Un­re­li­able wit­ness

Ques­tions such as ‘ What is this ev­i­dence of?’ arise in this ex­hi­bi­tion of early pho­tog­ra­phy, writes Se­bas­tian Smee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - A Cen­tury in Fo­cus 1840s- 1940s: South Aus­tralian Pho­tog­ra­phy Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia, un­til Jan­uary 28.

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

in

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.

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