Aus­tralian Photography's Trea­sure Hunter

ProPhoto - - FRONT PAGE - In­ter­vIew by bruce usher.

Pho­to­graphs are not just pretty pic­tures or il­lus­tra­tions. They’re doc­u­ments. I like to say that photography tells us more, if you know how to read them and learn what’s in the im­age.

Lewisham in in­ner-city Syd­ney. The door opens; there are black and white prints ev­ery­where – some I know, and some I don’t recog­nise. Be­fore I can open my mouth, Alan Davies’s pas­sion­ate mes­sage to the photography in­dus­try winds up to a full crescendo – “Buy pho­tos from your pho­tog­ra­pher friends and put them on your walls”.

He’s a living breath­ing ex­am­ple of that, ex­cept that his favourite pho­to­graph is Sa­tanic Dancer, Paris 1926 by An­dre Kertesz and it’s ap­prox­i­mately $200,000 be­yond his bud­get! How­ever, on his walls are 29 framed prints by 20 pho­tog­ra­phers, in­clud­ing Oil Streaks, Ge­orge Street by Louise Whe­lan, a Hamish Ta-Me and a cou­ple from Ge­orge Caddy’s ‘Bondi Jit­ter­bug’ se­ries. More prints are wait­ing to go to the framers, in­clud­ing pho­to­graphs by Bert Stern and Max Pam. Ta­nia, Alan’s wife, de­liv­ers two cups of de­li­cious Odessa cof­fee and I get down to the busi­ness of un­rav­el­ing Alan Davies.

In 1929, Alan’s fa­ther joined The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald as mes­sen­ger boy for the news­pa­per’s chief-of-staff, Ge­orge Reeves. His du­ties in­cluded de­liv­er­ing ur­gent mail to Kings­ford Smith and Char­lie Ull­man for de­liv­ery via overnight flights, and help­ing pho­tog­ra­phers like Beau Len­nard and Her­bert Fysh­wick carry their gear. In 1932 he was ap­pren­ticed as a lino­type op­er­a­tor.

“It’s funny how I can re­late to th­ese char­ac­ters from the past more di­rectly through my fa­ther’s sto­ries,” Alan com- ments. He re­mem­bers a story about his fa­ther car­ry­ing the pho­tog­ra­pher’s flash tray to a big union demon­stra­tion in Hyde Park in the 1930s. He went up the lad­der with the pho­tog­ra­pher and set off this huge tray – hold­ing vir­tu­ally a whole bot­tle of mag­ne­sium flash pow­der – to il­lu­mi­nate the crowd.

“The blind­ing flash and smoke ig­nited the crowd’s mad­ness. It was the spark, if you like, that set off a riot.”

The pair had to run for their lives down to Ge­orge Street to grab a taxi and es­cape the crowd.

“Photography was a pretty fraught thing in those days and there’s no logic in a ri­ot­ing crowd!”

Break­ing The Rules

By the time he was 14, Alan Davies was print­ing his own pho­to­graphs, and re­calls of­ten com­ing out of the dark­room with a new print to ask his fa­ther if the com­po­si­tion was OK.

“At the start you are fas­ci­nated with com­po­si­tion,” ob­serves Alan. “But, af­ter a while, it’s re­ally not that sig­nif­i­cant. Once you un­der­stand the rules, you break them. I worry about the peo­ple who break all the rules, but don’t ac­tu­ally know the rules.”

Alan at­tended a se­lec­tive high school at Home­bush in Syd­ney, and achieved an honours in Physics in his Leav­ing Cer­tifi­cate. Early on, he was in­ter­ested in the his­tory of photography and the chem­istry of the early process es­pe­cially the Da­guerreo­type and the Ambrotype. He once vis­ited to the Mu­seum of Ap­plied Arts and Science – now Syd­ney’s Pow­er­house Mu­seum – and asked to speak to a cu­ra­tor be­cause the cap­tions on the dis­played Da­guerreo­types were wrong.

“I was pre­co­cious in that way,” he con­fesses. His first cam­era was a small two-anda-quar­ter-square folder that you could put in your top pocket. He used to take it bush walk­ing, but says that he could never get his land­scapes to look any­thing like what he saw. He grad­u­ated to a 35mm cam­era when he went to Syd­ney Uni­ver­sity where he stud­ied science – mostly chem­istry and botany – for two years, be­fore mov­ing to the Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity in Can­berra to study forestry.

“There were vast num­bers of young ladies at uni­ver­sity,” he says with a grin, “and the cam­era was a great shield… it

was a great means of meet­ing them. I was in­volved in ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing be­ing the pho­tog­ra­pher for the stu­dent news­pa­per. You soon learnt to stand up in a crowd and take a pic­ture. It took me a while to re­alise that they don’t see you, all they see is a pho­tog­ra­pher… you’re ac­tu­ally anony­mous.”

Fif­teen years ago he was asked to pho­to­graph a fu­neral.

“It was a hell of a scary thing to do,” he com­ments. When he turned up and pulled out the cam­era, ini­tially peo­ple treated him like a leper, but once the priest an­nounced that the fam­ily had asked him to take pic­tures, ev­ery­thing was fine. It was par­tic­u­larly sad, be­cause it was a sui­cide. I just con­cen­trated on do­ing the images and that al­lowed me to get through that func­tion quite well. So the cam­era can be a shield for peo­ple like me who are quite shy.”

Early Work

Chem­istry was par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to Alan Davies as it en­abled him to learn how photography works. He looked at photography very dif­fer­ently to many peo­ple and, for ex­am­ple, be­came ex­cited about the idea of chang­ing black and white pho­tos into colour, us­ing chem­i­cal pro­cesses.

“The chem­istry of film is sil­ver, but sil­ver only has black, brown and white salts. If you change that sil­ver to, say cop­per, then you can get a range of blue, red, yel­low and green. Any colour you like, in fact.

“I used to al­ways muck around with that sort of thing. I was proud of my­self do­ing this and so I thought I should write this up for one of the photography mag­a­zines. I went to the li­brary to do some read­ing and found it had al­ready been done in the 19th cen­tury!”

Alan was con­scripted for Na­tional Ser­vice when he was at Syd­ney Uni­ver­sity and had sub­se­quently been get­ting de­fer­ments each year. But when he fin­ished at ANU in 1970, he had to re­port to the army. He spent the next two years in sig­nals, first in Mel­bourne and then based in Syd­ney. He re­mem­bers be­ing an­noyed at “the point­less­ness of it”. He was paid by the public ser­vice an ap­prox­i­mate salary to a ma­jor, but spent most of his time clean­ing toi­lets.

Af­ter com­plet­ing his Na­tional Ser­vice, Alan took up a job at the Syd­ney Tech­ni­cal Col­lege’s School of Chem­istry. Then a mate rang him and said, “There’s a great job go­ing at Syd­ney Uni­ver­sity, right up your al­ley, ev­ery­thing you do. This is you! Ap­pli­ca­tions have closed, but I’ve have told them about you and they’re ex­pect­ing a call”.

Alan phoned up and it turned out that the po­si­tion was ac­tu­ally at the uni­ver­sity’s Ma­cleay Mu­seum. He was asked to come in later that af­ter­noon with his CV. He didn’t know what a CV was, but even­tu­ally hand wrote one. He washed his jeans, but they still weren’t dry by the time of the in­ter­view. He went in with no idea what the job was about “…but, by the time the in­ter­view was over, I had it sussed and the job was mine. Then I had to ask them what the pay was. To some ex­tent you were al­lowed to do your own thing at Ma­cleay so, back in 1977, I asked if I could do an ex­hi­bi­tion of the his­tory of photography. The an­swer was, ‘Oh, OK, go ahead’.”

Around this time, Barry Groom was a young stu­dent do­ing work ex­pe­ri­ence at Ma­cleay. He worked at an old peo­ples’ home and one thing that used to up­set him was that, when some­one passed away, it was his job to burn all their para­pher­na­lia, in­clud­ing fam­ily pho­to­graphs. One day he had an op­por­tu­nity to voice this con­cern to a re­porter and it sub­se­quently be­came a big story in the lo­cal news­pa­per. One thing led to an­other and the Ma­cleay Mu­seum be­gan to ac­quire pho­to­graphs, mostly fam­ily pic­tures, from peo­ple. When Alan even­tu­ally left the mu­seum, it had amassed a col­lec­tion of around 30,000 images.

Find­ing His­tory

As a science grad­u­ate, Alan thought it odd that peo­ple were talk­ing about the ‘why’ of Aus­tralian pho­to­graphic his­tory with­out first de­ter­min­ing the ‘who’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’. He then spent seven years from 1977, re­search­ing the ‘why’. It was also an at­tempt to help fam­ily his­to­ri­ans date and iden­tify their pho­to­graphs. The com­pleted project be­came the book, The Me­chan­i­cal Eye in Australia, which was pub­lished in 1985 and sub­se­quently won the in­au­gu­ral Aus­tralian Her­itage Award for pub­li­ca­tions in 1986.

Also in 1986 Alan re­ceived a Churchill Fel­low­ship which en­abled him to travel over­seas to study a nom­i­nated sub­ject. He sub­se­quently vis­ited 14 li­braries in Eng­land and Scot­land, search­ing for Aus­tralian pho­to­graphs, par­tic­u­larly those from the 19th cen­tury. He was sur­prised at

You can get very pre­cious about your own work, but the one thing that pho­tog­ra­phers have to un­der­stand is that it’s im­por­tant they talk to an edi­tor or a cu­ra­tor, and learn what’s in­ter­est­ing to other peo­ple.

just how many there were be­ing held in var­i­ous UK col­lec­tions and, in three months of re­search, he listed around 8000.

“Es­sen­tially in those days, we sent ev­ery­thing home which was back to Bri­tain.”

Af­ter re­turn­ing from the UK in 1987, Alan re­ceived a call from the Mitchell Li­brary in Syd­ney and was asked if he would like to do some­thing for the up­com­ing Bi­cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions.

One of the planned ac­tiv­i­ties in­volved tour­ing coun­try NSW towns with pho­tog­ra­pher Shayne Hig­son (and, later, Jenni Carter), copy­ing old pho­to­graphs that were held in pri­vate hands.

“We would set up at lo­cal mu­se­ums and his­tor­i­cal so­ci­eties for a week,” re­calls Jenni Carter who is now Head of the Photography Stu­dio at the Art Gallery of NSW. “Fan­tas­tic vol­un­teers who would look af­ter us and in­tro­duce us to the town. We trav­elled with a por­ta­ble ex­hi­bi­tion, a copy­s­tand, lights and cam­era gear… and of­ten on small planes when we’d all be weighed to make sure they were weren’t over­loaded.”

The team copied about 7000 images ob­tained from 576 in­di­vid­u­als in 23 towns, and prob­a­bly looked at many times that num­ber. Jenni re­calls that one of the most mem­o­rable trips was to the opal min­ing town of White Cliffs where most peo­ple lived un­der­ground.

“We were hosted by the amaz­ing Gwen, an oc­to­ge­nar­ian who had been in the women’s land army in WW2. There was a house made from beer bot­tles and a fam­ily of emus wan­der­ing the main street. I have a mem­ory of go­ing to the pub and pre­tend­ing that the ver­mouth-and-dry was for me, and the beer for Alan.”

The ba­sic cri­te­rion for mak­ing a copy was, ‘ Will this pho­to­graph be of in­ter­est to other Aus­tralians?’ The gen­eral pol­icy was not to copy for­mal stu­dio por­traits, images taken out­side Australia, or snapshots that wouldn’t al­low a rea­son­able de­gree of en­large­ment.

“Most in­sti­tu­tions have pho­tos of im­por­tant peo­ple at im­por­tant events, but his­tory is not just that,” Alan states. “His­tory is about the com­mon man. It was an expe- di­tion to find that ma­te­rial. We sent out a press re­lease say­ing that we were look­ing for the three most ‘im­pos­si­ble’ pho­to­graphs – a dunny cart, dole queue and women work­ing in the kitchen.

“This got peo­ple talk­ing and many of the copied images were even­tu­ally pub­lished in a book called At Work And Play and shown at an ex­hi­bi­tion at the State Li­brary. It was a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence.”

In­for­ma­tional Con­tent

A job as a cu­ra­tor in the State Li­brary of NSW came up in 1989. Alan was keen to get it. He did, and sub­se­quently be­came the li­brary’s first Cu­ra­tor of Pho­to­graphs. There were a cou­ple of li­brar­i­ans to do the cat­a­loging while Alan was in­volved in search­ing for new images to add to the col­lec­tion. He’d al­ready en­coun­tered this col­lec­tion back in 1984 when he was sec­onded to the li­brary for six months from Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney to do an ex­hi­bi­tion of pho­to­graphs drawn from its ar­chives. So he un­der­stood the col­lec­tion, of which about half is neg­a­tives.

The pho­to­graphs are col­lected for their in­for­ma­tional con­tent, not any artis­tic merit.

“Pho­to­graphs are not just pretty pic­tures, il­lus­tra­tions. They’re doc­u­ments. I like to say that photography tells us more, if you know how to read them and learn what’s in the im­age.

When I did forestry, I stud­ied air photo in­ter­pre­ta­tion for a year at ANU. So I look at pho­tos very dif­fer­ently from many peo­ple.

“One day the field li­brar­ian came in with a suit­case of fam­ily pho­to­graphs, in­clud­ing por­traits of Wil­liam Bland who was a Syd­ney doc­tor. At the State Li­brary, you never know in what will walk in the door! In the bot­tom of the case was a lit­tle leather case and I recog­nised it as a pre1845 Da­guerreo­type cam­era.

“The pho­tos looked like the work of Ge­orge Good­man who was one of Syd­ney’s first pho­tog­ra­phers…. cash reg­is­ter as a brain, a bit of a fly-by-nighter. And not re­lated to the later Syd­ney stu­dio of the same name.”

Photography is also very much in­flu­enced by the tech­nol­ogy of the time. Look at all those static poses from the 19th cen­tury be­cause peo­ple had to be clamped in place. They aren’t smil­ing be­cause it’s im­pos­si­ble to have a spon­ta­neous 30-sec­ond smile.

Por­trait of Alan Davies by Bruce Usher, copy­right 2015.

Self-se­lec­tion shop­ping, Broad­hurst & Bar­cham, Syd­ney, c1957. Pho­tog­ra­pher: Jack Hick­son. Re­pro­duced cour­tesy of the State Li­brary of NSW.

Emma-Lee Court, The Makeup Wardrobe, New­town, 2013. Pho­tog­ra­pher: Nic Bezzina. Re­pro­duced cour­tesy of the State Li­brary of NSW.

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