It was fun being able to auspice a Bearcage shoot with Canberra photographer Lee Grant and Chinese photographer Yu Haibo at the ANU School of Art. They are making a Canberra/Beijing documentary on ….. documentary photographers.
Tag Archives: Documentary
Duncan’s Plumbing Past Works Gallery
I needed a plumber and found Duncan’s Plumbing on the web. I was particularly impressed by the amount of work he had put into the galleries on his website, particularly his Past Works gallery. He seemed to have uploaded more shots than were strictly necessary, but with an obvious pride in his team and an obvious commitment to conveying the realities of plumbing. Are these to the photgraphy of labour traditions of Sander, Salgado and Sekula, what the selfie is to portraiture?
MAGNUM: THOSE OTHERS WHO LIVE IN OUR TIME, 1991
MAGNUM: THOSE OTHERS WHO LIVE IN OUR TIME
Photofile 34, December 1991
FITTING THE LEGEND
The legend of the Magnum photo agency revolves around two heroic figures: Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Capa was an itinerant who invented for himself both a new name and a charismatic persona. He’s the one who is said to have said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Capa “hated war buy he had to be there; his photographs were protests, those of a passionate pacifist.”1
I was therefore surprised to read that during 1954, just before he stepped on that fatal landmine in Indochina, Capa predicted that photojournalism was finished and the future for photographers like him lay in TV.2 Since
then, of course, photojournalism, as embodied in Capa, has become redolent with goodness and ‘truth’, whereas TV news has become associated with the trivial and prurient. The Jekyll to Hyde vision of Robert Capa transmogrifying into Derryn Hinch therefore seems slightly scandalous.
Cartier-Bresson and Capa complemented each other. They were “structure and movement, culture and nature, water and fire”.5 Cartier-Bresson was an aesthete with a surrealist heritage: “he was detached, he recorded serenity and peace, and he was the first to see the romantic mystery of everyday things.”4 He carefully enunciated an artistic philosophy of’the decisive moment’:
To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.5
In the USA this fed into the formalist aesthetics of 1960s and ’70s museum art photography. The scandal of Capa’s interest in TV, and the art-historical periodisation of Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, prompts the question of why didn’t photojournalism just go away like Capa predicted? Why isn’t In our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers a historical show like the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ other blockbuster, Masterpieces from the Guggenheim? Why is Magnum presented as a potent lineage, still producing “some of the world’s most celebrated photographers”?6
CRITICISING THE LEGEND
It’s not as if the Magnum tradition hasn’t been the object of criticism for many years. From the 1950s onwards, the problematic semiotics of ‘truth’ in photojournalism became a favourite object of critique for cultural theorists like Roland Barthes.7 Meanwhile, historians of art photography had extended the ‘tradition’ of photographic formalism back, far beyond Cartier-Bresson himself, into the nineteenth century and towards the very ‘core’ of photography as an art category. In 1966 the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art wrote: “It should be possible to consider the history of the medium in terms of photographers’ progressive awareness of characteristics and problems that have seemed inherent to the medium.”8 Lately, this institutionalised valorisa-
\tion of a picture’s formal architecture and choreography has also been severely criticised for its reductivism.9
Rather than reiterate these perpetual but seemingly ineffective critiques, I want to answer the question ‘why doesn’t Magnum just go away?’ by placing it within the context of our contemporary visual environment. In particular I want to discuss war photography. It is perhaps too easy to conflate the Magnum tradition with ‘war photography’ in general, but a glance at the exhibition confirms that battles of various sorts, be they the psychological battles of the lunatic, or the gun battles of an army, are the paradigmatic Magnum subject. After all, battles provide the stock-in-trade of the visual media: visceral immediacy, visual movement, and a ready-made narrative trajectory inevitably leading to either resolution or yet more conflict.
THE THREE AGES OF PHOTOJOURNALISM
As the layout of the show makes clear, the first period of photojournalism – before Capa’s crucifixion – was its golden age. The baddies were bad, the goodies were good, and photographs of war had a kind of virginal freshness about them: “Robert Capa’s camera captures a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in the Front of Cordoba”, read the 1937 LIFE caption to the single nascent image of the Magnum tradition. In 1938, Picture Post upped the ante with a screaming headline “This is War!” for the same series of pictures. Another caption claimed: “You can almost smell the powder in this picture.” These tropes of immediate experience quite deliberately prompted the reader to compare the picture magazine favourably to the rival new technology of live radio broadcast. But Picture Post was also careful to place its readers in an experientially frightening, but ideologically safe, position. It claimed that these “finest pictures of front-line action ever taken…are not presented as propaganda for, or against, either side. They are simply a record of modern war from the inside.” Being down on the ground gave you front-line thrills along with a safe position beyond mere ‘polities’.
By the 1950s, this relationship between the viewer and the viewed had become corporatised. For magazines like LIFE, the “life” referred to in its title was, more often than not, their lives which were lived elsewhere for us to visit. In Henry Luce’s words,
To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things – machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon … to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and to be amazed; to see and to be instructed.10
This kind of journalism used the language of spectacle: it spoke of ‘theatres of war’, ‘picture stories’ and events on ‘the world stage’. The one stable spot in this life was the Western living room from which our gaze was projected on successive trouble spots flaring up randomly around the world – as though we were somehow off its surface. The ‘world’ revealed to us may have been as far away as China, or as close as Harlem, but it never intruded on our own domestic sphere – the middle class living room where LIFE magazine was first stacked on the coffee table and then underneath the TV set.
The actors on this stage were diverse: they were the poor or the rich, the young or the old, the insane or the powerful, and the quaint or the radical. Their differentiation not only followed the marketing logic of’something new every week’, but the inchoate diversity of those who lived elsewhere also marked their Otherness from us. In their unstable difference they helped define our singular identity.
The Australian version of the exhibition is divided into decades, and each decade is introduced with a wall panel that parallels advances in Kodak technology (a sponsor) with events on the world stage and then with local events – Phar Lap winning the Melbourne Cup, the opening of the Sydney Opera House, etc. This is peculiar since, as far as In Our Time is concerned, Australia does not exist. But then, as far as In Our Time is concerned, the Western middle class hardly exists either: it is the ground zero from which the world is seen.
In a geo-political sense this is also a form of neocolonialism. Many of the conflicts of world politics are the result of European imperialism. The concerned writers and photographers of the 20th Century have only followed in the footsteps of the Sahibs and Bwanas of the 19th Century. The spectacle of Third World struggle is stripped from the the strugglers within exactly the same power structure as their raw materials were stripped before (and are still stripped). Such global politics have also imploded into the nation state, providing the spectacles of slums or political protest.
Of course, towards the end of this second period of photojournalism the TV camera and satellite dish became much more important than the Leica and the scribbled caption, just as Capa had predicted. Ironically, this allowed photojournalism to clamber up onto some higher moral ground and claim the museum wall and glossy book – rather than the throw-away magazine – as the proper space for its display. As the introductory wall panel for In Our Time states,
In the past couple of decades the photography field has become increasingly complex. The commercial interests of many magazines have tended more than ever to obscure visual information, and in covering news events, photographers have had to contend with manipulated photo opportunities imposed by governments and public relations officials. The generation of photographers who entered Magnum during the seventies and eighties has had to respond to such challenges. A surge in the publication of illustrated books has presented outlets that have been expanded on by photographers who have revealed their major coverages in the form of personal diaries, testaments or extended studies.
Hence we get the third period: the so called New Photojournalism of the 1980s where Magnum photographers like Susan Meiselas or Gilles Peress combined a formal adroitness, only possible after a thorough training in modern art photography, with the conceptual motivation of’concern’ unchanged since Capa. Thus, there is no question of whether In Our Time ‘belongs’ in an art museum. Of course it does. The progenitors of Magnum have been tightly stitched into the history of art photography, and their inheritors fit the bill for a postmodern museum artist: they self-consciously combine ‘quotes’ from both historicised passions and historicised styles. Much of their imagery returns to the surrealist alienation that always lay just behind the origins of photojournalism. Their captions have become cryptic and many of their photographs, for example those taken by Gilles Peress in Iran, are indistinguishable from the sophisticated urban ennui of a Garry Winnogrand.
TWO TV WARS
Magnum may have been able to evade the bad smell of heartless exploitation which has popularly hung around television reporting, in fact it has probably only retained its halo by defining itself in opposition to television, but has it been able to evade the implications of the latest phase in the global trade in images of conflict?
Ken Jarecke was just one of the 750 journalists accredited to the Pentagon during the Gulf War. Though not a member of Magnum, he was under contract to Time. Only twenty-eight years old, his big break had come with a stakeout of Oliver North’s home during the Iran Contra hearings. Journalists
covering the Gulf War were strictly controlled by the Military. They were ‘pooled’ with other journalists and escorted by press officers from either the U.S. Military, the Saudis, or the Washington public relations firm retained by the Kuwaitis. While returning to Saudi Arabia from Kuwait, Jarecke took the picture “Iraqi soldier, killed in a truck on Highway 8 near Nasiriya, Iraq”. In the photographer’s own words:
We stopped at about 9.30 in the morning and photographed some U.S. medics tending wounded Iraqis, although we weren’t supposed to photograph causalities. Then I noticed something: a body lying on the road … Now I thought what I was seeing was compelling. While still in our vehicle surveying the scene one of our Press Affairs Officers told me that making pictures of dead guys didn’t excite him. I told him that it didn’t get me off either… But I told him that if I didn’t make these pictures it would be a distortion of reality … He knew that I was going to make the picture but he had to put his two cents in. Down the road just a little further there was a truck that had been bombed while trying to escape from Kuwait into Iraq. I made a shot of the truck from where I wras standing using a Canon EOS-1 with a 35mm lens … it was a while before I noticed the burned guy in the truck… I changed lens and shot some black and white and colour and got back into our vehicle and we left. I wasn’t thinking at all about what was there; if I had thought about how horrific the guy looked I wouldn’t have been able to make the picture. I just concentrated on the technical problems … I didn’t start thinking of the picture as symbolic, though, until later when I was talking to Jim Helling, the CBS cameraman in my pool … He said he wanted a print of the soldier in the truck. At first I didn’t understand why. When I asked him he said something that really hit me: ‘because that’s the face of war.’ He had realized how powerful the scene was immediately … as a photographer I began to get ticked off about the picture of the burned Iraqi before I even got home. I figured it would never get published in this country. In fact when Associated Press in Dhahran transmitted the picture, some editor in New York took it off the wire. It wasn’t even distributed in the US until my agency got it. But I think people should see this. This is what our smart bombs did. If we’re big enough to fight a war we should be big enough to look at it.”
In its laconic off-handedness, this is a very familiar account of “How I Made That Great Picture”.12 But in another sense this is also a very unusual photographer’s description, because any sense of the ‘fierce independence’, so celebrated within the Magnum tradition, is almost totally absent. Although he expresses a commitment to undistortedness, Jarecke is resigned to the fact that his images are thoroughly militarised. There is none of the ‘no taking sides’ philosophy of 1937 Picture Post; each of his shots is completely articulated within, and by, Desert Storm. Although his colleague at CBS may have seen the image as a direct equivalent to Capa’s ‘Loyalist Soldier, Spain’, he too realised that it was not destined to shock the world. So he asked for his own print.
The journalistic pool system was the Pentagon’s response to the freedom of movement journalists had enjoyed during the Vietnam War. Although the same freedom existed in previous wars, the popularisation of television was seen to have fuelled the anti-war movement. In the Gulf War the very real likelihood of a growing domestic peace movement was immediately factored into the military strategy. Images were stockpiled and deployed like any other ordnance. Who can forget Stormin’ Norman’s press briefings where the latest Slam Cam footage of a successful Smart Bomb surgical strike was shown on a TV monitor sitting on a plinth like a piece of video art? The Iraqis even attempted to use images ballistically, sending video images of downed airmen, via CNN, to the allies. When photographs of the bruised pilots were solidified out of the flow of the video signal and printed in all their pathetic glory in newspapers throughout the western world, the tactic backfired on Hussein and domestic support for the War effort strengthened.
This image feedback between the two sides goes beyond good old fashioned propaganda because both sides are happy to share the same media conduit. CNN was invited to stay in Baghdad. And the restriction on journalistic activity goes beyond mere censorship. Rather it is a bureaucratised management of images. Plenty of close-up action shots were published, but they were taken during training, not battle. The direct militarisation of the media’s hyperspace extends the development of technological vectors of vision contiguous to technological vectors of destruction, as outlined by Paul Virilio.13 It constitutes an expansion of ‘the theatre of war’ into domestic space and a direct and tactical enlistment of public opinion. It declares a state of emergency in the domain of images and suspends the sanctity of journalistic truth.
As was frequently noted around our dinner tables at the time, for us at home the Gulf War was not a visceral war. It was an abstracted war. The flat plains of the desert became continuous with the green screen of the computer. But another war was shown on our screens about eight months after the Gulf War, and in that war photography’s power to tell the truth and not take sides was triumphant. We saw the suffering of war etched on innocent faces, we saw the horror of war in the form of bloated bodies about to burst their uniforms, we saw the futility of war in the strangely silent aftermath of battles, and we saw the resilient heroicism of war in the details of
camp life camaraderie. As TV critic after TV critic wrote: we not only saw, we felt. In the tradition of Magnum that war was photography’s finest hour. But that war was the American Civil War, fought in the 1860s and telecast by SBS-TV. The TV critics yearned for the pure motives of the freelance photographer trailing after the marching armies in his caravan, they celebrated the ennobling effects of the wet plate’s extended exposures, and they responded to the surreal melancholy of the tableau. They wanted, and they got, a real war. A war totally unlike the Gulf War.
NOSTALGIA FOR OUR TIME
In Our Time was launched on its world tour way back in 1989 when the Gulf War was just a gleam in Saddam’s eye. We can’t expect it to engage with this new politics of the image. But the unprecedented popularity of the show in Australia has to be accounted for in the wake of the War. It seems to have touched off a nostalgia for political spectacle on the world stage. Perhaps this nostalgia is an attempt to restabilise the centre of the world – our own living rooms. We have now become as spectral as those others who once lived in our time. And Magnum is still complicit.
- Gael Elton Mayo, “The Magnum photographic group”, Apollo, September, 1989.
- Fred Ritchin, “What is Magnum?”, In Our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers^ Andre Deutsch, 1989.
- Jean Lacouture “The Founders”, Ibid.
- Mayo, Op Cit.
- Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment^ Simon & Schuster, N.Y., 1952.
- In Our Time, brochure.
- Roland Barthes, Mythologies^ Hill and Wang, N.Y., 1972.
- John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eyex Museum of Modern Art, N.Y., 1966
- Rosalind Krauss, “Photography’s Discursive Spaces”, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Mythsx MIT Press, 1985.
- Fred Ritchin, “What is Magnum?”, Op. Cit.
- “The Image of War”, American Photo, August 1991.
- Dorothea Lange, “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget”, Popular Photography, February 1960; Robert Capa, Slightly OutofFocuSiN.Y. 1947.
- Paul Virilio, War and Cinema:The Logistics of Perception^ Verso, London, 1989.
Australian First World War Photography 1999
pdf: Australian First World War Photography 1999
Australian First World War Photography
History of Photography, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer, 1999.
On the twenty-sixth of September 1917, during the Third Ypres Campaign on the Western Front in Flanders, Frank Hurley and Charles Bean began a long argument about photographic verisimilitude. Captain Frank Hurley, one of Australia’s newly appointed war photographers, wanted to combine several different negatives into a single battle tableau, and C. E. W. Bean, Australia’s long-standing war correspondent and official war historian, prohibited it.
An amateur photographer himself, Bean valorized photographic objectivity in his own reportage writing. After he was appointed official Australian ‘eyewitness’ to the war in 1915, he referred to himself in his diary as an Australian recorder’ and was angered when Australian newspapers preferred to publish the more lurid and fanciful accounts of the Reuters pool reporters over his own official dispatches, which ended up being described as ‘colourless’ by the Bulletin.” To Bean, however, ‘the private interests of papers are something which cut right across the interests of the country — scoops, competition, magnification and exaggeration are out of all harmony with what is best for country’. In 1916 he began a campaign to establish an Australian War Records Section which would ‘preserve and tenderly care for the sacred things which will some day constitute the greatest public possession Australia will have’. It would collect war relics (a term he preferred to trophy),3 which would act as both vivid historical expository devices, and as spiritual shipping containers in which to bring some essence of the experience of the Anzacs4 back to Australia from France, where many thousands of their bodies were to remain. It would also collect photographs as ‘sacred records — standing for future generations to see forever the plain simple truth’.5
To Bean, both photographs and relics sat on the same continuum, because both received and retained direct index-ical impressions of the fighting. For example, in July 1918, Bean had two, front-and-back, anthropological-style photographs taken of two diggers6 when they came out of the fighting.7 Then he had their uniforms and all their gear taken from them and replaced by a completely new outfit. In the words of Bean’s biographer: ‘Everything that was taken from these soldiers, with all the emanations evocative of battle, fear, death, endurance and heroism, was to be sealed up, just as it came from these men, and sent back to Australia so that their countrymen might feel these emanations and be reminded what manner of men these had been’.8
To Bean both the war relic and the record photograph would also provide a ready-made archaeological substratum for the nascent Australian nation. For example, in 1919, after the Armistice, Bean returned to Gallipoli with the Australian Historical Mission and, in a scrupulous valedictory labour, combed the ground for relics which he referred to as ‘ “antiquities” only four years old’.9 These were then forens-ically examined to determine how far inland the Australians had penetrated on the morning of the first landing. Significant finds were photographed in situ. A seemingly insignificant photograph of a water bottle lying under a bush, Australian relics on the north-easternmost spur of Battleship Hill, is only activated into historical, and spiritually mnemonic life by its caption: ‘This was probably the point reached by Tulloch’s Company on 25th April 1915’.10
The Australian War Records Section was established in June 1917, and two Australian photographers, Hubert Wilkins and Frank Hurley, were appointed to the Section shortly thereafter. If Bean revered the photograph as an inviolable historical record and immutable spiritual artefact, to Hurley it was a manipulable, spectacular showcase. Frank Hurley was much more than just a photographer. At the time of his appointment to the Section he was a household name as a polar explorer and a showman film maker, photographer and adventurer.11 He already had extensive experience with the production of popular attractions, all of which used the latest film and photographic technology, and all of which featured himself as showman. A youthful apprenticeship in Sydney as a postcard photographer specializing in spectacular subjects and unusual effects prepared him for the heroic work he produced on the Mawson Antarctic expedition of 1911 — 13 and the Shackleton Antarctic Expedition of 1914—16. Hurley produced and appeared with theatre presentations of the cinema film and lantern slides he shot on these expeditions. His film of the Mawson expedition, Home of the Blizzard, was screened in Sydney in 1913 whilst Mawson was still stranded in Antarctica. Hurley appeared at each screening as the figure of the returned imperial explorer to give a personal recitation to accompany the film.
After receiving the honorary rank of Captain from the AIF,1 Hurley established with Bean a clear separation between the duties of himself and Lieutenant Hubert Wilkins: ‘Wilkins will attend to the records, and I myself to the publicity pictures and aesthetic results’.13 Bean saw the division of labour between the two photographers in similar terms, but placed quite different weightings on their relative importance. Whilst admitting that both photographers were ‘utterly daring fellows’, Bean always felt more affinity for Wilkins. To him Hurley was merely a ‘keen commercial man’ devoted to publicity and propaganda, whereas Wilkins was committed to providing future historians with records accurate enough to be relied on as historical evidence.14 Bean not only saw these as ‘conflicting activities’,1= but to him the publicity photographer was necessarily excluded from the urgent historical imperatives of military, and therefore national, destiny. Only the record photographer who risked his life out of ‘his own sense of duty’16 truly ‘played [his] part as [an] Australian soldier’.17 After the Third Ypres Campaign, Bean warmly recommended Wilkins for a Military Cross, and rather lukewarmly recommended Hurley for a Mention in Dispatches.18 Wilkins received his Military Cross but Hurley never received his Mention in Dispatches.
However, like Bean, Hurley was overwhelmed by the horror of the Front and greatly impressed by the futile bravery of the Anzac soldiers, which he immediately saw in the same nation-forming terms as Bean. His picturesque imagination was excited by the weird juxtapositions of modern warfare, where expansive scenes of pastoral beauty existed within a few kilometres of the compacted hell of the trenches, and everything was overseen by awesome new technologies. Hurley had trouble scenographically encompassing this visual sweep. During the Battle of Polygon Wood the speed and intensity of battle were his biggest problem. Both Hurley and Wilkins wanted to capture the random instantaneity of aerial bombardment: ‘In spite of heavy shelling by the Boche, we made an endeavour to secure a number of shell burst pictures. … I took two pictures by hiding in a dugout and then rushing out and snapping’.19
It was that evening that Hurley and Bean began their argument: ‘Had a great argument with Bean about combination pictures. Am thoroughly convinced that it is impossible to secure effects, without resorting to combination pictures’.20 Composite printing was a staple technique with which Hurley was well acquainted. He had already produced composites from his Shackleton Antarctic Expedition negatives. The technique was widely used by amateurs to add moodily artistic cloud effects to landscapes, but postcard companies and illustrated newspapers also occasionally used it to recreate complex scenarios. 1
The dispute was important to both men because the Australian High Commission in London was planning an exhibition of war pictures at the Grafton Galleries in May 1918. Bean also sought to get a perspective on the argument by retreating to his diary: ‘ … had a long argument with Hurley who wants to be allowed to make “composite” pictures for his exhibition — i.e. to put in a shell burst made by trench mortars at St Pol. I can see his point, he has been nearly killed a dozen times and has failed to get the pictures he wants — but we will not have it at any price’.22 Five days after their initial confrontation Hurley and Bean continued their argument, and both hardened their stances. Bean got General Headquarters to prohibit Hurley from making composites and Hurley, banking on his prestige as a famous polar explorer, tactically responded by tipping the ante:
Had a lengthy discussion with Bean re pictures for exhibition and publicity purposes. Our authorities here will not permit me to pose any pictures or indulge in any original means to secure them … . As this absolutely takes all possibilities of producing pictures from me, I have decided to tender my resignation at once. I conscientiously consider it but right to illustrate to the public the things our fellows do and how the war is conducted. They can only be got by printing a result from a number of negatives or re-enactment. This is out of reason and they prefer to let all these interesting episodes pass. This is unfair to our boys and I conscientiously could not undertake to continue to work.23
I sent in my resignation this morning and await result of igniting the fuse. It is disheartening after striving to secure the impossible and running all hazards to meet with little encouragement. I am unwilling and will not make a display of war pictures unless the Military people see their way clear to give me a free hand.24
However, Hurley continued to photograph and film. Called to General Headquarters to photograph the 1st Anzac staff, he spoke to General Birdwood who promised to ‘fix matters up’.25 A few days later Hurley was able to report in his diary: ‘Headquarters have given me permission to make six combination enlargements in the exhibition so I withdrew my resignation … . However it will be no delusion to the public as they will be distinctly titled, setting forth the number of negatives used, etc. All of the elements will be taken in action’.26 In early November Hurley was sent to Palestine to cover the Australian Light Horse. Away from the strictures of both the Front and Bean, he flourished. He found the battalions, and battalion commanders, extremely amenable to staging re-enacted ‘stunts’ for his camera.
Hurley returned to London in May 1918 to prepare for the exhibition of Australian war pictures at the Grafton Galleries. He arranged to have 130 negatives printed, his six composites and other images enlarged to mural size at Raines & Co in Ealing, and colour lantern slides made from the Paget colour plates. He enthusiastically described the exhibition in his diary:
The exhibition was well patronised today. The colour lantern is working excellently. The colour slides depict scenes on the Western Front, Flanders and also Palestine. They are gems and elicit applause at every showing. A military band plays throughout the day. … Our largest picture ‘THE RAID’ depicting an episode at the Battle of Zonnebeke [is a combination of twelve negatives] and measures over 20ft x 15’6′ high. Two waves of infantry are leaving the trenches in the thick of a Boche Barrage of shells and shrapnel. A flight of bombing aeroplanes accompanies them. An enemy plane is burning in the foreground. The whole picture is realistic of battle, the atmospheric effects of battle smoke are particularly fine. Another sensational picture is ‘DEATH THE REAPER’. This remarkable effect is made up of two negatives. One, the foreground, shows the mud splashed corpse of a boche floating in a shell crater. The second is an extraordinary shell burst: the form of which resembles death. The Palestine series are magnificent … . It is some recompense to see one’s work shown to the masses and to receive favourable criticism after the risks and hardships I have taken and endured to secure the negatives.27
The composite Hurley referred to as ‘The Raid’ was subsequently variously known as An episode after the Battle at Zonnebeke,2 or sometimes Over the Top29 (figure 1). The foreground is constructed from the final two images of a rapid sequence of three photographs he shot of a group of soldiers going over the top (figure 2). In the composite, these sequential images of the same soldiers become spat-ialized two lines of advancing troops, and planes, shrapnel and smoke have been added into the background. The original sequence was most probably taken during a training exercise or a re-enactment since they have been accessioned out of series by the Records Section; in addition, it is extremely unusual to see any photographs, let alone a sequence of three, taken from such an exposed position during a battle; and, finally, the actual battle was fought in torrential rain and a quagmire of mud, whilst in the composite the ground appears dry.30
Although oil and water colour sketches were exhibited in a separate room, the photographs received most press attention. In particular the colour lantern slides received notices that confirm Hurley’s enthusiastic diary entries.31 A day or so later Wilkins visited London sporting his Military Cross. Hurley commented darkly, ‘Strings have been pulled’.32 Bean also came to London and visited the exhibition. He had already discovered that Hurley had attempted to smuggle some colour plates out of France for the exhibition without going through the censor — he was angry, but not surprised, at Hurley’s unscrupulousness.33 He was further angered when he realized that Hurley now intended to abandon the task of photographing the continuing trials of the Anzacs in France in order to return to Australia to continue his showman career. And he did not like -what he saw when he visited the exhibition either:
Our exhibition is easily the best I have seen, although there is too much Hurley in it — his name is on every picture with few exceptions — including some that Wilkins took; and what should be a fine monument to the sacrifice of Australians in France is rather an advertisement for Hurley. … Hurley was married in Egypt and is determined to go back to Australia straight. I shall see that he does not have management of this exhibition there.34
As the exhibition continued to attract larger and larger numbers of visitors (on one Sunday a thousand people saw it in three hours) Bean mobilized his forces against Hurley’s plans. Hurley recorded it all in his diary, only hinting that he knew who might be pulling the strings:
I am urging that the present set of enlargements be sent to Australia for propaganda. No better medium could we possibly have. The exhibition has been pronounced by experts to be the best since the beginning of the war.33
I have omitted a week from my diary, having been so disgusted with the treatment I have received from the High Commissioner’s office and the A. I. F. It has worried me considerably. A deadlock has been arrived at which excludes me from taking the Exhibition of my own pictures to Australia …. The only reason Australia House ascribe to their attitude is because I am soliciting publicity. They accuse me of making a Hurley show of the exhibition, which is an infernal lie. … It seems beyond conception that government officials can assume such an attitude which is nothing but the outcome of personal jealousy. … I do not intend to let the matter drop here, but will have it taken up further by the Australian press.36
The exhibition was sent on a provincial English tour. Hurley unsuccessfully tried to persuade Australia House to produce a duplicate set to take to Australia. He resigned on 11 July and received permission to make smaller versions of the AIF photographs, including the composites, for his private use, paying for the materials himself.37
Meanwhile, Bean was, in his own way, attending to the propaganda potential of photographs. His attempt to prohibit Hurley from taking his composite tableaux to Australia did not mean that he was ignoring the value of photography for propaganda altogether. Whilst Hurley was arguing with the High Commissioner, Bean was organizing for 72 small 4×6 cm photographs to be available for purchase by the troops, at a shilling each. Bean also produced several series of lantern slides for the recruiting authority in Australia. As Bean admitted, ‘the originator of this scheme was really Hurley’.38
Back in Australia, Hurley was amongst friends once more. In early 1919, after the Armistice, he got permission from the Minister for Defence to exhibit his personal collection of the smaller AIF photographs at Kodak’s Sydney Salon, which paid for the framing and mounting. The proceeds of the exhibition, some £300, were donated to the Red Cross. He used the press consummately to complain about his treatment in London. A talk he gave to the Photographic Society of New South Wales was reported under the headline ‘Australian War Pictures Kept In England’,39 and two correspondents wrote letters of support to the Sydney Morning Herald, which conveniently allowed Hurley to reply:
Sir, After seeing Captain Frank Hurley’s wonderful war pictures … 1 cannot help wondering how it is that we have not become acquainted with them before. They are the real thing, and are of historic value. … I believe this collection is only one third of the pictures he has photographed on the battlefield, the others are in the keeping of military authorities in London. Why have they not reached Australia? Isn’t it worthwhile making some effort to obtain them for our National Art Gallery or Mitchell Library or some other place where they could have a permanent home, and serve as a memento of what our soldiers actually did in the great war, when they travelled 12 000 miles to help the Motherland. I write as an Anzac’s sister. I am etc. May Summerbelle.40
… The last I heard of the collection of pictures was that they rested in peace, or rather pieces, in the vault of Australia House, London, in a shroud of red tape and cobwebs. Surely, indeed, this is gross injustice to the people, and a poor tribute to those who had deeply at heart the immortalisation of doings great in the history of our nation. … I am etc. Frank Hurley, Captain.41
Hurley’s Kodak Salon exhibition received much publicity. The composites were reproduced in many different newspapers and magazines. Hurley had assured the AIF that there would be ‘no delusion to the public’,42 and in the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition he freely admitted that: ‘In order to convey accurate battle impressions, I have made several composite pictures, utilising a number of negatives for the purpose’.43 However, the catalogue does not identify the composites, and when they were reproduced sometimes their composite nature was noted, sometimes not. All the time, however, the authenticity of the composites was stressed. Considerably stretching the truth, the catalogue stated that ‘The elements of these composites were all taken in action and submitted to the G. O. C. A. I. F. who gave his approval for their production’.44 It was crucial for the reception of the images as authentic that all the component parts of the composites be assumed to be taken in action. Newspaper reviews certainly worked on that assumption.
War Pictures Realistic Collection Capt. Hurley’s work
‘The Dawn of Passchendaele’ immediately arrests attention, this is a very striking picture with all the sinister suggestions appropriate to that dreadful day. It was taken under machine gun fire at a spot where some stretcher-bearers had laid down their stricken burdens overnight to await for a relief party. The recumbent, shrouded figures — the attitude of complete exhaustion in which a guarding bearer leans against a wall — tell a mute story of suffering and endurance which gives the heart a sharp pang and stirs the imagination to a perhaps more intimate realisation of what prodigies of devotion and sacrifice those shell swept trenches of Flanders witnessed.43
The pictures … are photographs taken at great risk during battles, and not fancy pictures faked from a safe position behind the lines. I received this news from the mouth of a returned soldier who said, ‘They are the goods, in the thick of the fight was Hurley with his camera; both he and his camera must have been charmed’.46
These responses to Hurley’s composites (figures 3—5) are themselves a kind of composite: the reading of the ‘sinister suggestions’ produced by the addition of heavy clouds conforms to a conventional mode of pictorial decipherment which uses a generic lexicon derived from salon painting, whilst, at the same time, the assumption that the component parts are actual adds a ‘sharp pang’ of authenticity. The word ‘faked’, here, is used to distinguish composites supposedly comprising authentic components from staged re-enactments.
Hurley, explaining himself to a camera club readership, appropriated their word ‘impression’ in order to further validate his composites. Within camera clubs, ‘impression’ was normally used to describe ‘artistic’ or ‘pictorial’ photographs, but Hurley used it more generally to describe an authorized auteurial mode of photographic malleability:
Special permission was granted … for the making of ‘Photographic Impression Pictures’ …. None but those who have endeavoured can realise the insurmountable difficulties of portraying a modern battle by camera. To include the event on a single negative, I have tried and tried, but the results are hopeless. Everything is on such a vast scale. Figures are
scattered — the atmosphere is dense with haze and smoke — shells will not burst where required — yet the whole elements are there could they but be brought together and condensed. The battle is in full swing, the men are just going over the top — and I snap! A fleet of bombing planes is flying low, and a barrage burst all around. On developing my plate there is disappointment! All I find is a record of a few figures advancing from the trenches — and a background of haze. Nothing could be more unlike a battle. It might be a rehearsal in a paddock. Now if negatives are taken of all the separate incidents in the action and combined, some idea may be gained of what a modern battle looks like.
Ironically, Hurley had, in fact, used photographs taken of ‘a rehearsal in a paddock’ to create his most hyper-real and convincing battle scene. Besides dexterously fudging the truth, Hurley also took the opportunity to reply, inter alia, to Bean’s interdiction by citing the ultimate authority — the digger:
During a recent exhibition held in London by the High Commissioner for Australia, one such picture, depicting a scene near Zonnebeke, was enlarged up to 300 square feet. Attired in civilian dress, I often mingled with the ‘diggers’ to hear their scathing criticism. When I find they approve and pass favourable judgement, then I feel convinced such impression composites are justified.4
Immediately after his exhibition Hurley offered to sell his prints to the National Art Gallery (now the Art Gallery of New South Wales) and they were eventually acquired by the Mitchell Library. Two years later, in August 1921, the first photographic exhibition from Bean’s Australian War Museum opened at the Melbourne Aquarium, and was seen by 83 000 people in five weeks. Mural-sized enlargements and colour prints were on display, and particular photographs could be ordered to raise money for the future Memorial. Like Hurley’s show, the exhibition reproduced the horror of the war on an immediate level:
There, most truly and vividly, war in all its frightfulness is pictured …. The horror of all those things so vividly shown in these photographs makes itself most terribly felt …. Every phase of the war is presented without trimmings or politeness. It is a real record, and one which Australians will value and be proud of. The photographs have been selected from 20 000 negatives in the possession of the War Museum’s committee. They were so accurate and complete that the military censors in France insisted on their being treated as secret documents.49
But this exhibition, compiled on Bean’s terms, was able to achieve more, even, than had Hurley’s own exhibition: the archival monumentality of the 20000 negatives in the nation’s collection, plus their ontological status as ‘real records’ which at one time even had the strategic status of ‘secret documents’, gives these images an extra artefactual solidity. In addition, the exhibition was a mnemonic event that directly addressed itself to each returned digger and each grieving relative individually:
[I]t is estimated that nearly 60 percent of the personnel of the A. I. F. appear in the views, which are ‘keyed’ and indexed so that it is possible to identify nearly every man who was ‘snapped’. … By means of a unique system of indexing, hundreds of relatives have been able to see photographs of men who were killed or missing, and soldiers who have returned have identified themselves and their comrades on the battle fronts.50
Two years after that, in 1923, the twelfth volume of Bean’s Official History was devoted entirely to photographs, 753 in all, each one meticulously captioned and each one, Bean was careful to note in his introduction, ‘as far as possible, scrupulously genuine. … The pictures here printed have not been retouched in any way except to remedy scratches or other obvious flaws in the negatives’.51
In photography the division between the fake and the not-fake has always been unstable. Bean’s argument with Hurley took place before the full development of the documentary genre in the 1920s and ’30s which established the technical slice of the shutter-blade, guillotining and encapsulating a contingent moment, as the only guarantor of truth. However, in the case of Hurley’s composites, photographic authenticity is guaranteed by the manual virtuosity of scenographic effect which is able to assemble multiple moments into a single tableau, with a second-degree pictorial expressivity to provide legibility, and an exegetic, performative testimony from the impresario/witness to provide authenticity. To the contemporaneous viewer Hurley’s composite techniques were not illicit fakery, but licit special effects tacitly deployed to produce a legitimate scenario worthy of emotional and phenomenological investment.
Hurley’s argument with Bean also took place when the specific gravity of the photograph as artefact was still high — before photography’s atomization during the age of its mechanical reproduction — when the photograph was primarily encountered as an object to be pasted into an album or placed on a mantelpiece. Bean’s pious reverence for the purity of the photograph related as much to its status as a potent relic to be eternally exposited by his larger history, as to its putative ‘documentary’ ability to contain a self-evident historical truth. For Bean the main game was long-term national memory, and that needed artefactually stable images which interlocked into a monumental reliquary archive. In that context, Hurley’s composites were dangerous fakes because they drained the indexical charge from the relic.
Hurley’s composites are quaint historical footnotes now, and would not move audiences even if they still existed in their original salon picture size. The heroic stories they told, and their rich pictorial embroidery, now seem threadbare and slightly disreputable. On the other hand, none of Wilkins’s record photographs have become iconic either, despite being reproduced many times. Many do, indeed, look like rehearsals in a paddock, and tend to be crippled without Bean’s meticulous captions. Hurley’s sensational effects compromised the photograph’s optical and temporal specificity, but strategically produced an immediate, though evanescent emotion. Bean’s collection of indexical photographic records did become integral to his highly successful Memorial, but they are only able to act as a monument to the dead within larger sustaining institutional structures and mythic mnemonic mechanisms.
Despite the subsequent historical slippage of the terms in which it was couched, their argument lined up along either side of a dialectic that has remained persistently entrenched within photography. The major theorists of photography within modernity (Benjamin, Bazin, Barthes) all subsequently elaborated on this dialectic when they distinguished, in various ways, between the indexical charge of the photograph as artefact and the semiotic mutability of the photograph as image. Current postmodern developments in digital technology have added new twists to their argument. Recent journalistic anxiety over the supposed threat of the digital to the autonomous authority of the news photograph would have had a familiar ring to Bean. Photography’s role within the newly digital mass media is less now as a provider of an endless series of rectangular, guillotined slices of time and space, and more as a font for a continuous stream of mutable visual data to be assembled and reassembled into various pictorial configurations. Exegetic protocols are currently being established within the media to set the various levels of agreed fakery, from factual reportage to editorial illustration. In addition, the media’s own ubiquitous presence throughout the real means that the distinction between a spontaneous and an enacted profilmic event is more and more difficult to make. And the growing archive of historical photography and film, which distinguishes less and less between documentary and fictional sources, means that the past is known as much through fabulated as actual historical images.5
As the twentieth century progressed, the guillotining blade of the camera shutter became the core of photography’s technical ontology. The documentary movement entrenched the snapshot image as photography’s normative style, and the indexical photograph became our culture’s key historical and mnemonic artefact. But although it might once have appeared that the issue of fakery had been settled for good, it now seems that an argument of eighty years ago is far from over yet.
- D. McCarthy, Gallipoli to the Somme: The Story of C. E. Sydney: John Ferguson 1983, 233, 270.
- C. E. W. Bean, C. E. W. Bean Diary, Australian War Memorial, AWM38, 3DRL606, series 1, item 88, 19 September 1917.
- C. E. W. Bean, Gallipoli Mission, Canberra: Australian War Memorial 1948, 6.
- Members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.
- M. McKernan, Here is Their Spirit, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press 1991, 42.
- Australian colloquialism for an Australian soldier, particularly those that served in the First World War.
- AWM E2818, E2819, ‘Two diggers from the 5th Australian Division’, 30 July 1918.
- D. McCarthy, Gallipoli to the Somme, 34.
- Bean, Gallipoli Mission, 4.
- Ibid., 111.
- J. Thomas, Showman, Canberra: National Library of Australia 1990; D. Millar, Snowdrift and Shellfire, David Ell Press 1984.
- Australian Imperial Force.
- F. Hurley, My Diary, Official War Photographer, Commonwealth Military Forces, from 21 August 1917 to 31 August 1918, typewritten manuscript, National Library of Australia, MS883,Series 1, Item 5, 5 September, 1917. Bean, Gallipoli Mission, 20.
- C. E. W. Bean and H. S. Gullett, Photographic Record of the War:
- Reproductions of Pictures taken hy the Australian Official Photographers,
- Sydney: Angus and Robertson 1923, vii—viii.
- C. E. W. Bean, Wilkins and Hurley recommendations, Australian War
- Memorial, AWM38, DRL6673, item 57, 24 October 1917.
- Bean and Gullett, Photographic Record of the War, vii—viii.
- C. E. W. Bean, Wilkins and Hurley recommendations.
- Hurley, My Diary, 26 September 1917.
- Ibid. ‘
- For example, the Australian War Memorial holds a composite postcard
- by Underwood, ‘Battle in Skies During Zeppelin Raid on England’,
- AWM, H18216.
- C. E. W. Bean Diar)>, 71-2.
- Hurley, My Diary, 1 October 1917.
- Hurley, 2 October 1917.
- Hurley, 3 October 1917.
- Hurley, 6 October 1917.
- Hurley, 26, 27, 28 May 1918.
- C. F. Hurley, Catalogue of an Exhihition of War Photographs, Sydney:
1919, Cat. No. 77.
- F. Hurley, Press cuttings, National Library of Australia, MS883, series 2, items 29-36, Newsy Notes (August 1919), n.p.
- The first shot from the sequence was exhibited as ‘ “Fix Bayonets”, Australian Infantry preparing to resist a counter attack at Zonnebeke’, State Library of New South Wales Collection PXD19-PXD31. Catalogued in C. F. Hurley, Catalogue of an Exhihition of War Photographs, Sydney: 1919, cat no. 36; and D. O’Keefe, Hurley at War, Sydney: The Fairfax Library 1986, 53. The second shot from the sequence was exhibited, as a detail from the larger composite, as ‘A wave of infantry going over the top to resist a counter attack, Zonnebeke’, SLNSW Collection. Catalogued in C. F. Hurley, cat. no. 41; and D. O’Keefe, 51. The third shot from the sequence is in the Australian War Memorial at E5429 as A photograph taken in France in June 1919 [incorrect date] illustrating the commencement of an attack’. The background aircraft montage was also exhibited separately as ‘Shrapnel bursting amongst reconnoitring planes. Picture taken over the tail of a leading machine’, SLNSW Collection. Catalogued in C. F. Hurley, cat. no. 45. (However, Hurley did not take his first flight until he was sent to Palestine at the end of 1917.)
- ‘Colour Photographs. Capt. Hurley’s Work in Palestine’, The Times, London, (6 June 1918), 5. Hurley, My Diary, 4 June 1918.
- D. McCarthy, Gallipoli to the Somme, 333.
C. E. W. Bean Diary, 5, 6, 7 June 1918.
Hurley, My Diary, 4 June 1918.
Hurley, My Diary, 14-21 June 1918.
- Information given hy Captain Frank Hurley (Official Photographer A. I. F.)
- during interview with Principal Librarian on 27/6/19, State Library of New
- South Wales, 27 June 1919.
- C. E. W. Bean Diary, 26 June 1918.
- Hurley, Press cuttings, National Library of Australia, MS883, series 2,
- items 29—36, n.d., n.t., n.p.
- Hurley, Press cuttings, Sydney Morning Herald (19 March 1919), n.p.
- Hurley, Press cuttings, Sydney Morning Herald (20 March 1919), n.p.
- Hurley, My Diary, 6 October 1917.
- C. F. Hurley, Catalogue of an Exhihition of War Photographs, Sydney:
- 1919, n.p.
- Hurley, n.p.
- Hurley, Press cuttings, Sydney Morning Herald (13 March 1919), n.p.
- Hurley, Press cuttings, The Sun (12 March 1919), n.p.
- Captain F. Hurley, ‘War Photography’, The Australasian Photo-Review
- (15 February 1919), 164.
- C. F. Hurley, (15 February 1919), 164.
- Australian War Pictures: A Wonderful Collection’, The Age (20 August
- 1921), 3.
- ‘Display of War Pictures, Appeal of the Personal Touch’, The Argus
- (21 August 1921), 5.
- C. E. W. Bean and H. S. Gullett, Photographic Record of the War, viii.
- D. MacDougall, ‘Films of Memory’, in Visualizing Theory: Selected
Essays from V. A. R. 1990-1994, New York and London: Routledge
Digital post-production, the photographic document, and truth
Digital post-production, the photographic document, and truth
The Power of Images, Sir Peter Herbst seminars, 4 September, ANU.
Earlier this year Paul Hansen’s image of two children killed by Israeli missiles, Gaza Burial, won the World Press Photo contest. The image attracted attention because it had a cinematic feel, as though an expert director of photography from films such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty had lit it with movie lights. A suspicious forensic image analyst called Neal Krawetz, asked to examine the submitted JPEG file, and tracked the history of the file’s Photoshop ‘saves’. He found that, on the day it was taken, 20 November 2012, a JPEG image had been converted from the original RAW file. (RAW is the format of the first readable image file written as the camera uses firmware algorithms to convert the various voltages generated by its CCD sensor into digital data. In the RAW file image information like contrast and colour is stored as separate metadata, rather than saved and compressed within the image itself as in a TIFF or JPEG file.) Then, about six weeks later, and two weeks before the competition’s submission date, a further two images were converted from RAW formats and added to the first JPEG file. This analysis led Krawetz to accuse Hansen of breaking the implied rules of the World Press Photo composition by collaging three different images together.
The photographer replied to this accusation by admitting that he had given the image a post-production treatment similar to a High Dynamic Range photograph, where three different camera exposures of the same scene are superimposed. The JPEG files, he explained, were each ‘save as’ from the one RAW file, giving maximum tonal range and different chromatic saturation in turn to the shadows, mid-tones and highlights, before being superimposed in Photoshop. This had the effect of modulating the otherwise harsh lighting across the whole image, de-saturating the distracting light on the walls, giving the skin of the subjects a smoother, more ‘inner’ glow, balancing the viewer’s attention equally between all of the men in the alley, and heightening the dramatic illumination on the faces and shrouds of the two dead children. The superimposition was then merged. Hansen submitted the original RAW file, which he had neglected to do when he originally entered the competition, to another image forensics analyst, Eduard de Kam, who declared: ‘all of the pixels are in exactly the same place’. So, Hansen claimed, rather than shifting pixels, he had merely modulated each pixel’s colour and intensity in situ, acceptable to World Press Photo rules. An analogy that springs to mind could be to a beauty pageant, which would allow entrants to use make-up to enhance their natural beauty, but not to undergo plastic surgery to artificially create beauty.
Krawetz was not deterred, however, and subjected the JPEG image to a further ‘Error Level Analysis’ that indicated which pixels had been altered to which degree. The outlines around all the figures showed the systematic operation of Photoshop’s sharpening algorithm but also, according to Krawetz, betrayed some localized pixel modification. Meanwhile, an original reproduction of the image, before its submission to high dynamic range post-processing, had surfaced and been brought into the argument, and Krawetz noticed that some pixels had in fact been shifted. For instance the bruise on the right hand corpse’s forehead had been shortened to emphasize the glow of light on her round forehead.
Fifty years ago Roland Barthes identified six different connotational procedures at work in the press photograph, which were working away to inflect the ‘natural’ denotation of the image with cultural meaning. One of these he called ‘photogenia’, defined as: ‘the image itself ‘embellished’ (which is to say in general sublimated) by techniques of lighting, exposure and printing.’ Hansen’s post-production was pure photogenia, sublimating the brutal facts of the Gaza funeral within the elevated cinematic aesthetic that could be called: ‘the universal tragedy of contemporary warfare’ or ‘the nobility of the oppressed Palestinian people’. At the conclusion of his discussion of photogenia Barthes suggests that perhaps in the press photograph ‘there is never art, but always meaning.’ (IMT 23-24) Perhaps if Hansen had used as his photogenic reference point not Hollywood movies but, say, the gritty black and white style of old school photojournalism with its historical connotations of ‘meaningful concern’, his image would have passed without notice — but perhaps, also, it wouldn’t have won.
The furor over this image, and the subsequent digital forensics of Krawetz and de Kam, indicates that my neat analogy of plastic surgery versus make-up just doesn’t hold up any more; and nor can Barthes’ fifty-year-old mutual exclusion between ‘art’ and ‘meaning’ in press photography be sustained either. There is no ‘original’ data, which is subsequently modified in a computer. Even before the image is extracted from a camera’s CCD sensor and turned into a RAW file, firmware algorithms have been at work, sharpening edges and interpolating colour. Programs such as Photoshop provide further semi-automatic modifications along the same line. In this environment there is no single point where pre become post production, where denotation become connotation. Clearly there is a point, somewhere, where the image we see in our newspapers or on-line, in which we may still be happy to invest belief as being ‘true’, becomes just another Photoshop job; but where is that point? Clearly there is also a point where the aestheticization of the image shifts a photograph from the genre of news or reportage, to the genre of personal universalized meditation on the state of contemporary war, from specific referential meaning to generalized aesthetic art; but where is that point?
This make it much harder for people such as myself to stay up on our high horses, looking down on the plebs below unable to appreciate the different valencies and experiential nuances of various photographs. We will have to perform prettier and prettier dances in the future to stay ahead.
2.5D and the Photographic Document
‘2.5D and the Photographic Document’,
Visible Evidence Conference, Australian National University, 19-21 December 2012.
In this paper I want to attempt to analyse the visceral offence I take at seeing the CGI process know as 2.5D used in documentary films.
First of all, what is 2.5D? It is a relatively simple process — at least for experts — which is available through such popular software packages as Aftereffects and even Photoshop. It takes a scan of a still photograph and slices it up, cutting out individual picture elements and putting them on separate transparent layers. The background picture elements are then extended out beyond their initial edges by cloning the original pixels. Gaussian blur may be added to the background elements to increase the sensation of depth of field. The layers are then separated in virtual space, while a virtual camera tracks through them to create the feeling of motion parallax and to produce a stereographic visual sensation in the viewer. Sometimes animation is added to the picture elements — clouds can scud across the sky, arms and legs can pivot at their elbows or knees, smoke can rise from chimneys or cigarettes, and water can sparkle. Sometimes, even, final sound effects can be added.
The popular 2007 TV documentary Ten Pound Poms makes use of all of these effects to animate the personal family snapshots of the British migrant subjects of the show, who are also interviewed in a studio. These were then intercut with newsreel and home movie footage. From the point of view of the documentary filmmakers all of these effects only add to the photograph. They endow it with movement, time, spatiality, animation and even diegetic sound. All of these things can only enhance the experience for the viewer — to give them more sensation, to make them feel more like ‘they were really there’, and to integrate the boring old still photographs with the fabulous newsreel footage, staged re-enactments, emotional remembrances and talking heads which make up the rest of the film. They supplement for what the still photograph is so manifestly lacking, so what’s the problem? I think there is a problem.
However, I am not entirely a purist when it comes to the use of photographs in documentary films. I recognise the value of using still photographs in a variety of ways which enable the photograph to take part in the specifically filmic syntax of the documentary film.
Sometimes 2.5D is described as just a turbo-charged extension of the notorious Ken Burns effect, an effect so famous they named an iPhoto default setting after it. The use of still photographs filmed on a rostrum camera had been growing steadily in documentary TV and film since the 1950s, and some docos of the 1980s used slow zooms and pans across the surface of historic photographs. But when, in the television series The Civil War which was about a historical period before cinema but at the height of the carte-de-visite craze, Ken Burns combined the extensive panning and zooming of his 16mm rostrum camera with soulful music, stentorian voiceovers, and long contemplative landscape shots over empty fields, the effect came in to its own. The Ken Burns effect narrativised the still photograph. Reframing, re-sizing and tracking slowly revealed faces and incidents that had been cropped out by the rostrum camera. By zooming, details were given emotional and dramatic emphasis. This is not dissimilar to the way an actual photograph is pored over by an avid viewer in real life, when perhaps small details initially unnoticed are delightedly pointed out, or perhaps a lover’s face is intently gazed into. Most importantly, from my point of view, the photograph remains in tact. After filming it is picked up of the rostrum table and returned to the archive, its ontological integrity respected.
Nor am I against the photograph being used as a collage element, or as a re-enactment trope. Still photographs offer the opportunity for expository collages which many doco filmmakers can’t resist. For instance this year’s television documentary on Australian suffragettes, Utopia Girls, makes extensive use of both photographs as documents, and photographs as expository tropes. The resultant phantasmagoria makes me squirm and cringe, but it doesn’t give me the visceral outrage of 2.5D. I’m used to naff anachronisms in documentaries —footage from fictional war films intercut with actual newsreel war footage; or film footage from the twentieth century used to illustrate events in the nineteenth century. And the producers of Utopia Girls take these anachronisms to new heights. Why, for instance, do they make a mock ‘slide show’ of Charles Bayliss’s famous and beautiful collodion glass-plate negatives of the gold fields, complete with added surface dirt and the clunk of a twentieth century slide projector, when to my knowledge they were never even used as lantern slides? Why do they embed twentieth century newsreel footage in the decorated pages of a nineteenth century photograph album? Why are the stained backdrops of the photographic studio, in which actors act out the written words of the historical characters, based on the Sydney underworld police photographs of the 1920s made famous by the recent book City of Shadows, rather than the middle-class studio portraiture conventions of the late nineteenth century, where the actual historical characters would have actually been photographed? Why?
Nonetheless I understand and accept that perhaps these devices are there to try to make history ‘come alive’. They take the complex, disparate stories of Australian radicalism over a sixty-year period and turn it into a palatable piece of TV by recasting it as a single, self-contained, linear, racy detective story, with our historian as our own personal guide. In Utopia Girls, as well, these techniques, which essentially translate one less familiar media form into another more familiar media form, are used to explicitly link the past to the present — the young actors hired to play the protagonists, the film implies, only have their political rights because of the bravery of the women they are portraying. All young women, therefore, should admire the pioneering Utopia Girls just as much as they admire the Spice Girls. Perhaps in these cases the loses of the specific artefactual quality of the documents which are being used — the smooth collodion of Bayliss’s glass plate negatives, for instance, are outweighed by the gains — the patience of the TV viewer at home which isn’t strained.
But I think that when it comes to the 2.5D even this isn’t the case. Why am I specifically against 2.5D? Because the photograph is ontologically different to film and 2.5D destroys that. The photograph has a particular relationship to time. Obviously it freezes time. It is a snapshot but it can also be, as Henri Cartier-Bresson called it in the 1950s, a ‘decisive moment’, a stilled action which nonetheless contains compacted into it a sense of the extended action from which it was extracted. Photographs are moments in which time is held. Roland Barthes even says they are ‘engorged’ with time (p91) and 2.5D deflates this engorgement. A documentary like this year’s Croker Island Exodus relies on the testimony of eye-witnesses to time. The memories of the young Aboriginal children are written on their faces when, as old ladies now, they are recounted directly to camera. These faces are intercut with acted out re-enactments of their epic walk across Australia. And again, as in Utopia Girls, those re-enactments which use young Aboriginal kids as actors connect past to present. However the historic photographs which are used to segue between testimony and re-enactment also given the 2.5D treatment, though admittedly not as extreme as in Ten Pound Poms. There is a little bit of motion parallax, and the addition of colour. But, if the women themselves can give their testimony through their own presence and in their own words, why aren’t photographs also allowed to give their testimony in their own way as well? Why must their still moments be given an alien filmic propulsion?
In Photography and Fetish, 1985, the film theorist Christian Metz defines the photograph as being fixed in the past, and therefore standing in for an absence. On the other hand, he said, film unfolds in time and orchestrates the viewer’s desire. The photographic theorist Roland Barthes agreed with this basic dichotomy. In his 1980 book Camera Lucida he said of the photograph:
‘…this very special image gives itself out as complete — integral, we might say … The photographic image is full, crammed: no room, nothing can be added to it. In the cinema, whose raw material is photographic, the image does not, however, have this completeness (which is fortunate for the cinema). Why? Because the photograph, taken in [the] flux [of a film], is impelled, ceaselessly drawn toward other views; in the cinema, no doubt, there is always a photographic referent, but this referent shifts, it does not make a claim in favour of its reality, it does not protest its former existence; it does not cling to me: it is not a spectre. … in it, no protensity, whereas the cinema is protensive … Motionless, the Photograph flows back from presentation to retention.’ P89-90
I think this dichotomy is still very useful, despite changes in technology since then, when the photograph and video converged on the same digital platform. The experience of looking at a photograph is still very different to the experience of watching a film. We still don’t watch a photograph, and we still don’t gaze upon a film. The photograph still holds time, while the film still propels time. The viewer still contemplates the photograph as an object, but enters the psychologically enveloping virtual space of the film.
For generations of photographic theorists such as Roland Barthes the photograph’s power came from it paradoxical relationship to time. From the point of view of the viewer’s experience the photograph is simultaneously both ‘here now’ and ‘there then’, however from the point of a viewer absorbed in a movie, filmic movement and montage has collapsed this paradox. The photographic image remains in the past while the moving and edited image creates its own present. Extrapolating further from this dichotomy, many writers have discussed the various ways in which the photograph is associated with the closure and distance of death, while film is associated with the flow and relentless becoming of life.
Of course this dichotomy is complex and entangled, and defined very much by the dominant social and historical uses of the twin technologies in the past: on the one hand the rise of the social habit of personal snapshot photography— which has tended to emphasise the mnemonic aspects of the photograph as an object; and on the other hand the rise of the movie industry— which has tended to emphasise the temporal compulsions of story and spectacle in movies which are experienced in cinemas. And you are all right now no doubt thinking of exceptions as well: the elegiac moments of a child waving from your grandfather’s Kodachrome standard 8 holiday film on the one hand, or the way that the various ‘decisive moments’ of news photographs were put together into the unfolding quasi-cinematic picture layouts of illustrated magazines like Life, on the other.
But nonetheless the fundamental ontologies of the dichotomy remain. Even within the filmic technology itself this distinction holds I think. In the 1890s early cinema exhibitors delighted their audiences by showing the first frame of the kinematograph frozen like a lantern slide, before suddenly cranking the projector forward into life. Since then countless fiction filmmakers have apotheosised their characters in a sudden freeze frame. Over the years millions of art school students have revelled in the uncanny temporality of Chris Marker’s 1964 film La Jetee, a film made up almost entirely of stills. And generations of video artists such as Douglas Gordon, Bill Viola or Gillian Wearing have made, and still make, work exploring the tension between stillness and movement.
But when, within the documentary genre, it comes to bringing together two related but distinct social practices — the photograph as documentary artefact, and the film as narrativized event; and two related and distinct recording technologies — snapping and filming, then I think this ontological dichotomy must be respected.
2.5D does a violence to the ontological integrity of the historic photograph, and it does a violence to the psychological power of the phenomenological experience of the photograph as historical object. The photograph does not need to be animated with CG effects because its unique power lies precisely in its lack of animation. In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes describes the effect this power had on him.
In this glum desert, suddenly a specific photograph reaches me; it animates me, and I animate it. So that is how I must name the attraction which makes it exist: an animation. The photograph itself is in no way animated (I do not believe in ‘lifelike’ photograph), but it animates me: this is what creates every adventure.’ (p20)
The photograph must retain its temporal retention over which this animation can reach. Even embedded in the syntax of the documentary, the stillness of the photograph, and its historical authority as document and artefact, can still create the precious feeling of mutual animation over a mysterious distance of time. It must continue to be allowed to.