Rowan Conroy, John Ruskin, climate change, photography

Storm Clouds of the Twenty-First Century, my essay for:

Rowan Conroy: Natura Naturans

Barometer Gallery, 13 Gurner Steet Paddington

27th September – 11th October  2014

Storm Clouds of the Twenty-First Century

I’m sure Rowan Conroy wasn’t the only person photographing the sky from the bottom of Glebe Point Road that Thursday afternoon of 17 October 2013. As the dense smoke from the fires raging in the Blue Mountains rolled back over Sydney, I’d bet that plenty of people were using their cameras or iPhones to photograph the blotting out of the sun. Stranger may have even talked to stranger about the phenomenon, perhaps muttering under their breath words such as ‘awesome’, ‘apocalyptic’, ‘sublime’ or ‘portentous’. In a human gesture that goes back to the time of Stonehenge they all, including Conroy, looked deeply, and anxiously, into the sky. There was a sign there, the sky was telling us — the human race — something, but what? The sky portended doom, certainly, but what kind of doom exactly — was it nothing more than the business-as-usual doom of a cruelly cyclical mother nature, simply enacting the familiar Australian narrative of drought and flooding rains; or was there an additional doom, where climate change had already permanently pushed the weather into new realms of extremity.


Conroy’s carefully printed photographs are probably more terribly beautiful than the souvenir snaps other people took that afternoon. In some of his images, pewter-coloured puffs of smoke in the foreground chromatically shift the flame-tinged smoke in the background from copper to gold, giving the image a scaleless virtuality, like you see when you stare into the coals of a campfire for too long. In other shots, taken looking up towards the sun, we get the vertiginous feeling that we are a medieval sinner staring down into the bowels of hell. Still others stack up horizontal banks of cloud like an aerial geology that compresses the ragged remnants of dusky blue beneath. But each of the different terrible beauties of these photographs poses the same question — a question that worries many people: what is happening to our world?


Another worrier who looked into the skies was the nineteenth century art critic John Ruskin. To Ruskin nature was the origin of beauty on every level: aesthetic, moral and spiritual. But, in the early part of his career Ruskin warned his readers against a poetical conceit he called the ‘pathetic fallacy’, where weak people who are ‘over-clouded or over-dazzled’ by passionate emotion falsely attributed human feeling to nature itself. However to Ruskin this mistaken projection onto nature, where a flower is not a flower but a ‘a star, or a sun, or a fairy’s shield, or a forsaken maiden’, was still higher than the dull perception of an unfeeling person for whom the flower could never be anything but an unloved, symbolically inert organism. But, on a level higher than both these states, Ruskin placed the perception of one who was able to see the natural fact of the flower simultaneously intertwined with the spiritual associations and human feelings it evoked. Conroy does not succumb to the pathetic fallacy, his clouds are more than empty symbols of a fantasy apocalypse, they are also observed meteorological records, but records demanding a human response: this day happened, and it told us something.


About thirty years after writing on the pathetic fallacy, and towards the end of his life as he began to suffer bouts of mental illness, Ruskin wrote about the skies he had been observing and painting for decades. In the lecture The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century he claimed to have observed a new meteorological phenomenon that had arisen in the early 1870s. He called it the ‘plague wind’: a ‘dry black veil which no ray of sunshine can pierce’, looking as though ‘it were made of dead men’s souls’. When it blew, it blew tremulously, and made the leaves of trees shudder with a fitful distress. Its clouds, made of ‘sulphurous chimney-pot vomit’, were ‘thin, scraggy, filthy, mangy [and] miserable’; they did not redden the sun, but instead blanched it. In the scientific record of England’s climate there is scant actual evidence for the phenomena Ruskin observed (although temperatures in those decades were slightly lower than usual and rainfall slightly higher). But Ruskin’s observations weren’t scientific, they had succumbed to something like the pathetic fallacy he had previously condemned. His lecture, though based in close and highly-tuned personal observation, does more than just record the effect of industrial pollution on the environment, it also claims to see the moral and spiritual decay of England actually written in the sky.


Ruskin’s lecture was slightly mad, certainly, but it is a compelling, and relevant, read even today. In the last paragraph Ruskin says: ‘What is best to be done, do you ask me? The answer is plain. Whether you can affect the signs of the sky or not, you can the signs of the times. Whether you can bring the sun back or not, you can assuredly bring back your own cheerfulness, and your own honesty.’


Standing at the beginning of the climatic revolution of the twentieth-first century, rather than in the middle of the industrial revolution of nineteenth, perhaps ‘cheerfulness’ is no longer the best word to describe the ongoing communal resilience that will be required of us, but ‘honesty’ certainly is the best word to describe the change needed in our public discourse. To respond appropriately, and scientifically, to the threat of climate change we may need to embrace something like the revelatory vision of Ruskin. Conroy has.


Martyn Jolly


John Ruskin, ‘Of The Pathetic Fallacy’, Modern Painters, Volume 3, Part 4, 1856

John Ruskin, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, 1884

Brian J Day, ‘The Moral Intuition of Ruskin’s ‘Storm-Cloud’’, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Volume 45, Number 4, Autumn 2005, pp917-933


Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

Rowan Conroy, 'Natura Naturans', 2014

Rowan Conroy, ‘Natura Naturans’, 2014

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.


Photographies: New Histories, New Practices

Foreword for unpublished book based on PHOTOGRAPHIES: NEW HISTORIES, NEW PRACTICES conference at ANU

As a discipline, the history of photography has undergone significant transformation in the past few decades. It has long since overflowed the channels of traditional art history which it first followed. and has now become concerned with more than establishing the canonic artists of the medium, or tracing the teleologies and genealogies of its visual styles or artistic genres. Scholars in disciplines as diverse as anthropology, history and cultural studies have found many uses for photographs and much to explore. Since the early 1980s these developments have been chronicled in such signal articles as Douglas Crimp’s ‘The Museum’s Old / The Library’s New Subject’.[1] It could be argued that the particular ubiquity of photographs has driven the whole ‘pictorial turn’ in philosophy where, as W. J. T. Mitchell describes it, ‘pictures form a point of peculiar friction and discomfort across a broad range of intellectual enquiry … emerging as a central topic of discussion in the human sciences in the way that language [once] did …’.[2]

This broad pictorial turn in the humanities has been complemented by a cultural and social turn in the history of photography itself. The histories which are now most commonly referred to by photography students, such as Mary Warner Marien’s Photography: A Cultural History or Michel Frizot’s A New History of Photography, tend to follow the innovative model established by books such as Giséle Freund’s Photography and Society, with its separate sections each tackling a different aspect of the medium, rather than once classic texts such as Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography, with it cumulative teleology of styles and techniques.[3] Current photographic histories approach the problem of photography from a variety of different directions, and discuss the medium by taking different slices through it, or core sample from it, rather than telling it as a unified story. Chapter headings in generalist histories of photography are now more likely to be conjunctive phrases such as ‘Photography and War’, Photography and Science’, or ‘Photography and the Body’, rather than the bald labels of particular genres or periods within photography. Another new approach to photographic history, exemplified by Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs, is to focus down to a small selection of key images as the starting points for broader investigations into the various ideas that every photograph mobilises.[4]

Anthologies such as Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson’s Photography’s Other Histories have gone even further towards breaking apart the pre-given mold in which photographic history has been cast.[5] In books such as these, photography is a powerful cultural practice performed differently by different cultures, at different times, and in different private or public contexts. It produces meanings which are far from being self-evident or universal, but which can nonetheless empower cross-cultural dialogue. Other anthropologically orientated anthologies, such as Elizabeth Edwards’s Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality if Images, have focussed not on photography as an ever-widening pool of images, but the photograph itself as a discrete anthropological artefact.[6] This shift of critical focus away from interpreting the visual content of images towards understanding the social exchange of images as objects, is characteristic of recent photographic scholarship.

Perhaps this shift has been accelerated by the fact that photography has finally ceded to new media its position as the ultimate medium of theoretical contemporaneity. Several decades ago the photograph, with it ubiquitous presence throughout culture and society, was the very sign of contemporary experience within cultural theory. Now the explosion of new media has eclipsed it. But even within new media the single photograph survives, pretty much in tact, as an absolutely crucial and fundamental component of the accelerated trajectories of mobile and on-line technologies. Today photographs are taken in their billions to be emailed or uploaded, but in the nineteenth century they were also taken in their hundreds of thousands to be circulated amongst individuals. The discourses generated by new media therefore continue to owe much to the history and theory of photography, while the study of photography itself continues its close attention to the continuing reality of photographs in our lives.

None of the disciplines that have recently turned to photographs for new sources of meaning have been able to use them as simple, unproblematic evidence for historical research or cultural discourse. Photographs are, and remain, not just slippery semiotically, but also ambiguous ontologically; so their simultaneous status as historical documents, physical objects and time events continues to be explored and re-explored by a widening range of theorists, philosophers and writers. Even literary writers are undergoing a photographic turn. Photographs have become literary objects, as much as artistic objects, found in novels as well as in art galleries. The photograph has long been used as a figurative metaphor or a plot device for novelists exploring the memories or desires of their characters, but now actual photographs are being used, not as extraneous ‘illustrations’, but as textual operators. W. G. Sebald is the most famous of a range of writers who have recently used the deadpan allusiveness of the photograph as an integral, if not entirely comfortable, component of their texts, to be read by the reader in the same poetical mode as the words in which they are embedded. Sebald’s literary photography is now even beginning to have an impact back onto art photographers.[7]

Photographs have therefore been the grist to many mills. They have given rise to an extraordinarily rich and varied quantity of research, writing and speculation — from historical research to imaginative creative writing — in an extraordinarily diverse range of theoretical contexts. Photographs are convenient because there is no shortage of them and they are all around us all the time. Nothing is simpler than plucking some out and turning them to work. But often in this work the photograph itself is considered with only enough attention to make a larger point, before any further investigation of it is dropped. The specificity of the individual photograph itself, along with all of its attendant uses and re-uses over time, its transformations and modifications as both physical object and mobile image, are often left far behind. The meanings of particular photographs have formed a key currency of critical thought in disciplines such as history, cultural studies, anthropology, and so on. But once those meanings get caught up in the theoretical streams within whatever discipline they are serving, they sometimes seem to flow over and around the actual photographs themselves, forming larger currents that, through their own dynamic turbulence, obscure the original objects beneath.

Lately, however, a wider and wider range of scholars are turning back to the photograph itself, as both a semiotic event and a material artefact. They work from the photograph up, rather than the theory down. They do this not to re-invent some kind of connoisseurship of the artefact, or to reduce the image to a static collection of facts, but to assert that much remains to be learnt by returning as often as possible to the source of photographic meaning, which is not just particular photographers, nor just particular reproductive technologies, but both of them together. Photographs are dense complex things in their own right, and these scholars want to slow our attention down to give that density its due. Each of the authors, irrespective of their interest or approach, have been primarily driven by the particular qualities of particular photographs. This turn to the specificity of the photograph itself is the first of three themes which run through the chapters in this book.

For instance, Geoffrey Batchen’s research re-embeds photographs in the context that gave rise to them in the first place, which is never just the rarified thoughts and feelings of the photographer, or their visionary ambition, but often complex commercial imperatives and technological realities. From this basis he has been able to propose an alternative model of photographic history which puts photography as work at its centre. In discussing the rivalry between Talbot’s photographic business in Reading which used his own process, and the first studios in London which licensed the daguerreotype process, Batchen establishes that photographs are never just the product of one local context, they were always, right from the moment of their origin, embedded in international currents.

As well as the importance of a close attention to the photograph as object, the currents through which these photographs circled the globe form the second dominant theme of this book. But in addition, we shift the focus of these global currents southwards, away from the dominant presence of Europe and America as the site for photographic history, towards Asia and the Pacific. For too long the photography of these regions, where the global politics and social change of the last two hundred and fifty years has been at its most raw and intense, has only been seen reflected in the mirror of European and American photography. Questions were often framed merely in terms of how Asia and the Pacific changed European and American photographers as they passed through the region, or how the careers of Asian and Pacific photographers could be stitched into larger global narratives generated in Europe and America. The writers in this collection are not interested in such an approach because they start from specific photographs in specific contexts.

Ken Hall, for example, starts with an almost forensic examination of a partially obscured inscription on an early studio group portrait depicting a British colonist settler and a group of South Island Maori, and then proceeds to open the image out to a large and complex story. John L. Tran looks at Taisho Pictorialism, a Japanese strain of the global Pictorialist movement, which used Pictorialist nostalgia to help construct an emerging Japanese identity. Likewise, Victoria Garnons-Williams casts a new and surprising light on the well-known Grafton Aboriginal portraits of J.W. Lindt. These images have long circulated in Australian history almost as icons of the colonial treatment of Aborigines. However Garnos-Williams returns to their source in Grafton, to the almost microscopic surface of the photograph itself. Other chapters read and analyse well-know photographs with an unprecedented closeness, and with an unprecedented access to the original context of their production to offer new and more complex understandings. For instance Shelley Rice’s survey of the evolution of political directorial photography and masquerade within American photography, and its complex relationship to photography’s more usual ‘documentary’ and touristic function, is given even more complexity in terms of the globalised currents of identity politics when photographers such as Australia’s Fiona Foley and Samoa’s Shigeyuki Kihara are added to the discussion.

These chapters reflect the recent burgeoning scholarship from Australian and New Zealand Universities, and reveal the fresh perspectives that are still being opened up by the close reading of key photographs and collections. For instance through Tim Smith’s detailed work on the glass plates of the photographer Paul Foelsche, a more complete understanding of the circumstances behind the photographs emerges which complicates the historical narratives they have previously been used to justify. Max Quanchi analyses a large collection of postcards from four Pacific colonies in the late nineteen and early twentieth centuries. His quantitative analysis of the various categories of subject matter, as well as his analysis of individual images, reveals a unified visual construction of the colonial world which was posted back to various metropolitan centres, irrespective of whether the colonies were German, British, French or Australian.

In a more poetic meditation on the ontology of photography, Australian novelist Gail Jones, who is well known for using the idea of photography as an element in her fiction, considers the encounters with portrait photography of a wide range of writers, from Henry James to Don DeLillo. All of her literary sources have responded in various ways to the subtle, yet compelling mysticism of photographs, which for them comes from the ambiguous and mysterious relationship in each of the images they encounter between fixity and flux, presence and absence.

In this final chapter Jones homes in on what has emerged as a third major theme of this book: that is, that the return to the specificity of the photograph as object, and the increased attention to the networks and flows in which those photographs are embedded, only brings us closer to the photograph’s ultimate ineffability. No matter how forensically close we get to actual images, to the faces and the eyes of their subjects, and no matter how detailed and sophisticated our analysis of the specific conditions of their production and dissemination, it is still the narrow but unbridgeable fissure between reality and the uncanny copy of that reality that drives our fascination with the photograph. As Jones quotes Giorgio Agamben, the photograph remains the site of a gap, a ‘sublime breech’ between what we can see and what we can know.

Martyn Jolly and Helen Ennis

Crimp, D. (1989). The Museum’s Old/The Library’s new Subject. The Contest of meaning : critical histories of photography. R. Bolton. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press: xix, 407 p.

Edwards, E. and J. Hart (2004). Photographs objects histories : on the materiality of images. London ; New York, Routledge.

Freund, G. (1980). Photography & society. London, Fraser.

Frizot, M. (1998). A new history of photography. Köln, Könemann.

Marien, M. W. (2006). Photography : a cultural history. London, Laurence King.

“This survey of international photography, which examines the discipline across the full range of its uses by both professionals and amateurs, has been expanded and brought up to date for this second edition. Each of the eight chapters takes a period of up to forty years and examines the medium through the lenses of art, science, social science, travel, war, fashion, the mass media and individual practitioners.”–BOOK JACKET.

Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994). The Pictorial Turn. Picture theory : essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 11 – 34.

Newhall, B. (1997). The history of photography : from 1839 to the present. New York

Boston, Museum of Modern Art ;

Distributed by Bulfinch/Little Brown.

Patt, L., Dlilbohner, et al. (2007). Searching for Sebald : photography after W. G. Sebald. Los Angeles, Calif., Institute of Cultural Inquiry.

Pinney, C. and N. Peterson (2003). Photography’s other histories. Durham, Duke University Press.

[1] Crimp, D. (1989). The Museum’s Old/The Library’s new Subject. The Contest of meaning : critical histories of photography. R. Bolton. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press: xix, 407 p.

[2] Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994). The Pictorial Turn. Picture theory : essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago, University of Chicago Press: p13.

[3] Marien, M. W. (2006). Photography : a cultural history. London, Laurence King.
Frizot, M. (1998). A new history of photography. Köln, Könemann.
Freund, G. (1980). Photography & society. London, Fraser.
Newhall, B. (1997). The history of photography : from 1839 to the present. New York Boston, Museum of Modern Art ; Distributed by Bulfinch/Little Brown.

[4] Howarth, Sophie, (Ed.) (2006) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs, New York, Aperture

[5] Pinney, C. and N. Peterson (2003). Photography’s other histories. Durham, Duke University Press.

[6] Edwards, E. and J. Hart (2004). Photographs objects histories : on the materiality of images. London ; New York, Routledge.

[7] Patt, L., Dlilbohner, et al. (2007). Searching for Sebald : photography after W. G. Sebald. Los Angeles, Calif., Institute of Cultural Inquiry.

Max Dupain’s Sunbaker

‘Sunbaker: The making of an icon’, in the catalogue to Signature Works, Australian Centre for Photography, May, 1999. 

Few images in Australia today are as recognisable as Max Dupain’s Sunbaker, 1937. Certainly no other Australian image, be it a painting, graphic or photograph, is as often parodied, pastiched or quoted. Perhaps only monuments such as the Opera House, Harbour Bridge or Uluru have a greater presence within Australia’s repertoire of national icons.

The sunbaker represents the Australian nation as a whole, but he also sensuously embodies each of our own individual relationships to Australia as a place: our fond memories of its summers, its beaches, its ‘lifestyle’. And, of course, he is a gendered icon: the sunbaker’s Australia is a place for the autochthonic pleasures of men. The sunbaker’s iconicity is splendidly conflicted: is the sun beneficent or carcinogenic, is he at rest or in a stupor, will he ever share the beach that he claims with others?

At the end of his life Dupain was heartily sick of the Sunbaker. He realised that the manifold meanings it was generating were drawing it out from under the mantle of his authorship. He was bemused that it had slipped into visual domains other than his own, for instance that it was even gaining currency within an emerging gay sensibility.

The Sunbaker has been Dupain’s image since 1937, when he quickly made two negatives of his close friend Harold Salvage during a holiday to the South Coast. It has only really been Australia’s image since 1975, when it began its rapid ascent into national iconicity as Dupain himself was suddenly produced onto the Australian cultural stage as a major modernist artist. It was on the poster of his first retrospective at the Australian Centre for Photography, it was subsequently published by two photography magazines and by the National Gallery of Australia on the back cover of a 1979 exhibition catalogue, and it was central to the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ 1980 retrospective curated by Gael Newton.

Prior to 1975 the two negatives had sat untouched in Dupain’s negative files for thirty years. A print from the other negative was published in Dupain’s relatively obscure monograph of 1948. That print was darker, and its composition more grounded, stolid and heavy than the high tensile form suspended in the bright grey field with which we are familiar from the 1970s prints. Ironically this second negative, and its print, have now been lost. Previous to this monograph the image only existed as a contact print amongst other snapshots in a personal album assembled for his friends as a souvenir of their coast holiday.

The Sunbaker has come a long way, yet it remains simultaneously a private snapshot and public icon. The sunbaker is still embedded in time, but his time is now a multiple exposure of a changing Australia.


Gael Newton, ‘”It was a simple affair”: Max Dupain Sunbaker’ in Lynne Seear and Julie Ewington, eds. Australian Art Brought to Light 1850-1965 from the Queensland Art Gallery Collection, Queensland Art Gallery , Brisbane: 1998 pp142-7.

Geoffrey Batchen, “Creative Actuality; The photography of Max Dupain”, Art Monthly, pp2-5

A Brief History of Photofile

‘A Brief History of Photofile’, Photofile, No. 50, 1997 

Recalled Photofile/Potted Photofile

Photofile now fills three magazine boxes on my shelves and I have been involved with it in one way or another for virtually all of its history. However it was always too precariously funded, too open to the vicissitudes of arts politics and policy, and too subject to the recurring paroxysms of the ACP itself, for it to have ever achieved a stable existence for a substantial period of time. So, despite its relatively venerable age of fifty issues, it has never achieved the consistency to have been a barometer of the changing Zeitgeist, or even an authoritative record of its historical period.

Nonetheless I think it is an invaluable repository of Australian writing from the last fifteen years. If fifty issues of Photofile do not quite make a full blown archive, at least they form a fascinating and densely packed midden. Before I went back to my magazine boxes I tried to list all of the articles in Photofile which I could readily recall to mind. Some had stuck in my memory because I had enjoyed reading them, and they had struck me at the time as interesting models for establishing both a personal and a theoretical relationship to the medium. For instance I remembered an article which Judith Ahern wrote and illustrated, very early on in Photofile’s history, about Sydney’s last commercially practising street photographer. Judith had interviewed Cecil Maurice who had detailed memories of this almost forgotten form of street hawking which uncannily echoed the art practice of street photography, (‘Memoir of a Street Photographer’, Summer 1984). I remembered Anne McDonald’s (now Anne Ooms) Barthesian meditation which teased apart strands of personal memory, colonisation and patriarchy in a photograph taken by her father in New Guinea in the sixties, in which she herself appears in the background as a young girl, (‘Girl Dancer at Rigo Festival’ special South Pacific issue Spring 1988). I remembered Paul Foss’s scrupulously close reading of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Man in a Polyester Suit 1981, which was on display in Australia at the time, (‘Mapplethorpe Aglance’, Spring 1985). And I  remembered several other similar articles such as Roslyn Poignant’s history of a famous photograph by her late husband Axel Poignant—which she methodically tracked from her personal recollection of being there when the photo was taken to seeing it electronically altered on the cover of a conference program decades later, (‘The Swagman’s After Image’, #35). It is clear to me that articles such as these would have never been written if Photofile didn’t exist.

I can readily recall many others Photofile articles because I have had occasion to frequently refer back to them in my teaching. They are still the best reference points for recent Australian photographic history and theory. For instance I still use Adrian Martin’s excellent articles on Bill Henson and then Anne Ferran (‘Bill Henson and the Devil, probably’, Spring 1885, and ‘Immortal Stories’ Summer 1986); Helen Ennis’s feminist revision of the 1970s Australian photography (‘1970s Photographic Practice a Homogenous View?’, Autumn 1986) and others by Geoff Batchen, Helen Grace, Catriona Moore and so on. These important articles may possibly have found homes in other magazines or as forum papers, but many would have undoubtedly simply remained brewing on their author’s mind if not for Photofile.

What all these memorable articles have in common for me is that they were all well written, and all directly engaged with specific photographs and practices, whilst bringing an additional point of reference—personal, theoretical, historical, political—to bear.

With my mnemonic experiment completed I methodically flicked through all forty-nine of the previous issues. I detected an overall historical shape to the magazine. And Photofile definitely had clear high points and low points. When it first appeared in 1983 its mere existence seemed, to some, to be achievement enough. However these ‘tabloid newspaper’ issues do not compare favourably with the sense of excitement generated by other Australian art magazines on the market at that time: for example Art Network, which had already done an excellent special issue on photography before Photofile even began; On The Street, which seemed to be on much more intimate terms with its readership than Photofile ever was; and of course Paul Taylor’s theoretically savvy Art & Text.

Although Australian photography had institutionally matured—with curatorial departments, art school departments and exhibition venues all well and truly in place—it was still relatively impoverished and insular as an autonomous discourse. So there is a sense of overdue, but aimless, stocktaking in these early issues: rambling prolix interviews with curators and ‘made it’ photographers; protracted avuncular sermons on overly generalised topics of art, photography and history; descriptive reviews and news; and quaintly colonial sounding ‘letters’ from interstate and overseas. There is also a residual anxiety over the status of photography as a self-sustaining discipline. This was anachronistic in a cultural climate where photography as a medium had become the main arena in which wider debates about representation, simulation, gender, and power were being energetically played out.

Some of the most entertaining writing in these issues is, ironically, by Max Dupain, who was still writing scourging reviews for the Sydney Morning Herald at the time. In these Photofiles, when most articles seemed to have been written off the top of the head, Dupain’s crazy mixed metaphors and passionate declarations of radical conservatism are in their element. See, for instance, his ‘Photography in Australia, A Personal Progress Report 1978-1984’ from the Tenth Anniversary of the ACP issue, Summer 1984.

For me the high point of the magazine so far has been the issues edited by Geoffrey Batchen in 1985 and 1986. Photofile finally caught up with the boat the earlier issues had missed. Important debates were pursued with vigour and rigour from an enlarged and deepened pool of writers who drew on skills from outside the narrow confines of photography qua photography. The letters pages livened up. The magazine went to A4 and reproduced images on a slightly more generous scale. And the magazine quickly achieved a vividness which belied its rather dour black cover.

During the subsequent three years editors Catherine Chinnery and Robert Nery, and a series of guest editors, maintained the essential A4 format. But by the late eighties the single photograph was no longer automatically the  central player in the ongoing drama of cultural politics. And photography as an art discipline was dispersing in all directions under the impact of technological change. Photography’s role in culture became increasingly difficult to describe without access to the vast discourses of the mass media, history, and psychoanalysis. It became increasingly difficult to think about photography as a contemporary visual art without also thinking about film, video or installation. Photofile gamely grappled with this Hydra while attempting to maintain its brief as the journal of the ACP and its obligations to its primary constituency of photographers. (Whose interest in Photofile, it must be said, increased dramatically whenever their shows were, or weren’t, reviewed in it.)

However during this period Photofile managed to publish a loose group of articles which dealt in various ways, with emerging problems of history and the archive, the photograph and the historical document, and the image and time. A highlight of this period was a double issue on the South Pacific guest edited by Ross Gibson, (Spring 1988). In retrospect these diverse articles which appeared spread over many issues, by writers such as Elizabeth Gertsakis, Paul Carter, Ross Gibson, Graham Forsythe and Sylvia Kleinert defined the flavour of these issues—just as the articles on gender, representation and cultural politics by writers like Paul Foss, Adrian Martin and Helen Grace defined the flavour of the previous issues. They formed a strong thread running through these issues which it is difficult to imagine appearing in any other Australian journal at the time.

During this time also Photofile moved haltingly towards limited colour, became more design conscious, experimented with artists pages, and began to use images as autonomous units rather than addenda to a predominant text. However its continuing anxieties of self-definition spun out of control in a disastrous series of issues edited from Melbourne in 1990 and 1991. What appears to be unprecedented access to sponsorship and design know-how was squandered on gratuitous design follies, an attenuated relationship between text and image, and many arcane, obscure or irrelevant articles with little relationship to contemporary Australian photography.

Fortunately subsequent editors, Martin Thomas, Jo Holder and George Alexander re-grounded the magazine, while retaining its contemporary design feel. Looking back over these last sixteen issues one can clearly see, of course, the emergence of cyberculture as a major preoccupation, but also the continuation of concerns that Photofile has consistently covered right from 1985: the body, history and—as a steadily increasing concern throughout its history—race. There is no longer so much of a sense of grim struggle with all the multiplying issues that photography continually brings up and all the continually sub-dividing media which impact on it. Recent Photofiles have, I think successfully, engaged with selected aspects of what is now a general area of visual and cultural discourse, rather than attempting to survey what is no longer a clearly definable medium.

Meanwhile the landscape around Photofile has changed beyond recognition. The art magazine field has shrunk, and has shifted towards the mainstream. General academic journals are now regularly discussing many issues of visual culture, and books and anthologies are being published in unprecedented numbers. Information about art is as likely now to come from the radio, a Saturday afternoon forum somewhere, or your computer, as it is from a mag (although newspapers remain as irrelevant as ever). Photography has become photomedia. Perhaps it’s time for Photofile to become something else too. (After it produces a complete index of itself.)

Martyn Jolly

January 1997

Review of ‘At Home in Australia’ and ‘In a New Light’

Review of ‘At Home in Australia’, National Gallery of Australia publication by Peter Conrad, and ‘In a New Light’, National Library of Australia exhibition, Art Monthly Australia, December, 2003, pp 5  — 10

At Home in Australia, written by Peter Conrad, Canberra and London, National Gallery of Australia and Thames & Hudson, 2003

In a New Light: Australian Photography 1850s – 1930s, curated by Helen Ennis, National Library of Australia, until January 16, 2004.

Gael Newton has conducted perhaps the boldest and most extraordinary experiment in Australian photography for a long time. Rather than writing her own sober and authoritative account of the Australian photographs in her collection at the National Gallery of Australia, or mounting a blockbuster exhibition showcasing their diverse styles and qualities, she instead invited confirmed expatriate Peter Conrad to make a two week excursion to Australia to look at all the photographs and write a 256 page 70,000 word book about Australia through them.

Conrad is the youngest and last in the line of Australia’s celebrity expatriate writers — Clive James, Peter Porter, Germaine Greer, et al — who have made it in the UK, but have still retained a fraught relationship with the country of their origin, making re-appearances from time to time, as if to deal with unfinished business, and then disappearing again.

Conrad’s text begins with the primal origin du monde which has been the elusive font for so many recent accounts of photography: the box of snapshots his parents kept on the family mantelpiece. Conrad left that maternal hearth, and Australia, for good in 1968, escaping conscription on a Rhodes Scholarship. He left home for what he regarded as a return to his cultural centre in England in an adolescent high dudgeon at the banality, boredom and brutalisation Australia had subjected him to. And when his parents eventually died, their box of photographs was one of the few objects which he transferred to his own mantelpiece in England. But, inevitably, these few images, which went back only one or two generations, weren’t up to the task of reconciling the doubly-deracinated Conrad to his natal home. He therefore adopts the National Gallery collection as a surrogate family album, and declares an intention to write about them as if the were our collective family album since, after all, “remembering, which involves making mental photographs, is a collusive, contagious activity, because our memory is interchangable.” And indeed Conrad has been fearless in weaving much of himself and a lot of his own memories through the photographs. The reader is encouraged to empathise with Conrad’s homesickness and dislocation through the mnemonic vignettes he extrapolates out of the photographs. And he has such a facility with the language that this is not hard to do, even when the occasional spleen he vents on those who were obviously his main childhood tormenters — young ocker men and their girlfriends — has tipped his writing over into petulant displays of colonialist disdain. For instance he describes Peter Elliston’s, admittedly complacent and smug, sunbathing Couple on Platform at Giles Baths, Coogee, as ‘cave dwellers’ who have ‘not yet learnt to walk upright’, at home amongst a sprawl of non-biodegradable filth and pollution

Conrad built his reputation on expansive, encyclopaedic books such as his account of the twentieth century, Modern Times, Modern Places, which like many other popular history books at the moment paints a larger picture through piling up telling anecdote upon telling anecdote, significant detail upon significant detail. And in looking at the photographs in the National Gallery’s collection it is the details in the images, the unnoticed ‘punctums’ from which he can spin a felicitous turn of phrase or an intriguing speculation, that he homes in on again and again. His eye for the detail is acute. So acute that often the incidental details his hungry eye had grasped as he was going through the original prints barely survive their reproduction at much smaller scale in the book. For instance most people wouldn’t have even noticed the front wheel and fender of a car reflected in the window of one of the run-down buildings which the fashion photographer Henry Talbot had used to recreate colonial Australia for a Wool Board Fashion shoot.  But Conrad did, and in his fantasy the 1970s fashion models will leap into this reflection and use it to propel themselves back to the future. 

The hundreds of details such as this from which Conrad likes to launch his writing are primarily literary ones, visual puns and rhymes, disjunctions of scale, and eccentricities of pose. Hence photographers who hitherto have been relatively minor members of the canon, like Eric Thake who loved discovering linguistic tropes in the real world, figure prominently in Conrad’s book, whereas well and truly canonised Australian art photographers, such as Bill Henson and Carol Jerrems, with their self-enclosed theatres of private desire, don’t appear at all.

There is no doubt that Conrad is a virtuoso writer, his technique in this book is to riff off each photograph he has selected — the two hundred that are reproduced and as many more that are not reproduced — and to run these riffs together into improvised passages that move roughly chronologically through several different nation-defining themes, such as ‘Tree People’, ‘National Characters’ and ‘Remaking the Map’. Occasionally, experiencing the dexterity with which he works these riffs together is exhilarating and refreshing, particularly towards the beginning of each theme. For instance the 1970s Henry Talbot Wool Board fashion image occurs in the middle of a progression of extrapolations on Australian’s attitude towards ‘display’, which Conrad had introduced with what had previously been a thoroughly inconsequential Pictorialist image from 1928 of a white egret preening itself, for which the photographer had chosen the anthropomorphic title Mannequin.

But the longer he continues his verbal glissades, the more the connections between the images tend to become attenuated and the prose indulgent. Conrad’s reputation is as a polymath, his books and his haute journalism cover an enormous amount of territory with ease. Inevitably a certain necessary glibness goes with the job for all polymaths. Nonetheless, there are many extraordinarily glib statements in this book that quickly begin to rankle with the Australian reader. For instance, spinning out from a 1973 Eric Thake photograph of a poster advertising the Guru Maharaj-ji peeling off a building site hoarding he says, “new countries are touchingly innocent, and vulnerable to such confidence trickters”. Oh yeah, and old countries aren’t? Trying telling that to the high-placed Brits like Fergie and Cherie Blair who got involved with our own home-grown slimming-tea conman Peter Foster.  Further on he talks of the “happy-go-lucky recruits who volunteered to be slaughtered at Gallipoli”. Well being slaughtered at Gallipoli wasn’t exactly in the job description when the Australians responded to recruitment campaigns to join the AIF and defend the empire. In reading the book the cumulative effect of these throw-away lines — the feeling that one is being patronised — is mitigated somewhat by the fascinating historical tit-bits Conrad has also salted into his text, often supplied by the research of Gael Newton. For instance he mentions what must have been a fascinating exchange of letters, larded with classical allusions, between Norman Lindsay and the young Max Dupain in 1935. I’d also like to know more about the contribution Axel Poignant’s photographs of Arnhem Land Aboriginal ceremonies made to the London choreography of The Rite of Spring in 1962. But there are no references for these facts, and not even a bibliography for the work of other writers who Conrad has quoted. For a major publication by a major institution this is bordering on insulting, and doesn’t dispose the reader kindly to the tone of Conrad’s text as it continues its nimble pirouetting from photograph to photograph across the pages.

If At Home in Australia is the nation’s family album then the story Conrad wants it to tell is that of a settler nation, attempting and failing, attempting and failing again, and finally attempting and succeeding, to make a home for itself in an alien land. And it is essentially the limitations of that story which leads to the book’s central problem. Conrad’s colonialist narrative seems to have been developmentally arrested in the 1960s, when he left Australia. He completed his growing-up in England, and the historical frameworks and preconceptions about Australia he has brought back with him seem to still belong to the conflicted adolescent rather than the mature man. His main protagonists are settlers and the land, battling it out in a kind of Old Testament agony to engender the nation. But throughout his narrative the settlers largely remain cast as pioneers, and the land remains distant and obstinate. Certainly, a lot of attention is paid to Aboriginal perceptions of the land, but they are used as the mystical counterpoint to this struggle. Speaking of the nature shown in the 1958 Hal Missingham photograph Child’s grave, Broome, WA, Conrad says in another one of his perhaps too glib lines: “White Australians die into it, whereas Aboriginal people are born from it.” Notions like this might be serviceable when used with the nineteenth century and early twentieth century photographs in the book, which are what Conrad is best at working from, but they can’t carry him into the present. What about urban Aborigines, or those from the stolen generation, or the spiritual belonging white Australians now instinctively feel for their land?

The writers he likes quoting the most are people like Patrick White. Recent writers who we might have thought had taken us well beyond such dichotomies —Paul Carter, Ken Inglis, Greg Denning, Inga Glendinnen, Peter Read and so on — aren’t mentioned at all. Even old faithfuls like David Malouf, who launched the book, are used surprisingly sparingly, and his 1998 Boyer lectures about the Australian character, A Spirit of Play, are mentioned only in order to re-use the title. Of course Conrad liberally uses plenty of other contemporary references, but they are often events like the opening ceremony from the 2000 Olympics or the film Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which attract Conrad precisely because they recast Australia’s familiar colonialist imagery

When it comes to describing contemporary Australia, Conrad is less assured, hesitating to describe anything more than the potentiality for the country to finally become reconciled to its geography, its history and its land. In attempting to update the Australian colonial characteristics which he has previously described with such facility, he is reduced to identifying things like our hedonism as being somehow our replacement twenty-first century national characteristic. He asks: “Is Australia, which began as Britain’s cloaca, now the pudenda of the envious earth?” Surely Australia has come further in a century and a half of photography than a short swing on a perineal pendulum down under?

To illustrate Australia’s supposed national hedonism he had described, but hadn’t illustrated, some William Yang photographs of Sydney parties and the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. But if he had gone further into Yang’s work, for instance into the images from some of his famous slide performances, he would have discovered an important south/north trajectory, from Sydney, through the Queensland cane fields, to China, which counteracts the east/west trajectory of the settler explorers.

To be fair to Conrad his text was necessarily constrained by the images in the National Gallery collection. Numbering eight thousand or so, the photographs in the collection he has adopted as a surrogate ‘family album’ have all been carefully and self-consciously scrutinised and vetted before acquisition. The collection dates from the 1970s, when it began with James Mollison purchasing large quantities of the newly hot medium of art photography with sponsorship from the tobacco company Phillip Morris. Since then a succession of art-museum curators have diligently purchased a good representation of work from the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, but have purchased contemporary work from the eighties, nineties and now more sparingly and erratically. These strengths and weaknesses undoubtedly had their effect on each of the book’s thematic chapters, which become less assured the closer they get to the present moment in our nation.

The National Library of Australia’s collection, on the other hand, numbers over 600,000 photographs, and is still growing apace. They have been collected in a much more wholesale manner for over fifty years, not for arts sake, but to illustrate the life and development of the country. The experienced curator Helen Ennis has selected the first of two major exhibitions from this democratic depository. Ironically it is the Library exhibition, called In a New Light: Australian Photography 1850s – 1930s, with its teeming and complex display of photographs of different sizes and techniques as well as albums, panoramas and stereographs, which foregrounds the auratic material qualities of the images themselves; while the Gallery project has not exhibited the original images at all, but has instead conscripted them to be homogenously embedded in a fast flowing text.

Like Conrad’s book, this is also an exhibition to pore over, straining to reach into the images, to find and grasp the elusive detail. Conrad searched for recognition, empathy, familiarity, and personal reconciliation in the photographs he chose. The National Library exhibition, however,  is not so demanding of its photographs. It lets them be obdurate, obstinate, and disruptive. Ennis has thought of the photographs as nodes of residual historical energy, working both backward and forwards in time. This approach suits a collection that is already so vast that it is a humanly unknowable terrain. It is only when cutated from a collection this big that an exhibition can let a viewer stumble upon a small image that almost takes the breath away in its otherworldy strangeness. For instance a tiny snap taken by James P Campbell at Gallipoli of three diggers looking like the trapped citizens of Pompeii as they sheltered from bursting shells, lies waiting to surprise the viewer like a piece of twisted shrapnel.

Other photographs are also included to deliberately confound the present and the past. Several medical photographs taken by Dr Gabriel at the Gundagai Hospital in the early 1900s are included in the exhibition. The Library had previously published Gabriel’s Gundagai photographs in a handsome volume of 1976. But that book, it now turns out, was a sanitised reflection of the original collection of glass plates. Because it saw itself as a social history of the townspeople, and an account of Dr Gabriel as an auteurial photographer, it hadn’t included many of the photographs he had taken purely for medical reasons. But now in this exhibition we see an aboriginal child with distended belly held up like a puppet for the camera by a starched nurse. We are affronted by the jagged angularity of the ratcheted bed-frame the child is propped on, and the pincer grip of the nurse. But this was originally a thoroughly benign photograph taken, presumably, for the best of reasons of an Aboriginal child receiving the very latest in scientific medical care. Why does it now disturb us so shockingly? Other photographs of Aborigines in the exhibition, say the formal heads of the ‘last’ Tasmanian Aborigines, Truganini and William Lanney, were far crueller at the time because they sarcastically produced their subjects as celebrities in order to be a public valedictory for the dying race. Yet now these images have shrugged off the photographer’s original sarcasm to preserve an enduring nobility. What had happened before, and what has happened since, to invert the values in these photographs?

Ennis’s approach to photographs is an affective one. Rather than forensically plumbing a photograph for clues, she lets its totality as an object work an affect on her, which she then attempts to know. Sometimes this technique makes the text in the exhibition seem over-determined, but it does work when it leads to the assemblage of clusters of images: aboriginal portraits and pioneer portraits, war reconnaissance photographs and soldier’s scrapbooks, for instance, which work off each other in a mute counterpoint.

At a photography forum a few months back a lad got up and told us all in an slightly aggrieved tone that even after doing a course in photography he still didn’t know very much about the development of Australian photography, why hadn’t anybody ever written a history of Australian photography? A panel member helpfully explained that in fact there had been several attempts, one published in 1955 by Jack Cato, and two still serviceable histories published in 1988 by Gael Newton and Anne Marie Willis, which should be in any college library. But, I silently calculated to myself, these books were last available in the shops fifteen years ago, when this enthusiastic young photographer was still probably a toddler.

Since then our major collecting institutions have produced several exhibitions and catalogues cutting a broad historical slice through some aspect or other of Australian photography. For instance, last year the National Gallery of Victoria published a survey of their collection of Australian photography, called 2nd Sight. Those institutions have also managed to squeeze out a trickle of monographs on contemporary and historical Australian photographers. But there has been nothing like the slew of heroic histories that continue to come out of the United States, and nothing giving readers a sense of the full historical scope or national sweep of Australia’s photography collections. But at the same time, never has the scholarship of photography been more lively, albeit dispersed across many disciplines. People right across the country, in cultural studies, anthropology, English, and history, as well as the fine arts, are working in a variety of archives — big and small, public and private — and are amazed by what they are turning up. Some Australian scholars are also writing with élan and vigour on the biggies of photo-history globally — Catherine Rogers on Fox Talbot and Catherine de Lorenzo on Nadar for instance.  Last year the Edinburgh-based editor of the dour academic journal History of Photography asked me why he kept getting so many manuscripts from Australians. Where else can they send them? I answered.

We need some histories of Australian photography to update the existing ones. But it is now clear that they can’t be a procession of the names of photographic auteurs and their styles, and they can’t be a social or political history simply told with the aid of photographs. Our photographic heritage is not simply the work of those who self-consciously defined themselves as photographers, and it is not simply those photographs that belong to recognisable styles, nor is it simply those images that happen to verify other historical narratives. Our photographic heritage has its own ontology, it is deposited in archives big and small across the nation: collecting institutions like the State and National Libraries and Galleries, middens of specialist photographs tucked away in filing cabinets everywhere, the negative-files of individual photographers and, yes, also all those shoe-boxes on mantelpieces. We are well used to the idea of ‘accessing’ these archives, delving into them to find the images we want for whatever our purpose is. Now we now also need to find ways of writing these archives, writing them in their own obduracy and specificity. Both the National Library and the National Gallery have made bold moves in this direction.

Martyn Jolly

 Martyn Jolly is a photographer and a writer about photography. He is head of Photomedia at the ANU School of Art.