The Time Machine, 1988

The Time Machine

‘South Australia Rephotographed’, catalogue, 1988


“Nearly all civilized countries preserve their records with care, and in doing so they are working not only in accordance with scientific needs, but also in obedience to a deep-grained instinct.”

G.C. Henderson

Chairman of the Library and Archives Committee, Public

Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia. 1920

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPH The American semiotician Charles Peirce described three modalities in which the sign stood for entities in the real world. The first, the symbol, was an arbitrary sign which functioned because of a conventional association between it and its referant. The second, the icon, referred to its object through resemblance. The third, the index, had a direct, causal connection with its object.

The photograph incorporates all three modalities of the sign, but in a dramatically ascending scale of potency. The much discussed representational power of the photograph lies in its symbolic nature, but more in its iconic nature, and more still in its indexical nature. The photograph’s optical and chemical causality, the fact that its referant adheres (to use Barthes’ term) distinguishes it from all other forms of visual record. It also grants it a privileged intimacy with the past.

A STORY OF THE PAST A dinosaur wanders through a pre-historic swamp. It places one of its huge feet in some soft mud and leaves both an iconic and indexical sign of its existence. A volcano explodes, covering the mud with lava, and fixing the footprint for ever. Time passes. A paleontologist excavates the fossilized footprint. He makes a plaster cast and places it in a museum. We come to visit the dinosaur exhibit. As we look at the footprint we shudder slightly. We can almost feel the ground shake under us as the ghostly dinosaur lumbers past. We shake our heads in wonderment: “so long ago, so much time has passed, yet it seems so close”.

Now it is no longer pre-history, no longer the Pleistocene Period. Now it is History, history with a capital H, Australia’s Official Bicentennial History — the Sepia-Toned Period. A photographer wanders through South Australia with social habits and a perceptual apparatus almost as open to speculation

as the dinosaur’s. He places the legs of his tripod on the ground, they leave a faint impression. He takes a photograph. Eventually it finds its way into a museum. We visit. We feel a slight shudder: “so long ago, so much time, yet it seems so close”.

Then we dream: what if we went back to that spot, got down on our hands and knees, gently ran our fingers over the ground and, by some miracle, found those three faint impres­sions from the feet of the photographer’s tripod. And what if we put our camera there, and took another photograph of exactly the same scene, but one hundred years, and several historical and social cataclysms later?

What if we displayed both photographs side by side in a museum? What shudders we would feel! What glowing auras of proximate distance we would bathe in! What mysteries of history we would create!


REPHOTOGRAPHED PROJECT Despite the Project’s prosaic title and its pretentions to scientific validity, it is essentially this intoxicating dream which underlies South Australia Rephotographed.

By presenting two photographs of the same scene, but separated by approximately a century’s worth of time, the Project may well teach us something about South Australian History. On the level of the photographs’ symbolic modality we may perhaps learn the extent to which South Australia’s social customs have changed. On the level of the photographs’ iconic modality we may perhaps learn the extent to which the topography and architecture of South Australia has changed. However it will be on the level of the photographs’ indexical modality that our essential fascination with the Project will lie. This fascination will remain unutterable, outside the Project’s pedagogics. Our fascination is with time itself, rather than history. Our thrill comes from time travel, rather than the specifics of historical change.

Our Time Machine is obviously the camera. But the force which propels it is the interaction of two interdependent systems: the photograph and the archive. The photographs mark — symbolically, iconically and indexically — two points in the flow of time, and the archival repository allows us to connect them. The simultaneous proximity and distance of the twinned images react off each other, giving the ‘that has been’ of the photograph a double valency.

THE MEANING OF TIME In his essay Photography Between Labour and Capital2 Allan Sekula discusses the relationship between the photograph and the archive. Sekula describes an archive as a ‘clearing house of meaning’, where any original function an image may have had is supplanted by its ‘semantic availability’. The image’s meaning is now up for grabs to anybody who cares to penetrate the ‘territory of images’ which constitutes the archive. This territory is a flat, featureless plain. It doesn’t matter whether the constituent photographs were initially personal snapshots, scientific documents, topographical views, or even artworks, they all end up with an ‘abstract visual equivalence’ within the archive. They are all, equally, only potential statements awaiting enunciation.

Within the archive, Sekula says, “the spectator is flung into a condition of imaginary temporal and geographical mobility. In this dislocated and disoriented state, the only coherence offered is that provided by the constantly shifting position of the camera, which provides the spectator with a kind of powerless omniscience. Thus the spectator comes to identify with the technical apparatus, with the authoritative institution of photography. In the face of this authority all forms of telling and remembering begin to fade. But the machine establishes its truth.”

As far as the retrieval systems of the Mortlock Library’s photographic archive allow us to determine, most of the historical images used in this Project (except those used by Ian North and Fiona Hall) were made by Samuel Sweet or Ernest Gall between the 1860s and the First World War. They are primarily views of Adelaide and its surrounds taken for sale through the photographers’ city studios. The clients for this view trade were mainly travellers collecting interesting and informative souvenirs of their visit, and settlers seeking visual descriptions of their new home to send back to friends and relatives in Europe.

South Australia was a product of the Systematic Colon­ization schemes of early nineteenth century Britain. These schemes involved the selling of regulated parcels of ‘wasteland’ to young, appropriately skilled colonists. The proceeds of these sales would in turn pay for the passage of further colonists. Thus an efficient pastoral yeomanry would be formed, avoiding the ad hocery of both convict transportation and the squatter system. The ideology informing this process was one of civilizing, Christianizing and colonizing the primitive vacancy

that was Australia. This was to be followed by the natural development and progress of the Colony in a British mould.

In this context the view trade’s function can be seen as basically propagandistic. The photographs may appear to be simple documents of Adelaide’s major new buildings; its handsome, well laid out thoroughfares; its busy port; and its picturesque, pastoral hinterlands. Their job, however, was to proselytize the Colony of South Australia back in Europe. They present South Australia as a potential space: empty, but ripe. The photographs were initially read within the rhetoric of the ‘New World’, one awakening from dormancy to activity, flowering from wilderness to a garden, growing from primi-tivism to civilization, and converting from paganism to Christianity: a world strange, but slowly and systematically transforming itself into a simulacrum of Europe. The archival images used in this project were originally invitations to participate in this transformation. They were forward looking, taken and sold to aid the teleological thrust of South Australia into prosperity, from the past to the future.

However, once embedded in the archives of the Mortlock library their forward thrust is halted. They become markers lodged in the past. Their meaning is placed on auction to the various users of the Library. Perhaps they become a nostalgic image for a picture postcard or a calendar, perhaps hard evidence for a thesis on architectural style, perhaps even part of the artistic vision of Samuel Sweet or Ernest Gall. Or, as in this case, they become a point of reference, one terminus of a joy-ride through time.

The spectator’s gaze travels on a photographic time-shuttle as it flicks from the archival to the contemporary image and back again, comparing this detail to that. The two terminuses share many characteristics. Each is, of course, of the same geographical location, and each depends on the other for its presence on the gallery wall. But more importantly, even though the origins and original meanings of the archival images lie outside the Project, they are now just as dependent on it as the contemporary, commissioned images for the potential readings they may make available to us.

However in this neat symmetry there is one wild card. The authors of the older images were undistinguished, even anonymous artisans. Simply two more names from the general category of ‘Nineteenth Century Photographer’. To maintain appropriate, scientifically neutral conditions for the Project, to

minimize the variables in the experiment, similarly artisanal photographers should have been chosen to carry out the rephotography. In fact six artist photographers were com­missioned, complete with all their fierce independence and restlessly individual styles. They were chosen because, like Samuel Sweet and Ernest Gall were in their time, they are the State’s foremost photographers. But their work is the product of an art discourse, rather than the commercial discourse in which Sweet and Gall were leaders. Artists and not, say, South Australia’s leading commercial or postcard and calendar photographers were chosen to participate, even though the latter are the true inheritors of the tradition of Sweet and Gall —the popular circulation of images of a picturesque and prosperous State.

This ambiguity of purpose within the Project reveals a more fundamental ambiguity within photography itself. Photography, as we all know, is a mechanical art, combining the discourses of ‘objective truth’ and ‘artistic vision’ in an uneasy alliance. It is precisely this alliance which has allowed South Australia Rephotographed to have a dollar each way, to invest in both the supposed impartiality of photographic truth and the privileged subjective impressions of the photographic artist. Within the seamless, symmetrical enclosure of the Project one redeems the other. The divergent discourses of historical fact and artistic truth are bonded together in an unassailable unit of mutual validation.

This monogamous pair-bonding asserts another neat symmetry for the two types of author involved in the Project —the artist and the artisan. Each becomes the privileged Voice of their time. Because an individualist personality is denied the anonymous artisan of the past their photographs attain a Positivist truth as historical artefacts. Like archeological relics they become passive ciphers standing in for a complete culture — mute, elliptical documents unproblematically containing, but not exceeding, all our assumptions about their historical period. However the present is not as complete, or as containable as the past. It automatically exceeds any single images attempts to contain it. Here the individualist, author­itative voice of the artist is privileged — blessed with perspicacity and acuity. Within the symmetrical terms of the Project these two privileged voices — the emblematic, artisanal voice of the past and the acute, artistic voice of the present —are married.

THE ARCHIVE OF ELAPSATIONS The Project is, in a sense, not so much an independent artistic or historiographic statement derived from an archive as a subset of that archive. The Mortlock Library has been extensively searched, and the historical images carefully selected by the Project’s director. However they were chosen solely on the basis of their amenability to rephotography. Images were chosen if they aesthetically appealed to contemporary photo-

graphic tastes, if it was physically possible to re-locate am. re-photograph them, and if this rephotography would evince the feeling of substantial historical change. The criteria for selection was primarily the efficiency with which the images would operate within the Project’s time-shuttle mechanism, rather than any specific social, cultural or historical arguments they might make. (Nor were the images selected to describe any particular photographer’s oeuvre, or any particularly photo­graphic style or concern, as has been the case in similar projects carried out in the United States.) They have simply been transferred from one totalizing system — the archive — to another — the South Australia Rephotographed Project.

However this subset of the larger archive is not an archive of images so much as an archive of ‘elapsations’ — the time-shuttle between twinned images. It is an archive not of clearly authored interpretations of reality, but of immutable, trans­cendent lines between moments of time — ‘now’ and ‘then’. As spectators we no longer read historical writings, but seem to experience History itself. The frictionless connection between two instants valorizes the Historical Moment as Truth. This new archive structures itself as a Positivist entity, dealing only in facts, denying variant readings, and placing absolute faith in the self-evidentiality of perceptual experience.

In the presence of this ‘archive of elapsations’ we feel something like the same dumb awe we feel before a dinosaur’s footprint. It is an awe that lies outside knowledge, created by the immediate presence of unconscionable oceans of time, and the aura of proximate distance.

But all ineffable experiences remain embedded in the social. They are produced within institutions such as the church, theatre, gallery or museum. Our audience with the dinosaur’s footprint comes courtesy of the intersection of the science of paleontology and the institution of the museum. The South Australia Rephotographed Project’s legitimating discourses are History and Art. Its supporting institutions are the gallery, Library archive and, more pervasively, the Australian Bicentennial Authority.

The Bicentenary was initially intended to celebrate a nationalistic, trans-class, trans-cultural unity, grounded in the supposedly a-historical verities of shared national ‘character’ and ‘experience’. Recently such celebrations have become the site of conflict, centred on Aboriginal Land Rights, but also including charges of cynical party-political opportunism.

The Official Bicentennial Celebration is essentially a process of erasure and conflation: the erasure of social and cultural difference and oppression, and the conflation of variant histories — British, Aboriginal and Immigrant — into a normative historical narrative. The anti-Bicentennial protests are essentially attempts at re-inscription and re-incision: the re-introduction of repressed historical events into the normative flow of the dominant historical narrative, the re-assertion of fundamental social and cultural differences, and the public proclamation of continuing inequalities and oppressions.

It is in this context that the true Janus-like character of the ‘archive of elapsations’ reveals itself. The historical images proudly looked forward, towards us, for their fulfilment in unified progress and stable prosperity. The contemporary images nervously look back, from uncertainty of identity and conflict of interest, into an unchangeable past where stability and meaning can perhaps be found within an original, historical truth. The twinned images stare each other in the face, what have they been allowed to see?

READING REPHOTOGRAPHY The structure of the Project tends to work for the processes of historical erasure and conflation. Although archival images of Aborigines were not deliberately excluded from the Project, none were found that were suitable for rephotography. However, once absent from the archival images they are excluded from the rephotographs. They remain absent from the Project’s history, but their absence is now a glaring one. It becomes a shadowy presence. Aborigines were at best quaint anachronisms to the view trade’s white clientele. They were the remnants of the pre-historic, potential space of Australia, the civilization and pastoralization of which the images recorded. Now their absence from the Project underlines their very survival of this genocidal history, as well as their prior ownership of ‘Terra Nullius’.

Two essential questions must be asked of all archival photographs: what meanings did they produce when they were originally published? What meanings can we produce from them now? Rephotography may redouble the indexical power of the photograph, and it may record superficial changes in the environment, but it is basically a historically passive activity. It does not, in itself, interrogate the original function of the archival images, nor does it seem to provide a fruitful enunciative context in which new readings may be produced. Because it places its faith in photographic self-evidentiality it is only through irony and disfunction that readings, outside the thrill of seeing time pass before our very eyes, can be made. However on closer examination these ironies and disfunctions fertilize the ‘archive of elapsations’, allowing unexpected readings to grow in the cracks between its temporal poles.

For instance one pervasive irony seems to confound our assumptions about the steady progress of history. Many of the contemporary photographs, particularly those of coastal and rural towns, have a leisurely nostalgic air to them, compared with the strenuous bustle of the archival images. This reversal of our normal conception of the respective ‘pace’ of the past and the present ironically underscores the decay of many South Australian industries.

The Project seems to record the replacement of commerce


with recreation as the prime picturable outdoor activity. Economic activity has now largely disappeared from the picturable — absorbed into computer circuitry, or hidden within unintelligible robotic functions; whilst recreation has come out from the parlour and away from the occasional picnic to almost totally define the space of the outdoors.

In the nineteenth century the outdoors was synonymous with economic production — farming, grazing, timber-getting, railway and steamer trade, mining, etc. The productive system mapped the outdoors. Roads, railways, sea-ways, ports and jetties all had primarily economic meanings within nineteenth century visual culture. Now the outdoors is synonymous with recreation — swimming, boating, sightseeing, bushwalking etc. Recreation maps the outdoors. Surf beaches, fishing jetties, marinas, highways and national parks all have primarily recreational meanings within contemporary visual culture.

The many new readings the project does make available are produced not so much when the contemporary photo­graphers dutifully follow the scientific guidelines of the Project, as when they deviate from them. Six artists may have been chosen for the Project in order to encode the two discourses of photography — objective truth and artistic vision — within its structure, but it is precisely their precocious artistry which saves the Project from a relentless scientism that would otherwise be stultifying.

Each artist has brought varying degrees of historical accuracy to their rephotography. Some, for instance Martin Smith and Alan Cruickshank, have been scrupulous in their detailed research, but have been thwarted at the last moment in their attempts to find that magical ‘exact same spot’. They have discovered the limits of even the photograph’s indexical power and have been reduced to the tentative nomination of a particular spot as ‘the spot’ within a range of relative uncertainty. (Very much in the manner of a physicist who is unable to locate the sub-atomic building blocks of matter with certainty, and can only theoretically predict their presence.) And, of course, in nominating, from a range of possible spots, the one spot which is to bear all the indexical magic of photographic time-travel, matters of personal taste — which reside in the photograph’s symbolic modality — must inevitably be crucial. Yet hitherto the whole complex of reasons why a particular view is chosen by a particular photographer at a particular historical and cultural juncture were excluded from the Project. Their re-appearance, even as a disfunction, opens up a space for the spectator to critically insert themself between the bonded images: why was that spot chosen and not another?

Another major disfunction occurs around the issue of the disposition of human figures within the various views. Unlike buildings or topographical features, passers-by have to be directed by the photographer to adopt certain positions within the overall scene.

The original photographers were making architectural and topographical views, they weren’t making sociological documents. People were subordinate to the scene, which was generally chosen to emphasise depth and scale. If onlookers were present at the time of the photograph’s execution they may have been included, but only as figures to further articulate the spectator’s sense of ‘view’: they were either indicators of scale, surrogate spectators, or perhaps evidence of a sober, industrious citizenry.

The scenes the artist photographers approached were predetermined by the archival images, but the directions they gave the inevitable onlookers were left up to their culturally and historically specific taste and judgement, and their interpretation of the ‘rules’ of the Project. Mark Kimber often directed onlookers to pose in exactly the same positions as the figures in the archival images. But, ironically, this obviously theatrical connection with the past reads as somehow fraudulent amidst so much indexical verisimilitude, thereby applying the brakes to the photographic time-shuttle.

Photographing passers-by as just that, passers-by, rankled with some photographers. The archival photograph’s dour descriptive views, arranged around the Claudian perspectival scemas favoured by nineteenth century photographers, were not to the taste of the contemporary artists who cut their teeth on the planar compositional strategies of twentieth century Modernism. To simply allow the figures to be caught where they stood would, for them, result in an image totally devoid of personal significance. Stephanie Valentin and Mark Kimber solved the problem by referring back to their personal photographic styles and introducing figures in the foreground of the scene, thus producing a kind of hybrid rephotograph/ sociological portrait. Both artists have been at pains to place markers of contemporaneity — ghetto-blasters, surf-mats, etc — in their rephotographs. Yet, once more, in an image charged with temporal flux such deliberate sociological declarations on the part of the artist photographers appear oddly gratuitous.

Two artists, Ian North and Fiona Hall, opted out of these irresolvable dilemmas by totally refusing the Project’s scientism and instead applying the ‘spirit’ of the project to their individual oeuvres.

Fiona Hall extended the interventions of Valentin and Kimber but couched her photographs entirely within the theatrical, creating tableaus based on early twentieth century snapshots. Her twinned images become humanist allegories, playing off the unchanging, casual ambience of ‘people at leisure’ against the radical changes to their dress and leisure time activities in the intervening years. She thereby asserts a behavioural commonality which transcends the historical particularity of social habits. A nationalistic commonality is further celebrated in another image where a family, replete with Anglo-Saxon members, is replaced by a family identically


replete with ‘multi-cultural’ members (including an Aboriginal boy). Basic familial norms are asserted over the cultural diversification of the Australian nation, which is now, allegorically, one big family.

Ian North’s combination of three South Australian landscapes, one each by Hans Heysen, Harold Cazneaux, and himself, are not concerned with topographical change through time. Rather they engage with the historical process through which a picturing system developed in the 1900s to 1930s becomes the most pervasively popular image of ‘South Australia’. The landscape paintings of Heysen, perhaps South Australia’s best known artist, and the Pictoralist photographs of Cazneaux, have become emblematic of South Australia’s ‘rugged north’. Ian North’s quasi-expressionist overlay of brush work visually links the three images. It also intervenes in the pictorial self-sufficiency of each landscape, flirting with the historical contingency of all picturing systems, even those which, by virtue of History, have acquired their own meta­phorical overlay.

The work produced by the six artists commissioned by South Australia Rephotographed has far exceeded the terms within which it was initially conceived. The sheer intoxication of time-travel remains, but in addition the archive of elapsations becomes a fertile terrain which, through irony and disfunction, is capable of producing many variant, even contradictory readings. The Project was inspired by photography’s privileged intimacy with the past, it attempted to contain history within time and the photograph within truth. It was bound to fail. But it is precisely within its failure, through the historical mobility and semiotic plurality of all photographs, that its success can be found.

Martyn Jolly

1.  G. C. Henderson. The Archives Department of South Australia.

(An appeal on behalf of the Board of Governors of the Public Library, Museum, and Art Gallery of South Australia to all who have in their possession original documents relating to the history of South Australia). Adelaide. 1920. Thanks to Margy Burn of the Mortlock Library for this reference.

2.  Allan Sekula. Photography Between Labour and Capital. In
Mining Photographs and other Picture 1948-1968. Nova Scotia
College of Art and Design.


Photography’s Critical Stance? 1986

‘Photography’s Critical Stance?’

The Critical Distance, 1986, edited by Virginia Coventry, Hale and Iremonger. ISBN 0 86806 223, pp132-140


How is such a thing as the critical practice of photography possible? How does the specific nature of photography, its inherent characteristics and uses, define its relationship to critical cultural practice as a whole?

Photography and society and politics

Firstly, what is this thing called ‘the critical practice of photography or, as it is sometimes termed, ‘oppositional photography’? Oppositional photography is, first and foremost, a conscious photographic practice, a practice that takes a particular stance in relation to photography as a medium as well as to the society in which it operates. Oppositional photography demands a conscious stance because it sees both these things as structures that define the ways in which ‘our world’ is comprehended and the ways in which individuals behave in it. These structures are regarded as fundamentally oppressive – in need of critique and in need of change. Critical cultural practice assumes that forms of communication and representation – photography, film, newspapers, TV, and even art – cannot be j separated from the society in which they exist.

In the theory of ideology developed by Marx, the material basis of society, its eco­nomic functionings, produced a set of implicit assumptions and beliefs that masked its inherent contradictions. To Marx, the basic contradiction of capitalism was that economic wealth accrued to capital rather than to labour Ideology was« kind of false consciousness, the perfect reflection of the contradictions of capitalism. It is interesting to note that one of Marx’s own metaphors for this ‘wrong thinking’ was a camera-obscura, which makes upside-down images of the world in am darkened space.1 This metaphor relies on assumptions that are perhaps not so easy to maintain in the 1980s — assumptions of a’ real’ world, a’ false’ ideological image, and the distorting lens of simple class contradiction.

Within the Marxist tradition, theories of ideology were intensively developed dur­ing the twentieth century, when it was realised that classical Marxism had historical limits. It was more applicable to the nineteenth century capitalism which produced it, than to the increasingly subtle and complex forms of capitalism which developed during the twentieth century. An important theoretical develop­ment was the granting to ideology, society’s ‘superstructure’, a ‘relative autonomy11 from the economic base. The superstructure of society – culture, beliefs, etc.8 has a materiality of its own and is therefore as important an arena for revolutiona struggle as is the struggle between labour and capital. As the site for revolutic struggle has expanded, so has the cast of possible participants; no longer jud those directly oppressed by capital — the workers — but also those oppressed within other configurations of power — women, blacks, gays, the unemployed and those in the Third World.

Power is not simply direct economic oppression. Power can be technical, en­coded in social regimes or architecture.2 Power can be immanent, residing in f assumption that things are the way they are because of simple, ‘commonsense’ reasons. Power is pervasive. As much cultural as economic, it is best described as being hegemonic. Cultural and political power is derived from the assumption that this is a ‘natural’ ‘normal’ society. It is fundamentally oppositional practices that6 gage themselves with this assumption.

Photography is one of the most important and pervasive mediums for construe ing this ‘normalcy’ because it weds an apparently undeniable reality, an unassailable ‘piece of the world’, with specifically constructed, culturally determined, messages about that world. Photography is an essential part of the phenomena of the mass media. In the 1930s Walter Benjamin discussed the ways in which pho­tography, through the mass media, stripped reality of its unique and specific meanings for us as individuals and substituted a homogenous mass meaning, defined by the predominant interests in our society.3

Recently, such ideas have been developed further: the media is no longer simply seen as facilitating communication between individuals and sections of society, and thus passively reproducing capitalism’s contradictions, but rather as transact­ing in the signs of communication in the way capitalism transacts in any other commodity – as simply consumption for its own sake. Thus we can speak of an ‘economy of signs’ in which information is consumed and paid for as part of the same process as the consumption of products. Commodities and signs dissolve into each other. We are therefore robbed of the possibility of any real response to society because simple attack or transgression still circulates within the economy of the sign.4 Photography lies close to the heart of this process because, in a sense, it commodities the world. It turns pieces of ‘reality’ into messages that can be transacted within the economy of signs.

Photography’s privileged relationship with ‘the real’ has been dealt with by a variety of theorists, though not with the terminological coherency of straight politi­cal theory. Virtually all the writers who have discussed what I will call ‘the photo­graphic effect’ have been forced to use individualistic, quasi-metaphoric modes of speech when dealing with photography’s intoxicating, corporeal effects of im­mediacy and palpability.

Within the photographic tradition Walter Benjamin is celebrated as one of the first to theorise photography’s technological supremacy over all other imaging mediums. In referring to photography’s ‘magical value’, its ‘tiny spark of accident, the here and now’, Benjamin attempted to define the optical and chemical caus­ality of the photograph, its essential nature that not only characterises it as a medium but also absolutely distinguishes it from all other representational mediums.5

The semiologist Roland Barthes divided the photograph into layers, each of which, through different sign systems, carries different aspects of ‘the photo­graphic message’. One of these distinct, but inseparable layers of meaning, con­notation, carries specific cultural messages through the learnt codes of lighting, pose, composition, content, etc. The other layer, denotation, is a message sent without a code, undeniable reality resolutely recorded by the camera. This layer was for Barthes, as for all of us, the source of photography’s fascination. Thus Benjamin’s ‘flying spark of the here and now’ transmutes into ‘a message without a code’ for Barthes6 For Barthes, photography’s photographicness is not simply the bare bones of a linguistic/visual message lacking art, interpretation or even an enunciative creator; rather it is a potent, seductive and wily force naturalising and rendering innocent specific (bourgeois) messages within a brutal denotative/connotative alliance.

Through the mass media, with its increasing reliance on electronic, filmic, and mechanically reproduced photographic images, photography has assumed more and more of the very substance, the flesh, of our culture. Photography can thus also be said to play an increasingly important function within culture’s hegemonic structurings. Moreover, a direct correspondence can be made be­tween the ‘hegemonic’ and the ‘photographic’ structurings of our ‘reality’. The pho­tographic process, in its flawless and unquestionable conflation of a constructed, cultural message with ‘reality’, can be seen to operate in exactly the same way as the social hegemony at large, with its construction of a particular political and social order as the only commonsense ‘natural’ one. Marx’s metaphor of the camera-obscura can be revived and expanded: the cultural hegemony is like a photograph, it presents a particular order as the only conceivable order. But this relationship goes beyond being merely a metaphoric illustration: photography, or the ‘photographic effect’ (which spreads itself all the way from the video screen to the daguerreotype’s tarnished surface) can be seen to form part of the very body of our culture. Although, of course, linguistic,7 photography is not simply a mode of speech, not simply a cultural enunciation, it is a breath and a sound – the breath and the sound of the cultural hegemony.

In any oppositional practice the first thing that must be interrupted, therefore, is the even flow of the photographic breath. Oppositional photography of recent years has thus had a primary encounter with photography’s own ‘body’ – the pho­tographic effect. The Critical Distance not only implies a stance in relation to poli­tics and culture in Australia, but also a critical stance in relation to photography itself. The work collected under this title has concerned itself as much with disen­tangling itself from the photographic embrace as it has with social critique. Indeed it has not only had to deal with the two as thoroughly imbricated functions, but also as two absolute determinants of oppositional speech.

It is for these reasons that oppositional photographers characteristically break into their medium, rupturing it, tattooing it with texts, colouring and cutting it. These processes are of course historically relatable to the Modernist practices of mon­tage and collage, but it remains characteristic of most oppositional photographic discourses that one of the first things to be problematised is photography itself.

‘Photography and . . .’

 ‘. . . and  Photography’

Because of photography’s pervasive nature, because of its ethereal yet palpable presence in our day to day lives, it proves very difficult to come to terms with as medium or as a cultural practice in itself. Put simply, what we mean when we say the word ‘photography’ is never fully resolvable. Usually the word is used in con- j junction with some other term. It is always Art and Photography’8 ‘Photography and Pnntmaking’,9 ‘Photography and Language’.10 ‘Eros and Photography’,11 ‘Postmodernism and Photography’12 or ‘Photography and Politics’.13 Yet photography I persistently retains its identity no matter what it does and no matter what it is associated with. It is generally seen as an indivisible whole which merely displays I ‘aspects’ of itself for attention, aspects identifiable through their congruence with j other cultural discourses. Though there may be art photography, historical photography, erotic photography, and even political photography, somehow pho­tography always remains the dominant term. The ‘photographic’ sets all the images which it characterises into a firm gelatinous mass. The medium of paint­ing, for instance, is variegated, developing, changing and ruptured and can oil in some art discourses, be unified by such transcendent notions as ‘human expression’ or ‘artistic endeavour’. Photography, on the other hand, is fundamentally unified at the ontological level by its ‘photographicness’ and can only be divided and distinguished within itself on the discursive (historical, sociological, artistic) ‘ level. Photography remains predicated on the photographic, that intoxicating, corporeal effect of immediacy and palpability. The over-riding fact of photography, the unstoppable progression of the photographic effect, has always been the defining term of its various discursive formations.

Photography has thus played a problematic role within art and critical discourses,] yet this does not mean its role has been only marginal. Photography has existed close to the very centre of politics and art since its beginnings. It has always 1 dwelled close to the heart, if not the soul, of Modernism in art; by which it has been alternatively embraced or spurned, often as merely emblematic of the ‘spirit of the age’. In addition, it has shared many of its central figures with Modernism (e.g. Alfred Stieglitz or Man Ray). Whether sympathetically or not, photography has been evoked by Modernism as something either to react against or react with. ‘You know exactly what I think of photography’, Marcel Duchamp wrote to Alfred Stieglitz, 1 would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.’14

Photography is similarly evoked by traditional oppositional cultural practices in ambivalent, contradictory ways – as simultaneously a potent instrument of op­pression and a potential instrument for demystification. (In traditional oppositional discourses photography is usually seen to demystify by either ironically or parodically deconstructing society’s cultural manipulations [photomontage, etc.] or by acting as an ‘alternative’ photography, a separate voice against the dominant ideology [documentary, etc.].)

Thus, although photography itself is central to the cultural hegemony, photo­graphic theory tends to be marginalised within critical discourses. For instance, photographic theory is rarely taught as a distinct area of study in Australia’s tertiary institutions. Articles specifically concerned with photography rarely appear in books or magazines that deal with cultural theory or practice and photographic publications often find themselves begging texts from writers whose main con­cerns lie in other areas. While it is absurd to call for a separate entity called ‘photo­graphic theory’, the lack of a coherent or sustained theoretical discourse around photography in Australia is at least partially indicative of its ambivalent role within possible critiques of politics and culture. In addition, photography is often deployed within discourses of art and oppositionality as a vague shadowy presence, an evocation of the ‘photographic effect’ rather than a direct engage­ment with the set of images and practices that go to make up photography.

Some of the most successful art of the late 1970s and early 1980s, that of the ‘second degree’,15 relied implicitly on the photographic effect; but only as an evo­cation, an informant, a presence of itself. Photography as such is not significantly compromised by this art’s references to media images and media imaging. Else­where there are remarkably few artists who use photography in a deliberately self-referential or quotational way, and even Sherry Levine or Cindy Sherman use photographs already over-determined by either art-history or popular culture. It is the specifics of their over-determination, rather than the photographs themselves, that is the principle subject of these artist’s work. Since photography and the photographic effect form such a fundamental part of the very substance of our visual culture there is little leverage left for the operation of the semiotic second degree, for the necessary ‘detachment’. Photography cannot be as easily foliated from culture as painting; it runs through the veins of culture and hence cannot slide across its surface.

The revival, under the rubric of New Expressionism, of the ‘traditional’ primacy of painting has similarly illuminated the still problematic role of photography within art. ‘Has the time come’, a recent article in Art in America asks, taking its lead from Duchamp, ‘to despise photography . . . Expressionism on one level is the effort to transcend the photographic state of mind, and achieve a new philosophical out­look, a new freedom of understanding. It is resistance against everything pho­tography stands for, including the mechanistic society.’16 Arguments like this, of course, fall neatly into the art/photography rhetorical paradigm that has accom­panied photography since its beginnings (and incidentally supplied much of the engine-power for its art-historical development). But this argument, in the present-day context of a supposedly heterogeneous art discourse, does more than simply revive old issues, it throws into sharp relief the basic unease with which pho­tography still rests in the bosom of self-conscious cultural production.

Photography stands in a particularly strained and artificial relationship to cultural

theory and practice: its body is untouchable and its effect is demonic – both seductive and repulsive. Photography is still generally seen and used, even in the most ‘aware’ of cultural practices, as a single, albeit multifaceted, object. An object unassailable and unsplittable, without fractures or faultlines, an object whose vari­ous histories and cultural uses are conflated, through the agency of the photo­graphic effect into a single word — ‘photography’. This word bulges with associations, potent effects and mysterious powers. It is most often used as a rhe­torical trope standing in for an amorphous amalgam of photographic effects. It re­mains for many cultural producers simply an unstructured and awkward obstacle.

The oppositional photographer therefore has to deal with a photography that is constructed along at least two dimensions within society and its oppositional dis­courses. One dimension of photography is the very existence of itself as a set of continuous imagery stretching all the way back to 1839 and all the way up to the heights of connotational ineffability – a bank, or perhaps more appropriately, a body of imagery that must necessarily subsume any new photographs into itself. The other dimension is of the photographic effect, the ‘photographic’, which ani­mates the body of photography with the electricity of contiguity, immediacy and palpability — the electrical spark that leaps between ‘reality’ and the photograph. Both of these dimensions are absolutely implicated in, and compromised by, the hegemonic structurings of our culture and society.

Some critical practices and the ‘and’

What approaches are possible, therefore, for oppositional photographers as I have defined them. Historically, political photography has its roots in the represei tation of the ‘real’. The illustrative documentation of social conditions for the pur­pose of social change goes back almost to photography’s beginnings.17 The efficacy of these images resided primarily in the raw photographic effect. As ex­poses and revelations they were intended as much to stimulate emotion as pro­vide information. These direct, gritty, ‘confrontational’ images therefore acquired an aesthetic of their own. Explicitly intended to be unaesthetic and non-artistic, even to overtly repudiate artistry with its bourgeois associations, they nonetheles quickly became inscribed within the art-historical photographic discourse. Their implicit reliance on the transparency, and even purity, of their medium has much in common with Modernist notions of integrity to medium. Within the art-historicc photographic discourse the fully-fledged’Documentary Movement’arises at the same time as, and is directly relatable to, the purism of such photographers as Edward Weston or Paul Strand. Both took on the quasi-mystical values of truth ai truth-to-medium. Both were constructed within the paradigm of the transparent, incisive, unmarked18 photographic image.

The Documentary Movement thrived as much in Australia during the 1940s and 1950s as it did elsewhere.19 It was never able to develop a sufficiently coherent ideological or political base, or to fulfill its own expectations, and it rapidly becarr institutionalised as Photojournalism. Photojournalism’s propagandistic triumph, the Family of Man touring exhibition organised by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art, has become the quintessential example of all the wronc assumptions documentary photography made about the transparency of pho­tography, the universal language it spoke, and the humanist commonality to which it had access.20

The notion of documentary photography still has significant currency, however, within the socialist movement and its publications, and cannot be so easily dis­counted. The Photojournalism of the 1940s and 1950s has been merely shifted I the right in the traditional political spectrum as much as it has been subjected to fundamental criticism. This process has not significantly problematised the notii of ‘documentary’ itself, which still forms the backbone of the oppositional photography of the 1970s and 1980s. (For instance, during the late 1970s and early 1980s the European Worker Photographer movements of the inter-war years were excavated and used as models for current practice. Although these movements, which consisted of workers using simple, direct photographs to document their work and social environments, were assuredly an unprecedented form of worker unity and opposition at the time, their efficacy and relevance to contemporary practice was open to considerable doubt.21)

Documentary photographs are still generally seen as relatively unencumbered enemy agents within the oppressive structures of society itself. They still have cur­rency as ‘infotographs’ as one Canadian practitioner styles them.22 Emphasis is placed on the possibilities of their enunciation by the oppositional texts in which they are embedded, rather than by any oppositionality inherent to them as con­structed images. Such photographs are thus asked to ‘speak back at society; their voice is assuredly the voice of the hegemonic media, but it attempts to speak against it. Hence these photographs almost purposely delimit themselves; like the proletariat themselves, they have ‘working lives’.23 They share the same aspirations and structures as advertising or news photographs, only their functions are seen to be different. A little naivete, a little suspension of judgment, is thus almost es­sential to a current reading of these images. Although initially assuming an un­marked status, perhaps they eventually assume the mark of ‘the good fight’. As images they must be read along both the metaphoric and metonymic semiotic dimensions. It may be this metaphoric dimension which allows them to maintain the illusion that they can speak within the economy of signs against that very economy. Though they may give voice to certain sections of society, they must not be confused with attempts to destructure representation itself. Only by attacking the forms of representation (even oppositional representation) can the relentless circulation of statements within the oppressive economy of signs be disrupted.

Thus documentary photographs, in their emphasis on exposing the ‘realities’ of society and demystifying its veil of ideology, are most informed by the classic Marxist base/superstructure model of culture within society. With the development of more sophisticated analyses of ideology, and the dissemination of more sophisticated theories of representation and reception within those discourses, at­tention has shifted, as I have indicated, to the photographic medium itself. Notions of truth and the oppression of truth have ceased to be conceptual predicates. Knowledge is no longer assumed to be a separate entity which can be dis­covered, learnt and communicated by language, but instead is seen as some­thing that is embodied in language itself. Similarly, reality is not an ‘out there’ clearly or unclearly perceived through representation, but rather something per­ceived within representation.

Montage and collage, both with a long history in photography, have been resur­rected as ‘serious’ practices. Oppositional montage is based on the determination of meaning by medium and reinvents the formerly ‘transparent’ surface of the pho­tograph as a site for the playing out of the contradictions of capitalism. By juxta­posing two or more formerly transparent images on the surface of the photograph or photographic screen-print, the montage or collage creates a new meaning which has lost its transparency, but which in its overt and self-conscious recon­struction of that meaning gains force in reaction to the normal assumptions of photographic transparency. By cutting against the grain these images reveal and use the structure of that grain.24

The concept of truth remains vital to montage and collage, but it is transformed from being the central rationale, the substance of the image, to being a shifting term. No longer ‘the truth’, but ‘their truth’. A term to be dislocated from its construc­tion within the real and relocated on the surface of the photographic image as a manifestation of the image’s representational mechanics.


The subtlety of these juxtapositions is the index of their efficacy. Because they are codes constructed in the second degree they rapidly become exhausted of any­thing but rhetorical oppositional meaning. Their efficacy also depends on the significatory force of their original components. If these are exhausted of real potency within culture, or are simply rhetorical symbols of it, the ‘new’ meaning is rarely anything but similarly rhetorically oppositional. (This can be said of all those colourful, Heartfieldesque posters of bombs and Uncle Sams, so popular as decorations for living-room walls.)

In parallel with the oppositional use of montage and collage, texts have become increasingly integrated into the photographic image; even intruding across the photograph’s rectangular boundaries and onto its glassy surface. Rather than being merely a linguistic base which enunciates the photograph as simple evi­dence for the expositional progressions of newspapers, magazines or books, cap­tions and inscriptions are also used to compromise the photograph’s transparency and integrity as an unassailable unit of information. In addition the textual tattoo often serves as an expressionist rhythm with which to drum out the beat of an individually-proclaimed oppositionality, and thus to inscribe the work more legibly within the art discourse.25

The use of text and image also opens up the space in which to deploy an array of visual and verbal puns and parodies. Advertisements are obvious targets for parody since they rely on the ‘natural’ acceptance of certain cultural role and be­haviour models. Their construction subtly multiplies a range of visual and verbal correspondences and contrasts into specific messages for particular target groups.26 The transparency of an advertisement is different to that of the ordinary photograph. Although the narrative space of advertisements is explicitly fiction­alised, their transparency lies in the common language of consumerist desire and its potential fulfillment which both the advertisement’s actors and the advertise­ment’s subjects (ourselves) are implicitly assumed to share. This process natural­ises the process of consumption within capitalism. Puns and parodies, in laying bare the construction of the advertisement, draw attention to this process of naturalisation.

In a similar, but more complex way, captions can be used to dislocate the safety unified speaking and reading positions of the image and viewer respectively. They can fracture these unities along the faultline of gender, for instance, splitting what would appear to be a ‘woman to woman’ voice into a voice of the male op­pression of women.27

Handcolouring serves to give the photographic effect a specific, authorial voice; but not the one normally associated with oppositionality. The handcolourist’s voice is generally not a strident and discordant one to cut through the smooth soporific hummings of the cultural hegemony; rather it is one that speaks from within the history of art. Handcolourists, in their use of colour and in their employment of the gestures and skills of the painter, specifically evoke the artist’s traditional roles of privileged perception and concern. But a tension is thereby created because the site for this evocation is shifted from a neutral ground to the surface of the photo­graphic print. Both the role of the artist as one whose perception is somehow ‘in tune’ and the role of the photograph as a natural, unambiguous reflection of re­ality, are compromised by their conjunction on the one surface. The traditional op­position of ‘art’ and ‘photography’ remains, but now each exists on the other’s terms. Handcolouring profitably orchestrates the ‘authored’ and the ‘unauthored’ image into a whole which is not subject to the assumptions or expectations of either of its components.28

In conclusion, those phrases ‘photography and . . .’ or ‘. . . and photography’ can be seen to encode the basic formation of photography within most cultural discourses. Within oppositional discourses attention has been, and must continue to be, focused on the equating ‘and’ of these phrases. This ‘and’ is not the pivotal point of the equation, it is not even a point as such; rather it is the name of an im­plicit agreement, an agreement which subsumes the fundamental imbrication of photography within the cultural hegemony into a simple relation — merely a sys­tem of cause, effect and comparison between entities. Whatever their individual character, the words on either side of this ‘and’ retain the fact of their simple struc­tural relationship. It must therefore be this ‘and’, this artificial relationship which ob­scures the fundamental symbiosis of the photographic body within the hegemonic body, this subtle naming, placement and placation of photography within a relationship, that must be the object of attack and disruption. The smooth photographic speech must be given a stutter.

Martyn Jolly


  1. Cited in Sylvia Harvey. ‘Ideology: the base superstructure debate.’ Photography/Politics: one. Terry Dennet and Jo Spence (eds). Pho­tography Workshop, UK 1979.
  2. Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality. Dis­cipline and Punish. Madness and Civilization. Vintage Books, USA.
  3. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zahn, UK 1974.
  4. Jean Baudrillard, ‘Requiem for the Media.’ For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Translated by Charles Levin. Telos press, USA 1981.
  5. Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Pho­tography.’ Translated by Phil Patton. Artforum. February 1977, USA.
  6. Roland Barthes, ‘The Photographic Mes­sage.’ Image-Music-Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. Fontana/Collins, UK 1977.
  7. Roland Barthes, ibid.
  8. Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography, Penguin 1968.
  9. Gerry Badger, Photographer as Printmaker. Arts Council of Great Britain 1981.
  10. Lew Thomas (ed.), Photography and Lan­guage, NFS Press, USA 1979.
  11. Donna-Lee Phillips (ed.), Eros and Pho­tography. NFS Press, USA 1977.
  12. Michael Starenko, ‘Whafs an Artist to do?, a Short History of Postmodernism and Phc-tography.’,4fte/7mage. January 1983, USA.
  13. Terry Dennet and Jo Spence (eds), op. cit.
  14. Quoted in Donald B. Kuspit. ‘Rejoinder: Tired Criticism, Tired Radicalism.’ Art in America, April 1983.
  15. Paul Taylor, Australian “New Wave” and the “Second Degree”.’ Art & Text. Autumn 1981.
  16. Donald B. Kuspit, op. cit.
  17. John Thomson, London Labour and the Lon­don Poor. 1851. Illustrated with woodcuts from Richard Beard’s daguerreotypes.
  18. Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology. Translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. Hill and Wang, USA 1967, pp. 76, 77.
  19. Gael Newton, Silver and Grey. Angus & Robertson, 1980.
  20. Allan Sekula, ‘The Traffic in Photographs.’ WOPOP Australian Photography Conference Papers, 1980.
  21. For instance ‘Der Arbeiter Fotograf.’ Creative Camera. May/June 1981, UK; or Pho­tography/Politics: one. op. cit.
  22. Alan Wallach. ‘Info/tograph, the Art of Demystification.’Otoscura. Vol. 2, No. 5, Canada 1983.
  23. Helen Grace. ‘Working Pictures.’ Australian Centre for Photography exhibition notice, 1983.
  24. For instance see works by Ruth Waller.
  25. For instance see Virginia Coventry’s ‘Here and There: Concerning the Nuclear Power Industry.’
  26. Judith Williamson. Decoding Advertisement Marion Boyers, 1978.
  27. For instance see Sandy Edwards’ A Narrativi with Sexual Overtones.
  28. For instance see Micky Allan’s Botany Bay Today.

The Darkroom by Anne Marsh

‘The Darkroom by Anne Marsh’,  review in Photofile 71, p79, 2004

The Darkroom: Photography and the Theatre of Desire, Anne Marsh, Macmillan, Melbourne, 2003.

There is a slow but seismic change going on in the world of photographic theory. When the idea of a ‘theory of photography’ first took off in the 1970s it was built around a model of the camera as an instrument for surveillance and objectification. Recently a range of theorists and historians have been re-evaluating and re-interpreting the original texts which have underpinned photographic theory, and have started to turn over the ground in previously neglected areas of photographic history. Anne Marsh’s book is an important contribution to this wider movement. She writes an account of photography which sees photographs as not only capturing reality, but also providing transactional spaces for both photographer and subject to perform their own desires and embody their own memories. The photograph is still a veridical, ideological document, but it is also a phantasmogoric space of fantasy and corporeal resistance.

This is a history of photography in which the central technology is not the cold glass eye and the guillotining shutter blade, but the dark room — be it a camera obscura, photographer’s studio, séance room, or ritualistic performance space. This is a history of photography where it matters, for example, that the camera obscura was initially a room-sized space in which people moved about, within the introjected image; or where it matters that to many people it felt as though photographs were able to preserve the diaphanous ‘skins’ which seemed to be perpetually emanating from bodies. This is a history in which photography is not only the paradigm of modern technological verisimilitude, but also a ‘virus’ infecting Modernity’s authority with its fleshy fantasias.

Marsh ranges across photographic history, from its technological pre-history to the present, and from well-worn global figures to little-known local ones. Surrealist photography is discussed, again, but so is spirit photography, which is only now beginning to receive critical attention. Famous nineteenth century photographers such as Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron are discussed, again, but so are contemporary queer photographers. The book could have been even more engaging if it had relied even less on stock examples from the European and American avant-garde, and gone even further into alternative, vernacular or local photographies.

Marsh spends most of her time using Lacanian psychoanalysis to develop her theoretical position out of the last twenty-five years or so of structuralist and post-structuralist theory (Foucault, Barthes and so on). Even though these sections are leavened with the occasional new and unexpected example (such as the media self-performance of the 1920s celebrity-crim Squizzy Taylor) she never seems quite able to make the multifarious secondary-sources she uses her own, and she jumps around a fair bit between them. The reader waits with anticipation for a pay-off in the final section where she deals with contemporary queer performance and photography, as well as some current Australian photographers. There is no doubt that her take on Gordon Bennett, Tracey Moffatt, Linda Sproul, Deborah Paauwe, Anne Ferran and Polixeni Papapetrou will be a crucial contribution to discussions of the way racial, sexual and maternal subjectivities, inherited from the ‘optical unconscious’ of the photo archive, are being re-written in Australia. Yet at this point her analysis becomes slightly selective and equivocal, she never seems quite willing to grapple with the work of these photographers in all of its disparate physical complexity, perhaps ultimately having reached the extent of her psychoanalytic methodology.

Martyn Jolly

Martyn Jolly is an artist and a writer. He is head of Photomedia at the ANU School of Art. He has a Phd in Visual Arts.

Shock Photographs, Monumental Photographs and Haptic Photographs

‘Shock Photographs, Monumental Photographs and Haptic Photographs’, The ANU National Institutes Public Lecture Series, 2003, National Museum of Australia


As I stared more, at images of people in business suits, on picnics, in a taxi, I became frightened. I looked at the people sitting across from me in the subway car for reassurance, but they too began to seem unreal, as if they were also figments of someone’s imagination. It became difficult to choose who or what was ‘real’, and why people could exist but people looking just like them in photographs never did. I became very anxious, nervous, not wanting to depend upon my sight, questioning it. It was as if I were in a waking dream with no escape, feeling dislocated, unable to turn elsewhere, even to close my eyes, because I knew when I opened them there would be nowhere to look and be reassured—Fred Ritchin. 1990.[1]

This attack of ontological paranoia occurred to a New York Times Magazine picture editor called Fred Ritchin in 1990 after seeing his first digitally altered photograph. In his book In Our Own Image: The coming revolution in photography he goes on to worry, after this alarming introduction, that the seamless and undetectable computer manipulation of the photograph would erode a viewer’s faith in the inherent veracity of photography, and compromise the bond of trust photojournalists had historically built up with their audience.

Of course Ritchin’s apocalyptic vision of thirteen years ago now seems silly and hubristic. The digitisation of photojournalism hasn’t led to the deliquescence of reality itself. In fact, rather than dissolving as a distinct medium into generalised streams of digital data, as was commonly predicted a decade ago, photography now seems as distinct a medium as ever. And, I intend to argue, at least in some of its forms the photograph as an object now seems more solid, more substantial than it has been for over a hundred years.

Certainly, within the mass media at least, photography has left its media specificity long behind. We now learn about the world from live satellite video-feeds, rather than wired press photos. Even in our newspapers, most of our most exciting newsworthy images are frame grabs from video, rather than shots taken as stills. All photojournalism is now  nothing more than a temporary freeze-frame, a blip in the continuous flow of mutable data. But, on the other hand, rather than this leading to a loss of faith in photography as a whole, which Ritchin predicted, there seems to have been an increased faith in some photographs, and as well an increase in their specific gravity and artefactual density.

Many of photography’s great theorists, such as Walter Benjamin, held a special regard for the photographs from the first few years of it invention. The long exposure times of the early photographs of the 1840s, combined with the still relative rarity and specialness of the act itself gave them, for Benjamin writing in 1931 at the beginning of the age of the photographic duplication and dissemination, a special solidity which the later invention of the mass-reproduced snapshot destroyed. In his A Small History of Photography Benjamin wrote:

The first people to be reproduced entered the visual space of photography with their innocence intact … photography had not yet become a journalistic tool … The human countenance had a silence about it in which the gaze rested. In short, the portraiture of this period owes its effect to the absence of contact between actuality and photography. … The procedure itself caused the subject to focus his life in the moment rather than hurrying on past it; during the considerable period of the exposure, the subject as it were grew into the picture, with the sharpest contrast to appearances in the snapshot. … Everything about these early pictures was built to last.[2]

My argument in this talk will be that, with our current journalistic tools now no longer being still cameras as much as live video-crosses, and with actuality hurrying on past us now in the form of a tide of digital media rather than a avalanche of snapshots, some photographs are re-aspiring to the solidity and the density that Benjamin imagined he saw in the medium’s incunabula, it originary prelapsarian objects.

I’m going to do a skimming survey of the current state, not of photography as a medium, but of photographs as distinct things. I’m going to make large and abrupt leaps from one small group of photographs to another, to try to identify and explain why some of those photographs have a higher specific gravity than was formally the norm.


Lets start with the digital mass media. The biggest media event this year has of course been the Second Gulf War, the US invasion of Iraq. The coverage bore all the usual hallmarks of postmodern, hyperreal media coverage: it was scheduled into network programming with a precise beginning and end that bore little relationship to the actual status of military operations on the ground; the coverage was treated as a special form of entertainment programming with its own titles, logos and correspondent/stars; journalists weren’t figured as reporters independently covering the action, but returned to the status they had in the first and second world wars of being an integral part of the army structure and therefore also of the army’s logic of military success and public morale; and images were used, as they had been in the first gulf war, ballistically, transmitted into each belligerent’s media space to inflict maximum propaganda and morale damage; and so on.

From where I was sitting there seemed to be a split in the coverage: the moving image TV coverage tended, in terms of its formal characteristics, towards the rawness of unmediated surveillance-camera footage, while still relying on an authoritative exegesis from the well established figure of the grisled war-correspondent. The still photographs in the broadsheet press and the news magazines went in the opposite direction. They were perfectly exposed, perfectly composed, and shot in the same carefully colour-graded palette of many recent war movies. They were generic objects: not grabbed action snapshots so much as finely crafted photo-art objects that quoted the glorious history of twentieth century combat photography — a history seemingly accessed not directly, but through the Hollywood war-movie translation of that body of imagery. There was something about their skillfullness and visual completeness that reminded me of updated academic history painting. These images looked made for the white mat and wooden frame of the gallery wall rather than the newspaper page. They were displayed on the front pages of our bellicose papers not as reportage, or even as spectacles of the new, but as easily recognisable, familiar looking trophies, affective images of our commitment to the coalition of the willing.

Only in a few instances did images break through this generic blanket. When a BBC video cameraman became collateral damage, the footage his camera continued to capture as he lay wounded was broadcast, and still frames were extracted from it and frequently reproduced — particularly one showing a drop of blood on the camera filter. But this seeming irruption of the viscera of reality into the world of the image was, for me, disappointing. It too, seemed generic. The cameras of other cameramen, for instance the Australian Neil Davies, had also kept on automatically filming as they died. The drop of blood seemed too arch after the Blair Witch Project, too much like the ultimate special effect.

Roland Barthes, in his famous article, Shock Photographs, complained that in too many photographs designed to shock the photographer made the mistake of substituting his own feelings into the image, reacting on the viewer’s behalf and thereby divesting the viewer of everything but the “simple right of intellectual acquiescence.” [3]   Now it might be ungrateful of me, but I feel the same about the poor BBC photographer’s sacrifice: ‘no thanks, ho hum, seen it all before.’ His blood on the camera lens immediately and inevitably became semiotic, quotational.

But one photograph did shock me during this period. It wasn’t taken in the official or ‘formal’ war itself (to use the felicitous Whitehouse phrase), but in the informal media warm-up, the ‘Countdown to War’. I opened my paper to find a double page spread. On the left-hand page were the usual generic, perfectly composed photographs I have already described: crazy arabs shouting slogans, and pious Americans getting a quick pre-battle baptism. But on the right-hand page was the image of an Israeli bulldozer which had just run over and killed a young protester as it was going about its business of demolishing Palestinian houses in a refugee camp. Here, to once again quote Barthes from Shock Photographs, was a photograph in which “the fact, surprised, explodes in all its stubbornness, its literality, the very obviousness of its obtuse nature.” This is an image which, again to quote Barthes, seemed “alien, almost calm, inferior to [its] legend.” [4]

The photograph is uncomposed, the bulldozer sits obdurately at the centre of the frame, its blade a dull blank face. But why I think this photograph is for me a shock photograph is because of the surface of the image — there is something like snow or rain across the face of the photograph. It can’t be snow, and it’s highly unlikely to be rain either since the picture taken moments before, also by an unnamed photographer, is in bright sunlight. It’s some kind of visual noise. Is this an old-fashioned film-based photograph, perhaps shot on a cheap disposable camera, which has been scanned for the picture agency which distributed it, Associated Press? Or is this an image snapped on an amateur digital camera at too low a resolution, or a video frame grab, or a jpeg thumbnail pulled down off the web and interpolated, unsharp-masked and anti-aliased up to size but beyond the capacity of the original file? Whatever it is, its surface indeterminacy paradoxically means that for me it is more than just a mere image, it is a document — an object or artefact from a singular point in space and time, with a physical weight or visual heft all its own, a picture with its origins outside the digital data-flows of the media.


I’m going to use my fascination with the surface of this image, which is indeterminate, but nonetheless physical and palpable and dense, to make a huge leap in my survey of the current state of the photograph to the narrow, small little world of art photography. The world I live in.  And one can’t help noticing that within art photography there has been a return to surface, and more specifically to emulsion. For instance the National Gallery of Victoria held an exhibition earlier this year called First Impressions, which featured the work of twelve Australian artists who work in the medium of the photogram. One of the stars of that show was Anne Ferran. You all know her work. She completed a residency here at the Museum last year and she began working with the photogram as a medium in 1995 during a collaboration with the ANU School of art’s Anne Brennan at the Hyde Park Barracks.

Although I am going to be using the current photogram craze in Australia to illustrate qualities I think are present in some other photographs, in fact the photogram is a very different thing to the photograph. The photogram is not like an ordinary photo, it doesn’t consist of the snapping of an anterior scene, its technical assemblage is not one of a shutter-blade vertically slicing through a cone of light projected by a lens, and thereby excising an instant from time and space. It is rather a residue of an event — the optical and chemical event of an object touching photo-paper. The photogram has a different relationship to time and history than the photograph, it doesn’t grant the present information, knowledge, detail or anecdote about the past; rather it is a generalised presence of the past still physically present within the now. Crucially, the photogram isn’t a record of a separate object as a photograph is, it doesn’t even look much like the object that produced it, rather it is a record of a tactile event, and the event of object and shadow meeting on a sensitive surface persists in its record. The photogram is a physical performance which is perpetually taking place in the image.

Other photogram artists represented in the NGV show were Ruth Maddison, who was represented with her photogram self-portrait, and Simone Douglas, where again we get the sense that we are seeing an ongoing performance of light and chemistry rather than a record of someone’s physiognomy as it looked at a particular time.

In the catalogue to the show the curator of the exhibition Isobel Crombie, quotes Helen Ennis, from the School of Art’s  Theory Workshop, from a forward for a special issue of Photofile called ‘Traces’, which she edited on a similar theme. Isobel Crombie writes:

One notable feature of contemporary photograms is the fluid concept of time they embody. A dynamic understanding of what is past and what is present in these works questions our Western notions of linear time. Indeed what we find in Photograms is that the past has often become congruent with the present. As the photography writer Helen Ennis has noted recently: ‘No longer constructed in terms of a rupture between past and present or even fade-outs between the two, time is reconfigured as a continuum. And so, it becomes conceivable that objects, events and experiences from the past have a ‘living presence’.[5]

Contemporary Indigenous Photography

Something of the qualities of ‘living presence’, ‘tactility’, and ‘performance’ which attracts artists to the photogram, also attracts other artists to ‘perform’ images across or within a photographic surface — not a photographic surface conceived of as a slice of an optical pyramid excised from time and dislocated from space, but as a stretched membrane, a semi-conducting diaphragm.

Again, this shift allows the artist to figure time, history and memory very differently. Many contemporary indigenous artists have take part in this shift. Much recent indigenous photography has attempted to call the past forward to bear witness to the present. For instance Leah King-Smith, in an immensely popular exhibition Patterns of Connection from 1992 ‘performs’ two images together onto a single gelatinous surface: archival images of her ancestors which she has liberated from their imprisonment in the State Library of Victoria, and landscapes of her own land. This is an attempt to magically conjure the still living presence of her ancestors into the now. They fantasise that the Library portraits are not just historical images—dead, gone and in the past—but ghosts, still revenant and with agency in the present. As Clare Williamson has described it:

The figures are brought right to the picture plane, seemingly extending beyond the frame and checking our gaze with theirs.[6]

This is obviously a crucial move to make within the context of recent debates in Australia over reconciliation, the debate which raged in the mid 1990s between bleeding-heart black-armband history and bottom-line white-blindfold history about our responsibility to the past. As the indigenous curator Brenda Croft has written:

The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest. [7]

Brook Andrew invests the bodies of his nineteenth century subjects—who he releases from the closet of the past by copying their images from the archive of the nineteenth century postcard photographer Charles Kerry—not only with a libidinous body image re-inscribed within the terms of a contemporary ‘queer’ masculinity, but also with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as Sexy and Dangerous, 1996, I Split Your Gaze, 1997 and Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr, [I see you], 1998. These works attempt to reverse the relationship of subject and object in the nineteenth century colonial portrait around the axis of the trajectory of the gaze, and to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from history itself. The image is turned into a reflective surface which bounces the historical objectifying gaze straight back to the present moment to be immediately re-inscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse.

Darren Siwes has more recently brought this idea of haunting to the fore in his performance photographs. Again, these images aren’t snapshots, but extended exposures where the photographer has exited the scene halfway during the exposure to perform himself as a spectral masculine presence laminated into contemporary Australia.

Monumental Photographs

Something about the way Siwes is standing to truculently surveille a contemporary Australia that seems too self absorbed to recognise him reminds me of all the Anzac memorial statues that similarly haunt Australia with their almost forgotten presence. And this allows me to make another leap to a set of photographs which have also been turned, literally, to stone.

To most theorists of photography the photograph could never be monumental. It was constructed out of time itself, and so can never transcend time. For instance in 1982 Barthes wrote:

Not only does [the photograph] commonly have the fate of paper (perishable), but even if it is attached to more lasting supports, it is still mortal: like a living organism, it is born on the level of the sprouting silver grains, it flourishes a moment then ages … attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes; there is nothing left to do but throw it away. Earlier societies managed so that memory, the substitute for life, was eternal and that at least the thing which spoke death should be immortal: this was the monument. But by making the (mortal) Photograph into the general and somehow natural witness of ‘what has been’, modern society has renounced the monument. A paradox; the same century invented History and Photography. But history is a memory fabricated according to positive formulas, a pure intellectual discourse which abolishes mythic Time; and the photograph is a certain but fugitive testimony; so that everything, today, prepares our race for this impotence: to be no longer able to conceive duration, affectively or symbolically.[8]

But photographs are being eternalised today, to stand as affective, public monuments to duration. Photographs have long stood on mantelpieces in improvised household shrines to remembered dead and acknowledged ancestors, but now historic photographs also have the unprecedented privilege of being the centrepieces of virtually every official commemoration. In these public ceremonies official photographs are performing the same role for the nation, city or town, as the faded snapshot or sepia studio portrait does for the family.

For most of this century the photograph, as a form of media reportage, has traded on the fact that it was able to pluck a fleeting instant out of the rush of time. But in the case of the Kodachrome slide taken by the Australian army PR photographer Sergeant Mike Coleridge of B Company RAR, which was cropped, enlarged to cinematic size, and etched into granite for the Vietnam War Memorial, the evanescent instant captured by the army public relations photographer has been literally turned to eternal stone. Within this commemorative context the shutter blade’s slice of time acquires not only an architectonic presence, but becomes the locus for the same contemplative temporal dilation as a roll call of the dead, or a minute’s silence.

Monumental photographs perform the bodies of their viewers. They either tower over them and physically interpellate them in their nationalist ideological subjectivity, or they compel them to proceed past, or through them, in a spatialised memory/history experience.

Monumental photographs are hybrid objects, between the obduracy of the mute architectural obelisk, and the evanescence of the virtual photographic image. Transformations of scale and material are important to contemporary monumental photographs. They are transmuted into a historically eternalised set of elemental minerals: stone, glass and metal. This takes the organic, perishable, gelatinous emulsive flesh of the photograph and smelts it into the marmoreal, the vitreous, and the metallurgical. Both private memory and public history are equally grist to these civic memory mills—private snapshots are recuperated as avidly as archival record photographs. For instance joining the Vietnam memorial along Anzac Parade are private snapshots which are slumped into glass sheets in the nurses memorial, and a cinematic montage, a cavalcade of archival images full of wipes and dissolves, which is transmuted into a frieze in Robert Boynes’ Air Force memorial.

Haptic Photographs

From the beginning photographs have been used as public talismans of private memory. In the nineteenth century post mortem daguerreotypes were sometimes re-photographed, being cradled by grieving relatives. But lately this private performance has become a public one. Perhaps the aetiology of this public performance of the photograph as a talismanic witness to absence goes back to the Argentinean Grandmothers of May Square, who from 1976 stood in silent vigil with photographs of the Disappeared. In Australia I first noticed the practice with members of the Stolen Generations in the mid 1990s. But over the last couple of years what was initially an occasional semi-private ritual performed in the photographer’s studio, and then a brave public declaration, has become a bit of media stunt, performed at the behest of newspaper and magazine photographers again and again by anybody with a loss to declare. They are now routine public statements, ritualised declarations of loss or trauma. They are mute testimonies, where the intractable visual evidence of the photograph voices the silence of the witness.

Sometimes, as in the case of Australian Aborigines from the Stolen Generation, it is archival, government photographs which are held, re-personalising the public record and performing a grim parody of the anthropological photograph. Sometimes it is already published journalistic images which are cradled, connecting individual and public memory, direct and mediated experience.

The effectiveness of these media images depends on two gestures, two aspects of the way the private photograph is literally ‘performed’ in the public: the quality of touch between the sitter and the photograph they hold; and the expression on their face. Is the photograph cradled, clutched, formally perched alongside, or primly pinched between thumb and forefinger? Is it defiantly held out to the camera, or half hidden beneath encircling arms? Or does the sitter look wistful, lost in internal reverie, or defiant? Despite the clichéd reiteration of these types of images in our press the combination of gesture and expression still frequently produces an effective and moving image, which connects with our anxieties about the instability of contemporary memory and history. The indexical verity of the photographic image which they hold anchors the sitter in history and legitimates their memories. The photographic surface of the haptic photograph becomes a membrane which seals together two images from two times, the past and the present.

Touch, thingness and performance

I’m not the first person to identify the themes in photography that I have been trying to draw out here. A few years ago the photographic theorist Geoffrey Batchen gave a lecture in the Art School’s Art Forum program on vernacular photography, in which he identified the quality of touch as a key aspect of the popular relationship to photography which had been excluded, up until then, from its formal history. And a few months ago the visual anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards gave a talk at the National Library of Australia in which she identified the ‘thingness’ of photographs, their quality as objects and the marks of their use which they bear, as crucial to our full understanding of their meaning and power. As I hope by now is clear, ‘touch’ and ‘thingness’ are crucial to the increase in the specific gravity of some photographs which I have tried to describe here. But I think a third aspect is still waiting for full attention, and that is performance. As can be seen time and time again in the haptic photograph, photographs are also performed into meaning.

Touch and thingness belong firmly to the paradigm of the analogical photograph — a paper print chemically produced from an instantaneous snapshot. Those concepts do not easily map across to the digital paradigm, where, inherently, there is no ‘thing’ to touch. Yet clearly digital photographs will and do perform some of the same ritual functions as analogical photographs. Unlike touch and thingness, I think the concept of performance does map across to the digital. Think of the way you perform images in your computer, the family images you turn into your desktop background, and the downloaded net-porn you nest several folders down in an obscure corner of your hard disk. The net is full of e-mailed jpegs destined to be glanced at and either saved or deleted. The web is full of on-line albums and photo memorials. Notable on-line memorials include the archive of images of those killed on the Cambodian killing fields, and the Argentinean Wall of Memory commemorating the disappeared in Argentina.

A more hokey example of the on-line memorial was sponsored by Kodak and AOL to commemorate September the 11th. Called the Tribute to American Spirit Photoquilt, this corporate exercise deliberately drew on a previously sanctified form of American folk memory — the quilt — to produce, within the user’s computer, the effect of a monumental surface which seemed to stretch epically beyond the edges of the computer screen. The viewer could track across and zoom into this mosaic-like surface, or enter search-terms into a data-base. All the shibboleths of the corporately defined web are therefore combined: screen-space and data-space are conflated, and an on-line community consensus — in this case of grief and shock — seems to be instantaneously produced and confirmed.


I began this talk with two literary images. The first was the fantasised threat, thirteen years ago, of the end of the world as we know it brought about by the end of photography as we knew it. The second was Benjamin’s feeling of 1931 that there was an ontological split between the prelapsarian photo-documents of the 1840s and the mechanically reproducing images of the 1930s. I want to end with a third image drawn from the greatest book ever written about photography, Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes. Written whilst he was in the grim grip of grief for his mother the book is driven by Barthes’ obsession with a small group of dog-eared snapshots from his family’s past. In re-experiencing his mother’s death through these photographs Barthes tries to consolidate the intractable truth of his grief around his own few hidden photographs, and to jealously shelter these photographs, as precious, private artefacts, from the rest of photography and the media, what he calls the brash world of images.

I experience the photograph and the world in which it participates according to two regions: on the one side the Images, on the other my photographs; on the one side unconcern, shifting, noise, the inessential (even if I am abusively deafened by it), on the other the burning, the wounded.[9]

It seems to me that now, after unexpectedly surviving its own death, photography is automatically splitting along similar lines to those drawn by Benjamin and Barthes. Some photographs are now no longer about shutter blades irrevocably slicing up cones of light into decisive slivers of time and space, they are about image surfaces, dispersed fields of reflection or transmission, stretched membranes barely separating two worlds. These scarified skins allow us to transfer touch across time and space. Some photographs are no longer documentary images of elsewhere, but voodoo objects which co-occupy our lives with us. They are arenas in which, and talismans with which, we perform daily rituals, testimony and witness to memory and loss.

Martyn Jolly

August 2003

[1]  F. Ritchin, In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography, New York, Aperture Foundation, 1990.

[2] W. Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’, One Way Street and Other Writings, London, NLB, 1931, pp 244-245.

[3] Roland Barthes, ‘Shock Photographs’, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, Hill and Wang, 1979, p71.

[4] P73.

[5] Isobel Crombie, First Impressions: Contemporary Australian Phootgrams, National Gallery of Victoria, 2003.

[6]  Clare Williamson, ‘Leah King-Smith: Patterns of Connection’, Colonial Post Colonial, Melbourne, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, 1996, p46.

[7]  Brenda L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, Portraits of Oceania, Judy Annear, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997, p9 &  14.

[8] R. Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1982, p93.

[9] p98.

Digital versus Analogue Photography

‘Digital and Analogue Photography’, panel at Queensland Photography Festival Conference, Queensland University of Technology, 8 October 2006.

As I stared more, at images of people in business suits, on picnics, in a taxi, I became frightened. I looked at the people sitting across from me in the subway car for reassurance, but they too began to seem unreal, as if they were also figments of someone’s imagination. It became difficult to choose who or what was ‘real’, and why people could exist but people looking just like them in photographs never did. I became very anxious, nervous, not wanting to depend upon my sight, questioning it. It was as if I were in a waking dream with no escape, feeling dislocated, unable to turn elsewhere, even to close my eyes, because I knew when I opened them there would be nowhere to look and be reassured—Fred Ritchin, In Our Own Image: The coming revolution in photography. 1990.[1]

This apocalyptic prediction from 16 years ago never came to pass. The ‘threat’ of the digital is now a dead issue. Nobody cares. Photography is still real. For instance, an army of self-righteous bloggers stands poised to pounce on any photojournalist who dares to apply a Photoshop tool to a reportage image. As they did to a hapless Lebanese stringer for Reuters called Adnan Hajj, sprung for not resisting the temptation to add an extra dose of theatre to Israel’s attacks on Bierut with his clone tool.

The digital has become so familiarised that one can easily imagine a 21st century Roland Barthes stumbling on a long forgotten folder in the depths of his hard drive, idly double-clicking on a half-forgotten jpeg and involuntarily being plunged into a mnemonic reverie as the file opens up.

Of course the world hasn’t ended, because photography is a social convention as much as it is a technological invention, stupid! The last decade has established that the indexical is not an immutable technological connection embedded within the photo, it is a mutable effect produced by the photo. And within the current conventions of photography the analogue and the digital are functionally continuous with each other. So now for all intents and purposes there is no difference between the two. They are no longer disjunctive, but now conjunctive.

Nonetheless the whole digital vs analogue thing isn’t quite over yet. In an article “How to make Analogies in a Digital Age” from October 117, Summer 2006, Whitney Davis suggests that, in the work of photographers such as Andreas Gursky, the digital manipulation within the realistic photographs is a direct analogy of the bland, globalised, corporatised, commodified, replicated, conformist world of market capitalism they depict. The cookie-cutter tools of Photoshop are analogous to the cookie-cutter architectural production of today’s corporate spaces. Moreover, this analogy is stitched into the world depicted — something only photography, either digital or analogue, can do!

In Australia there are a bunch of photographers — Pat Brassington, Julie Rrap or Anne Zahalka for instance — who also deliberately embed evidence of digital manipulation more or less deeply into their realistic photographs of real things. These photographs also analogise how real things themselves are ‘manipulated’: the body is manipulated by social conventions, or formed by laws of desire; nature is defined by culture; and the real is produced by artifice.

In some senses this kind of work reminds me a bit of Pictorialism. Like Pictorialists these artists deliberately leave visual evidence of their own conceptual intention on the surface of the work. Both strategies arose during a period of transition in the medium. The impressionistic Pictorialists were leaving evidence of traditional hand-crafted art techniques in order to claim a new higher aesthetic status for the medium. The digital pictorialists cling to a digital look in order to retain a still central conceptual and theoretical status for the medium. One claims for photography the prestige of the aesthetic, the other the prestige of the theoretical. Also, both groups of artists make framed or prosceniumed pictures, which need to be institutionally stabilised for a certain kind of sophisticated connoisseurial scrutiny, in order to work. If Pat Brassington’s images weren’t printed in thick pigment on rag paper, or Anne Zahalka’s images weren’t giant glossy prints, they would quickly lose their conceptual focus as theoretical objects.

Interestingly, all of these artists are of a certain ‘generation’ (my generation), they can all remember 1990, and the apocalyptic hysteria of the period. There still needs to be an echo of Fred Ritchin’s 1990 paranoia, a residual shiver of the uncanny, for their digital analogies to work. But one wonders how much longer these frissons will continue to be generated as we become even more habituated to the digital

I think younger artists are less interested in all of this — in creating a disjunctive conjuncture between the digital and the analogue. They grew up with the digital, so there is nothing to compare it to, no disjunctive ontology with which to conjoin it. But they are seeing in inkjet printing technology the potential for a whole new mobility, plasticity and mutablity of the photograph. Just as the photograph is dematerialising into the Powerpoint slide show or email attachment, they are exploring a counter-strand. Ironically they are interested in materialising the digital image, in manifesting the ‘photographic’ not as a picture, but as an artefactual event. The indexical is used as a ‘value added’ quality to the sculptural. Some examples to end with come from the ANU’s inkjet research facility.

For instance Steven Holland scanned a real 30 foot python skin, then inkjetted the image onto a sheet of paper made by gluing together the cigarette-paper thin pages of a bible, this print was then sloughed around a plaster cast recreating a simulacra of the original snake.

Rachel Kingston has made a bone-porcelain slip using, as the bone in the porcelain, the cremated remains of her deceased grandmother. One of her grandmother’s own photographs, taken before she died, is then inkjetted onto the porcelain. In other experiments she is dusting the ash onto the wet ink before it dries.

In my own work on the ACT Bushfire Memorial I used a process that inkjetted a pigment derived from automotive paint on the membrane between two sheets of safety glass annealed together in a kiln. This allowed me to install five mosaic columns of 300 full colour, full resolution images derived from community snapshots in full sunlight

In conclusion I think that this might be one of the last conferences in which there is a session on the digital and the analogue. I think the discussion is reaching its use by date. For instance, I recently convened a conference roundtable session with other Photomedia departments, amongst the many things we discussed was the way many of us still valued darkrooms and darkroom processes in our departments. A colleague from a new media department, one of those annoying guys who is always the first to tell you of the latest paradigm shift, irritated us all by repeatedly labelling this as mere nostalgia. But he missed the point. We have gone past the point of nostalgia for the analogue. Darkroom processes for students are now a pedagogical opportunity, a chance for them to slow down for instance, or experience the process of image making in a new way. They are becoming a new alternative, not a nostalgic retreat.

[1]  F. Ritchin, In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography, New York, Aperture Foundation, 1990.

National Gallery of Victoria talk during ‘Good Looking’, exhibition curated by Kate Rhodes

When I was thinking about what to say tonight I thought I would start with the distinctive aspect of this exhibition — how stylistically and historically diverse the photographs are. The curator has had the entire collection of the NGV to dive into at will to extract and re-combine photographs under her broad overarching theme of narrative fiction. She’s able to do this virtuoso piece of orchestration with a fair amount of confidence that because of the nature of the medium the images, although diverse, will kind of hang together in their new semantic configuration because they all, ultimately, have some grounding in reality. For the purposes of tonight, let’s call the NGV collection an archive, although it’s a very particular kind of archive having been carefully curated, selected and vetted to suit the purposes of an art museum.

Of course archives are absolutely fundamental to photography. I think it was Rosalind Krauss who, in the 1980s, said that the central artefact to photography wasn’t the camera but the filing cabinet. (If she was writing today she might add a third artefact, the scanner) The logic of the archive drives the work of creative photographers. We often remind me of bureaucrats, giving ourselves assignments to produce what we like to call ‘bodies of work’ — twelve identical photographs of this, 24 identical photographs of that — which we administer into an archive hung in a row along the wall or stored in a solander box. The public coming to contemporary photography exhibitions becomes like an archivist, comparing the different iterations of the same image, and finding pleasure in contrasting the individualities of each photograph to the generalities and commonalities running through the whole series, which were laid down by the photographer’s initial archival ‘self-assignment’.

Archives also follow the same fundamental law of photography as the individual photograph, that is that the older it is the more interesting it is. Even the most banal photographs taken for the most prosaic purposes become mysterious and evocative when there origins get lost in time. Photographers and curators have used this capacity to construct their own new archives. For instance Thomas Walther, the well-known international collector of avant-garde photography, also assembled a collection of anonymous vernacular photographs from flea markets, these snaps formally look like avant-garde photographs but they have the added dimension of the absence of the photographer’s original motivation, which the viewer can now fill with their own speculation. This collection, now re-authorised by the authority of the connoisseur’s eye, was exhibited as Other Pictures at the MCA in 2002. We might think of Patrick Pound’s installation The Memory Room at the CCP in 2002 as another example of an artist using the mystery of the cast adrift photograph.

But this effect of the evocative mystery of the historically dislocated photograph is exponentially increased when an entire archive is cast adrift across time. In an archive the original motivation to lay down the images in an ordered form is obviously stronger and more defined than the ephemeral evanescent impulse to simply click a shutter, so the archive becomes more mysterious when, through the passage of time, we lose touch with that original motivation. For instance the photographer Rozalind Drummond found an archive of WW11 photographs in an East Berlin junk shop. The lost family connections between the photographs, and the silenced exchange of affiliative looks between the images, amplifies the power of the whole archive beyond any of the single photographs. Like virtually photographer I know Rozalind brought this collection because she thought it was important, it had to be rescues. But now she doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Everything we as artists can think of to do to these archives eventually just seems to be somehow redundant.

Archives also allow photographs to have access to another dimension which is usually denied to the individual photograph — the monumental. A single image which is blown up to monumental size is very often just that — over blown. The decisive moment still retains it’s temporal contingency, its urgency, no matter what scale it is. It never seems to be able to get out of the flow of history. But if an archive of individual moments is spatialized into a grid, photography can become monumentalised. For instance in her recent Adelaide Biennale anti-war protest piece Not in My Name, Silvia Velez downloaded thousands of images from the internet of the futile protests around the world against the inevitable George Bush invasion of Iraq. After abstracting them and printing them on Post-it notes, the most ephemeral of ‘reminders’, she monumentalised them on a wall, mimicking the inscriptions of martyr’s names on so many marble monuments.

The classic essays on the archive in photography is Alan Sekula’s “Reading an Archive” from 1983. In that he refers to an archive as a ‘clearing house of meaning’. Photographs are made available to be separated from the specificity of their original use when they are deposited in an archive. When they are plucked from an archive and re-used and re-contextualised they are given different meanings. This is how historians, book editors and curators use archives. A semantics is given to the archival images which they didn’t have when they lay dormant and ordered in their original grid. This is what Kate has done in curating this show, out of the dormant taxonomy of the art-historical archive — the artist’s name, or their period (19th century views, 1990s art photograph, etc) — a new semantic enunciation is made: narrative fictions.

For a long time, as well as historians and curators, artists have been fascinated by archives and have used them as ‘clearing houses of meaning’. In Europe one immediately thinks of Gerhard Richter or Christian Boltanski, where specific archives get re-configured as intimations of mortality and the ineluctable processes of time and history. Closer to home, artists like Elizabeth Gertsakis have for a long time been re-narrativising archives, both personal and public, to make statements, amongst other things, about identity.

But without wanting to make too big a deal out of it, I think there has been a slight turn recently in this re-use of archives. I think that not only has there has been a general increase in interest in archives from artists. And I think that there has been turn away from seeing the archive as a clearing house of meaning, a resource from which new enunciations can be made, towards wantinh keeping the archive’s mysterious integrity intact, as discreet and ineffable.

Some people might have gone to Ross Gibson’s performance of Life after Wartime  at ACMI Sunday before last. This piece concerns itself with an archive of post war Sydney police images Ross has been working on for six years. I’m not sure what he did in Melbourne, but in the performance I saw at the Sydney Opera House he and his collaborator Kate Richards sat at midi-keyboards at laptops. But instead of being connected to audio samples the keys were connected to strings of images. The images they brought from the archive were combined with haikus by Ross, and this was accompanied by a live soundtrack by the Necks, who are known for their ominous soundtracks to movies such as The Boys. The texts and images generate open-ended non-specific narratives around a couple of characters and locations in a ‘port city’.

Now this idea of ‘playing’ the archive as if it was some giant pipe-organ might not seem to be too different from a curator who plays the tune of ‘narrative fiction’ on the pipe organ of the NGV collection. But there was an element of automation in the way the ‘story engine’ generates the loose narrative, and certainly Ross is keen on preserving the integrity, the artefactuality of the original archive.

Whenever I work with historical fragments, I try to develop an aesthetic response appropriate to the form and mood of the source material. This is one way to know what the evidence is trying to tell the future. I must not impose some pre-determined genre on these fragments. I need to remember that the evidence was created by people and systems of reality independent of myself. 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….” ‘Negative Truth: A new approach to photographic storytelling’, Photofile 58, December 1999

One could argue that, contrary to his claim, Ross has imposed “some pre-determined genre” on the fragments, that of the psychological detective story. But nonetheless, in seeking to be a voodoo spiritualist ‘medium’ for the archive Ross is trying to make contact with it as a whole.That is the distinction I want to make here. Artists are beginning to work with archives on their own terms rather than to make their own enunciations from them.

(As an aside, it is interesting to compare this work with the two opening ACMI exhibitions Ross curated, Remembrance and the Moving Image. These exhibitions, you will remember, were filled with slowed down, granular, archival film footage. But, as always, the forward thrust of film footage, even when turned against itself into an entropic downward spiral, still doesn’t approach the mute enigma, and the feeling of narrative potential, which the still archival image gives.)

Another example of this turn to a concern with communing with the personality of an archive as a whole is a recent series by the Sydney photographer Anne Ferran who shows in Melbourne at Sutton. The series 1-38 comprises 38 images which are details from each of 38 photographs which were taken of female psychiatric patients in 1948. Looking at Ferran’s earlier work we can see why she would be fascinated by this archive, everything about it is lost, the name of the original photographer, the purpose of the photographs, the names of the women, and their disease. The fragments, which are of the hands and torso of the women, are impassively displayed in a strip around the wall. So the structure, personality or mood of the original archive is preserved. Her cropping simply amplifies the inchoate choreography of distress which the inmates exhibited.

The greatest archive we have is our own negative-files. Sometimes the processes of history can turn a few sheets of negatives into an acute and self-contained archive with it’s own ‘mood, logic or occult spirit’, to use Ross Gibson’s words. The Canberra photographer Denise Ferris lived in South Africa for a short while in 1979 and 1980, because of a doomed love affair. Whilst there, she photographed in a poor part of Cape Town called District Six. District Six was bulldozed just before the end of Apartheid. All the remains now is a museum, and the fading memories of those who used to live there. Asked to return to South Africa recently for an exhibition, Denise looked at her District Six negatives for the first time in almost a quarter of a century. Left high and dry by the onward current of her own life, each negative seemed as important as the other. As in Anne Ferran’s work, 1-38, what basis did she have to discriminate between them? She printed them all up onto thin sheets of paper and hung them like falling leaves in two ovoid shapes. The shapes were repeated by the thin strips of prints she made from her original notes on the edge of the negative sheets. People from District Six welcomed the exhibition enthusiastically, and the museum will collect a set. But the archive remains as remote from Denise as ever, she met none of her original subjects while she was there.

Peter Robertson’s two recent exhibitions, Sharpies and Beyond Xanadu also record this uncanny process of what was at one point simply a personal collection becoming, through a process of return and re-nomination, an historical archive. By simply reprinting and renominating some of the photographs in his own photo albums, as well as the photo albums of his friends, under the rubric ‘Sharpies’, or by exhibiting his fashion model tear-sheets and model tests, he alloys together different authorities and moods in the archive: autobiography, nostalgia and urban anthropolgy.

A similar example comes from Brenda L Croft. In the series Man About Town she  simply reproduced every Kodachrome slide in the yellow box she found amongst her father’s possessions after he died. Croft did not insert herself into the photographs, she did not make them into ‘art’. It allows them to maintain their ineffable distance from us in the present. There is plenty of space left for us to fantasise and speculate about his life in the 1950s when he was a young single man, before he met the artist’s mother, before he knew that he had a twin sister, and before he found his mother from whom he had been taken as a baby.

I’ve been interested in archives for virtually all my career. Recently I’ve also been interested in spirit photographs (not taking them, but researching them). I was amongst the collection of the Society for Psychical Research in the Cambridge University Library researching the 1920s spirit photographer Ada Deane when three large albums came up with 3000 spirit photographs. I had the same reaction I think many people have when they come across a lost archive: I’ve just got to get this out. What to do. I guess I steered a course between the two tendencies I have tried to identify this evening. I wanted to preserve the archive’s integrity, to ‘séance up’ it’s heart and soul, but I also wanted to make art. So I homed in on details of expression and body language.

In a previous body of work, Nineteen Sixty-Three: News and Information, 1997, I used a flatbed scanner to digitally excoriate the original image to produce a high resolution computer file, which was then cropped, enlarged, enhanced and printed. Working in the Australian Archives I made my way through 3000 propaganda photographs taken by the Australian News and Information Bureau during 1963. The metaphor I had in my mind was an excavation of the original mise en scene for photographic details to be isolated like archaeological artefacts. In both cases I gravitated not towards the main subject of the image, but towards its background or its incidental detail. I avoided faces and the centripetal force of the eyes, and instead drifted towards body language—the tensing of muscles or wricking of limbs; and the wearing of clothes—the gaping of lapels, hitching of cuffs and rucking of crotches. I was also interested in textures and material surfaces, as well as the re-vectorisation of the photograph’s original spatial composition that re-cropping allowed.