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

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



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



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


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


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


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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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



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


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


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


Martyn Jolly

The Face of Australia

The Face of Australia’, lecture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, with accompanying exhibition floor talk, January 16, 2008.


August Sander wanted to produce an atlas of the German people based on social typologies. The ability to interpret facial physiognomy was crucial to his project, and his landmark book of 1929 Face of the Time explicitly linked the human face to national and historical destiny. Can similar ideas be detected within Australian photography? Although nobody embarked on a project as extensively or methodically as Sander, an incipient desire to photograph ‘the face of Australia’ can be detected in the work of many of our most famous photographers. (We can all readily conjure such a face in our mind’s eye — the weathered skin, the stubbly chin, the tousled hair, the craggy profile, the thousand-mile stare.)

Although such an idea has recently been made even more fraught by debates around multiculturalism, the idea is still implicit in our popular culture. For instance would this famous photograph of a Cronulla rioter be as effective semiotically if the head and face of the boy who is wearing the flag like a cape wasn’t of such a fresh-faced anglo type, if for instance he had dark curly hair, sallow skin and glasses?

Using Sander’s extraordinary project as a model I will try to trace the ‘face of Australia’ through Australian photography in the full knowledge that my attempt, like Sander’s is doomed to ultimately fail. Because I will be taking Face of Time and his unpublished monumental opus Citizens of the Twentieth Century as my models, I will confine my survey to picture books published about Australia from 1930 to the present. I will only be looking at photographs as they were selected and laid out by picture editors at the time, rather than as they have been subsequently excavated from photographer’s archives by today’s curators and dealers.


For my understanding of Sander I am relying on the Getty’s fabulous book August Sander in Focus. The ideas of physiognomy — that a person’s innate character manifests itself and is legible in their features — consistently run through Sander’s commentary on his own photographs, and dominated the critical reception of Face of the Time in 1929. Physiognomy had a long history that had received considerable scientific attention in the nineteenth century from Charles Darwin and other biologists. Social ethnologists also used it as a key principal to describe and document both European ethnic minorities as well as indigenous peoples in the European colonies. It was of broad popular interest in Sander’s time.

Of course genetic science has long since disapproved that there is any biological basis to the idea to physiognomics. And as the twentieth century progressed the thoroughly bogus physiognomic science was about to receive heaps of even more bad press, particularly on the left, through its association with eugenics and racism. Nonetheless, it remains a compelling undercurrent throughout the twentieth century.

Sander seems to have used the ideas in a loose and contradictory way, for him the face showed individual social experience which was layered on top of inherited traits that belong to pre-given ‘types’. In a radio lecture in 1931 he said:

every person’s story is written plainly on their face, though not everyone can read it. These are the runes of a new, but also ancient language. … More than anything physiognomy means an understanding of human nature. We know that people are formed by light and air, their inherited traits, and their actions, and we recognize people and distinguish one from the other by their appearance. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled, for life unavoidably leaves its trace there. … Each group carry in their physiognomy the expression of their times and the mental attitude of their group. Individuals who display these qualities in a particularly obvious manner can be called types.

Sander grounded his monumental physiognomic schema, which he intended to call Citizens of the Twentieth Century, in the peasantry from around his birthplace in Westerwald. In the 1910s many of these peasants had commissioned him to take their individual and family portraits. In preparing the sixty portraits in Face of the Time Sander returned to the portraits he had been commissioned to make earlier and re-used them within his grand typology. He re-cropped them more tightly to create a standardised, ‘anthropological’ format. The cropping emphasised the shape of the head, the arrangement of the features, the outline of the profile, and the set of the expression. This allowed physiognomic markers such as ears, noses, lips and brows to be read and compared and ‘types’ identified. As the introduction to Face of the Time stated:

Just as there is a comparative anatomy which enables one to understand the nature and history of organs, so here the photographer has produced a comparative photography, thereby gaining a scientific standpoint which places him beyond the photographer of detail.

In the 1930s he continued to work on the monumental Citizens of the Twentieth Century which was to contain 500 photographs in seven sections totally 45 portfolios. He planned to preface the work with a ‘portfolio of archetypes’ or a ‘generative folio’ made from the cropped details out of the photographs the Westerwald peasants had been commissioned he take. In 1954 he wrote that he classified all the types he encountered in relation to this basic, generative, type who, by virtue of their strong connection with nature had all the characteristics of mankind in general. These peasants were the physiognomic baseline against which all other social classes and professions would be measured. Sander planned to arrange the portraits in Citizens of the Twentieth Century in a circular system. Beginning with the earthbound farmer the photographs would ascend through all the social classes and professions to ‘the representatives of the highest civilization’ before descending through the unemployed and the vagrant to the ‘idiots, the sick … and the dying’. This arrangement reflected his belief that civilizations develop in circular patterns, an idea popularised by the historian Oswald Spengler in his two volume Decline of the West (1918-22). According to Spengler, who was avidly read by Sander, all great cultures are rooted in the country, gradually evolving to sophisticated urban markets before collapsing in the soulless bureaucracies of rhe city. Accordingly, Sander entitled the final section of his photographic inventory, containing the mentally ill, the physically disabled and the dead, ‘The Last People’. However in contradiction to this idea of a civilization in inevitable decline, Sander also saw all of the occupations he photographed as arranged into a fixed hierarchy, a kind of  ‘estate’ or ‘guild’ system.

Sander’s own brilliant photography undermined his classificatory project. For instance his photographs of bohemia provided vivid proof that social identities in Weimar Germany were far more complex and fluid than any typology could contain. They began to undermine his classificatory system, by resisting precisely the certainties that his ‘types’ were supposed to provide, namely that people could be documented, classified, and thus understood. Sander’s project recognised that physiognomy was mobile.


So there’s a magnificently fraught, dangerously ambitious, massively contradictory model as our guide. Let’s now turn to Australia.

A photographer who was imbued with many of the same interests in physiognomy as Sander, and who came form a similar cultural background, came to Australia in 1930 in order to shoot a travel book about Australia aimed at the English and German markets. He was E. O. Hoppe, and his time in Australia has recently been researched by Erika Essau.

Born in Germany Hoppe emigrated to England in 1900 at the age of 22, and by the 1910s had become a famous society photographer. He kept up a strong connection to German culture and also became interested in physiognomic typologies. In his autobigraphy he wrote:

I became interested in the psychology of the by-products and offshoots of the social order and spent much time looking for and photographing character types.

He contributed  character studies of the lower strata of society to the sociological book Taken from Life, 1922 by J. D. Beresford, and in 1926 published a book called London Types. He produced luxury travel books on England in 1926 and the Unites States in 1927  and came to Australia for ten months in 1930 on commission from a German publisher. The resultant book, The Fifth Continent, came out in German and English in 1931.

Hoppe shot many Australian types during his 10 months here, focussing in on their heads in a physiognomic manner. However the German Picture editor saw  it as primarily a travel book and concentrated on scenery, as well as having a concluding section on Aboriginal culture. However five ‘types’ did made it into the book: The Man From Outback, Mine Host at Eden, NSW; a 90 year Young Fruit Grower; Old Miner, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia; Young  Axeman, Pemberton, WA. In accordance with Spengler’s circular historical schema of civilizations rising from the agrarian and declining into the metropolis, the types from the young country of Australia reproduced in The Fifth Continent are all connected to the land. In the introduction Hoppe wrote:

The character of the Australian is a surely moulded as much by the sun as by his Northern ancestry. In a land of almost perpetual sunshine he is inclined to invest his life with a roseate hue and push troubles aside in a gay impersonal way which is the prerogative of abiding youth. Although he may not be strongly addicted to the discipline of long hours at routine work, he has none of the indolence of the languid East.

Hoppe sees the Australian character as being formed by the impact of a new landscape on a predetermining racial substrate.


The subsequent history of photographic Australiana is fascinating, though largely unwritten. For instance from the 1930s to the 1970s the editor and publisher Oswald Ziegler produced lavish publications such as This is Australia, 1946 or Australia from the Dawn of Time to the Present Day, 1964[i]. These massive picture books were often sponsored by various governments, and compiled from photographs supplied by their publicity departments. The photographs were cut and collaged together, by European-trained designers like Gert Sellheim or Douglas Annand, into modernist graphic friezes that leapt across each double-page spread. It is hard to know now who were the intended audience for these books. Like all government publicity they were probably largely unwanted by those who were forced to gratefully receive them, either as official gifts, or patriotic presents from well-meaning relatives.

In Ziegler’s books people were mere actors in national scenarios of industrial and agrarian development, and the photographers themselves mostly anonymous. The sequence of chapters told a story of European development which was briefly prefaced with a chapter on Aborigines and the geology of the continent itself which were seen to be inertly waiting for the colonists to arrive. They then rapidly followed in a sequence with industrial and pastoral development, ending with modern city, sport and culture. There is little or no interest in physiognomy or typology. In these books the Australian character doesn’t reside in the people themselves who are still regarded as being innately nothing more than another variety of British citizen. Rather, national personality and character is generated by the landscape and the climate. Accordingly, the nationalistic panoramas in which Australians themselves do predominantly feature are those panoramas to do with aspects of the country that had already been established as ‘character forming’, those to do with the outback, or the beach, or sport, or, most significantly, war.


The explorer photographer Frank Hurley firmly attached the imprimatur of his name to his enormously successful series of Camera Study books, which ended up selling 168,500 copies by the time of his death 1962. In the 1950s Hurley was a household name because of his expeditions to Antarctica, New Guinea and both world wars. To market the books he leveraged his youthful explorer’s reputation for journeying into the unknown into the returned man’s patriotic touring of each state and territory of the commonwealth. But in Hurley’s books Australia is still the star, not Australians. People are the spear-carrying extras, the scale markers placed in the picture in order to be dwarfed by the grand proscenium arches of cliffs, valleys, buildings and factories.


An interest in Australian character types hadn’t entirely disappeared from Australian photographic publishing, however. In the 1930s the visual image of the ANZAC soldier began to take predominate in Australian visual culture as memorials were built in every town. In 1937 Charles bean capped of his monumental twelve volume official history of the Great War with a volume devoted entirely to official photographs. It was the biggest selling volume of the series, and featured photographs of typical diggers, dressed in informal workman like uniforms, or stripped to the waist and engaged in strenuous work. These images were meant to be photographic proof that the heroic, knockabout digger Bean had describe din his histories actually did exist.


An interest in typological character portraits persisted in the real of commercial and pictorial photography as well. In 1947 Ziegler published an annual of photography drawn from 700 submissions from amateur and professional photographers, and selected by himself, Hal Missingham, Max Dupain, Athol Shmith and Russell Roberts. The gold plaque was awarded to Axel Poignant’s, Mary (Since re-titled Aboriginal Mother and New Born Baby) and his Head Stockman was also reproduced. Both were shot in 1942 on the Canning stock route where he had documented other Australian types. A digger type from George Silk, Man of Crete, was also reproduced in the annual. As was a typological character study by Olga Sharpe.

THE 1960’S

Ziegeler and Hurley’s panoramic style of Australian picture book, which had dominated the market for twenty years, changed dramatically in the mid 1960s. Many factors came together at this point. There was a burgeoning of overseas interest in Australia because of our involvement in the Vietnam War, and the use of Sydney as an R & R base by American servicemen. There was also a massive increase in the publishing industry because Australian publishers could use Asian presses for cheaper printing, and aggressive overseas publishers like Paul Hamlyn entered the market aiming books at a popular supermarket audience. An explosion of interest in all things Australian —Australian history, Australian wildlife, Australian touring holidays (think Bill Peach and the Leyland Brothers) — combined with the effects of postwar immigration, the baby boom, the increase in wealth, and the shift in our allegiance from Britain to America, to put questions of national identity and national character on the popular agenda. Examples of this popular discussion were the publication of Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country in 1964, the massive popularity of Michael Powell’s film They’re a Weird Mob in 1966.

Some of the new, overseas printed, picture books, such as Rigby’s 1966 book Around Australia on Highway One, simply updated the old panoramic formats of Ziegler and Hurley. And in 1964 David Moore shot widely for an assignment on Australia and New Zealand for the LIFE World Library.


But the watershed book came in 1966. Called, significantly, The Australians, it was the first true coffee table book in the Australiana genre. A ruminative, fifty-thousand word text by the novelist and journalist George Johnston supported an extended photographic essay shot over two years by the American National Geographic photographer Robert Goodman. Their stated objective was,

[T]he fair and unpropagandised presentation of the Australian in his unique and many-faceted setting. The essential image, if you like, of a race apart from the others.’[ii]

It had a budget of $200,000, fronted up by twelve of Australia’s biggest companies such as BHP and QANTAS, and ended up printing ninety thousand copies, which sold in the shops at the upmarket retail price of $8.95.[iii]

The book’s chapters followed a similar trajectory to Ziegler’s, from the ‘land’, to the ‘land’s people’ (meaning white settlers, more than Aborigines) through to ‘the economy’, ‘science’, ‘the arts’, ‘sport’, and culminating in ‘Anzac’. But its photographs home in on the faces of Australians, who look out from the pages in frank close-up. Their faces are enlarged right up into full-page or double-page spreads, often bleeding to the edge in the contemporary style of picture-magazine layouts. The cast of characters was cosmopolitan. There was the familiar dusty-but-lithe stockman, the craggy farmer, and the sweaty worker, but also the winsome office girl, and the intense artist.

The centrality of art and artists to popular accounts of Australian identity in the sixties might come as something of a surprise to those of us who have got in to the lazy historical habit of identifying the beginning of the renaissance of post-war Australian culture with the signal ‘It’s Time’ campaign in 1972, prior to which everything cultural was cringing. In The Australians, Johnston confidently asserted that there were already:

… more good painters in Australia than there were good jockeys’. ‘Australians’, he claimed, perhaps a tad over-optimistically, ‘who like to think of themselves as easy-going people, rough and ready, physical rather than cerebral, who are deeply suspicious of the longhair and the intellectual, also pay the greatest respect, homage and even, of late, cash, to their artists. There is no country in the world, not even in Scandinavia, where the easel painter of even reasonable competence can survive as comfortably as in Australia.[iv]

A few pages on, spread across both pages in full and virulent colour, Russel and Maisie Drysdale lean toward the camera. One of Drysdale’s desert-red canvases is behind them and, because of the book’s advanced six-plate colour printing, their blue eyes seem to pop out from behind their extravagantly rimmed glasses as they warmly smile at us. There’s a cigarette jammed between Drysdale’s fingers and a can of Resch’s slammed on the table beside the crumple of Masie’s hankie, house keys, cigarettes and matches.

The most powerful spread in Goodman’s book is a chiaroscuro tableau of anxious faces called ‘Immigrant arrivals, Sydney Harbour’. These shipboard faces don’t engage the reader’s gaze, as Russell and Maisie Drysdale do, but search the unknown space of the dock beyond the reader. (A very similar, and now much more famous, copycat photograph was taken in the same place the following year by the Australian photographer David Moore, whilst on assignment for the National Geographic article ‘New South Wales: The State that Cradled Australia’.[v] )


Other books followed Goodman’s lead. In 1967 Donald Horne collaborated with the photojournalist David Beal on a book called Southern Exposure, which in its acerbic treatment of Australia was almost like a pictorial version of The Lucky Country. Horne wrote in the book’s introduction:

Neither of us — photographer nor writer — could be bothered producing the ordinary kind of picture book on Australia. There are no photographs of koala bears in gum trees here. We are trying to get down in pictures and words the Australia we see — a nation in which more people live in big cities than happens in any other nation, but which is set in a largely empty continent, a continent which seems very strange to non-Australians. In this nation people lead a life not quite the same as the life led anywhere else, but they are so indifferent to it that they hardly care what kind of life it is that they lead. … We have a special theme — to suggest some answers to the following question: What happened to European civilization when it came to Australia?

The chapter headings don’t follow the usual triumphalist trajectories of most over picture books, but capture the text’s acerbic tone: ‘A transported Civilization’; ‘Deserts of Disaster’; ‘The Same but Different’; ‘Boxes of Brick’; ‘Mates’; ‘Non-Mates’; ‘Bosses’; ‘The New Australia’; ‘Existential Australia’.


In the following year Jeff Carter’s Outback in Focus a travel book aimed at the rising market of tourists and campers was nonetheless not shy in commenting on Australian civilization in general. In the book physiognomic close-ups are arranged across the pages for comparison. The dryly cynical captions to some of his sequences include:

This Wailbri Tribesman is amongst the last generations of Aborigines still capable of a nomadic life;

This man could still live in the bush, too, but looks to the ways of the white man for a better life

This Alice Springs policeman works as a white man, but is not paid as a white man or treated like one.


Occasionally younger photographers attempted to modify the mould that had now been well established for picture books about Australia. For instance in 1971 Rennie Ellis and Wes Stacey self published a small 81-page book about the effect of the R & R day on Kings Cross called Kings Cross Sydney. This book takes a deliberately cosmopolitan, bohemian approach to the idea of an Australian type.


In 1969 the commercial photographer David Mist produced a kind of Playboy guide to Australia, punningly titled Made in Australia, it claimed to be:

… a book of Australia’s bird life (of the non-feathered variety).

And it saw Australian women as a multiracial cocktail.

The beauty of Australian woman is unlike that found in any other nationality, yet its unique style is a combination of the characteristics of every nation. Beginning with the elegance of the English and the tranquil dignity of the Aboriginal, we have since added Italian vivacity, Slavic warmth, German discipline, Greek joi de vivre, Asian serenity and American ingenuity — what emergesis ‘Australian’ — a look that has claimed the Miss International and Miss World titles.


Five years later a rejoinder came with the feminist A Book About Australian Women with photographs by Carol Jerrems and text edited from interviews with various women by Virginia Fraser. Fraser wrote of her interviews:

They can’t represent the whole experience of all women in Australia. There is not just one way of being a person. They are some individual experiences of being a female in this society, dominated by a culture that sees biological gender as a decisive difference between people, instead of one aspect of human possibility and individual uniqueness; in which the institutions traditions and mythology are defined and controlled by men, out of their experience and in their interests.


Despite these counter-cultural efforts even in subsequent mainstream picture books the city largely remains a dystopian place and true character still lies out in the bush. For instance on Friday March 6 in 1981 seventy top international photojournalists joined thirty Australian photographers to shoot Australia across a 24 hour period for A Day in the Life of Australia, but the pattern of coverage has not significantly changed in 20 years.

However these books did solve the problem of picturing the character of a multicultural Australia by gridding photographs up into mosiacs. However they still persisted in locating bush types as the baseline against which to contrast shifts in identity.


To my knowledge there have been no significant picture books about Australia since then. The resurgence of the film industry in the 1970s, and the continuing dominance of television, have taken over the task of visually defining and redefining what might be our national character. But our bookshops are still awash with biographies of Australian heroes and anti-heroes. But the interest in the face, captured in the frame for scrutiny, remains. In 1998 the National Portrait Gallery opened in Canberra with the vision to:

increase the understanding of the Australian people – their identity, history, creativity and culture – through portraiture.

The inaugural National Portraiture award attracted nearly 1500 entries.


Are there any remnants of a Sanderesque typology in any of this? A group, which in Sander’s words carries “in their physiognomy the expression of their times and the mental attitude of their group. Individuals who display these qualities in a particularly obvious manner can be called types.” Let’s see. In Australian Photography 1947 Laurence le Guay published a studio portrait of the film actor Chips Rafferty, craggy, unshaven, staring off into space. Rafferty made his name playing lank ANZACs in films like Forty Thousand Horseman in 1940 and the Rats of Tobruk in 1944, and a drover in the Hollywood film The Overlanders in 1946. Twenty years later Chips Rafferty played the cranky patriarch in They’re a Weird Mob who begrudgingly allowed the Italian migrant to marry his beautiful daughter.  For me Chips is an ur-type for a distinct lineage of men that travel through Paul Hogan, to Les Hiddens the Bush Tucker Man, up to Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter (Whose portrait now hangs in the NPG). What are the physiognomic characteristics of this type? I think they are:

  • A no-nonsense non-cosmopolitan haircut
  • Laugh-lines or sun-creases around the eyes
  • A weathered complexion — freckles, sunburn, etc
  • A clear-eyed, open gaze
  • A sinewy, lanky body

In essence these are the characteristics which make the face and the body a synecdoche and an analogue for the continent of Australia itself. It is a type where the weather seems to have indexically inscribed itself onto the face to turn it into its own Australian landscape. And they are also the characteristics which physically materialize the supposedly decent, frank personality of the Australian.

Significantly, even though this type obviously had its origins in some kind of Aryan racial ideal, beneath even its digger and drover manifestations, I think it has now transcended it. In the sixty years since it emerged it has now crossed ethnic, racial and even gender lines. Steve bequeathed it to Bindii. And I see the net-baller Liz Ellis as very much of the type. I’m even going to go out on a limb and include Ernie Dingo in my category.

Unfortunately I think the type is being debased. I was startled to see Jack Thompsons face being used by the Byron Bay Chilli Company on their new range of BBQ sauces. Our Jack is no Paul Newman, and there is something about the implied sexual rapacity of his unruly beard which undermines he fundamental decency of the type.

As yet I haven’t been able to think of any celebrities who represent  migrant communities, although I think somebody from the South-East Asian communities must be ready for it. For instance Ahn Do has certainly captured the larrikin aspects of the type, but he is too metropolitan and lacks the embodiment of the outdoors and the bush that is there even in the suburban girl Liz Ellis, via the netball court.


Perhaps there are other types that I could have explored, for instance the stolid, indomitable woman — the middle aged woman built on a sturdy framework of bone, and with a secure layer of subcutaneous fat. Dupain and Moore specialized in this type, though I can’t think of any current examples.


Now of course these types aren’t really types in the old nineteenth century mode at all. They now no longer grow up from the national soil, but are constructed by the national media. Yet I think that they are more than just superficial media stereotypes as well. While there is a level of self-parody in many of these figures, there is still a way in which in their very physiognomies they persist in embodying a material, physical history that goes back a century.

I think also that if we look back at the picture books about Australia we certainly find a very fragmented, interrupted, and meagre history. But nonetheless it is one that has been totally ignored until now, and it demonstrates that photography played an important role in the popular conversation around national identity well before the recent art photography boom.

Martyn Jolly

[i] Oswald Ziegler (Ed.), This is Australia, Oswald Ziegler Publications, 1946; Australia from the Dawn of Time to the Present Day, Oswald Ziegler Publications, 1964.

[ii] George Johnston and Robert Goodman, The Australians, Rigby, 1966, p292.

[iii] John Currey, ‘Australian Books Are Selling FAST!’, Walkabout, March 1970. (My thanks to Gael Newton for this reference)

[iv] p 214, p210.

[v] Howell Walker, ‘New South Wales: The State that Cradled Australia’, National Geographic, November 1967

International Documentary Photography

Of course every photograph is in some sense a document of something else. The very essence of the photography is its ability to make pictorial ‘documents’ of events, be they an abstracted photogram of glass objects arranged and exposed in a darkroom, or an image of a car running a red light recorded by an automatic traffic camera. Nonetheless, the word ‘documentary’ has become used to describe a very particular photographic practice within the medium, or perhaps more accurately, a very particular ethos subscribed to by some photographers. The word has become used not so much to describe a discrete photographic style, or even a particular historical movement, but a complex set of almost moral attitudes to the medium passionately adhered to by some photographers. To the documentary photographer the camera is a tool with which they can personally witness, and perhaps even change, the world.

During the American Civil War (1861-65) the photographer Matthew Brady hired a corps of other photographers to cover all of the major battles for him from their photographic vans, feeding a hungry market in the cities with over 8000 stereo views and cartes-de-visite, which were available for sale from his New York studio. Some were also hand-cut into wood engravings for illustrated magazines. Although the vast majority of the photographs were relatively mundane, the battle views, which because of long exposure times had to be taken after the event, quickly became the most famous. Even though some photographers re-arranged the corpse-strewn battlefields, dragging the corpses into more dramatic compositions and even getting assistants to pose as additional corpses, the visceral connection such photographs forged between the war and the viewer at home was overwhelming. In 1862 the New York Times commented: ‘If [Mr Brady] has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it. […] These pictures have a terrible distinctness. By the aid of a magnifying-glass the very features of the slain may be distinguished.’ [1]

Towards the end of the 1800s the New York police reporter turned social reformer Jacob Riis began to use the flare of magnesium flash powder to penetrate the obscurity of the slums of the Lower East Side. Riis’s flash photographs captured his dishevelled subjects in raw oblivion to the camera’s presence. As the New York Sun reported the ‘night pictures were faithful and characteristic, being mostly snapshots and surprises. In the daytime [the photographers] could not always avoid having their object known, and struggle as they might against it, they could not altogether prevent the natural instinct of fixing up for a picture from being followed’[2] Riis showed his pictures as lantern slides with accompanying commentary, and published them, not as hand cut wood engravings, but as direct half-tone reproductions, in the seminal book How the Other Half Lives, 1890. As a result of his campaigning significant changes were made to the laws surrounding New York’s tenements.

The National Child Labour Committee also recognised the persuasive power of the photograph. Between 1908 and 1918 they hired the sociologist Lewis Hine to travel around the US taking photographs of child labourers in mines and factories. He used deliberate camera angles and framing to emphasise the small stature and pathetic isolation of the child workers, and recorded their names, ages, origins and circumstances. The resulting images, such as Dinnertime. Family of Mrs A. J. Young, Tifton G.A. 1909; Raymond Bykes, Western Union, Norfolk, Va. 1911 and Norman Hall, 210 Park Street, G.A. 1913, were published in the social reform magazine Survey, and used for lantern slide lectures and posters. In the posters the photographs were often laid out graphically to visually tell a story. In ‘Making Human Junk’ for instance, the ‘good material’ of healthy children is processed by a factory into the ‘junk’ of child labourers. To Hine the photograph was a ‘symbol that brings one immediately into close touch with reality […] it tells a story packed into the most condensed and vital form. […] it is more effective than the reality would have been because, in the picture, the non-essential and conflicting interests have been eliminated.’[3]

By the 1920s that the word ‘documentary’ was being used to describe this new genre of photography. In 1926 the British influential film theorist John Grierson coined the most commonly used definition of the word: the ‘creative treatment of actuality’. This phrase somewhat gnomically captured documentary’s double sense of the camera penetrating a raw social reality, supposedly unaffected by the photographer’s presence, while at the same time the photographer’s ‘vision’ selected, interpreted, symbologized and narrativised that reality in order for it to have maximum impact on the viewer.

This ethic reached its full flowering during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1935 the US Government under its New Deal policies set up the Farm Security Administration. Its Historical Section conducted a photographic survey of rural deprivation. The economist Roy Stryker hired a group of photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, to travel across the continent, particularly in the poor South, and send back exposed film to him in Washington to be developed, edited, captioned and distributed to newspapers and magazines. By the end of its life the FSA had assembled an archive of 180 000 images.

Dorothea Lange had previously produced documentary photographs of depression poverty such as White angel breadline, San Francisco of 1932, which with its dynamic composition dramatically compressed the human tension in the scene. For the FSA she produced another image with a similarly compacted triangular composition — Migrant Mother 1936. It was reproduced immediately in the San Francisco News, leading to food being sent to the pea pickers camp where it had been taken, and was hung in the Museum of Modern Art in 1941, which led to it becoming a national icon of madonna-like forbearance in the face of suffering.

Walker Evans shot his subjects frontally with a large-format camera, describing, as in Untitled (street scene Southern city) c1936, the solidity of surfaces and forms in objective, rectilinear detail. In 1938 he exhibited his FSA photographs at the Museum of Modern Art and published them in the monograph American Photographs, where for the first, rather than being reproduced amongst columns of text in magazines and newspapers, they were reproduced as art in a careful sequence, one image at a time, and with minimal captioning. The introduction to the book described Evans’s work as ‘straight’ photography — ‘there has been no need for Evans to dramatize his material with photographic tricks, because the material is already, in itself, intensely dramatic. Even the inanimate things, bureau drawers, pots, tires, bricks, signs, seem waiting in their own patient dignity, posing for their picture.’[4]

In 1936 Evans had lived for a time in the shack of an Alabama sharecropper family. On assignment from Fortune magazine, he and the writer James Agee probed into the minutia of the their downtrodden lives as they shared their private space. When Evans’s fine-grained images of the dry, scrubbed surfaces of the house and the lined, weathered faces of the family were reproduced, together with Agee’s extended lyrical text, in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1941, they served to not only dignify, but almost ennoble the family’s stoical poverty.

Many FSA-style photographs were reproduced in Life magazine, the most famous picture magazine of the period. Commencing publication in 1936, Life used new high-speed presses, coated paper-stock, and quick-drying inks to cheaply reproduce photographs in both quality and quantity. Featuring easy to digest ‘picture stories’ — photographs with short captions spread across several pages — Life reached a circulation of six million by 1960, before the alternative entertainment of television began erode it sales figures.

Life’s optimistic patriotism and belief in American values fed directly into a massive exhibition of 503 giant photographic enlargements selected from 273 photographers by the famous photographer and curator Edward Steichen. Called The Family Of Man, it was exhibited as a spectacular installation at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955, and then toured the world in several versions as a form of Cold War propaganda, even reaching Moscow in 1959. It saw the human race as one big ‘family’, modelled on the supposed ideal the American nuclear family, and celebrated birth, love, marriage, and death as eternal humanist values. The exhibition was massively popular, but was not without its critics. When it reached Paris in 1956 the cultural theorist Roland Barthes excoriated it for cloaking continuing social inequalities across the world with supposed ‘universal’ values: ‘Whether or not the child is born with ease or difficulty, whether or not his birth causes suffering to his mother, whether or not he is threatened by a high mortality rate, whether or not such and such a type of future is open to him: this is what your Exhibitions should be telling people, instead of the eternal lyricism of birth. The same goes for death: must we really celebrate its essence once more, and thus risk forgetting that there is still so much we can do to fight it?’[5]

The advent of smaller cameras such as the Leica, designed around cinematographic film and introduced in 1925, had allowed photographer to work  in more difficult and different places. Picture agencies, such as Berlin’s Dephot agency founded in 1928, or New York’s Black star Agency founded in 1936, began to supply photographs from their networks of photographers to the new, cheap, mass circulation, flick-through, picture magazines such as Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (begun 1884), Britain’s Picture Post (begun 1938) and Paris’s Vu (begun 1928), who used skilled graphic designers to lay them out in visually exciting collages of image and text.

In 1936 Vu sent the Dephot agency photographer Robert Capa to cover the Spanish Civil War, where he photographed a falling republican soldier. When the photograph was republished by Life the following year it was captioned: ‘Robert Capa’s camera catches a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in front of Cordoba.’[6] Although recent scholarship has convincingly suggested that this famous photograph was staged, it is still a touchstone for twentieth century photo-journalism because it gave the viewer a strong sense of the intrepid bravery of the photographer risking his own life so the viewer could be vicariously immersed in the unfolding event itself.[7]

Henri Cartier-Bresson switched to the Leica in 1932 and began a caree photographing around the world selling his images through picture agencies. He photographed nimbly, moving quickly and unnoticed through events, seeking the instant where the three dimensions of the event, and the two dimensions of the photograph, would cohere into what he called the ‘decisive moment’. In his 1952 book The Decisive Moment he wrote: ‘In photography there is a new kind of plasticity, [a] product of the instantaneous lines made by movements of the subject. […] But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.’[8] This famous philosophy, which is evident in various degrees in all of his photographs, including At the Opera 1950s, became a shorthand way to describe the visual power of the attuned photographer to apparently encapsulate an entire event in a single image.

In 1947 Cartier-Bresson, Capa, and other photographers, founded the photo agency Magnum, which became the most prestigious and famous face of the documentary ethos. In the 1950s Ernst Haas (Egyptian boys, 1955); Elliot Erwitt (New York City, 1953 and Moscow, 1959); and Willy Ronis (Le vigneron girondin, 1945), were members. Recent members have included Sebastiao Salgado and the art photographer Martin Parr. Salgado works on global projects with big humanitarian themes, such as his book Workers of 1993. Although grittily ‘real’, his photographs are also highly stylised, with compositions echoing old master paintings and endowed with a heightened sense of universal significance by dramatic high-contrast printing. Parr, on the other hand, who also works in book form, celebrated the cheap pleasure of the British working classes in bilious colour and with cruel irony in such books as The Last Resort, 1986.

As other forms of mass entertainment began to compete with the picture magazines, documentary photographers relied more and more on the art book and the gallery exhibition as a venue for their work. Weegee blasted New York’s late-night streets with a flash-gun and press camera to produce images such as Tramp 1940. But his shocking high-contrast crime scenes only became true pulp-opera when they were assembled into the inkily-black book New York, Naked City in 1945. In 1955 Robert Frank received a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel through America on a Beat-style road trip. Taking 28,000 photographs with his Leica, he sequenced 83 of them into the book The Americans, published in 1959. Although Frank was inspired by Evans’s American Photographs, his book subscribed to neither the desiccated nobility of the FSA, nor the cosy humanism of the Family of Man, rather it discovered isolated and lonely Americans caught within a worn-out, grainy America, which was in the process of fracturing into subcultures.

In the subsequent decades American photographers such as Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand  and William Eggleston  incessantly worked the sidewalks with their 35mm cameras, cramming the jumble of the street into their photographic frames. They edited the hundreds of thousands of photographs they took into thematic books and exhibitions with little or no text. An exception to this model of the street photographer was Diane Arbus, perhaps the most famous of the post war American documentary photographers, who was still working for magazines such as Harpers Bazaar when she was selected, along with Friedlander and Winnogrand, for the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal New Documents exhibition of 1967. Her portraits of eccentric, marginalised, vulnerable people undergoing ‘slow-motion private smashups’, to use Susan Sontag’s words, gained in universal power as they were removed from the narrative context of the picture stories for which they were taken, and exhibited in isolation on the gallery wall.[9]

Although it is now considerably more threadbare than in its glory days of the 1930s the genre of documentary photography still survives. The advent of digital photography has not changed the fundamentally ‘documentary’ nature of the photograph— we all still habitually believe that a photograph represents actuality. We are all still curious about ‘how the other half lives’, be they the desperately poor, the obscenely rich, or the distantly exotic. The decisive moment of the photograph retains its power to stop us in our tracks and momentarily mesmerise us, in a way a video grab still can’t.

Perhaps the aspect of documentary to have suffered the most damage is the idea of intrepid documentary photographers heroically seeking after the truth. Now they have to share space in the public’s imagination with less savoury types of photographers, such as sleazy paparazzi. In addition many of their icons have been revealed to be as theatrically staged as the rest of photography’s genres, and their motivations and effectiveness have also come into question. Once their photographs are out in the public domain can they protect their meanings from being hijacked by the many different contexts in which they are used, and the different captions they are given? Are they not just feeding our desire for short-term spectacle, our need to visually consume a momentary ‘hit’ of pity or disgust before we turn the page?

Photographers have responded to these questions in a variety of ways. For instance Larry Clark in Tulsa, 1971 or Nan Goldin in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1986 abandoned any sense of sociological objectivity or creative distance as they photographed from within their own lives, documenting the subcultures they were members of, and desperate events they actively took part in. Other photographers such as Laura Mulvey in The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1975 attempted to reveal the ‘constructed’ nature of photographic truth by treating their photographs not as self-sufficient and self-explanatory chunks of reality, but by embedding them in laborious structures of textual qualification which declared that photography too was just another language system. The Chilean photographer Alfredo Jaar photographed in Rwanda just after the massacres of 1994. He wanted to bear witness to the genocide, but refused to flood the world with yet more disposable images of horror and despair. Instead, in the work Real Pictures, 1995, he built funereal monuments out of 372 sealed black boxes, each one containing one of his colour photographs of the massacres, with a textual description of the unseen image on the top of the box. Recently the ‘other half’, once the mere passive subjects of the documentary photographer’s compassionate camera, have now become image-makers themselves. Examples include Britain’s Black Audio Film Collective set up by black photographers and filmmakers in Hackney in London in 1982 in the aftermath of inner-city protests against racism

Perhaps the enduring thing documentary photography has bequeathed to us is not so much the familiar historical icons it has produced over its history, but its vast repositories of millions of unknown images which are now collected in picture libraries and data banks around the world. Many of them, like the Corbis archive, founded by Bill Gates in 1989, are now online and instantly accessible. But even these mega documentary archives, which have consumed older picture libraries, photo agency and newspaper collections, are being rivalled by the smaller quirky personal collections and the diverse vernacular archives which are constantly being unearthed. Perhaps these personal snapshots and anonymous record photographs, which were taken not in order to advance a social cause or express a creative vision, will ultimately be just as valuable to us as those taken under the banner of the word ‘documentary’.

[1] Quoted in Michel Frizot. A new history of photography, Kèonemann, Kèoln 1998, p144

[2] ‘Flashes from the Slums: Pictures Taken in Dark Places by the Lightning Process, Some of the Results of a Journey through the City with an Instantaneous Camera —the Poor the Idle and the Vicious’, New York Sun, February 12, 1888, reprinted in Beaumont Newhall. Photography : essays & images : illustrated readings in the history of photography, Secker & Warburg, London 1981, p156)

[3] Lewis Hine, ‘Social Photography: How the Camera May Help in Social Uplift’, quoted in Alan Trachtenberg. Reading American photographs : images as history, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans, Hill and Wang, New York, NY 1989, p207

[4] Walker Evans and Lincoln Kirstein. American photographs, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, N.Y 1988 np

[5] Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Paladin Grafton, London 1973, p102

[6] Life, 12 July 1937, p19

[7] Alex Kershaw. Blood and champagne : the life and times of Robert Capa, Macmillan, London 2002; Caroline Brothers. War and photography : a cultural history, Routledge, London ; New York 1997

[8] Henri Cartier-Bresson, ‘The Decisive Moment’, in Vicki Goldberg. Photography in print : writings from 1816 to the present, Simon and Schuster, New York 1981, p385

[9] Susan Sontag. On photography, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1979, p36