Democracy of the lens

Robyn Ferrell: AGNSW, The Photograph & Australia

Tracey Moffatt, I made a camera 2003, photolithograph, collection of the artist

Tracey Moffatt, I made a camera 2003, photolithograph, collection of the artist

Tracey Moffatt, I made a camera 2003, photolithograph, collection of the artist

In Max Dupain’s 1937 photograph, Sunbaker, the viewer is drawn into sensations of lying on sand, sun on skin. Through it can be felt the wellbeing, the abundance of that careless leisure. More than capturing the moment, Dupain’s photograph has come to distil a sense of being a citizen of the Lucky Country.

No doubt this is what the blurb for The Photograph and Australia means by “shaping our understandings of the nation.” No matter that the sunbather himself was actually English. All the better, because ‘being Australian,’ like all democratic urges, is an aspiration. And Dupain’s photograph has become iconic because of it.

It is hung near David Moore’s 1966 photograph European Migrants (not all of whom were migrants, as it happened) preparing to disembark at Circular Quay in the 1960s.Their expectant, anxious faces carry that aspiration, and communicate it to the viewer years later in a place they may now take for granted as home.

Photographs have become a way of seeing ourselves. They’ve become a way of being ourselves. From the beginning, the photograph was taken up into real life, capturing imaginations. As the experience of viewing The Sunbaker shows, a photograph is not merely a depiction of an event, but viewing it can be felt as an event in itself. It is democratic in this elemental sense, offering its sensations to all who can see them and recognise themselves in them.

Ernest B Docker, The Three Sisters Katoomba – Mrs Vivian, Muriel Vivian and Rosamund, 7 Feb 1898, stereograph, Macleay Museum, The University of Sydney

Ernest B Docker, The Three Sisters Katoomba – Mrs Vivian, Muriel Vivian and Rosamund, 7 Feb 1898, stereograph, Macleay Museum, The University of Sydney

It’s uncanny that Australia formed in the same time frame as photography. The two have grown up together, so that now to display a history of photography in Australia is to display a history of Australia, and likewise a history of the photograph. The daguerreotype was invented just as the colony of New South Wales was getting underway (traced by Geoffrey Batchen in the accompanying catalogue).

A way of being ourselves through seeing ourselves; the exhibition shows this desire predating the phone camera by more than a hundred years. A giddying wall of photographic cartes de visite that circulated in the 19th century draws a direct line to social media.

The exhibition emphasises documentary and visionary aspects of photography, the secret of its success being that it shows how things really are. The photograph also shows how things are really enigmatic. The photograph shows what is there, but only in its absence.

It reproduces reality in a specific way—it renders it two-dimensional, it confines it to a frame, it edits out all senses but the visual. These critical elements shape our vision of what there is. In this enigmatic realism, the photograph is expressive of the post-postmodern era. Examples abound: the panoramas taken by Melvin Vaniman in 1903 a photographic portrayal of the large view we naturally see from a height. Now, the landscape of the Blue Mountains is most recognisable in wide-angle. It has become our imagining of it.

Vaniman’s 1904 panorama of the Fremantle port gave expression to an economic vision, in which the concept was laid out like a map. Henceforth, the Port of Fremantle can now be realised as a commercial proposition, beach and water and jetty and hinterland united to serve the vision.

Melvin Vaniman, Panorama of intersection of Collins and Queen Streets Melbourne, 1903, platinum photograph

Melvin Vaniman, Panorama of intersection of Collins and Queen Streets Melbourne, 1903, platinum photograph

Melvin Vaniman, Panorama of intersection of Collins and Queen Streets Melbourne, 1903, platinum photograph

These are naturalised views, but the panorama Vaniman made of Collins Street is more uncanny, since despite seeming plausible, there is no such natural view. It evokes filmmaking conventions of the tracking shot to be enacted a century later.

Similarly, James Short’s photographs of the Moon’s surface, not visible to the naked eye, are visualised as if they could be, photographed through a telescope in the early 1900s. Ninety years later, David Stevenson sees stars in a manner that could never be perceived, as time-lapse streaks of light.

New genres are shown springing to life to meet new realities: C.E.W. Bean and his photographer Hubert Wilkins document the Gallipoli battlefield, inaugurating for Australia the war correspondence that we now experience nightly as news footage. The mug shot of Ned Kelly, and the photographs taken at his execution, evoke the conspiracy of photographic evidence in law enforcement, espionage and surveillance.

Anne Zahalka, artist #13 (Rosemary
Laing) 1990, from the series Artists, colour
Duraflex photograph, Collection of the artist

Anne Zahalka, artist #13 (Rosemary
Laing) 1990, from the series Artists, colour
Duraflex photograph, Collection of the artist

Anne Zahalka, artist #13 (Rosemary
Laing) 1990, from the series Artists, colour
Duraflex photograph, Collection of the artist

In a startling reversal, it turns out that that which cannot be photographed is not likely to exist. Anne Ferran’s large prints of the site of the colonial Female Factory ironically portray this, showing only grass under which the past is buried.

Sometimes the photograph becomes wish-fulfilment, a desire to see things a certain way. The many small photo-portraits in velvet cases from the nineteenth century, bijoux of another era, show off emotional investments in the image. Like religious icons, they can embody loved ones (and illustrate the privilege that the photo has to carry feelings).

The political, too, occurs in a wishful imagining of some realities in the life of the nation. Desires can be seen to change with the times. The varying images of Indigenous people provide a striking example. Paul Foelsche, the Northern Territory’s first police inspector, took portraits of tribal Aborigines in the anthropological manner. Kerry & Co’s “Aboriginal Chief” (1901-07) provided the image for Brook Andrew’s renowned work Sexy & Dangerous, strangely not present in the exhibition, although works by Tracey Moffatt and Ricky Maynard hold its place.

Henry Fris photographed “the last of the native race” of Tasmania in 1864, dressed up as in any Victorian formal family portrait. Samuel Sweet’s 1884 portrait taken at Poonindie Mission is an ominous arrangement of Indigenous children with their priest. Baldwin Spencer’s careful photographs at Bungalow reveal nothing of the living conditions endured there by the Stolen Generations.

Jump-cut to 1975 and Mervyn Bishop’s classic press photo shows a politician, Gough Whitlam, pouring soil into the hand of Aboriginal elder, Vincent Lingiari, in an iconic shift in representation.

The internet, embodying the virtual, makes the photograph a template for communicating. The democracy of the photographic now produces unpredictable effects; the opening up of photography to the naive, the technical, the social and the documentary provides a growing counterpoint to the professional and artistic possibilities developed in the medium.

The installation, The Compound Lens Project (2014-15, Patrick Pound with Rowan McNaught) ponders the aesthetic question this raises. The website samples a collection of found photographs following the logic of an algorithm. Pound dares us to imagine that “all the images in the world now make up a vast unhinged album.” This is an enduring emblem for the exhibition. By accident or design, its oppressive abundance evokes the claustrophobia of images now, crowding us headlong into global technological change.

The Photograph & Australia, curator Judy Annear, Art Gallery of NSW, 21 March-8 June

RealTime issue #127 June-July 2015 pg. 10-11

© Robyn Ferrell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 June 2015