Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 4, 2016
Judy Annear The Photograph and Australia Exh. cat. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2015. 304 pp.; 400 ills. Paper $75.00 (9781741741162)
Exhibition schedule: Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, March 21–June 8, 2015; Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, July 4–October 11, 2015
Charles Bayliss. Group of local Aboriginal people, Chowilla Station, Lower Murray River, South Australia, from the album New South Wales Royal Commission: Conservation of water. Views of scenery on the Darling ad Lower Murray during the flood of 1886 (1886). Albumen photograph. 23.6 x 29.5 cm.

The Photograph and Australia brings together over five hundred photographs from major Australian collections of historical and contemporary works. These images have never been seen together before, coming as they do from libraries, museums, and art galleries, each with a different concept of the photograph and its use. This diversity is a particularly poignant aspect of an exhibition that overwhelms us with the common evidentiary power of photography. At the same time, The Photograph and Australia refuses the too easily imposed coherence of chronological organization or the categorization of images by technical type or genre.

The key to curator Judy Annear’s achievement was organizing the exhibition thematically and conceptually, and giving reign to the much-considered heterogeneity of photography. She underscored this framework by hanging historical and contemporary works together and by juxtaposing widely diverse photographic forms and image types. Unique and rare daguerreotypes sit beside the comparatively ubiquitous carte de visite, and both are dwarfed by large-scale works such as a 1 × 1.4 meter panorama of Sydney. Exhibition themes draw together ethnographic images, regimental memorabilia, family albums, and more. I am struck by Annear’s simple articulation of the flexibility of the medium, achieved by tracing the diversity of image types across art and documentation while also revering and memorializing the grand and familial, tourism, and commercial promotion. Photography, she writes, “can function as mass communication and as esoteric art. There is nothing else quite like it, except perhaps the word, in terms of flexibility” (9).

Annear has been the senior curator of photographs at the Art Gallery of New South Wales since 1995 and brings a depth and breadth of scholarship to the exhibition that is apparent in its content and organization. It is already an important exhibition in its rarity, coming as it does twenty-five years after the last major Australian photography survey, Gael Newton’s Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839–1988 at the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, in 1988. But Annear does more than bring our attention to a comparatively neglected field; she draws Australia’s past and present together by combining historical and contemporary imagery, revealing the extraordinarily diverse history of photography within a uniquely Australian context.

The exhibition and associated publication are broadly organized around themes relating Australian people and places, and these themes are more precisely explored though the consideration of photography’s role in colonization and the construction of nationhood, the articulation of community and associated critiques, emerging expressions of modernity, and the vast and forever entwined place of technology and time in the discourse on photography. The themes are also loosely paralleled in catalogue essays by Daniel Palmer, Michael Aird, Jane Lydon, Kathleen Davidson, Martyn Jolly, and Geoffrey Batchen.

The first room of the exhibition is a dense salon-style hang of portraits of the photographers whose works are featured in the exhibition. This mass of images of varying size, shape, and technical type is a reminder of the changing aesthetics of exhibition display since the nineteenth century, and stands in stark contrast to the modernist seriality and linearity that have characterized the installation of photography from the mid-twentieth century through the present. These photographs remind us that nineteenth-century photographers were from diverse backgrounds and that the works in the exhibition are by professionals and amateurs alike, often people who quickly turned to photography to take advantage of its enormous popularity and associated commercial potential. Melvin Vaniman, for example, was an American opera singer touring Australia when he took up panoramic photography. He went on to produce mesmerizing images such as Fitzroy Vale Station, Near Rockhampton (1904), an infinitely detailed and seemingly endless landscape interrupted by a tenuous settlement. These photographs address both an individual and collective subject—the specific photographer and Australia and Australians as revealed by photography. The exhibition builds out from this collection of portraits to broader mnemonic fields that look to collective identities, both historical and contemporary.

In the “Imaging Place” section, a combination of historical and contemporary works ask viewers to think about the role of the imagination in documentary photographs such as Frank Hurley’s images of soaring ice forms captured during Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic exhibition of 1911 to 1912. Hurley’s stark central compositions emphasize the mass and weight of these grand, remote landscapes that few have seen in person. He also shows us the delicacy and fragility of the ice’s crystalline formation. This sublime reverie is echoed in the contemporary Tasmanian photographer David Stephenson’s photographs of the night sky. The delicate circular pattern of lines traced by points of light are registered by a long-open lens and return us to the elemental yet easily forgotten fact of the earth’s constant movement. In looking up and away from the earth, we return to the slowly rotating ground beneath us. In this room, the poetry of these images, which in another context could easily be viewed as pragmatic, objective documents, is further underscored by works by the contemporary photographer Robyn Stacey. Walnuts (from the series Empire Line, 2009) and Chatelaine (from the series Tall Tales and True, 2010) refer to the first species of food tree introduced to Australia and the traditions of European still-life painting transported into an Australian context, where an overblown abundance of flowers, porcelain, and feminine accessories is cloying when presented in a stark documentary light.

The colonization of Australia and the representation of Australian Aborigines are central to the exhibition. They are an essential part of understanding Australia, yet it is impossible to reconcile the multiple and often conflicting agendas at work in the photographs. The simple act of bringing the images together makes the disparities between the use of photography as a family record, as art, as ethnography, and as tourism sometimes painfully visible. In these works, we see photography starkly in the employ of imperialism, colonization, and the “othering” of the first Australians that was essential to the success of the settler communities, then and since. For me, this was one of the most revelatory aspects of the exhibition, not because of the racism, which I know and am shamed by, but because of the many affirming images of Aboriginality that were far less familiar to me and caused me to question what I had thought were certainties about the photographs of J. W. Lindt and others. For example, Lindt’s Bushman with an Aboriginal Man (1873) is typically used to exemplify the subjugation of Aborigines through photography. It is a tableau studio image from Lindt’s famous Australian Aboriginals portfolio (ca. 1873) and shows an Aboriginal man sitting at the feet of a white male settler. The aboriginal man is bare-chested and his head almost rests on the settler’s knee, while the settler is fully clothed, sitting above the Aborigine. He holds a spear, as if taken from his companion, and is further accessorized with a stock whip and horse’s saddle. It is an image that seems determined to model the subservience of the colonized in the light of an overwhelming colonizing force. This type of reading is not misguided, but the exhibition makes it abundantly clear that we need to look across Lindt’s oeuvre in order to understand the more complex relationships between white and black Australia as marked out by nineteenth-century photography. Lindt’s Cootajandra and Sanginguble (1893), a remarkable image of a middle-aged Aboriginal couple, tells a different story, one of strength, intimacy, hardship, pride, and endurance. The portrait is hard to reconcile with his better-known works. That the man in this photograph appears in the work of three other photographers, as identified by Michael Aird, further complicates the romanticized reading toward which I might be tending. Yet Cootajandra and Sanginguble remains a wonderful portrait, and it and other affirming images of Aboriginality, in particular those by Fred Kruger, should be far more familiar to Australians. As Lydon argues in her catalogue essay, such photographs deserve to be used to illustrate a more complex account of nineteenth-century Aboriginal Australia. They are utterly arresting photographs that say something important about Australia’s first people and a common humanity.

Contemporary photographs of Aboriginal subjects by Tracey Moffatt (Beauties series, 1994) and Ricky Maynard (Portrait of a Distant Land series, 2005) were also included in this room, which Annear termed the “heart and soul of the exhibition” in a gallery floor talk on June 6, 2015. She described the placement of Moffatt’s and Maynard’s images of self-representation of their Aboriginal experience high above the nineteenth-century photographs with their proliferating technologies and conflicted subjects as “metaphors for custodianship.” In this way, Aboriginal artists provide ways to make some sort of sense of this fractured history, which says something about the role of Aborigines in Australian culture as well as, more broadly, the role of art.

An exhibition such as The Photograph and Australia both draws from the archive and directs its interpretation; in doing so, it also constitutes the archive. This function is evident in the images chosen and the relationships articulated between them, which are also emphasized in the exhibition’s title that insists on recognizing the role of photography in representing something of what Australia was and is. Annear says that the exhibition barely scratches the surface of the various Australian archives containing photographs; there remains much to be revealed and interpreted, to be constituted as the archive of Australian photography. The exhibition makes clear that the making of photographs is a highly mediated explication of ideas, even when the photographic form is as familiar and generic as a portrait or travel photograph. Similarly, we see the shifting status of photographs by unknown photographers; these might have first been intended as straightforward personal records of daily life, but they can become highly symbolic artistic evocations of the experience of making a life in a place far from home (see for example, Australian Scenery, Middle Harbour Port Jackson, ca. 1865, by an unknown photographer).

What does this vast accumulation of photographs amount to when presented in this way? As much as photography might seem able to deliver the comprehensive completeness that has been described as innate to the medium, the question of what Australia and photography—the place, the medium, Australian experience, and Australians—amount to is impossible to answer. Any positive, coherent, and complete knowledge of what is represented is not and can never be available to us. Nevertheless, we cannot help but feel the sheer collective will of Annear, the institutional collections, and the photographers in accumulating this photographic information. Benjamin Buchloh refers to this quality of photographs when he describes the medium’s forms and uses as aspiring to a continuity of narrative or effect even as multiplicity and seriality undo this continuity (“Gerhard Richter’s ‘Atlas’: The Anomic Archive,” October 88 [Spring 1999]: 117–45). Annear links her project to André Malraux’s concept of a museum without walls and his idea of an economy and flow of images that, as she writes, the internet and the ubiquity of the camera have now realized. Yet, we could say that Buchloh’s account of photography as an anomic archive, as a collection that no matter how seemingly random and repetitive produces a narrative, is the better description of Photography and Australia. Just as Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, which Buchloh describes, aimed to uncover the immanent deep themes of Western culture, Annear’s considered selections and combinations are far from the relative randomness of the internet. Bringing these photographs together cannot help but evoke the continuity of narrative that Buchloh identifies as a condition of the medium. In scrutinizing this vast array of photographs, it is impossible not to look for commonalities, common culture, national identity, and the mythic underpinnings of everyday life of the type that Warburg hoped to find.

Of course, many want to see simpler historical and technical trajectories played out, ones that reinforce familiar and palatable narratives of nationhood and the technical teleology of the medium. Annear refuses these and instead brings together the incongruities of representation and the incompatibilities of practice that were played out at the time and since. While acknowledging the weight of the collective photographic archive of Australia and the endless permutations it enables, Photography and Australia is careful to refuse any sense of it being a definitive or encompassing exhibition that can account for all of Australia and Australians. Instead, Annear helps us find multiple ways to think about the photographic record of Australia and what Australian photography might be. An exhibition such as this reminds us that the widely acknowledged power of the archive is quite dormant until someone, like Annear, reveals it to us.

Rosemary Hawker
Senior Lecturer Art Theory, Queensland College of Art, Griffith University