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: THOSE OTHERS WHO LIVE IN OUR TIME
Photofile 34, December 1991
FITTING THE LEGEND
The legend of the Magnum photo agency revolves around two heroic figures: Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Capa was an itinerant who invented for himself both a new name and a charismatic persona. He’s the one who is said to have said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Capa “hated war buy he had to be there; his photographs were protests, those of a passionate pacifist.”1
I was therefore surprised to read that during 1954, just before he stepped on that fatal landmine in Indochina, Capa predicted that photojournalism was finished and the future for photographers like him lay in TV.2 Since
then, of course, photojournalism, as embodied in Capa, has become redolent with goodness and ‘truth’, whereas TV news has become associated with the trivial and prurient. The Jekyll to Hyde vision of Robert Capa transmogrifying into Derryn Hinch therefore seems slightly scandalous.
Cartier-Bresson and Capa complemented each other. They were “structure and movement, culture and nature, water and fire”.5 Cartier-Bresson was an aesthete with a surrealist heritage: “he was detached, he recorded serenity and peace, and he was the first to see the romantic mystery of everyday things.”4 He carefully enunciated an artistic philosophy of’the decisive moment’:
To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.5
In the USA this fed into the formalist aesthetics of 1960s and ’70s museum art photography. The scandal of Capa’s interest in TV, and the art-historical periodisation of Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, prompts the question of why didn’t photojournalism just go away like Capa predicted? Why isn’t In our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers a historical show like the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ other blockbuster, Masterpieces from the Guggenheim? Why is Magnum presented as a potent lineage, still producing “some of the world’s most celebrated photographers”?6
CRITICISING THE LEGEND
It’s not as if the Magnum tradition hasn’t been the object of criticism for many years. From the 1950s onwards, the problematic semiotics of ‘truth’ in photojournalism became a favourite object of critique for cultural theorists like Roland Barthes.7 Meanwhile, historians of art photography had extended the ‘tradition’ of photographic formalism back, far beyond Cartier-Bresson himself, into the nineteenth century and towards the very ‘core’ of photography as an art category. In 1966 the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art wrote: “It should be possible to consider the history of the medium in terms of photographers’ progressive awareness of characteristics and problems that have seemed inherent to the medium.”8 Lately, this institutionalised valorisa-
\tion of a picture’s formal architecture and choreography has also been severely criticised for its reductivism.9
Rather than reiterate these perpetual but seemingly ineffective critiques, I want to answer the question ‘why doesn’t Magnum just go away?’ by placing it within the context of our contemporary visual environment. In particular I want to discuss war photography. It is perhaps too easy to conflate the Magnum tradition with ‘war photography’ in general, but a glance at the exhibition confirms that battles of various sorts, be they the psychological battles of the lunatic, or the gun battles of an army, are the paradigmatic Magnum subject. After all, battles provide the stock-in-trade of the visual media: visceral immediacy, visual movement, and a ready-made narrative trajectory inevitably leading to either resolution or yet more conflict.
THE THREE AGES OF PHOTOJOURNALISM
As the layout of the show makes clear, the first period of photojournalism – before Capa’s crucifixion – was its golden age. The baddies were bad, the goodies were good, and photographs of war had a kind of virginal freshness about them: “Robert Capa’s camera captures a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in the Front of Cordoba”, read the 1937 LIFE caption to the single nascent image of the Magnum tradition. In 1938, Picture Post upped the ante with a screaming headline “This is War!” for the same series of pictures. Another caption claimed: “You can almost smell the powder in this picture.” These tropes of immediate experience quite deliberately prompted the reader to compare the picture magazine favourably to the rival new technology of live radio broadcast. But Picture Post was also careful to place its readers in an experientially frightening, but ideologically safe, position. It claimed that these “finest pictures of front-line action ever taken…are not presented as propaganda for, or against, either side. They are simply a record of modern war from the inside.” Being down on the ground gave you front-line thrills along with a safe position beyond mere ‘polities’.
By the 1950s, this relationship between the viewer and the viewed had become corporatised. For magazines like LIFE, the “life” referred to in its title was, more often than not, their lives which were lived elsewhere for us to visit. In Henry Luce’s words,
To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things – machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon … to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and to be amazed; to see and to be instructed.10
This kind of journalism used the language of spectacle: it spoke of ‘theatres of war’, ‘picture stories’ and events on ‘the world stage’. The one stable spot in this life was the Western living room from which our gaze was projected on successive trouble spots flaring up randomly around the world – as though we were somehow off its surface. The ‘world’ revealed to us may have been as far away as China, or as close as Harlem, but it never intruded on our own domestic sphere – the middle class living room where LIFE magazine was first stacked on the coffee table and then underneath the TV set.
The actors on this stage were diverse: they were the poor or the rich, the young or the old, the insane or the powerful, and the quaint or the radical. Their differentiation not only followed the marketing logic of’something new every week’, but the inchoate diversity of those who lived elsewhere also marked their Otherness from us. In their unstable difference they helped define our singular identity.
The Australian version of the exhibition is divided into decades, and each decade is introduced with a wall panel that parallels advances in Kodak technology (a sponsor) with events on the world stage and then with local events – Phar Lap winning the Melbourne Cup, the opening of the Sydney Opera House, etc. This is peculiar since, as far as In Our Time is concerned, Australia does not exist. But then, as far as In Our Time is concerned, the Western middle class hardly exists either: it is the ground zero from which the world is seen.
In a geo-political sense this is also a form of neocolonialism. Many of the conflicts of world politics are the result of European imperialism. The concerned writers and photographers of the 20th Century have only followed in the footsteps of the Sahibs and Bwanas of the 19th Century. The spectacle of Third World struggle is stripped from the the strugglers within exactly the same power structure as their raw materials were stripped before (and are still stripped). Such global politics have also imploded into the nation state, providing the spectacles of slums or political protest.
Of course, towards the end of this second period of photojournalism the TV camera and satellite dish became much more important than the Leica and the scribbled caption, just as Capa had predicted. Ironically, this allowed photojournalism to clamber up onto some higher moral ground and claim the museum wall and glossy book – rather than the throw-away magazine – as the proper space for its display. As the introductory wall panel for In Our Time states,
In the past couple of decades the photography field has become increasingly complex. The commercial interests of many magazines have tended more than ever to obscure visual information, and in covering news events, photographers have had to contend with manipulated photo opportunities imposed by governments and public relations officials. The generation of photographers who entered Magnum during the seventies and eighties has had to respond to such challenges. A surge in the publication of illustrated books has presented outlets that have been expanded on by photographers who have revealed their major coverages in the form of personal diaries, testaments or extended studies.
Hence we get the third period: the so called New Photojournalism of the 1980s where Magnum photographers like Susan Meiselas or Gilles Peress combined a formal adroitness, only possible after a thorough training in modern art photography, with the conceptual motivation of’concern’ unchanged since Capa. Thus, there is no question of whether In Our Time ‘belongs’ in an art museum. Of course it does. The progenitors of Magnum have been tightly stitched into the history of art photography, and their inheritors fit the bill for a postmodern museum artist: they self-consciously combine ‘quotes’ from both historicised passions and historicised styles. Much of their imagery returns to the surrealist alienation that always lay just behind the origins of photojournalism. Their captions have become cryptic and many of their photographs, for example those taken by Gilles Peress in Iran, are indistinguishable from the sophisticated urban ennui of a Garry Winnogrand.
TWO TV WARS
Magnum may have been able to evade the bad smell of heartless exploitation which has popularly hung around television reporting, in fact it has probably only retained its halo by defining itself in opposition to television, but has it been able to evade the implications of the latest phase in the global trade in images of conflict?
Ken Jarecke was just one of the 750 journalists accredited to the Pentagon during the Gulf War. Though not a member of Magnum, he was under contract to Time. Only twenty-eight years old, his big break had come with a stakeout of Oliver North’s home during the Iran Contra hearings. Journalists
covering the Gulf War were strictly controlled by the Military. They were ‘pooled’ with other journalists and escorted by press officers from either the U.S. Military, the Saudis, or the Washington public relations firm retained by the Kuwaitis. While returning to Saudi Arabia from Kuwait, Jarecke took the picture “Iraqi soldier, killed in a truck on Highway 8 near Nasiriya, Iraq”. In the photographer’s own words:
We stopped at about 9.30 in the morning and photographed some U.S. medics tending wounded Iraqis, although we weren’t supposed to photograph causalities. Then I noticed something: a body lying on the road … Now I thought what I was seeing was compelling. While still in our vehicle surveying the scene one of our Press Affairs Officers told me that making pictures of dead guys didn’t excite him. I told him that it didn’t get me off either… But I told him that if I didn’t make these pictures it would be a distortion of reality … He knew that I was going to make the picture but he had to put his two cents in. Down the road just a little further there was a truck that had been bombed while trying to escape from Kuwait into Iraq. I made a shot of the truck from where I wras standing using a Canon EOS-1 with a 35mm lens … it was a while before I noticed the burned guy in the truck… I changed lens and shot some black and white and colour and got back into our vehicle and we left. I wasn’t thinking at all about what was there; if I had thought about how horrific the guy looked I wouldn’t have been able to make the picture. I just concentrated on the technical problems … I didn’t start thinking of the picture as symbolic, though, until later when I was talking to Jim Helling, the CBS cameraman in my pool … He said he wanted a print of the soldier in the truck. At first I didn’t understand why. When I asked him he said something that really hit me: ‘because that’s the face of war.’ He had realized how powerful the scene was immediately … as a photographer I began to get ticked off about the picture of the burned Iraqi before I even got home. I figured it would never get published in this country. In fact when Associated Press in Dhahran transmitted the picture, some editor in New York took it off the wire. It wasn’t even distributed in the US until my agency got it. But I think people should see this. This is what our smart bombs did. If we’re big enough to fight a war we should be big enough to look at it.”
In its laconic off-handedness, this is a very familiar account of “How I Made That Great Picture”.12 But in another sense this is also a very unusual photographer’s description, because any sense of the ‘fierce independence’, so celebrated within the Magnum tradition, is almost totally absent. Although he expresses a commitment to undistortedness, Jarecke is resigned to the fact that his images are thoroughly militarised. There is none of the ‘no taking sides’ philosophy of 1937 Picture Post; each of his shots is completely articulated within, and by, Desert Storm. Although his colleague at CBS may have seen the image as a direct equivalent to Capa’s ‘Loyalist Soldier, Spain’, he too realised that it was not destined to shock the world. So he asked for his own print.
The journalistic pool system was the Pentagon’s response to the freedom of movement journalists had enjoyed during the Vietnam War. Although the same freedom existed in previous wars, the popularisation of television was seen to have fuelled the anti-war movement. In the Gulf War the very real likelihood of a growing domestic peace movement was immediately factored into the military strategy. Images were stockpiled and deployed like any other ordnance. Who can forget Stormin’ Norman’s press briefings where the latest Slam Cam footage of a successful Smart Bomb surgical strike was shown on a TV monitor sitting on a plinth like a piece of video art? The Iraqis even attempted to use images ballistically, sending video images of downed airmen, via CNN, to the allies. When photographs of the bruised pilots were solidified out of the flow of the video signal and printed in all their pathetic glory in newspapers throughout the western world, the tactic backfired on Hussein and domestic support for the War effort strengthened.
This image feedback between the two sides goes beyond good old fashioned propaganda because both sides are happy to share the same media conduit. CNN was invited to stay in Baghdad. And the restriction on journalistic activity goes beyond mere censorship. Rather it is a bureaucratised management of images. Plenty of close-up action shots were published, but they were taken during training, not battle. The direct militarisation of the media’s hyperspace extends the development of technological vectors of vision contiguous to technological vectors of destruction, as outlined by Paul Virilio.13 It constitutes an expansion of ‘the theatre of war’ into domestic space and a direct and tactical enlistment of public opinion. It declares a state of emergency in the domain of images and suspends the sanctity of journalistic truth.
As was frequently noted around our dinner tables at the time, for us at home the Gulf War was not a visceral war. It was an abstracted war. The flat plains of the desert became continuous with the green screen of the computer. But another war was shown on our screens about eight months after the Gulf War, and in that war photography’s power to tell the truth and not take sides was triumphant. We saw the suffering of war etched on innocent faces, we saw the horror of war in the form of bloated bodies about to burst their uniforms, we saw the futility of war in the strangely silent aftermath of battles, and we saw the resilient heroicism of war in the details of
camp life camaraderie. As TV critic after TV critic wrote: we not only saw, we felt. In the tradition of Magnum that war was photography’s finest hour. But that war was the American Civil War, fought in the 1860s and telecast by SBS-TV. The TV critics yearned for the pure motives of the freelance photographer trailing after the marching armies in his caravan, they celebrated the ennobling effects of the wet plate’s extended exposures, and they responded to the surreal melancholy of the tableau. They wanted, and they got, a real war. A war totally unlike the Gulf War.
NOSTALGIA FOR OUR TIME
In Our Time was launched on its world tour way back in 1989 when the Gulf War was just a gleam in Saddam’s eye. We can’t expect it to engage with this new politics of the image. But the unprecedented popularity of the show in Australia has to be accounted for in the wake of the War. It seems to have touched off a nostalgia for political spectacle on the world stage. Perhaps this nostalgia is an attempt to restabilise the centre of the world – our own living rooms. We have now become as spectral as those others who once lived in our time. And Magnum is still complicit.
- Gael Elton Mayo, “The Magnum photographic group”, Apollo, September, 1989.
- Fred Ritchin, “What is Magnum?”, In Our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers^ Andre Deutsch, 1989.
- Jean Lacouture “The Founders”, Ibid.
- Mayo, Op Cit.
- Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment^ Simon & Schuster, N.Y., 1952.
- In Our Time, brochure.
- Roland Barthes, Mythologies^ Hill and Wang, N.Y., 1972.
- John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eyex Museum of Modern Art, N.Y., 1966
- Rosalind Krauss, “Photography’s Discursive Spaces”, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Mythsx MIT Press, 1985.
- Fred Ritchin, “What is Magnum?”, Op. Cit.
- “The Image of War”, American Photo, August 1991.
- Dorothea Lange, “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget”, Popular Photography, February 1960; Robert Capa, Slightly OutofFocuSiN.Y. 1947.
- Paul Virilio, War and Cinema:The Logistics of Perception^ Verso, London, 1989.
‘The Disinfected City in Australia’, Eugene Atget Symposium, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 25 August, 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’, 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 is Head of Photography and Media Arts at the Australian National University School of Art.
‘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.
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…’, review of Venice Biennale, Art Monthly Australia, July, pp24-26
‘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.