Vintage ‘William Eggleston Portraits’ at the NGV

Try as I might I just can’t get myself worked up into a rage about the ‘William Eggleston Portraits’ hang at the NGV. In fact I quite liked it. The show which was shipped out to Australia from London’s portrait gallery contained two new large scale digital enlargements from scans of his 1970s negatives to entice punters into the space; and then, cue gasp, new digital prints alongside ‘vintage’ 1970s dye-transfer prints. I agree with one colleague who pointed out that it’s a shame the opportunity was missed to show Australia’s own Eggleston dye-transfer portraits, including the super-iconic ‘Huntsville Alabama’ c1969-70, only in this show as a new digital print, which is sitting in all its dye-transfer glory in a solander box up in Canberra. And I could immediately see for myself that the London portrait gallery’s addition of gossipy back stories to some, but not all, of the prints seriously corrupted the totality of Eggleston’s ‘democratic’ vision. But, standing back from the walls a few metres, the mixture of print technologies visually ‘scanned’ together coherently for me, and when I got up close I loved the warm toothsomeness of the dye transfers, of course, but also thought the dry stipple of the new digital prints was pretty good too in its own way. And why can’t Eggleston agree to make large scale enlargements for the kids who, brought up on giant face-mounted acrylic museum photography, are used to big prints? He’s still alive, he can make his own decisions. Once lured inside, the kids found themselves treated to a selection of his small black and white ‘vintage’ work prints from the early sixties which I saw them eagerly poring over. This fetishisation of the vintage print, vocalised by the tuts directed towards this hang, can’t sustain itself for much longer. Before all of their other elaborations, most photographs (OK, not daguerreotypes and not iPhones) are in two parts: negative/print, capture/display. The vintage print may be the ordinary gallery-goer’s safest path to directly accessing the artist’s vision at the time the work was conceived, no question, but photographers, particularly photographers like Eggleston, are shooters as well as printers. Negative and print are separate objects, separated even ‘about the time the negative was made’ by separate technologies which activated different sets of substrate, pigment, halide, dye, coupler and bleach in different ways. They were divergent even in this mythical and temporally undefinable prelapsarian ‘vintage’ time, and they haven’t got more divergent since, only the technological nature of their divergence has changed. The supply/demand market-based logic of editioning photographs is alien to the fundamental nature of photography, it was imported into photography from manual printmaking conventions by gallerists trying to make a buck more recently than you realise. (Dupain never editioned ‘Sunbaker’ for example, he just wearily put the neg in the enlarger one more time whenever he was asked.) Also fundamentally alien to photography is setting up the print as the capital of all photographic aesthetics. Where would you rather look to find an old street photographer’s original intention, at a faded and severely colour-shifted type-c print made in some dodgy darkroom, or at a pigment print made from a fresh scan of the original negative? But which will get the higher price in a gallery? Those of us who aren’t in the print fetishists club are told we lack discrimination. Quite the opposite. We are quite capable of discriminating the nuances of different camera AND print technologies, and understanding them in terms of the technological history of photography, which includes deterioration of negative and print in different ways at different rates. But unfortunately our task isn’t helped by the lazy labels in the Eggleston show where the different exposure and printing dates are deliberately fudged, and viewers are encouraged to not discriminate. (Thanks to Geoff, Justine, Danica, Jane, Bronwyn and Isobel!)


Magnum PDF 1991



Photofile 34, December 1991






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




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.




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.




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.




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.




  1. Gael Elton Mayo, “The Magnum photographic group”, Apollo, September, 1989.
  2. Fred Ritchin, “What is Magnum?”, In Our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers^ Andre Deutsch, 1989.
  3. Jean Lacouture “The Founders”, Ibid.
  4. Mayo, Op Cit.
    1. Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment^ Simon & Schuster, N.Y., 1952.
    2. In Our Time, brochure.
    3. Roland Barthes, Mythologies^ Hill and Wang, N.Y., 1972.
      1. John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eyex Museum of Modern Art, N.Y., 1966
      2. Rosalind Krauss, “Photography’s Discursive Spaces”, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Mythsx MIT Press, 1985.
      3. Fred Ritchin, “What is Magnum?”, Op. Cit.
      4. “The Image of War”, American Photo, August 1991.
        1. Dorothea Lange, “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget”, Popular Photography, February 1960; Robert Capa, Slightly OutofFocuSiN.Y. 1947.
        2. Paul Virilio, War and Cinema:The Logistics of Perception^ Verso, London, 1989.




Composite Propaganda Photographs during the First World War 2003

pdf: composite propaganda 2003

‘Composite Propaganda Photographs during the First World War’,
History of Photography, Vol 27, No 2, Summer, 2003, pp 154-165
During the final two years of the First World War, a series of propaganda photography exhibitions were held in London. The centrepieces to these exhibitions were giant mural enlargements. Some of these spectacular battle scenes were artificially coloured and some were composites produced from several different negatives. The exhibitions were popular successes, and the mural images attracted favourable press attention. They also produced a degree of controversy behind the scenes with respect to their status as ‘fakes’.
Pictorial War Propaganda in Britain
In the first years of the war, all forms of propaganda began to be used more frequently and more strategically by all belligerent nations. By 1916 war propagandists were taking seriously the potential of pictorial propaganda. Britain appointed official photographers and set up a pictorial department to distribute British photographs and films overseas. From early 1917, when the war had bogged down in the trenches and there was danger of public disaffection, propaganda became as concerned with managing domestic opinion and mood as with promoting foreign policy interests abroad. By the closing stages of the war it had become apparent ‘that almost for the first time in history success in war had become directly dependent on general public opinion’. Pictorial propagandists quickly recognised the importance of the new media, such as the cinema or illustrated newspapers, for disseminating their images. Images became central to public understanding of the war, and photography and film supplanted the written word as the most powerful weapon in propaganda.
The driving force behind pictorial propaganda in Britain was Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian financier who, as Max Aitkin, had come to Britain in 1910 and quickly rose in politics through his wealth, newspaper interests as owner of the Daily Express, personal friendships and high-level political allegiances. At the outbreak of the War, Aitkin persuaded the Canadian Prime Minister to make him ‘Official Canadian Eyewitness’. In January 1916 he was allowed to set up and run the Canadian War Records Office. By the end of the year he had also become the Chairman of the British War Office Cinematographic Committee. Early the following year the new British Prime Minister Lloyd George granted him the peerage of Lord Beaverbrook as a reward for his support in the overthrow of the Asquith government. A year later, in 1918, Lloyd George made Beaverbrook Britain’s first Minister of Information. Beaverbrook energetically set about shaping what had previously been piecemeal efforts into a single operation.
From the start British propagandists distanced them¬selves from the sensational fabrications and gross jingoism of Boar War propaganda. In the phrase of the first head of the British Foreign Office’s Bureau of Propaganda, Charles Masterman, they were to use ‘the propaganda of facts’.2 While acknowledging this tenet, Beaverbrook demonstrated a more sophisticated understanding of media-based propaganda within the complex and fragmented social environment of wartime Britain. When he became Britain’s Minister of Information in 1918, he declared what his approach had been throughout the war. Public opinion must not be allowed to form itself, it must be formed for it — by the truth certainly — but the truth ‘in an acceptable form’:
It is useless to imagine that the mere existence of a fact will penetrate everywhere by its own weight, or that facts themselves do not requrre treatment according to which audience they are to be presented. Public opinion is indeed so volatile a thing that nothing except a mixture of tact and persistence will induce it to accept and realise what to the preacher is self evident.3
Earlier, as head of the Canadian War Records Office, Beaverbrook had realized that photography would be central to the documentation of this war because it was thoroughly in tune with the dual responsibility of a government records office to disseminate information and collect documents. The photograph was able to operate along both the axes of publicity and record keeping, propaganda and history. Photographs took part in the urgency of the moment, while simultaneously implying the importance of that moment for posterity. ‘Many of these have not yet passed the censor’, wrote Beaverbrook, ‘but five or ten or twenty-five years from now, they will be shown to us and our sons and will link the decades together in a way unimagined by our ancestors’.4
Beaverbrook also had the most acute understanding of anyone in Britain of the importance of photography and film for the new psychological depth of the task propaganda had to perform. He felt the visceral primacy of the image over the written word, and he understood the importance for war propaganda of the technical affinity that the most modern forms of visual experience had with the most modern forms of warfare.
Under modern conditions nations are fighting and are sacri¬ficing bone and sinew to an extent never known before — and realisation alone can justify the sacrifice. We must see our men climbing out of the trenches before we can realise the patience, the exhaustion, and the courage which are the assets and trials of the modern fighting man.”1
As the war dragged on, photography became even more important to Beaverbrook because the directness of the image was able to combat the fatigue the public was feeling with respect to the war itself and with the increasingly hollow-sounding rhetoric of traditional propaganda. Photographic facts addressed themselves particularly to the working classes and were able to form a direct point of contact between the totally estranged experiences of those in Britain and those on the front.
It is hard enough for the civilian, on whose endurance to the end the issue of the world war depends so largely, to realise conditions at the front: without photography it would be practically impossible. But what the mind can’t take in by the reading of descriptions, the eye can assimilate from the actual outline of the scene and the men depicted on the plate. Besides, the great bulk of mankind soon wearies of the word. At the bottom of his heart man feels of the war story that of the makers of such books there is no end, and that much study of them is weariness to the flesh. Photography has about it the convincing atmosphere of naked reality. He has only got to open his eyes to see it. So is modern science applied to the acts of war as well as of peace.’
Beaverbrook’s other innovation as head of the Canadian War Records Office was to use the established film and photography trades for the production and dissemination of propaganda. The official British and Canadians photographers
came largely from London’s most pictorially oriented illustrated newspaper, the Daily Mirror, which had since 1904 exclusively used photographs as illustrations. The Canadian official photographs were licensed for distribu¬tion through picture agencies on a commercial basis. ‘No propaganda reaches the hearts and minds of the people’, wrote Beaverbrook, ‘unless it is so convincing and that the public is ready and anxious to pay a price to see or read it’.7
In addition, in the emerging mass media environment of the time, there were many rivals for the attention of the public, and appetites easily became jaded. In this context, a fundamental principle of propaganda must be that ‘obvious propaganda is not only of little value but may even do more harm than good.’ Although Beaverbrook wanted his images to carry the authoritative premium of the ‘official’ imprimatur, he also wanted them to become an intimate part of the public’s media consumption, a consumption that was driven by the compulsions of choice and desire. Moreover, because this public appetite was changing and continually seeking formal novelty, only trade photographers trained under commercial imperatives, not bureaucrats, could provide effective propaganda.
Official war photographs were disseminated into a very fluid, polyvalent media environment. In the illustrated papers of the time photographs were not diegetically integrated into the news articles. They were generally given their own section in the paper — in the case of the Daily Mirror, as a front page, back page and centre double-page spread — with supporting captions. The caption might denote either a non-specific ‘scene at the front’, or a specifically reported on raid. Valencies of authenticity and scenographic legibility were exchanged between different kinds of image and text across the page. Photo¬graphic realism became the core model for all illustration, and the fresh, proximate, eyewitness report became the model for all text. Illustrated magazines such as the Illustrated London News, for instance, which still largely relied on drawing and paintings to convey scenographic information, often published an uninformative photo¬graph of a particular engagement, followed by a stirringly composed drawing of the same engagement, with the caption ‘drawn from eyewitness accounts’.
Although the intrepid official photographer became a key figure in this newspaper landscape, the idea of the ‘photojournalist’ — the autonomous photographer inde¬pendently reporting on events as they unfolded — made no sense at the time. Official photographers were given honorary ranks and saw themselves as propagandists, not reporters, their photographs were part of the war effort, not a comment on it.
The Problem of the ‘Fake’
In this context, propagandists and photographers found themselves having continually to finesse the balance between
the qualities of authenticity, actuality and immediacy in their images and their legibility as historical scenes. This was new iconographic terrain, where everything was at stake. The value of authenticity had never been more politically crucial, but at the same time the need to provide scenographic spectacle to feed the public appetite for images, and the need to re-cohere fragmentary and disjointed images into readily legible pictures, created a huge temptation to fake.
Faking took place in several forms. Photographs taken during training were passed off as real battle reportage or scenes were deliberately staged for the camera. Photographs themselves were manipulated with bomb blasts or aeroplanes being montaged into the pictures, and elaborate composites were sometimes constructed from several negatives. Virtually every photographer or filmmaker faked to some extent, and everybody seemed to know about it.
Not only did the accusation of fake directly threaten the propagandistic value of the photograph or film, it could also upset the internal politics of the army and undermine the photographer’s honorary position within its structure. Fakes could bring photographers and cinematographers into disrepute with soldiers at the front. For instance, a shot with a dog supposedly minding its master’s kit and rifle in the snow was returned to the official photographers from General Staff with the terse note: ‘I am instructing the photograph censors not to pass this type of photo in the future. To every soldier serving with a combatant unit, this must be patently and obviously a “fake”‘.10
Although such instances of faking remained relatively rare, and were usually officially disavowed and surrepti¬tious, they were nonetheless an integral part of pictorial propaganda. In his position as the Chair of the War Office Cinematographic Committee, Beaverbrook sacked a Lieutenant Bovill, a film cameraman, because his wholesale faking made his footage useless. At the same time, Beaverbrook continued to sponsor the successful British film cameraman Lieutenant Malins and Canada’s official photographer Ivor Castle, both of whom were widely suspected to have faked from time to time.
Propaganda   Exhibitions
The most explicit ‘fakes’ made during the First World War were the central set pieces to a series of massive photographic exhibitions that Beaverbrook initiated. In 1916 and 1917 Beaverbrook organised two exhibitions of ‘Canadian Official War Photographs’ at the Grafton Galleries in London. The success of these exhibitions led to two British exhibitions: an exhibition of ‘Imperial [British, Canadian and Australian] War Photographs’ at the Royal Academy in January 1918; and ‘British Official War Photographs in Colour’ at the Grafton Galleries in March 1918. By this time Beaverbrook had become Minister of Information. The Australian War Records Section concluded the sequence with an exhibition ‘Australian Official War Photographs and Pictures’ at the Grafton Galleries in May 1918.
The first Canadian exhibitions not only went on to tour — first in England and then to France and to North America — but they were also the locus for considerable press attention, visits by royalty and huge public attendance. They were partnered as media events by the reproduction in newspapers and magazines of images made from them. They were also points from which images were sold to the public in a variety of formats and prices, ranging from nine pence to several hundred pounds.
These exhibitions were organised by Ivor Castle, an experienced English press and war photographer, whom Beaverbrook had recruited to the Canadian War Records Office in mid 1916 from the photography department of the Daily MirrorV Castle photographed Canada’s role in the disastrous Somme offensive of late 1916, and then returned to London to mount in December 1916 the first exhibition of over 200 Canadian War Photographs. The photographic printing company Raines & Co of Ealing enlarged these negatives to sizes ranging from one square metre to two by three metres and mounted them in heavy oak frames. The proceeds from the picture sales went to the Canadian War Memorials Fund to pay painters to paint grand battle pictures for a post war memorial.
Captions to photographs in this exhibition emphasizd both the technical sophistication of the photographs, and the bravery of the photographer:
Heavy Barrage Fire
This is the only panoramic photograph of a shell barrage in the world … It is obvious from the picture the risk which the photographer ran in taking it.
The Shelling of Courcelette
The photographer approached as near to the scene as he could without being killed, and declares it to be a veritable ‘hell on earth’.12
In this exhibition, however, staged photographs were also shown without compunction. The exhibition’s central sequence of photographs, which supposedly showed lines of troops heroically clambering ‘over the top’ into an onslaught of enemy machine gun fire, was in fact taken behind the lines at the St Pol training school. The canvas breech covers on the training rifles held by the soldiers had been cropped out, and shell bursts, which were probably shot separately at the nearby trench-mortar school, had been montaged into the sky.1
Shortly after the photographs had been staged and three months before their display in the exhibition, this sequence had been received enthusiastically by the press, which had published them as up-to-the minute news photographs. They were published by the Illustrated London News with the caption: ‘”Over the Top”: The meaning of a phrase now familiar.’14 They were also reproduced on the front page of the Daily Mirror, with the caption ‘These Striking Photographs Show In Vivid Fashion An Attack By The Canadian Troops’.13 A month later the Daily Mirror published them again, along with a dashing portrait of Ivor Castle posing in a trench (figure 2), in order to advertise their sale as postcards, with profits to go to the Canadian War Memorials Fund.16
When the enlargements were exhibited at the Grafton Galleries two months later, they relied on a more elaborately fabricated catalogue text to verify them:
The Last Over The Top
Here is to be seen a remarkable picture of a German shrapnel shell bursting over a Canadian trench just as the Canadians are going over the parapet. A fragment from this shell killed the man whose body is seen sprawled across the parapet.17
This incident of staging remained officially unac¬knowledged, and Castle, coming from a commercial background and having a flare for publicity, went on to exaggerate his personal derring-do in the magazine Canada in Khaki: ‘Taking photographs of the men going over the parapet is quite exciting. Nothing, of course, can be arranged. You sit or crouch in the first-line trench while the enemy does a little strafing, and if you are lucky you get your pictures’. This studied insouciance gave Castle’s colleague on the Daily Mirror, William Rider-Rider, who was the second official Canadian photographer recruited to the Canadian War Records Office in June 1917, a lot to live down when he visited some units. There, he later recounted, he was met by remarks such as, ‘Want to take us going over the top? Another faker?’19
As the exhibition toured to Canada and the United States over the next two years, the ‘over the top’ pictures continued to be met with press acclaim for their realism, vividness and sense of immediacy. In all of these press accounts the figure of the intrepid photographer, who like the soldiers themselves risked death to capture his shots, figured strongly.
Cinema  Propaganda
Castle staged his ‘over the top’ pictures at about the same time as the seminal propaganda film Battle of the Somme was breaking all box office records in Britain. The centrepiece to the film was a similarly stirring ‘over the top sequence’, which had been filmed a month or so before. The first two shots in the sequence were staged, probably also at a training school behind the lines, by the British War Office’s Official cinematographer, Lieutenant Geoffrey Malins.”
The Second Canadian Exhibition
After the success of his first Canadian exhibition, Castle remained in London until April 1917, when he returned to France and photographed the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge. These photographs formed the basis of the second exhibition, also sponsored by the Canadian War Records Office, which opened in July 1917 (figure 3). Like its predecessor this exhibition featured 188 enlargements in oak frames, some of which were further enhanced by artificial colouring. The pictures were reported as depicting the Canadian operations with a ‘terrible realism’ and supplying a ‘most intimate insight’ into the difficulties of the front.”1 As in the first exhibition, the intrepidity of the official photographer was highlighted in the catalogue.
Barbed Wire and the Shells
The Canadian official photographer was out along the front line when the Germans suddenly began a bombardment. The pho¬tographer had to take cover for three hours, but he emerged periodically to take pictures of the Germans’ morning ‘hate’.
The Death Cloud
It is one of the hardest things in the world to get a really good ‘snap’ of bursting shrapnel. Pretty as this little cloud of smoke looks, it is very deadly, and the man who handles the camera at such a moment does so at the risk of his life.
Many of the pictures were giant enlargements. The catalogue drew the visitor’s particular attention to picture
number 158 (figures 4, 5), ‘which is the largest photo¬
graph in the world taken on “no man’s land” by the
Canadian Official photographer as the Canadians went over to the attack on Thelus Village’. The picture would have been hard to miss since it occupied an entire wall of the central gallery and measured six by three metres. Raines & Co had printed it in five separate panels. The image was a composite of several different negatives, with printed-in shell bursts in the sky and printed-in bodies in the foreground. The catalogue’s extended caption served as a film-like commentary, taking the visitor step by step through the correct way to experience the picture:
The Taking of Vimy Ridge
No individual soldier taking part in a modern battle can have the faintest idea of the scope of the battle, or the conditions of that battle. Distance and perspective are necessary to secure the correct impression of the actual facts. For this reason it is idle to stand close to this picture. It must be looked at and studied from a sufficient distance to enable one to understand the immensity and importance of the scene before one. It is true that the Canadian Official photographer, who took this picture, was in the midst of the men who were advancing to the attack, but knowledge of his craft alone enabled him to take a picture, the real wonder and sense of which can only be studied with quiet reflection and at a distance. Nonetheless the  terrible  nearness of things  in which the photographer stood, which enables one to, as it were, ‘watch the battle from the neighbouring hill’, at the same time sweeps one into the conflict. One becomes absorbed into the picture. It is as though one were on the battlefield itself. The picture of the battle is taken in profile. It is taken from the flank looking along the line of attack. To the left of the picture, beyond the frame, one must imagine the smoke of our guiding and sheltering barrage fire. Guiding, yes, but sheltering only to a degree. Through that barrage the German shells are hurtling. The white smoke in the distance, which lies along the ground like a dewy mist above meadows at dawn, is smoke from the counter barrage of the German’s piercing our own. Every fleck of smoke, indeed, in the grim sky is smoke from bursting enemy shells. The great splodges of black smoke show where German shrapnel is showering thickly. Far along the ridge, in the middle distance, through the lane of men, may be seen the tanks heavily engaged. In the immediate foreground lie those who have already made the supreme sacrifice. Between, strolling to their ‘rendezvous with death’, are the men who made Vimy deathless. At the moment they are on what had been ‘no man’s land’ but a short time before; there still protrude from the broken ground the supports which held the German wire entanglements swept away from our guns. It is an awful pageant of war as it is waged today. It is an impression, nay, indeed a reality, of the splendid horror snatched by the photographer, in the fraction of a second, from the clutchings of death.23
This extended description not only navigates the audience through the abstracted, fragmented and disorienting experience of modern warfare, but also instructs it how to experience the picture in the gallery space. The viewer is asked to immerse himself within the battle, while also retaining a distance from it. This phenomenological act of doubling attempts to project an experiential bridge between those in London and those in the trenches. It links the two new, modern experiences — warfare and giant photograph exhibitions — through the mechanisms of nationalist empathy and the virtual space created by advanced photographic technology.
Like the first exhibition, this one was a spectacular success. At one point people queued for nearly two hundred metres to get in, and the exhibition raised £1100 for the Canadian War Memorials Fund. It was also the occasion for much associated press coverage. The Daily Mirror, whose photography department Castle had formerly headed and to which he would return after the War, was especially enthusiastic:
To gaze, for instance at the huge picture showing the Canadians going to the attack at Vimy Ridge is to be carried away in imagination to the grim realities of war. To obtain a full impression of the splendid awesomeness of this amazing masterpiece of photographic art the visitor should stand some distance away. The result will be thrills as if one were on the battlefield itself24
The exhibition later toured Britain, and a copy went to Paris and Canada. The success of the Canadian War Records Office did not go unnoticed. John Buchan, head of Britain’s Department of Information, wrote in August 1917 to Sir Reginald Brade of the British War Office. He  wanted  to   revamp   and  increase  the  support  and supervision afforded to British photographers because the flood of good quality Canadian photographs was lending support to criticism in the US press that ‘Canada [was] running the war.’  Buchan was opposed, however,  to emulating Beaverbrook by  putting British propaganda photography on an entirely commercial footing. He did not want to tie distribution to the monopoly of one commercial agency and, balking at Beaverbrook’s commer¬cial understanding of the new dynamics of public image consumption, thought it unwise to restrict attendance at propaganda exhibitions by charging admission.”3
Castle’s use of composites had the full support of Beaverbrook. He was planning an exhibition of Imperial War Photographs for January 1918 and was determined to retain the right of the Canadian Office to make composites for display. ‘Fake them … that’s what you could call it’, he declared in a meeting.” He brazened down British General Staff by directly requesting a ruling from the Chief Censor as to how they should be treated. He received the crisp reply: ‘All photographs whether “composite” or single exhibited as representing an actual scene on the Western front should be censored. If the Canadian Photographic Section care to exhibit “composite” photos clearly marked as such, then it will suffice if each separate photo has been censored’.27
The biggest composite was produced not for the Canadians, however, but on behalf of the British, for the exhibition ‘British Official War Photographs in Colour’ held in March 1918. Beaverbrook now led Britain’s Ministry of Information, and Ivor Castle probably orchestrated the composite, although he was still nominally attached to the Canadian War Records Office. At Raines & Co the photographs in the exhibition were printed in sepia, then broadly hand coloured with spray guns, before being coloured in detail by hand. They were mistakenly assumed by some daily newspapers to be colour photographs.~x Mounted prints measuring 1.3 by 1 metres were on sale for £150, with an additional 50% added for hand colouring. The catalogue to the exhibition proclaimed:
Great Record of the War
No photographic exhibition has ever been attempted on such a scale before. It comprises many thousands of square feet of photographs, coloured under the supervision of experts, with the most particular care to detail. Truth to colour has never been sacrificed for the sake of creating an impression, but nonetheless the impression which this amazing collection conveys will be ineffaceable. If all the Master Artists of the world had laboured for a year they could not have produced a record of War so humanly vivid, arresting and complete. One walks through the doors of the Grafton Galleries on to the grey flats of Flanders, and on to the golden but burning sands of the deserts of the east. It is as though one was transported on a magic carpet into the battle zone half the world over. This wonderful collection is the apotheosis of the camera. The unflinching eye of the lens has looked on the War
in all its aspects, and has recorded more faithfully even than any historian could do, the greatest and the smallest things in the greatest and most wonderful war in history.-
The centrepiece to the exhibition was the new ‘largest photograph in the world’ (figure 1), a hand-coloured composite, which, despite General Staffs request, was not identified as such:
Dreadnoughts of the Battlefield This, the largest photograph in the world, was taken during a recent advance on the Western Front. The tanks, those giant landships which indomitably plough the oceans of mud in France and Flanders, are moving forward to attack. In the photograph heavy shells may be seen bursting thickly in the line of their path, but no barrage daunts them. The picture is so vivid that it brings the realisation of modern battle into the heart of London. The best way to appreciate its wonders is to stand away from it as far as possible, when every detail will stand out in stereoscopic relief. The picture actually measures 23ft 6in by 17ft, without the frame, and it was necessary to make it in two sections, as the builders of the Galleries never anticipated a ‘canvas’ on such a scale. Neither doors nor windows could accommodate a picture of such gigantic dimensions.3″
This picture therefore subsumes into itself all previous and rival technologies: the humanity of the history paint¬ing, the magic carpet ride of cinema and the corporeally based illusionism of the stereoscope. The magnitude of this gesamtkunstwerk can only be achieved through composite montage, but this montage has to be disavowed in order to preserve the integrity of photographic verisimilitude, while inscribing it into a new regime of modernist spectacle. As a Ministry of Information press article commented: ‘It is a far cry from the old garish family group pasted in the album of Victorian days to the great picture twenty-four feet by seventeen feet showing the first tanks in action.'” When the King and Queen visited the exhibition to view ‘the soul of the War laid bare in pictures’, they remained for a long time in front of this picture. The King remarked that the photographs were the finest he had seen.32
After two months at the Grafton Galleries, the exhibition had been seen by a quarter of a million people and had raised £7000 for charity. The exhibition was then moved into the East End, to the People’s Palace in Mile End Road, presumably to address itself more directly to London’s working classes. A smaller version of the exhibition simultaneously toured smaller towns, and a set of battle photographs was prepared for dispatch to the United States.
Australian   Propaganda
The establishment of a Canadian War Records Office in January 1916 had been a model and a goad for Australia’s War Recorder, C.E.W. Bean, to agitate for the establish¬ment of an Australian War Records Section, which he finally achieved in June 1917. The Canadian office was always more generously resourced and commercially aggressive than the Australian section. Because of Lord Beaverbrook’s status as simultaneously Canadian War Records Officer, Chairman of the British War Office Cinematographic Committee, Peer, newspaper proprie¬tor and Whitehall power broker, the Canadian War Records Office had also had much more weight in London. In fact, in late 1917 and early 1918 Bean had to fend off several attempts by Beaverbrook to bring the entire Australian photography section under his wing.” The two organizations also took radically different approaches to their work. Bean was a reporter and a historian. Although he sometimes skewed his reportage for propaganda purposes, he was nonetheless committed above all else to making a record of the war, which he saw in nation building terms.’4 Beaverbrook was a poli¬tician and newspaperman, committed to propaganda and publicity and, above all, the management of public opinion.
Like Beaverbrook, however, Bean was also convinced of the crucial role the photograph must play in war records, not because of its propaganda charge but because of its status as an inviolable historical artifact. Beaverbrook used experienced English press photographers as Cana¬dian official photographers because they knew best the contemporary media landscape. Bean wanted to use Australian photographers to record Australian soldiers, because they would be contributing to the foundation of an Australian heritage. In August 1917 the two Australian photographers Bean had requested — Hubert Wilkins and Frank Hurley — were appointed directly to the Australian Imperial Forces.
After a few weeks at the front, one of the photogra¬phers, Frank Hurley, became convinced that the only way to make convincing battle photographs was to make composite prints. Hurley was already well acquainted with the techniques of composite printing. Before the war he had read a paper to the Photographic Society of New South Wales on the subject, demonstrating his study by combining several different negatives taken of different animals at the zoo into a single scene, complete with clouds.” * He had also made composite prints in London just before his appointment as an Australian official photographer.
In November 1916 Hurley had arrived in London as a hero. He was the photographer and cinematographer of the Shackleton Antarctic expedition, which had just returned to London after a sensational escape from the ice. On 5 December 1916 Hurley’s expedition photographs were published exclusively across all of the photography sections of the Daily Mirror. The Shackleton expedition had been financed against expected future earnings from the sale of the film and photograph rights. Because much material had been lost in the crushing of the Endurance or left on the ice, the backers of the exhibition decided that Hurley should return to South Georgia to shoot more wildlife scenes to supplement the Antarctic material. Before leaving in February 1917, however, Hurley worked in the darkrooms of the Daily Chronicle, owned by one of the expedition’s backers, as well as with the Paget Company, where his colour lantern slides ‘were developed, and at Raines & Co, where his negatives were printed. During this period, Hurley made the most of the limited number of plates that he had brought back from Antarctica by combining some of them into composite prints. He also worked with a variety of British companies to manufacture cutting-edge display technology for the marketing of the expedition’s photographs and films. Newtons, for instance, who were lantern slide experts, constructed a special lantern able to project colour images on to a screen five metres square.
Hurley was in London, working with the Shackleton material at Raines & Co and making composite prints, during the period when the Canadian exhibitions were being mounted. He would have easily recognized the printed-in clouds and composites, but his diary does not record that he visited the exhibitions. Nor does it record him meeting Castle until a week or so after his own decision to make composite prints of the fighting in Flanders.’
Hurley and Charles Bean had a running argument, extended over several days, about Hurley’s right to make composites.37 The idea was anathema to Bean, for whom the war photograph was becoming a sacred, inviolable historical artefact. The example of the Canadian composites was there for each man to draw upon as they argued. Bean wrote in his diary:
[HIad a long argument with Hurley who wants to be allowed to make ‘composite’ pictures for his exhibition … I can see his point, he has been nearly killed a dozen times and has tailed to get the pictures he wants — but we will not have it at any price. The Canadians to some extent print their battle pictures with shell bursts from other photos — but we don’t want to rival them in this.’
Hurley, on the other hand, declared to his diary:
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. Canada has made a great advertisement out of their pictures, and I must beat them.’
At about this time Beaverbrook had approached Hurley to make composite prints for the Canadians outside of the Australian areas. ” This may have been what emboldened Hurley to threaten to resign he if did not get his way. Australian GHQ eventually gave Hurley permission to reproduce six composites, requesting only that they be clearly labelled as such.
In early November Bean sent Hurley to Palestine to cover the Australian Light Horse. Away from the stric¬tures of the front and of Bean, he flourished. He found the Australian light horse battalions amenable to staging re-enactments for the camera. He met with the commanders beforehand and planned with them whole, day-long programmes of ‘stunts’.
In late 1917, while Hurley was still in Palestine, the other Australian photographer, Lieutenant Wilkins, chose the Australian photographs for the exhibition of Imperial Photographs. Each country had its own gallery, and a giant enlargement dominated each gallery. Incongruously, the Australian mural enlargement was not of a battle scene, but was a triumphal image of the Band of the 5th Australian Infantry Brigade marching confidently through the still smoking ruins of the French town of Bapaume (figure 6). Bean visited the exhibition, and it did not escape his notice that some of the Canadian photographs were composites. ‘Ours were simply and strictly true’, he observed, T would rather have them a thousand times’.
Hurley returned to London in May 1918 to prepare for the exhibition of Australian war pictures, organised in London through the Australian High Commission. He arranged to have 130 negatives printed, his six composites and other images enlarged to mural size at Raines & Co, and colour lantern slides made from the Paget colour plates. As well as Hurley’s composites, some of the photographs exhibited were of re-enactments. The Australian War Records Section attempted to ensure that they were given titles that protected them from the accusation of fake. For instance, a shot of a re-enactment of a charge at Gallipoli, probably taken behind the lines by the British official photographer Ernest Brooks, was entitled ‘Illustrating how the Australians charged the Turkish trenches at Gallipoli’. Some re-enactments slipped through the net, however, and officers visiting the exhibition commented upon those. The Australian War Records Section com¬plained to the Australian High Commission: ‘I have heard today a great deal of adverse comment upon the pictures. It comes from those who … know that the pictures cannot possibly be true, [they] say the obvious inaccuracy of the titling of the pictures made them doubt all the others, and in their opinion quite spoilt the whole show. Personally I am inclined to agree with them’. “
The exhibition still featured Hurley’s composites, however, most spectacularly showing a large composite exhibited under the protectively generalised title ‘The Raid’.43 The catalogue description of this composite was considerably more circumspect and ambiguous than the strident sensationalism of the captions for the Canadian and British composites, although it does retain their sense of cinematic montage.
The Raid
A large composite picture. Australian troops are seen advancing to the attack prior to the Battle of Broodseinde. A heavy enemy barrage is seen falling on the distant ridge. Aeroplanes are shown flying low for the purpose of machine gunning the enemy trenches. At the extreme right of the picture is an aeroplane down in flames. This picture shows the thick smoke and haze which are characteristic of the battlefield in this sector.44
Hurley was also keen to test the reaction of the soldiers to his composites:
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 confident such impression composites are justified.”13
Hurley’s composite was made up of twelve negatives and far surpassed Castle’s in intricacy. It was not coloured, however, nor was it the latest ‘largest photograph in the world’ (missing out by half a metre or so). Perhaps because giant composite murals had already been seen in London and perhaps because Hurley had no close personal links with the newspapers, the composites for which he had fought so hard aroused little interest in the London press. The lantern slides received more press attention. The British Journal of Photography reported that the half-hourly displays of half-plate Paget plates projected onto a full-size lantern screen were in fact the first real colour photographs to be exhibited of scenes and incidents of the war. Hurley’s status as an explorer photographer was also recognized, as well as his highly developed sense of the picturesque which, for the journal, was as important as the intrinsic interest of the subject. For instance, he exploited the emotional potential of colour by contrasting the ‘wealth of flower and foliage in France’ to the ‘ruin wrought by warfare close at hand’.41 The Times agreed:
A cluster of soldiers’ graves, described as ‘one of Australia’s most sacred spots’, is covered with flowers which have sprung from the shell scarred earth. It might seem that nothing could grow in such soil, and the ordinary photograph would have to be very good indeed to persuade to the contrary. But the coloured photograph is complete proof. These pictures …. should not be missed by any who would learn what photography can accomplish.
Like his British and Canadian counterparts, Bean was now fully attentive to the propagandistic potential of photographs and to the need to massage public opinion. Whilst the exhibition continued its run in London, Bean catalogued the official Australian photographs, including Hurley’s composites, that were to be made available for sale to the public directly from Australia House at a shilling each. Beaverbrook’s British Ministry of Informa¬tion was already selling official photographs directly to the public from a shop front at Piccadilly. Bean also produced several series of lantern slides for the recruiting authority in Australia. As he admitted, ‘the originator of this scheme was really Hurley’.
This extraordinary series of exhibitions attempted to engage, and then re-engage, the public directly in the war. Using all the new visual technologies then available, while drawing on familiar and long established modes of pictorial representation, they attempted to link the experience of the viewing public in London with the unimaginable experiences of those in the trenches. These images sold ‘thrills’ into a competitive marketplace, but thrills that attempted to bring together and reconnect a fracturing nation. Although these images coveted their authenticity, they were also willing to trade some of it in return for the values of coherent spectacle. Different propagandists and photographers evidently took different attitudes with respect to how many facts could be exchanged for how many thrills.
1. Beaverbrook, Memorandum for the Committee from the Minister of Information, House of Lords Records Office, BBK/E/3/4,  1918, 1.
2. J. Carmichael, First World War Photographers, London: Routledge 1989, 16.
3. Beaverbrook, Memorandum for the  Committee,  BBK/E/3/4,   1.
4. Beaverbrook, Report submitted by the Officer in charge, Imperial War Museum, Canadian War Records Office Records, 11 January 1917.
5. Ibid.
6. Beaverbrook, Draft of the ‘Ministry of Information, its Organisation and Work’ for publication in the Windsor magazine, HLRO, BBK/E/3/49, 18 June 1918.
7. Beaverbrook, Report submitted to the Officer in Charge, IWM, 13 March   1918.
8. Beaverbrook, Ministry of Information Minute, HLRO, BBK/E/2/18, 1918, 3.
9. For a more detailed discussion of illustrated newspapers during the First World War, see J. Taylor, War Photography: Realism in the British  Press,  London:  Routledge   1991,   18-51.
10. M. N. Lytton, Note from Photography Section, GHQ, to Ministry of Information, IWM, Ministry of Information files, Box 1, No. 3, 8 January 1918.
11. Canadian official photography is discussed in greater detail in, P. Robertson, ‘Canadian Photojournalism during the First World War’, History of Photography 2:1 (January 1978), 37-52.
12. Catalogue of the Canadian Official War Photographs Exhibition, London: 1916,”n.p.
13. Robertson,    ‘Canadian   Photojournalism’,43.
14. ‘Over the Top’, the meaning of a phrase now familiar. The Canadians making one of their brilliant attacks. Men leaving their trenches’, Illustrated London News, London (21  October 1916), 4.
15. ‘GOING OVER THE TOP: A CHARGE BY THE CANADIAN TROOPS ON THE SOMME FRONT’, The Daily Mirror, London (16 October 1916), 1.
16. ‘CANADIAN OFFICIAL WAR POSTCARDS’, The Daily Mirror, London (6 November 1916), 4.
17. Catalogue of the Canadian Official War Photographs Exhibition.
18. I. Castle, ‘With a camera on the Somme, by the Official Photographer with the Canadian Forces’, Canada in Khaki, London: Canadian War Records Office  1917, 68.
19. Robertson,   ‘Canadian   Photojournalism’,   43.
20. For a detailed study of parallel issues in propaganda films see N. Reeves, Official British Film Propaganda During the First World War, London: Croom Helm 1986 and N. Reeves, ‘Official British Film Propaganda’, The First World War and popular cinema 1914 to the present, New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press 2000.
21. ‘News and Notes: Canadian War Photographs’, The British Journal of Photography (20 July 1917), 381.
22. Catalogue of the Canadian Official War Photographs Second Exhibition.
23. Ibid.
25. J. Buchan, Utter to Sir Reginald Brade, War Office, HLRO, BBK/ E/3, 14 August 1917.
26. C. E. W. Bean, C. E. W. Bean Diary, Australian War Memorial, AWM38, 3DRL606, series 1, item 94, 20 November 1917.
27. B.-G. J. Charteris, Note to Major Neville Lytton, IWM, Ministry of Information files, 6 January 1917.
28. ‘Exhibitions: Imperial War Photographs in Colour’, The Britisli
Journal of Photography (8 March 1918),  117 and (15 March 1918),
29. ‘Catalogue of the British Official War Photographs in Colour London:
30. Ibid.
31. Beaverbrook, Draft of the ‘Ministry of Information, its Organisation and Work’ for publication in the Windsor magazine, 18 June 1918, HLRO, BBK/E/3/49, 18 June 1918, 9.
32. ‘SOUL OF THE WAR, The King’s tribute to Realism in Pictures, VISIT TO EXHIBITION’, The Daily Mirror Sunday Pictorial, (3 March 1918), 2.
33. C. E. W. Bean Diary, Australian War Memorial, AWM38, 3DRL606, series 1, item 94 20 November 1917, and Ministry of Information file note, IWM, Ministry of Information Files, Box 2, Number 4, 22 March 1918.
34. J. F. Williams, ‘The gilding of battlefield lilies’, The Quarantined Culture: Australian Reactions to Modernism 1013-19)9, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995, D. MCarthy, Gallipoli to the Somme: the Story of C.  E.   W.  Bean, Sydney: John Ferguson 1983.
35. F. Legg, Once More On My Adventure, Sydney: Ure Smith 1966, 20. F. Hurley, My Diary, Official War Photographer, Commonwealth Military Forces, from 21 August 1911 to 31 August 1918, typewritten manuscript, National Library of Australia, MS883, Series 1, Item 5, 26 October 1917.
38. 39.
This argument and Frank Hurley’s war photography are discussed in greater depth in M. Jolly, ‘Australian First World War Photography: Frank   Hurley   and   Charles   Bean’,   History   of Photography   23:   2 (Summer 1999), 141-148. C.  E.  W. Bean Diary, item 165, 71-72. Hurley, My Diary,  2 October 1917.
40. C.  E.  W.  Bean Diary, 20 November 1917.
41. McCarthy,  Gallipoli to the Somm, 314.
42. Captain Treloar to L. C. Smart, 25 May 1918, Re: Exhibition in the Grafton Galleries, AWM, AWM16, 4375/11/13, 25 May 1918. Catalogue of Australian Official War Pictures and Photographs, London: 1918. Ibid.
45. C. F. Hurley, ‘War Photography’, The Australasian Photo-Review (15 February 1919),  164.
46. ‘Colour Photography of the Battlefield’, The British Journal of Photography (7 June 1918), 24.
47. ‘Colour Photographs. Capt. Hurley’s Work in Palestine’, The Times, London,sssss (June 6, 1918), 5.
48. C. E.  W. Bean Diary, item 116, 26 June 1918.

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

Present Tense: An Imagined Grammar of Portraiture in the Digital Age

‘Present Tense’, National Portrait Gallery, Real Time Media Arts, August, 2010

National Portrait Gallery Until 22 August

What has become of the genre of portraiture in the digital age? What actual works have artists made in response to that vague list of usual suspects we all automatically reel off whenever contemporary media technologies are mentioned: social networking sites, mobile phone cameras, 3D scanners, rapid prototypers, tomography, and on-line avatars? This show answers that question with a diverse collection of strong works by twenty-seven well-established Australian and international artists, which are installed with intelligence and wit. It’s good to see a show of photography and digital media which has been fully thought through and tightly selected by a proper curator, Michael Desmond, who has a broad knowledge and an international horizon. This show is a refreshing change from those loose surveys ‘around’ themes which appear to be chosen mainly for their convenience, or even worse, those ubiquitous but lazily conceived competitions which we get too often.

A good way of looking at the show as a whole is that it is about the interaction of new technologies with the traditional methods of portraiture — painting, sculpture and photography — which already have their own pre-established ‘grammars’. Thus we have Jonathan Nichols’ flat, though engaging, paintings of young girls, each with a slight air of ambiguous familiarity. But wait, these aren’t paintings of the girls themselves, but of their Facebook thumbnails. The tug we feel is not towards their offering of themselves to us as individual viewers, but the offering of themselves to the generalized gaze of the world wide social network.

In another breathtaking remodalization of an old technology, both Chuck Close and Aaron Seeto work with daguerreotypes, that primeval photographic process where all of photography’s uncanniness seems to manifest itself most magically. From the point of view the twenty-first century, Close’s daguerreotyped heads and bodies remind the viewer a bit of a holograms. And as viewers move their head from side to side to get the right angle, and the image wells up from the visual depths like a surfacing whale, that familiar tingle up the spine they get, that simultaneous feeling of proximity and distance, is no longer configured historically — back into the depths of the mid nineteenth-century — but existentially, from one human presence to another. In contrast, Aaron Seeto’s daguerreotype translations of right-click grabs from web reports of the 2005 Cronulla Riots make a more overt, even arch, point about the permanence and impermanence, the legibility and illegibility, of historical memory when it is entrusted to the oceanic swirls and currents of the internet.

The viewer has to do fair bit of head wiggling in this show. Installed across from the daguerreotypes there are two anamorphic skulls, both referring to the Holbein’s famous vanitas intervention at the bottom of his 1553 portrait of The Ambassadors.  In a diptych the painter Juan Ford bravely confronts an X-Ray of a skull. From our point of view, in front of the diptych, the skull is safely distorted and in another space. But, we realize, from his point of view within the diptych it would be restored to its correct, archetypal shape of warning and fear. The American Robert Lazzarini’s anamorphic skull is a life-size three-dimensional sculpture made of actual bone material embedded in resin. As we circle warily around, it fleetingly looms out of its anamorphic parallel universe and into our own.

In a similar way, the faces of Justine Khamara’s angry and surprised parents suddenly pop out at us when we stand directly in front of the bulging aluminium constructions on which their flat images have been printed. It is the viewer’s exact position at the apex of the constructions which animates them, seemingly jolting them out of some kind of two dimensional repose.

This show foregrounds the fundamental image-making actions which have now become proper to contemporary portraiture. No longer just the snap the of camera’s shutter or the incremental description of the painter’s brush, but now also the trundling progress of the flatbed scanner and the circular pan of the 3D scanner.

Stelarc, in classic techno-narcissist style, stretches the skin of his head across a flat acrylic table that measures 1.2 times 1.8 metres, to invite us to delectate on every one of his pores and bristles. The German artist Karin Sander makes exact, three dimensional, indexical sculptures of her subjects at one-fifth scale by using three-dimensional scanning and rapid prototyping technology. What are these mini-thems? Three-dimensional photos? Optical clones? Plastic avatars? Whatever they are, one isn’t enough. I found myself wanting the artist to be true to her namesake, August Sander, and methodically create an army of miniature German people.

In contrast to the indexical, technologically produced three dimensional portrait, the Korean artist Osang Gwon takes hundreds of small photographs of every inch of her young, punky, Korean subject, and glues them on to hand-carved life-sized Styrofoam figure in a loose collagistic style. This produces a strong but unstable sense of the physical presence of her subject, as if her skin and clothes, and indeed her whole persona, is on the verge of peeling away with nothing left beneath.

There are plenty of hits of humanist sympathy to be had from this show. In 2008 the Dutch artist Geert van Kesteren collected mobile phone shots SMSed out of Iraq and Syria. Enlarged, framed and gridded up the wall, these ephemeral and off-the-cuff of images become a monumental document of geo-political conflict where snapshots of happy family gatherings and friends at play, sit insouciantly beside shots taken out of the windows of moving cars of dead bodies by the road or the interiors of burnt out houses.

The masterful Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra provides the emotional centre of gravity for the show. Her simple nude photographs of startled young mothers clutching their newborn babies like bags of shopping about to burst remind us again of the power of the straight photo. But her stunning two-gun video installation, The Buzzclub, LiverpoolUK/Mysteryworld, Zaandam NL, also from the mid-nineties, confirms the pre-eminence of the video portrait. Dijkstra has, presumably, momentarily pulled young off-their-faces clubbers straight from the dance floors of the two clubs and put them in front of her video camera in a bare white space off to the side. But the laser lightshows and the duff duff are obviously still going on inside their skulls. As they continue to work their jaws and jig robotically we get full voyeuristic access to them and, even though their interior individualities have temporarily gone AWOL, we nonetheless feel an extraordinary tenderness welling up for them.

The theme of interior and exterior slowly emerges as a thread in this show. For instance Scott Redford videoed fellow artist Jeremy Hynes performing a private, improvised homage to Kurt Cobain by writing his name on a cigarette and inhaling its now transubstantiated smoke deep into his lungs, before sobbing with genuine loss and longing. In a sucker punch for the attentive reader of the catalogue we learn that Jeremy Hynes was himself killed in a road accident a few months after the video was shot. Across the way from this projection is Petrina Hicks’ Ghost in the Shell where we silently circle around a pure, innocent young girl — or perhaps she rotates before us? Then, ever so discreetly, ever so elegantly, a tendril of smoke or mist escapes from between her lips. Her spirit? Her soul? Just her ciggy smoke? She just continues to rotate without answer.

In the end this is a humanist show, about ghosts more than shells. It argues that despite all of the cold digital technology in the world portraits are still about the promise of finding the warm interior of a person via their exterior. The show’s inclusion of some three-dimensional ultrasound images of foetuses in the womb could have easily been over-the-top and obvious in its point about our intimate adoption of new imaging technologies. Until we see one intrauterine image of twins in which one foetus is caught sticking its toe into the eye of its sibling. A rivalry which, we think to ourselves, will no doubt continue for the rest of their lives.

Martyn Jolly

Martyn Jolly is Head of Photography and Media Arts at the Australian National University School of Art.

Eyes, Lies and Illusions

‘Eyes, Lies and Illusions’, review in Art Monthly Australia, May, 2007, pp10 — 14.

Drawn from the Werner Nekes Collection
Australian Centre for the Moving Image
2 November 2006 to 11 February 2007

Many popular histories of cinema insult the audiences of the past with the myth that at one of the first demonstrations of the cinematograph in 1895 the audience, convinced that a real train was bearing down on them, ran screaming from hall. Of course they didn’t. They certainly cried out in astonishment, but not because they were naively duped. Rather, as the operator made the familiar projected photograph suddenly lurch into movement they realized they were finally witnessing a new category of illusionism that had long been anticipated. This event was as much just another astounding moment from a centuries-long history of illusionism, as it was the nativity scene for the movies. For a long time the industrial-strength historicism of Hollywood has tended to occlude the larger and more dispersed history of which it is a part. But although it is full of arcane byways and bizarre events, this history can nonetheless still tell us a lot about our own mediated relationships with reality.

Although it has directly addressed central philosophical questions of optical perception, epistemological belief and physical embodiment over many centuries, the history of illusionism lies scattered over a bewildering array of toys, devices, instruments, performances, and barely creditable anecdotes. For instance we have the camera obscura, an instrument for the sober investigation of nature, which was modified into a magic lantern, rolling its phantasmic images out across the darkness. The magic lantern was then incorporated into the phantasmagoria — a diabolical theatre-show first staged in an abandoned French nunnery in Paris during the Terror. And then we have all the wonderful optical toys of the nineteenth century, ennobled with their fabulously ornate Greek names: the anorthoscope, the coptograph, the phenakistiscope, the thaumatrope and the zoetrope. Or we have all the many and various graphical illusions, finely engraved by the likes of Hogarth and Dürer, but also found as cheap reproductions on cigarette cards or on the backs of countless comic books.

This history has progressed from being associated with the diabolical in the medieval period, since illusionists copied the stratagems of the devil who also performed his seductions by mimicry; to being associated with the domestic parlour in the nineteenth century, where rational children were educated to be wary of tricks of perception or fickle appearance; to being associated with the mass distractions of popular entertainment in the modern period. Along the way each of these periods has embedded its potent associations into subsequent developments like geological substrata.

Like an optical illusion itself, this fabulously diverse history has evaded standard historiographic scrutiny or disciplinary recuperation. Yet it is a coherent field that brings together different disciplines which at first sight might appear to have very little in common, but which have increasingly becoming seen to be inextricably bound up with each other: optics, technology, physiology, perspective, colour theory, magic, religion, belief, and spectatorship. It has only been individual collectors, driven by their private passions and deep compulsions, who have intuited these connections and preserved this supremely ephemeral heritage for all of us.

Preeminent amongst these collectors is Werner Nekes, a German professor and experimental filmmaker, described as one of the last surviving baroque polymaths, who has been amassing his own Wunderkammer of the history of illusion for forty years.  Since 2001 parts of his vast collection have formed the basis of exhibitions at major institutions around the world such as the Getty and London’s Hayward Gallery. The Australian Centre for the Moving Image has cannily piggy-backed on the Hayward exhibition and staged their own version in Melbourne.

In the Melbourne selection we really got the sense that we are experiencing a major collection as we look, for example, at an original copy of Athanasius Kircher’s classic Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow), from 1646, or look at one of the few magic lanterns to have survived from the 1600s, which even in its corroded and rudimentary simplicity is recognisably the direct ancestor of that staple of the contemporary art exhibition, the data projector.

The exhibition attempted to install the projection devices, peep boxes, transparent pictures and other illusions in the gallery space to recreate as sensitively as possible the often intimate encounter between viewer and image which the power of the illusion relied upon. It was also at pains to not just be an exhibition of pre-cinema, but carry the broader story of illusionism on in parallel to cinema. The core Werner Nekes collection was complemented by the work of twentieth century artists and contemporary international and Australian artists which recreated and relived some of the original wonder first felt by the original viewers of all these strange devices.

We had Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs from 1935, cheekily throbbing in and out as their motors ground away on the wall. We had Christian Boltanski’s The Shadows, playing a joke on the fear of death by reducing the scary shadows of skeletons and ghosts to the improvised little dolls from which they were cast. Then there was the show’s highlight, Anthony McCall’s magisterial Line Describing a Cone from 1973, which in its formal austerity could also be used as a prism through which to reconsider the whimsical extravagance of the rest of the show. Line Describing a Cone is a 16mm film shown in a fog-filled room. At the beginning of the thirty-minute duration of the film a single point of light is projected through the fog, this slowly grows to be a curved line, then eventually becomes a circle, drawing a complete hollow cone within the fog-filled space. As they move about in the space the bodies of participants incise themselves into the cone, revealing it as actual, physical and present, at the same time as it is optical, virtual and recorded.

The exhibition was accompanied by a fabulous catalogue, a reprint of the original Hayward publication which stands alone on its own terms. It has an essay by Marina Warner, the historian of belief and illusion, who covers the whole field in a characteristically panoramic sweep, from Aristotle who said ‘the soul never thinks without a mental image’, to the present day when, according to postmodern philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek, our reliance on visual prostheses has turned us all into wanderers in ‘the desert of the real’. There is also an authoritative and fascinating account of pre-cinema history by Laurent Mannoni. But the best thing about the catalogue is the illustrations, which retain all the sense of fun and wonder of the original objects. Roll up the supplied silvered cardboard into a tube to reveal a pornographic scene illicitly secreted within an anamorphic distortion of 1750. Move the supplied clear plastic sheet back and forth over Ludwig Wilding’s op-art graphic of 1999 to make the moebius strip appear to cycle around perpetually.

On page 190 the oldest illusion of them all — the afterimage, know even to the ancients — is demonstrated. You stare at a reproduction of a 1930s postcard for a minute or two, then flick your eyes across to the opposite blank white page. Suddenly an unmistakable image of Greta Garbo pulses out at you before fading, like a squid squirting ink into the ocean. Where was Greta? Was she on the page, or in our retina? And why did the retinal afterimage seem to suddenly cohere so surprisingly, and fade so poignantly? Was it because Garbo’s face, that of the reclusive movie star who straddled another paradigm shift in the history of illusion from silent to sound cinema, is still such a collectively recognisable icon in mass culture? Elsewhere the catalogue informs us that in 1765 the afterimage was scientifically investigated by Chevalier Patrice d’Arcy, who swung a lump of burning coal on a rope and timed the revolutions. Through this diabolically cunning method he established that the afterimage lasts for eight-sixtieths of a second, thereby establishing the minimum frame rate of sixteen frames a second for the cinematograph, which was not to be practicable for another 130 years.

The lesson this show teaches us is that historically deception keeps pace with perception. One will never outpace the other because they are in constant exchange. Our continual pleasure in illusion is the reminder, yet again, that each is grounded in the other. We may feel only a faint residual delight at the recreated lantern slide projections of two hundred years ago, which have been made historically quaint for us by the subsequently engineered elaborations on the basic technology, but we will assuredly be bodily thrown back in our seats by the latest CGI effects of the next Hollywood blockbuster we see. However we just need to enter Renato Colangelo and Darren Davison’s walk-in camera obscura erected for the show in Federation Square to feel the exact same wonder that underpins both historical moments. We see people silently walking, upside down, past Flinders Street Station. They are there, but here as well; real, but yet unreal at the same time.

Martyn Jolly


Karsh Exhibition Talk notes, 1999

Sontag quote, the blurriest photograph of Shakespeare would be a greater object than the most detailed drawing.

Karsh’s portraits have the verisimilitude of the photograph, but they are also overtly artificial as well, obviously highly lit and studio based, they therefore also refer to the grandeur and tradition and gravitas of traditional painted portraits. In the enlarged portraits the epidermal texture and microscopic detail becomes equivalent to the oily, lubricous gloss of the painted portrait.

His style: a general low toned flat chiaroscuro, accented by a high, key light, focussed from high above and behind the sitter. (Or sometimes a high window). Often a light is placed behind he sitter to give them a subtle penumbra which lifts them off the background. (We can see this lighting set up reflected in Eisenhower’s globe, Le Courbousier’s glasses, and Laurence Olivier’s Whisky glass.

This gives  a general authoritative background, from which the sitter literally shines forth.

It also guarantees that the image will leap off the page, even if the printing is quite poor.

It also adds a real facial tactility to the images we are aware of the texture of skin and hair, pores and bristles.

Karsh’s subject is power, he was fascinated by it. The catalogue asks: are portraits windows to the soul, or masks of personality. I don’t find this either/or formulation particularly useful, I prefer to think of these portraits as almost collaborations between photographer and sitter, a theatrical performance where an agreed embodiment of a persona is enacted within the photographers mis-en-scene. Although Karsh would often proclaim that he wanted to capture that brief moment when the subject’s mask slips, he also once admitted that he was  “influenced by the by the public image …. by the living legend”. Nothing would stop him from creating an image of what he saw to be the public greatness of the sitter

Karsh set up his lights and his large format camera, before hand, and then invited the sitter in. He was well known for his charming manner, and his general amiable complicity with the wishes of his clients. After taking several, or many exposure, within the relatively tight spatial constraints of the ‘stage’ set up by the lighting, the session was complete.

Karsh’s portraits are the opposite of snapshots. The sitter appears to have temporarily interrupted their labours of changing the world, and to have entered some higher temporal plane: they appear to be out of the flow of everyday time, and embedded in transcendental, eternal history.

As I have said the key to all of Karsh’s portraits is the high key light.

There are symbolic associations of this high key light:

the light of divinity, inspiration, vision.

The other two elements Karsh always pays attention to are the hands and the eyes.

In the eyes we can see a taxonomy of Karsh’s idea of the types of power:

Eyes can be staring back at the camera if the sitter is a ‘defiant doer’ : Churchill
They can be just looking slightly to the side of the viewer if they are a ‘fantasising dreamer’ but kind and good: Warhol, Kenny, Kowabata
They can be staring up and off if the are a ‘visionary dreamer’: Kennedy, King
They can be closed altogether if the sitter is on another spiritual plane altogether: Ravi Shankar, Carl Jung
Or they can be staring at their work as if pre-occupied by the burdens of their greatness: Eisenhower

Hands are always doing something: holding a tool, cradling a chin, even in repose hands are still in dialogue with eyes, signifying serenity. Hands, like the face, for Karsh also bear inscriptions, of age, delicacy, work. Sometimes gesture can have specific intertextual references. Sister Kenny’s hand is extended in a Christ—like  gesture drawn from popular Catholic iconography. It is ironic that lately Sister Kenny’s work with polio has been thoroughly discredited, and her personal ‘saintliness’ questioned.

Karsh also used the background to ad extra information to the portrait.

Sometimes this seem very forced and banal, as in the line of telephones behind Marshal McLuhan, the famous theorist of mass media. At other times it is very economical: the plain white background Sir Edmund Hilary, his wind blown hair, and the toggles on his windcheater all subtly recreate mount Everest within a lighting studio.

Another occasional trick of Karsh was to casualise his sitters, perhaps to signify that we were closer to the ‘real’ person, and to draw attention to their bodies out of the familiar uniform of the suit. Jumpers were particularly popular, perhaps because the also gave a pleasing texture: Einstein, Hemmingway etc.

Winston Churchill on the cover of Saturday Night in 1942. Became instantly popular, became iconic of Churchill and British bulldog pluck. In this photo we have the seamless integration of Churchill’s physical bulk, his theatrical expression of angry resolve, and the intertextual reference to the bulldog in his face. The story goes that Karsh got this by suddenly taking away Churchill’s cigar (this sudden intervention is very atypical of Karsh, who normally manipulated his sitters by collusion, complements, complicity and charm), ironically, without his personal political trademark he became more of a suprapolitical, national trademark.

Karsh was commissioned by illustrated magazines like Life, and advertising agencies like J. Walter Thompson. The images only began to migrate from the mass media to the museum and gallery in the 1980s. The use of his work migrated from the media reportage to a more ceremonial use, on medallions, stamps etc. Some of the images seem to contain this end use within their very construction. For instance the shot of the three Apollo 11 astronauts is designed almost like a logo.

Karsh’s classic cold war portraits belong to a particular mass media period. Power brokers were aware of, and masters, of media image making as never before. The photographic image was powerful, but it was controlled by the powerful. The situation has changed now. We no longer are familiar with our leaders through their idealised, legendary portrayal as grand historical actors separated from the flux of time. We now see them, visually, going through every agonistic paroxysm that goes with the process of leadership: every chance grimace, blink or stumble is shot by the attendant press pack and used by newspapers to add editorial colour. For every studio portrait of a noble John Howard we see a thousand newspaper images of him looking querulous, tremulous, or petulant. For every glamour shot of a movie star we see a thousand paparazzi telephoto lens shots of them doing something they’ll come to regret.

Karsh’s portraits are absolutely public portraits of public personas. But now the boundaries of pubic and private have eroded for the great and the powerful. Kennedy’s White House sexual escapades belong to history, Clinton’s much less audacious sexual escapades belonged instantaneously to public circulation. The powerful claim that they have become the property of the photographers, whereas in Karsh’s day he was most certainly the faithful servant of the powerful. The obvious example is Princess Diana, literally shot to death by photographers. Her visual place in historical memory not a regal studio portrait, but a pornographic kaleidoscopic melange of the thousands and thousands of images we have seen of her and her car wreck and her funeral.

The image of the 1960s is polarised: the great iconic images of great men on the one hand, and the great journalistic icons on the other: the dead student at kent State University, the napalmed child in Vietnam. These poles have now collapsed.

For this reason it is hard to imagine Karsh’s style of portraiture having any contemporary currency, and certainly the more contemporary images in this exhibition are the weakest. Few leaders could now be ‘Karshed’ and have the elevated charisma of greatness to wear the mantle. I can only think of two, Nelson Mandela and Saddam.

When in Venice…

‘When in Venice…’, review of Venice Biennale, Art Monthly Australia, July, pp24-26

Venice Biennale

‘I will not make any more boring art’ reads the giant banner slung across the front of one of the palaces on the Grand Canal. It’s there to greet the 300,000 visitors who are expected to visit the Venice Biennale this year. The text has been extracted and enlarged from a 1971 work by John Baldessari, who, along with Yoko Ono, won the Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement this year. Originally Baldessari had written it out multiple times for a video work as though he was a school child being punished. He was wittily commenting on the serial nature of art at the time, and pre-dating Bart Simpson’s nightly exercises by eighteen years. Now turned from a conceptual art piece into a single slogan for the Biennale it announces that we are entering the globalised, corporatised world of the international art fair, where scale, impact and the grand gesture define the moment.

The Biennale consists of a large curated exhibition, this year called Making Worlds and curated by Daniel Birnbaum; 77 national contributions, either within purpose-built pavilions or elsewhere; 44 collateral events and exhibitions; and other events which although not officially part of the Biennale are timed to ride its bow waves. (For instance the billionaire art collector and owner of Christie’s, Francois Pinault, timed the opening of his private museum in the newly restored Venice Customs House, the Punta della Dogana, to coincide with the Biennale.) The Biennale proper takes place over two main areas — the Arsenale, originally Venice’s Military precinct, and the Giardini, located in nearby parkland — as well as numerous other venues throughout Venice. All up it includes about 800 artists and runs until November 22 this year.

Daniel Birnbaum’s Making Worlds exhibition was dedicated to the notion that ‘the artist makes worlds, not objects’. In the Arsenale section of Making Worlds the show led the visitor for hundreds and hundreds of metres down a long cavernous space, then outside into the Arsenale’s gardens where more works were tucked away in overgrown nooks and tumbledown buildings. The exhibition continued in a more labyrinthine form in the old Italian Pavilion in the Giardini which has been enlarged and renamed the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. The spirit of Fluxus and the post war avant-gardes reigned over the show. As Birnbaum said: ‘not every artist who is new or who is doing something interesting is 27 years old’.  Of the over 90 artists in the show many were senior, such as Yoko Ono and John Baldessari, and thirteen were, in fact, dead  — such as the Brazillian artist Lygia Pape who died in 2004 (at the ripe age of 77). She opened the Arsenale arm of show with a breathtaking installation of delicate square columns of copper thread stretched between floor and ceiling which she completed just before she died; and she was also in the Palazzo with a work from the late 1950s consisting of elegantly cut and folded cardboard sheets telling a creation story in austere abstract geometry.

The show had plenty of familiar old stagers from the circuit, such as Joan Jonas (who was at last year’s Sydney Biennale) who restaged her Reading Dante project; as well as wonderful lesser known surprises from the older generation, such as Hans-Peter Feldmann, the German collector/artist who presented Shadow Play, a frieze of flickering shadows made by shining lights across his collection of dolls and toys as they rotated on turn-tables. His complete corpus of artist’s books was also on display in the Book Pavilion. Yoko Ono’s ‘instruction pieces’ were a simple pleasure, but so too was a display from Gutai, the Japanese avant-garde group formed in 1954, most of whom have either now died or are well into their eighties. They re-presented coloured water suspended from the ceiling in plastic tubes, wooden boxes you could listen to, constellations of light bulbs embedded in sand, torn paper walls, and other avant-garde delights which were as fresh today as they were fifty years ago.

This spirit was given a contemporary spin by plenty of the younger artists, such as the Chinese artist Chu Yun. His Constellation consisted of a darkened room that, when you first entered, appeared to be an Aladdin’s cave full of flashing jewels, which you soon realized were the LED lights from scores of ordinary household appliances, passively waiting without function.

A lot of the works Birnbaum selected for Making Worlds were shot through with the elemental constituents of the act of fabrication: primary colours; cuts and collages; stackings and scatters; drawn charts and maps. However post-colonial politics, a standard theme for the global art circuit for at least the last ten years, was also strongly present. For instance Pascale Marthine Tayou, born in Cameroon but based in Belgium, constructed an African village crammed with video projectors projecting scenes of everyday labour from around the world onto every available surface; while Haloba Anawana, born in Zambia but based in Norway, built The Greater G8 Advertising Marketing Stand, where tins of third world products could be opened so they played personal stories of pain and displacement from speakers hidden in their lids.

Engineered construction, reconstruction and architecture were other themes. A steel and glass sculpture by Palermo built for the 1976 Venice Biennale was reconstructed in the same room for this Biennale; Simon Starling designed an elaborate steel film-projector where the 35mm film snaked through a spiral of rollers at the end of a twisting column of stainless steel arms, and projected the images and sounds of its own construction in a factory. At the other end of this spectrum of fabrication the Barcelona artists Bestué/Vives constructed a hilariously kooky costume out of paper, cloth and string which allowed them to transform from man, to motorbike to horse and back again whilst running through some wasteland under a flight path.

The after-effects of relational aesthetics were also still present. Att Poomtangon from Thailand, but now based in New York, used Thai engineering to construct a hanging garden which was meant to be watered by visitors treadling on pumps. However the wooden treadles were already broken and the plants were dying. The Golden Lion for Best Artist went to Tobias Rehberger who painted out the cafeteria walls, floors, ceilings and furniture in a World War One vintage ‘razzle dazzle’ camouflage pattern, to subject the weary visitor to yet more shifts in perceptual orientation as they ate their lunch.

The show took great pleasure in deliberately slipping and sliding between mediums. The American artist Tony Conrad called his pleasant drippy-black painted rectangles from the 1970s ‘movies’ because their cheap paper and paint yellowed over time; while the Silver Lion for most promising young artist went to Nathalie Djurberg who made a nightmare dungeon out of large-scale wet-looking ceramic sculptures of cacti and succulent plants which crowded round video projections of her stop-frame animations in clay, where priests and cardinals committed unspeakable acts of perversion, degradation and cannibalism on naked and pinkly-frightened young women.

The national representations in the various pavilions in the Giardini and elsewhere were a far cry from being an ‘art olympics’. The German curator selected for the German pavilion the British artist Liam Gillick (who ended up making a pretty boring work consisting of an installation of kitchen benches and an audio track), while Denmark and the Nordic countries (Finland, Norway and Sweden) collaborated on what was the highlight of the pavilions. Their project, called The Collectors, was a collaboration between 25 artists curated by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset who installed works by each artist throughout the two pavilions, which are side by side. The various works from the artists — which were wall pieces, installations, sculptures and photographs — combined to construct two huge, comprehensive and integrated domestic scenarios of contemporary excess in wealth, consumption and taste — all the way from the kitchen, to the dining room, to the bedroom. The scenario in one pavilion, ‘A. Family’, told a story of marital break-up, while the scenario in the pavilion next door, ‘Mr B.’, told a story of homosexual murder, or perhaps suicide.

The themes established in Making Worlds seemed to find echoes in the national pavilions. There were more collections, for instance Jussi Kivi’s vast and orderless collection of everything and anything to do with fire for Finland, or Jef Geys’ scientific survey of medicinal plants found in urban situations for Belgium. There were lots of gardens and cultivations. The grain of the human voice was often heard, not only throughout Making Worlds in the work of artists like Joan Jonas for instance, where ordinary people read from Dante, or in Tamara Grcic’s bright-red life rafts floating in the Arsenale dock from which the overlapping voices of ordinary conversations could be heard; but also in Krzysztof Wodiczko’s video installation for Poland where migrant workers told their stories as we appeared to see them outside of the pavilion blurrily washing its windows, or in Katarina Zdjelar’s videos about language and identity, where for instance a Korean woman struggled again and again to pronounce the artist’s name.

The viewer’s ears were also fully engaged in the British Pavilion, which had been darkened into a cinema for scheduled screenings of Steve McQueen’s two-gun video work Giardini. The work, another highlight, was filmed in the Giardini during winter, the off-season between Biennales. Snails crawled over leaves, buds dripped cold water, and confetti leaked its dye into the icy gravel, while dogs nuzzled through rubbish and occasionally the distant roar of a crowd from the soccer stadium which is behind the Giardini, on the tip of Venice itself, penetrated the microcosmic aural world of drips and rustles. Then, slowly, two male figures emerge from the darkness, silently regard each other across the two screens, and disappear together into the bushes.

The other common sounds of the Biennale were loops of music propelling the various video and film animations, and the slowed-down bassy rumbles that accompanied the more stentorian of the videos. This was the sound in the Australian Pavilion as Shaun Gladwell’s helmeted road warrior figure climbed out of a reconstruction of Mad Max’s car in slow-mo and stood atop with arms partially outstretched as it drove down an endless, red, outback track towards an infinite horizon. The car itself had been shipped out to be parked outside the pavilion, giving it a bit of a trade show feeling, while a motorbike was slammed into its side. This was the motorbike on which, in Apology to Roadkill, the same helmeted figure collected dead kangaroos from the side of the road, cradling them Pieta-like, before carrying them off camera. Downstairs, in a more interesting piece, a skull slowly rotated around a mini video camera that had been inserted inside it so it could film the cranial cupola endlessly turning.

The other Australian presence was located in a prime piece of Biennale real estate, a former convent located between the Arsenale and the Giardini. Once Removed (so called because each artist has been displaced in one way or another) didn’t come across as an integrated show so much as three separate installations. Only the installation by Claire Healy & Sean Cordeiro, Life Span, really took command of the space. It was a huge basalty block of plastic that sat directly under the ceiling fresco of the chapel, almost obscuring the altar, and pushing the viewer back against the wall. The work was built from a total of 175,218 VHS video cassettes the collective running time of which is, apparently, 60.1 years, which was also, apparently, the average life span in 1976 when the VHS system, now a redundant technology consigned to the rubbish heap of history, was first released. Vernon Ah Kee’s installation, Cant Chant, perhaps suffered from too many indignant metaphors and references to Australian racism which ended up competing with each other. It centred on a three-gun video projection where cool and confident aboriginal surfers reclaimed a beach by riding, to the pound of a rock sound track, on surfboards decorated with indigenous designs and, on the underside, the faces of their ancestors. Elsewhere in the video other surfboards were lynched and massacred. Their corpses, wrapped in barbed wire, were hung in the convent’s courtyard. Ah Kee’s familiar text paintings also crowded the walls. In the final room Ken Yonetani’s comment on environmental degradation, Sweet Barrier Reef, previously installed at the Adelaide Biennale, was a boxed-in Zen-style garden made with raked sugar which surrounded the ceramic forms of bleached coral. The whole thing was lit with a wavy blue theatre light as though under water, which for me gave it an artificial, stagy feeling at odds with its elemental materiality.

Elsewhere, the Russians had a strong presence with a spectacular series of bravura agitprop sculptural works in their own pavilion called Victory Over the Future, and a collateral event from the Moscow Museum of Modern Art called Unconditional Love which featured a massively operatic nine-gun projection from the Russian group of artists AES+F. Called The Feast of Trimalchio it featured gangs of models performing languid tableaus of leisurely excess against the CGI background of a fantasy resort island.

The Middle-East also had a strong presence, with the long walk of the Arsenale leg of the Making Worlds exhibition finally disgorging into the United Arab Emirates pavilion which, perhaps wisely, had decided to perform a 1980s style deconstruction job on the whole machinery of Biennales, as well the UAI itself with its tightly controlled displays of wealth.

Martyn Jolly