Ig­nor­ing His­tory

ProPhoto - - FIRST FRAME - Paul Bur­rows, Ed­i­tor

Pho­tok­ina is a time to im­merse your­self in all things pho­to­graphic. Beyond the ex­hi­bi­tion halls of the Köln Messe com­plex there’s an ex­ten­sive pro­gram of exhibitions and sem­i­nars staged around Cologne which, ev­ery other Septem­ber, be­comes pho­tog­ra­phy cen­tral. How­ever, all across Europe – and pretty well all of the time in any given year – pho­tog­ra­phy is a key el­e­ment of most cul­tural or art pro­grams. So, for ex­am­ple, you re­ally can’t move in Paris with­out en­coun­ter­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy and ev­ery book­shop, even the tiny ones, have a de­cent se­lec­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy books. It’s the same in Berlin, Am­s­ter­dam or Copen­hagen. Even the Ital­ians – who can be for­given for an in­ter­est in more an­cient art – ap­pear to be rea­son­ably well ed­u­cated about pho­tog­ra­phy.

On the very day I ar­rived back in Aus­tralia from Pho­tok­ina I no­ticed a lit­tle piece in The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald’s PS sec­tion headed ‘Cazneaux Who?’ The story was that the house – in the sub­urb of Ro­seville – where Harold Cazneaux had lived for much of his life and where he had raised his fam­ily of six chil­dren, is up for sale. There ap­par­ently won’t be much change from a cool two mil­lion, but it’s not the link with one of Aus­tralia’s more im­por­tant pho­tog­ra­phers that’s con­trib­uted to the prop­erty’s value. In fact, wrote SMH jour­nal­ist Damien Murphy, “The agents, Chad­wick Real Es­tate, are not both­er­ing to tell po­ten­tial buy­ers of its sig­nif­i­cance”. What? Is that be­cause no­body would know who Harold Cazneaux was or, even if they did, they couldn’t give a mon­key’s that this was his home all the time he was cre­at­ing some of his best-known photographs? The an­swers are prob­a­bly ‘yes’ and ‘yes’. If this was the UK, there would at least be one of those dis­tinc­tive round blue plaques on the wall that ex­plained who Cazneaux was and how long he’d lived in the build­ing.

Don’t worry, we don’t just sin­gle out pho­tog­ra­phers for this dis­mis­sive treat­ment. When I was re­search­ing Percy Grainger – Aus­tralia’s best claim to fame in clas­si­cal mu­sic – for a TV pro­gram, there were vir­tu­ally no ac­knowl­edge­ments of any of the houses he lived in while grow­ing up in Mel­bourne. Even the fa­mous Es­planade Ho­tel at St Kilda – where he stayed with his mother for a while – is more ob­sessed with be­ing the venue for the SBS show Rockwiz. But, that said, there is a fine mu­seum at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne de­voted to Grainger… even if he did es­tab­lish much of it him­self in the years be­fore his death in 1961.

Where is Aus­tralia’s equally im­por­tant his­tory in pho­tog­ra­phy cel­e­brated? There are cer­tainly no mu­se­ums or ded­i­cated cen­tres and, as just il­lus­trated, ob­vi­ously no in­di­ca­tions of birth­places, homes or other sig­nif­i­cant sites. Where can you learn about the his­tory of pho­tog­ra­phy in Aus­tralia and who were the im­por­tant pi­o­neers over the last cen­tury and a half? Where are the ar­chives where, if stu­dents were in­ter­ested, they could go to con­duct re­search? There’s been a hand­ful of books over the decades, but most, if not all, are now long out of print and con­se­quently hard to find. Beyond this, it’s all ba­si­cally down to what in­di­vid­u­als have de­ter­mined might be worth keep­ing… ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­logues, mag­a­zines, the min­utes of meet­ings and the like.

More dis­turbingly, if we’ve badly ne­glected the preser­va­tion of Aus­tralia’s pho­to­graphic his­tory in the past, even less is be­ing done now that we’ve en­tered the un­emo­tional era of dig­i­tal imag­ing with its ob­ses­sion on a short-lived present. We even seem hell-bent on killing off the word “pho­tog­ra­phy” it­self. And while there are rea­son­ably rep­re­sen­ta­tive col­lec­tions of pho­to­graphic prints in both pri­vate and pub­lic hands, we may not even have th­ese in the fu­ture if every­body con­tin­ues to put blind faith in the longevity of dig­i­tal im­age files.

I’m con­tin­u­ally amazed at the cav­a­lier fash­ion with which the 150-odd years of film pho­tog­ra­phy is of­ten dis­missed yet I’m more fre­quently see­ing wheels be­ing con­tin­u­ally re-in­vented be­cause no­body has a rec­ol­lec­tion of even 15 years ago. Dig­i­tal imag­ing may have been a seis­mic tech­no­log­i­cal change, but beyond the hard­ware, much re­mains the same which is why an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of his­tory serves as a use­ful com­pass for nav­i­gat­ing the fu­ture.

It’s prob­a­bly too much – and too late – to ask for a ded­i­cated cen­tre (how of­ten have we had that de­bate?), but there’s still time to ded­i­cate real re­sources to com­pil­ing ar­chives, cre­at­ing ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als, iden­ti­fy­ing sig­nif­i­cant sites and en­sur­ing the preser­va­tion of im­por­tant items so that, when somebody does ask “Cazneaux Who?”, there’s some­where to go to find the an­swer.

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