Questions such as ‘ What is this evidence of?’ arise in this exhibition of early photography, writes Sebastian Smee
YOU wouldn’t know it but the baby is dead. She lies there, immaculately dressed, her cheeks peachily plump, her eyes closed in what looks like a warm, well- fed, satisfied sleep. But Nellie Lebeu, as the child was called, was not asleep. And nothing, not even a photograph, could turn the unpalatable reality into a lie or even a reassuring metaphor.
The photograph of Nellie, included in this captivating show of early photography at the the Art Gallery of South Australia, was taken in Gawler in 1887 by Francis Wear, whose commercial studio offered group photographs, solar enlargements, views of residences and children taken by the new instantaneous process’’.
As it happens, the new instantaneous process’’ was well worth advertising: children were notoriously difficult to keep still for the 10 seconds or so that exposures used to require to avoid blurring. But of course no such problem arose with a dead child. And that, perhaps, was why Wear made a point of offering photographs of the dead among his various services.
Sadly, the image of Nellie, along with several other standout photographs, is not reproduced in the catalogue. But it seemed remarkable to me. And it reminded me that, while photographs are always evidence of some sort, in the sense that they provide a trace of some past actuality, they make for unreliable evidence.
One reason for this is that photographs pull things out of context, out of the continuum we experience as time. You may remember what it was like having holiday snaps developed before the advent of digital cameras: dismayingly, there was always a handful of images you simply couldn’t place. It was as if they had been snatched so abruptly from the continuous experience of travel that the thread connecting you to that moment was broken. Thus photographs are constantly making us ask: What is it? What is this evidence of?’’ Which is why we tend to scrutinise old photographs closely in search of some larger truth; a continuum, a context that has been interrupted or removed and of which we may still be a part.
The other reason photographs make for unreliable evidence is less esoteric. It has everything to do with people’s motivations for taking them. In the case of Nellie, her parents obviously wanted something that would remind them of her. They probably never got around to photographing her while she was alive — the process was expensive in those days and difficult to justify — so they resorted to photographing her dead body in a way that made it possible to imagine her still among the living.
In our age, there is no work of art that is looked at so closely as a photograph of oneself, one’s closest relatives and friends, one’s sweetheart,’’ Alfred Lichtwark wrote in 1907. The observation holds true today, I think. You can only begin to imagine how it was then, how closely, how cravenly, Nellie’s parents looked at the photograph they had taken of their child’s dead body back in 1887. As you do so, you may wonder whether the deceit at the heart of the picture — the baby’s astonishing lifelikeness — gave them peace or, instead, further anguish.
One of the reasons I love looking at old photographs — those, especially, from the 19th and early 20th centuries — is that most of them were motivated by impulses that seem foreign to us today. The questions What is it?’’ and
What is it evidence of?’’ throw up all kinds of answers and further questions. When the images are also beautiful, strange and unexpected, the experience can be incredibly moving.
A Century in Focus, as the AGSA exhibition is called, is filled with such images. It is the first historical survey exhibition devoted to South Australian photography and it is the fruit of six years’ research and preparation. Published histories of colonial photography in Australia are in short supply. This show may not have been undertaken at all had it not been for the research of Bob Noye, who died in 2002. Noye was a collector of 19th- century photography and related archival material, and the 5000 items he amassed are now in the collection of the AGSA. He also compiled a dictionary of South Australian photography, 1845- 1915, which comes on a CD with the exhibition catalogue.
It’s fascinating to think that the invention of photography more or less coincides with the settlement of SA in the 1830s. Photography was enthusiastically taken up in all the Australian colonies when and where the technology became available. But, as Helen Ennis writes in her new survey, Photography and Australia ( Reaktion Books), limited equipment, delayed supplies, poor training and an unfamiliar climate all affected the production of ambrotypes and daguerrotypes in the 1840s and 50s.
Of course the history of photography
Australia is not so different from its history in other countries. But Ennis, in her book, tries to emphasise what is distinctive about Australian photography and the main source of difference, she claims, is photography’s reflection of the interaction between indigenous and settler Australians. This interaction, she writes, ‘‘ has given rise to some of the most potent images in Australian visual culture’’.
Looking at the photographs of Aborigines in A Century in Focus, it is difficult to disagree. One of the earliest, from about 1860, shows a twoyear- old white boy, William Mortlock, sitting on the lap of an Aboriginal woman, his nanny. This in itself is unusual: one may expect him, in such a formal photograph, to be sitting with his mother. But it’s far from being the only curious thing about the picture.
The woman, who was called Jemima, confronts the camera with a stare that borders on outright hostility. The contrast between her expression and the relaxed smile and playful pose of the boy ( 10 seconds appears to have been too much for young William; the slight blurring indicates a bit of wriggle) is electrifying.
Then there is the contrast between both sitters’ dress. Jemima wears a nurse’s uniform, all white. Her black hair is parted in the middle and her fringe has been thickly plaited to frame her face, in the English manner. Young William wears a striped dress. This was simply the custom for little boys at the time. But put it all together and you see how truly strange the past can be.
The questions ‘‘ What is this?’’ and ‘‘ What is this evidence of?’’ arise again in the images of Aborigines. Motivating the white photographers who took these images were all manner of impulses, most of them dubious by our standards, but many well- intended.
One innocuous- looking group portrait shows 11 Aborigines standing in the foreground framed by two gums. Most of them wear Western clothes, but you can just make out the ochrepainted faces of some of the women. These markings, curator Julie Robinson notes, ‘‘ reveal their attempt to maintain a traditional lifestyle, while the horses in the middle ground signify that the land has been claimed by white settlers’’. The men, harried out of traditional ways of living by drought as well as white settlement, would have had to find work on properties as shepherds, shearers and stockmen.
Other photographs make for stranger evidence still. The 1877 image of an Iwaidja encampment near Port Essington looks natural at first glance. But it is a highly contrived and beautifully balanced composition. ( That the accomplished photographer, Paul Foelsche, was also a police sub- inspector whose role was to protect the SA settlers from Aboriginal attack only makes the image seem more remarkable.)
The arrangement of smaller figures facing away from the camera emphasises the status and significance of the single woman who kneels in the centre staring out. The verticals and diagonals of the spears are deliberately placed and the recession of pictorial space is carefully punctuated by visual incident.
A drive towards scientific objectivity and a growing interest in documenting indigenes changed the nature of photographs of Aborigines as the 19th century drew to a close. Anyone who sees the piercing frontal stares and powerful bodies of the 19- year- old Aboriginal woman called Mary or the 24- year- old man called Charly, both taken by Foelsche but in the new objective style, will not forget them in a hurry. And the 1940 photograph by Charles Mountford showing a tall Aboriginal man holding up a giant lizard, a perentie, so the reptile, as long as the man is tall, seems to be part of him, is probably the most powerful image in the show.
But I was just as beguiled by some of the photographs of non- Aboriginal subjects. There are stunning panoramas of the town of Adelaide and of the beachside entertainments at Glenelg. And there are wonderful images of men and women at work and at play: for instance, a group photograph of the men who built Murray Bridge posing symmetrically against the structure; men at war in France or exploring the Australian interior and Antarctica; and men and women riding pennyfarthings, dressed for football, dancing and party- going.
One 1898 photograph by H. H. Tilbrook, called Spoils of the Ocean , looks at first glance like a beach scene out of Fellini. It is, in truth, a wild imagining and a reminder that many 19th- century photographs were motivated by a great sense of fun. The photograph was taken during a family holiday to the Cape Banks region in the southeast of SA. The foreground sand is littered with crayfish, a shark and a stingray. In the middle ground is a small, grounded fishing boat on or beside which pose Tilbrook and his companions, among them a black shaggy dog called Quimbo. Behind them, in the background, a boy sits astride a horse, looking out to sea.
The whole elaborate tableau is thought to be an attempt to illustrate a dramatic event in the region from 40 years before, when a steamship was wrecked while sailing between Adelaide and Melbourne. Eighty- nine people were killed. Of two lifeboats that were set afloat from the sinking ship, one made it to shore while the other was washed out to sea.
Tilbrook, presumably, has posed his family as the group that made it to safety, two among them looking out with melancholy expressions towards those who did not.
The show takes us up to the 1940s, with sections devoted to photographs in the fuzzy, romantic style of pictorialism, the crisp, angular style of modernism and various documentary styles. None of these later photographs seem quite as magical to me as those from the 19th century, but they are of a high calibre.
If you are at all interested in Australian photography, whether or not you are from SA, you will want to see this show, or at least get hold of the catalogue.