuable acquisition for the Mitchell Library or Australian Historical Societies. Photographically, they are remarkable for their quality. With slow plates, relatively unprotected from halation, the against the light effects have exploited the range of film and paper with maximum efficiency, while Bromoil and rough textured prints have been dispensed with entirely. It is hoped that this collection may furnish an incentive for a more direct and accurate approach to photographing Australia today.

Kid Stakes

If, in the tasteful aesthetics of the Old Sydney school of the 1910s and 20s, Cazneaux, Ure Smith, Lindsay and Ashton had re-infected the slums of Sydney with the sticky atmosphere of old world anachronism, it was left to popular culture to disinfect old Sydney again. The popular children’s film Kid Stakes, made in 1927 by Tal Ordell contains an astonishing sequence that perfectly, elegantly and poetically, captures the spatial politics of Sydney in the 1920s. Based on a comic strip, the film centres on the slum kids of Woolloomooloo who play cricket and live their lives freely in front of the wharves and ships of Woolloomooloo Bay. Above them lies Potts Point, full of its posh mansions and restrictive mores. Suddenly, out of the rows of grand houses at the bottom of Victoria Street, emerges Algie Snoops, an upper class boy who yearns for the freedoms of the Wolloomooloo kids. Through the bars of his suburban prison he performs a panoramic sweep of the city across the bay, including St Mary’s cathedral. But this panorama is not a projection into the future, as Bayliss’s and Vaniman’s had been, instead Algernon is assaying a potential itinerary, just as the nervous and highly strung Harold Cazneux who, a bit like Algie, lived on the salubrious North Shore had his favourite itinerary through the city. Algie sees the kids playing, and the camera irises in. The Woolloomooloo steps dwarf him as he descends down them like a latter-day Dante, but the steps are leading him towards the salvation of the slums. Initially the slum kids taunt him, but when he proves he can fight he joins their gang, and, his velvet clothes now torn and put on backwards by the girls in the gang, he is free. He is able to lead the kids back up the steps, past a sleeping policeman on guard between the two elevations, the two classes, of Sydney, and into the wilds of Potts Point for further adventures.


By applying the lens of Atget, that is the tension between the prosaic and poetic, the descriptive and the uncanny, to what I have identified as the three modes of urban photography during the same period — the panoramic, evidentiary and picturesque — I think I have been able to identify the archive, and not the single photograph, as the key object of both photography and photographic historiography. Some photographers have re-invented their own archives within their own lifetimes; while historians have produced others, who were one anonymous functionaries, into significance. Some historians have gone into archives as resurrectionists, seeking to bring back the lives of the dead (something Atget never did); while other artists (perhaps a bit closer to Atget’s mystique) have attempted to use the residual power of archives to pick at the seams of the city and expose the spatially and temporally liminal nature of so much of Sydney. Yet all, and in this sense alone they are exactly like Atget, have been infected with the delirium of the archive.

Martyn Jolly

Dana MacFarlane , Photography at the Threshold: Atget, Benjamin and Surrealism, History of Photography 34:1, 17-28)

Short History of Photography 1931

Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936Continuum, Photogenic Papers Vol6, No 2 1991

Photofile, Winter 1983 p10.

Harold Cazneaux: ‘In and about the City with a Hand Camera’ The Australasian Photo-Review August 22, 1910:

Photofile 58, December 1999

Children and Urban Space

‘Children and Urban Space’, Robert Rooney Seminar, Centre for Contemporary Photography, 24 April, 2013

Powerpoint slides:


 In response to Robert Rooney’s extraordinary photographs I want to draw two very thin threads through the history of Australian photography and film.  I’m going to be looking at two separate filaments which have linked together the way children have been used to define or re-define urban space in Australia. The first is the figure of the street urchin, who has been seen as a combination of both the picturesque and the pathogenic. The second occurs in three films, Kid Stakes, 1927, BMX Bandits, 1983 and Deck Dogz, 2005, in which children or adolescents pursue trajectories at a tangent to the normative social geographies of Sydney.

Street Urchins and the Official Gaze

Children have been crucial motifs in the official photographs of urban space. They appear regularly in the photographs documenting the cleansing of The Rocks area following the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in January 1900.

When these photographs were rediscovered in the 1970s the historian Max Kelly recognized that the photographer had also captured a new relationship between citizen and camera, in which the children had also become enmeshed.  He said:

Here people are as they were. There is no artifice. Some are caught unawares, some are apprehensive. Others are just as interested in the photographer as he is in them. Most have only rarely, if ever, had their photographs taken.

The presence of the small, kinetic children, often caught in fleeting movement or play, further activates the deep, wide-angle space of the photographs, while their social status as vulnerable innocents gives the political meaning of the slum clearance an extra symbolic validation.

Children were deployed to a similar effect in the photographs methodically taken over a period of just one week, in 1916, to document all the buildings to be demolished for a widening of Sydney’s William Street. In his 1982 book Faces of the Street, Max Kelly entered this systematic space and enlarged sections from the evidentiary photos, performing a kind of retro street photography within the archive. Once excavated from the scene the child becomes a kind of readymade punctum in the overall scenarios of the official photographs.

This can also be seen in the Melbourne Housing Commission photographs of F. O. Barnett from the 1930s, where the presence of children overlays the spatial structuring of the labyrinthine, enclosed, segregated slum with a temporal dimension of social poverty. Here, children are social pathogens: will they stay poor like their parents, or will they erupt from the slums and threaten the rest of Melbourne?

However, the stern boot-steps of official photographers have always been shadowed by the soft pad of art photographers.

For instance in 1910 Harold Cazneaux wrote an article called In and about the City with a Hand Camera, a record of his own engagement with the streets which, he said, ‘have all the humour and pathos of life’. For Cazneaux he streets contained artistic lighting effects and picturesque subject matter waiting to be discovered by the intrepid Pictorialist. In particular they contained children who could be photographed in such a way as to hark back to the figure of the urchin when, for the nineteenth century viewer, there was an aesthetic and erotic frisson to be had in seeing innocence potentially threatened. But Cazneaux also admitted that the streets were resistant to his gaze. Without any official authority to back him up, a mute stand-off could quickly become outright hostility and demolish the Pictorialist’s personal old world fantasy. As he warned:

A trip down to the Rocks Area and Argyle Cut will convince any worker with Pictorial imagination of what is to be had, but photography is difficult in this neighborhood. To be successful the worker should have had some experience, as any nervousness of manner and lack of tact whilst working here would only end up by being ridiculed. However go by all means and get broken in. Tact and expert manipulation of one’s camera is necessary if you wish to deal successfully with side street work in this locality. Still, the chances are that you may not like to return again.

However Cazneaux did return again and again to the slums. In the late 1940s and 50s — because of a combination of the post war housing shortage, the rise of the Communist Party and Left politics in Australian art, and the ascendancy of the Documentary genre in photography —  ‘slum portraits’ had a popular resurgence.

In 1948 Cazneaux turned the wee little pictorial gems which he had made back in the 1900s, into brand new bromide enlargements.. He also wrote a print criticism column for Contemporary Photography magazine to which aspiring photographer’s sent prints for critique. One of these was David Moore, an ambitious photographer working at Max Dupain’s studio who was assembling a portfolio to take to London to try to break into the picture magazine market. Moore had identified Sydney’s slums as a prime spot to get photographs that could be of interest to overseas picture editors. Like Cazneaux before him he travelled from his comfortable North Shore home to enter the slum in search of urchins. He titled one of his photographs ‘Little Charlie’, perhaps in reference to Charlie Chaplin’s character of The Tramp, and sent it in to Cazneaux, who was sympathetic to the young photographer’s editorial intentions.

Has the photographer been concerned with the sunlight and texture shown on the figure, post and old brick wall, or the slum-like surrounding the boy is growing up in … The photographer has supplied the clue to the motif. His title ‘Little Charlie’ is a definite statement. We can use our imagination and extract a reason. ‘Little Charlie’ seemingly looks forward to the future — and what of his future? Who knows? The fact that the print can thus arouse our interest and sympathy places it on a higher plane of pictorial expression. I make no comment as to how this photograph could be improved.  At the moment we are more concerned with its message.

During this period many other photographers, such as Geoffrey Powell, Henry Talbot, Jeff Carter and Mark Strizic, also shot picturesque documentary urchins around the slums of Sydney. Many of these photographs — both the official ones and the artistic ones — have a very similar composition. They place the figures of the children precariously along the deep vertiginous angles of alleyways and walls, leading backwards and forwards through space. This visually amplifies the metaphorically precarious temporal status of the slum child, moving simultaneously backwards and forwards through the processes of social development and historical progress, as well as potentially across the barrier between the slum and the rest of the city. The ‘deep space’ shot dominates, but sometimes the ‘line-up against the wall ‘shot, which harks back to the graph–like display of poverty in Lewis Hine or Walker Evans, also occurs

It is probably too much of a stretch to tie this thread through to Carol Jerrems’ intensely personal engagement with the young skinheads she taught around Heidelberg in 1975. There are too many differences. She was not an outsider like the other photographers, rather she knew her subjects personally and she found them erotically compelling as individuals, rather than types. In filming the uncompleted film School’s Out she was a precarious guest in the communally enclosed spaces they had created for themselves on the banks of the Yarra. Looking at these extraordinary sequences now, not only does the intense eroticisation of the encounter come through, but also the sense that at any moment the rules that had been set to allow the encounter to happen in the first place, may suddenly be broken.

However Jerrems’ work does allow me to segue to the three films I want to finish with, which are also concerned with getting inside the spaces children create for themselves. Although basically generic kids movies, each film sets up a dominant panoramic view of the city, beneath which, or across which, a group of children move, following their own needs and desires, and evading the higher, clumsier and more inflexible demarcations of hapless adults.

Ludic Trajectories


Kid Stakes

The popular children’s film Kid Stakes, made in 1927, contains an astonishing sequence that perfectly, elegantly and poetically, captures the spatial politics of Sydney in the 1920s. Based on a comic strip, the film centres on the slum kids of Woolloomooloo who play cricket and live their lives freely in front of the wharves and ships of Woolloomooloo Bay. Above them lies Potts Point, full of its posh mansions and restrictive mores. Suddenly, out of the rows of grand houses at the bottom of Victoria Street, emerges an upper class boy who yearns for the freedoms of the Woolloomooloo kids. Through the bars of his suburban prison he performs a panoramic sweep of the city across the bay. But this panorama is not a projection into the future, instead he is assaying a potential personal itinerary. He sees the kids playing, and the camera irises in. The Woolloomooloo steps dwarf him as he descends down them like a latter-day Dante, but the steps are leading him towards the salvation of the slums. Initially the slum kids taunt him, but when he proves he can fight he joins their gang and, his velvet clothes now torn, he becomes free. He is able to lead the kids back up the steps, past a sleeping policeman on guard between the two elevations, the two classes, of Sydney, and into the wilds of Potts Point for further adventures.

BMX Bandits

In BMX Bandits Nicole Kidman and her two friends are being chased by two bumbling baddies. The film is a ‘location film’ shot in Manly, but since it is trying to cash in on the BMX craze of the early 80s it is entirely an urban film — unusually for a beach film the kids never set foot on the sand, and never enter the surf. The baddies, who style themselves as American gangsters, drive a big American car and so are compelled to slew back and forth along the switchback roads of Manly’s hills, whilst the BMXers nimbly dart directly up and down the slopes, as well as through shopping centres and building sites. In one extraordinary sequence they transition between urban strata in a dizzying delirium as they slide down the fiberglass spirals of the Manly Waterworks, complete with their bikes.

Deck Dogz

The three nimble skateboarders in 2007’s Deck Dogz are also being chased by two lumbering and hapless baddies. But, rather than the unstructured romp of BMX Bandits, there is an attempt to embed their skateboarding thrills and spills in a Jospeh Cambellesque hero’s journey from the badlands of Sydney’s western suburbs to a beachside skate bowl where the Holy Grail of corporate sponsorship by a world famous skater awaits. But, as in Kid Stakes and BMX Bandits, panoramic horizon lines of the city also feature. These horizon lines are a spatial limit beneath which only children, equipped with either slum-bred insouciance, or BMX Bikes, or skateboards, can travel. In Deck Dogz the skateboarders travel down a stormwater drain, which morphs into the virtual space of a computer game to deposit them magically within the city of Sydney itself.

Martyn Jolly

The Eight-Storey Flats

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

Martyn Jolly

The eight storey flats, 2006.

Eight inkjet prints on rag board

(Images sourced from National Archives of Australia)

900 x 1112 mm

Eight framed inkjet prints

200 x 250 mm

The Eight-Storey Flats

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

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

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

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

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

Martyn Jolly

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Martyn Jolly

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

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

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

[4] Morris, p35

[5]Ibid. p34