The state of photography in 1913 with historian Helen Ennis
Helen Ennis, Australian National University School of Art, 25 June 2013
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Good afternoon everybody and welcome to the National Museum of Australia. My name is Michelle Hetherington and I am a senior curator here. I would like to welcome you to our 1913 lecture series. I would also like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, past and present, those on whose land we meet today.
The 1913 lecture series has been devised by our public programs section to augment and support the Glorious Days: Australia 1913 exhibition which is currently on display in the Museum until 13 October. There will be eight lectures in all in this series and we have already had a number of really fantastic lectures given. All of the series lectures will be given by people who have contributed to the exhibition book which is also called Glorious Days: Australia 1913.
Glorious Days: Australia 1913 is the National Museum’s contribution to the celebrations of Canberra’s centenary. But the exhibition and the book looks beyond the events of 12 March 1913 to explore the context in which Canberra’s naming ceremony took place. It looks at what life was like in Australia 100 years ago at the events, the beliefs, the new technologies, the attitudes of the time and how they reflect the remarkable optimism for the future that was felt in that year - an optimism that, as we know, was to come into contact with the dreadful impact of World War I.
In curating an exhibition there is only so much detail that one can sensibly include. Limitations of space and constraints of design inevitably mean that fascinating topics cannot be dealt with in the depth that some of us would like. So faced with the wonderful richness of our topic, we felt it was essential to produce an accompanying publication to supply that depth. We approached some of Australia’s leading historians and subject specialists to draw on their knowledge and expertise. We were very fortunate to secure an essay from Helen Ennis, who is our speaker today.
Helen is the convenor of the graduate research program at the Australian National University School of Art. She specialises in Australian photographic history and is concerned with finding new ways of thinking, curating and writing about photographs. Major projects include the exhibitions: In a New Light: Australian Photography 1850s-2000; Reveries: photography & mortality, and most recently Things: photographing the constructed world, which was held at the National Library in 2012 13.
Helen is also the author of an award-winning biography on the photographer Margaret Michaelis that came out in 2005. She has also written Photography and Australia published by Reaktion Books in London in 2007 and Wolfgang Sievers published in 2011. She is currently writing a biography of Australian photographer Olive Cotton, supported by the Peter Blazey Fellowship and funding from the Australia Council Literature Board. She has recently been awarded the inaugural Australian Book Review (ABR) George Hicks Fellowship for an essay on Olive Cotton which will be published in next month’s ABR.
I forgot to mention as we were going through that this lecture is going to be recorded, so your participation today is taken as your permission to record.
I would like to introduce Helen.
HELEN ENNIS: Thanks very much. It’s great to see so many of you here. I am glad you are here with me in the lecture theatre because it is cosy and warm and it’s a nice place to be on such a cold Canberra day. Thank you to Michelle both for the invitation to contribute to the catalogue and to have the chance to speak to you today. My talk is based on the chapter I wrote for the Glorious Days: Australia 1913 publication which was edited by Michelle. I am enjoying greatly reading the essays in it. They are wonderfully diverse and I feel I have already learned a lot.
In the time together today I want to do one main thing: instead of going back in time and looking at photographs and photography from 1913, I want to try and pull photographs and photography into our period and see which works in particular make that trip - I like to think of photographs as time travellers and some do this more effectively than others. I will look at some of the differences and similarities between photography then, 100 years ago, and now.
I am going to speak personally because I find that looking at photographs from early last century is a curious experience, because they seem at once close and yet also far away. Their closeness comes from their modernity or, more precisely, from the actual medium of photography, because we all know that photography was a product of the modern era. The rise of photography was the result of complex interactions between science, technology, art, culture and commerce, and was dependent on the radical reorganisation of society that came with the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation fundamental to modernity.
It fascinates me that while photographs, such as the one you see on the screen at the moment, of roller skater Nellie Donegan (image shown ‘Rollerskating’, http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/glorious_days/about/sport_and_leisure?result_376675_result_page=1#thumbnail6), from the early twentieth century are modern because of their medium, yet many of them also appear also old-fashioned and remote. I don’t know about you but I often find myself struggling with this because the look of these photographs, and the out-datedness of whoever and whatever is represented in them, calls up 100 years of separation in a flash. In my talk today I have included examples of photographs that for me stay locked in their own time as well as those that somehow effectively reach across it.
The first task is to define what kind of photographs and photography are we going to talk about today?
You’ll know from the exhibition there is quite a range, in the kinds of photographers represented, their interests and inclinations, and the purposes for which the photographs were taken. I am going to show you three examples.
Here you have Australian swimmers (image shown ‘Swimming and the beach’ http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/glorious_days/about/sport_and_leisure?result_376675_result_page=1#slideshow-gallery. Even their body shape is so different from the swimmers that we see now, the award-winning and very famous Fanny Durack is on the left, another medal-winner, Mina Wylie, is in the middle and an English swimmer on the right. These were the champions at the 1912 Olympic Games held in Stockholm.
Then this is an example of a celebrity photograph, the autographed photograph of batsman Victor Trumper (image shown ‘Cricket: the national game’ http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/glorious_days/about/sport_and_leisure?result_376675_result_page=1#thumbnail2).
These show celebrity and sport - things that are topical.
Then photographs such as this one depict approaches to health care (image shown ‘Quarantine’ http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/glorious_days/about/a_social_laboratory) which we can think of as having a more governmental or official function. You can see the chidlren baring their arms showing what looks like a very angry site of vaccination.
A quick overview of the period makes it clear that photography from 1913 was in fact very similar to photography now. Nearly all the principal areas of practice were in place by then. This surprised me because, when I was first doing my research, I was assuming there would be many more fields of practice that have opened up since 1913. But it’s not the case. Already by then scientific and medical photography, forensic, anthropological, snapshot, amateur and art photography, as well as formal and celebrity portraiture were all well established in the photographic industry. Photographs were beginning to be used more extensively in newspapers and magazines too, covering everything from topical events and sports to portraits and documentary photographs that accompanied non-fiction stories.
It seems to me there is only one obvious thing missing from photography in 1913 from that diverse mix: advertising photography. In the pre-war period it was illustrators, rather than photographers, who were continuing to provide the pictures in most advertisements that were published in newspapers and magazines. But that situation was just about to change, as a listing in the Sydney Morning Herald in July 1913 foreshadowed:
So we were right on the cusp of this transformation because advertising photography in the 1920s, as you may well know, was to become a hugely productive and financially rewarding area of practice.
Let’s turn to look at a few vital areas of practice. I am going to focus on snapshot and amateur photography, I will touch on anthropological photography, studio portraiture, expedition photography, and art photography as exemplified in the pictorialist movement. We don’t have a lot of time together so I will whizz through some faster than others.
The first is really where the title of my essay came from - this idea of the great spreading of photography. By 1913 the democratisation of photography was really well sorted. This revolution in what we think of as the democratic applications of photography that are manifest in snapshot and amateur photography began in 1896 with Kodak’s release of a pocket camera, which in the next 20 years had an amazingly pervasive influence. Prices for the cameras varied, just as they do now, but what interests me most is that the features of those cameras are pretty much the same as they are now; they have persisted. The early twentieth-century cameras were small and lightweight so that you could be mobile with your camera. They had automatic exposure settings and direct view finders. They used roll film, generally with eight or 12 exposures, which meant they could be loaded in daylight. In the past you had glass plate negatives and you had to insert them in the dark and everything was much more complicated. But this idea that we have of our cameras being so portable, so small and so adaptable was actually something that was already present in the early twentieth century.
What is also striking is that the normalisation of photography as an everyday activity was pretty much complete by this period. Kodak, as you will see, (image shown http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/glorious_days/about/an_australian_style) exhorted its customers to ‘Carry your Kodak with you always, and take Kodak pictures of all those happy incidents that turn up when least expected’. Commercial developing and printing services that were available in that time made it even easier ‘for you to push the button’ and let them (Kokak) do the rest .
The staple fare of snapshot photography was, and still is, familial and social life at home and on holidays. Small, commercially processed prints were incorporated into domestic narratives in albums such as this (image shown) which would be a very standard album of the period. Albums were stock in trade until the advent of digital photography. It is only in the last ten years that we have moved away from albums to keeping our family photographs on computer and digital files.
I want to make a distinction between snapshot and amateur photography, because it is quite clear in this period that those two areas of practice are seen to be separate. Snapshooters were enthusiasts. I think of them as people like me who are not trained but who are really keen to get photographs of the kids and so on. Amateurs were enthusiasts as well but they were much more serious about perfecting their craft. The amateurs are the ones who consciously strove to make better, more artistic pictures, flagging the seriousness of intent with the titles that they gave the photographs they exhibited in amateur exhibitions and so on: titles such as The Waiting Cab, Dawn, The Old Mill, Where Stillness Reigns. You can see from the literary allusions that a lot of thought was going into the titles. But what is particularly impressive about amateur photography from the early twentieth century is the structures and networks that supported it, because they have persisted as well - you know that from amateur photography clubs and societies that are still with us today. I think these in many ways are more important than the work that was produced at the time, which often looks formulaic and rather tame.
It means that in the early twentieth century in amateur photography circles you had these admirably strong, educative and inclusive principles. Photographic societies and camera clubs, along with a healthy range of publications, fostered the exchange of information and technical know-how. The number of photographic societies and clubs was quite startling. In September 1913 the Australasian Photo Review - it was a little publication but very influential - listed nearly 70 societies and clubs in Australia. New South Wales had the most of any state with 32 in total. I think that’s very impressive. These clubs brought together amateur photographers and professionally trained studio photographers who gave technical instruction and feedback on members’ works.
Harold Cazneaux, who was one of the leading photographers in this period already established before World War I - this is a photograph by him called The ship’s cat (image shown) - was someone who was at the photographic societies giving advice to people on the prints and helping them to improve what it was they were doing. His demonstrations and lectures were very popular.
As an extension of these activities, he had an entrepreneurial streak quite clearly because he also offered postal and private tuition in criticism, advice and coaching. Harold Cazneaux ran an ad in 1913 which proclaimed that ‘on receipt of 1 print and a postal note a detailed letter of criticism and advice, together with the submitted prints, will be promptly returned’. For me this educative and inclusive thing is a great legacy of the early twentieth century. Cazneaux was thinking of it as an entrepreneurial activity there (in that ad) but in the clubs he gave his advice very freely.
Australasian Photo Review, the magazine I just mentioned, held competitions for juniors and adults and published a huge range of practical articles that gave instruction on all manner of subjects: how to retouch your photographs, how to copy them, how to use developer properly, how to take marine photographs, and so on. Each issue included a page of the editor’s frank, succinct comments on entries that readers had submitted for competition. In no case was the individual identified so you didn’t have to feel mortified by whatever it was that they said. Only the initials were given, along with the suburb or town where they lived. For example, ‘EK Wingham “Dogs”’ Dogs was obviously the title of his photograph – ‘hopelessly underexposed and unsuitable for competition’. So they didn’t mince words.
Some of the feedback I find very amusing. In one issue from 1913 the editor advised AF of Longueville in Sydney that:
So they clearly had a recidivist, this person AF of Longueville. There was very rigorous and quite trenchant criticism of the entries that were submitted.
Amateur photography was also important for people involved in other areas of work such as exploring, geology, ornithology - all sorts of scientific areas - and I am only going to give you a couple of examples. One is Francis Birtles who took numerous snapshots while on his bike and motoring trips around Australia. Hhe used those photographs as illustrations in articles that he published in different kinds of magazines such as Lone Hand. Here is his Oldsmobile that you can see packed to the hilt (image shown). Here is his travelling companion Wowser (image shown_. Unfortunately though I don’t think Woser had a long life on the road, because there is a small photograph of his grave which looks to have been in a very desolate spot way out west. And then here is Birtles also travelling by bike (image shown).
His colourful account of his experiences in northern Australia in 1913 described the difficulties in printing photographs in hot, makeshift conditions. I think it is extraordinary that he was able to take the photographs he did, but of course he was reliant on that technology that I have already mentioned - the small, lightweight camera. He describes trying to develop his film and make his prints in this quote from him:
So it was clearly very difficult to be on the road and trying to make prints for publication.
For anthropologists too, cameras were an indispensable aid in the study of Aboriginal people. That had been established earlier in quite a formal mode, but what we see in the early twentieth century are works that are much more informal, the result of using the small format and then hand-held cameras. So you get more naturalistic representations where Aboriginal people are photographed in situ outdoors rather than being brought into the studio, for example. The activities in which the subjects were involved began to be shown in process rather than being suspended or staged for the camera. It’s quite a different mode.
Some of these anthropological photographs are examples of where photographs come out of their period and connect much more easily with us now. These are by George Aiston, who Philip Jones from Adelaide has done a lot of work on, because for me they have a very contemporary presence even though they are in black and white.
This is called Winnie and the kids (image shown) - kids obviously referring to the goats! - photographed in 1912. George Aiston, who took this photograph, was a policeman, storekeeper and ethnographer and photographed extensively in the area around the Birdsville Track where he was located. The immediacy and directness of his images are striking, but it is their narrative power that is especially noteworthy. Here Winnie is being pictured with the goats that the Aiston family kept for milk. She looks directly at the camera while one of her curious charges rises up on the ramshackle fence at the right of the composition.
Why this is important formally is that it is not in amateur photography that you see a radicalisation or revolution in photography’s vocabulary, it is in snapshot photography. The kinds of impromptu things that happen and the more informal, relaxed kind of cropping that goes on comes from snapshot photography, and that has had a huge effect right through the twentieth century into our own time.
This is another example by George Aiston of tribesmen at Mungeranie in 1912 demonstrating the method of fighting a duel (image shown). In the left-hand corner you see that image of the shadow of a dog. That’s what I mean by the kind of radicalisation of photographic seeing that comes from snapshot photography, but in Aiston’s case it’s showing that the photographs are drawn from the flux and activity of life - his life as much as anyone’s.
The next area we will touch on is one we are all familiar with, because these photographs by Frank Hurley that came from the Australasian Antarctic expedition that Douglas Mawson mounted in 1911 14 have been very much part of our image bank right through the twentieth century. It means that some of the best-known and memorable groups of photographs of this period around 1913 were actually taken in Antarctica. It is significant that Mawson appreciated that photography and filmmaking could play an indispensable role in the scientific enterprise – because, of course, that is why these men went to Antarctica - but also as a means of popularising expeditionary work and recouping some of the considerable costs involved. Mawson knew that they had to make money. By taking along Frank Hurley on this particular expedition he knew he would get footage and still photographs that he would be able to sell. There was a lot of dispute in fact between Hurley and Mawson. They weren’t necessarily the best of friends, and some of that was to do with ownership of the negs (negatives) and their usage. This is a photograph by Hurley taken from the Aurora as it is steaming through pack ice (image shown).
What is interesting from this particular expedition are the photographs taken by the scientists. This isn’t a Hurley (image shown). Mawson took eight cameras for his own use and he also appointed the official photographer - that was Hurley. It means you had two very fertile streams of practice occurring simultaneously: amateur photography on the one hand; and photography for entertainment and popularisation on the other.
Mawson’s own documentation of his team’s life and work is straightforward and invaluable, but I think that occasionally the works he makes yield poetic results as well. This is an example of that from the National Library’s collection (http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3120504). It’s a frost-covered spectroscopic camera, where I find the singularity of his focus and the isolation of the subject, so that you just see the interaction of something made by a human and then the natural world interacting with, it particularly satisfying.
This is another example that is not taken by a professional photographer. You see here a compass appearing on top of a delicate snow flower (http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3124363) - again the human world and the natural world being brought together into an aesthetically pleasing interplay between the complex naturally occurring form and the scientific instrument.
On that trip there were the amateur photographs taken by scientists and so on and then photographs taken by Hurley. This is an example of Hurley’s work (image shown). He was someone who was thoroughly embedded in the whole history of Australian photography through his own training;he worked as a postcard photographer before he went to Antarctica so he knew what the public was interested in. He always had that sense of what would be popular. Here you have him taking a photograph of some of the scientists working there in a workshop (image shown http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/glorious_days/about/australasian_empire#thumbnail3), the kind of natural outdoor photography that he did of penguins and then one of the icebergs. With Hurley it is his engagement with the icebergs and the unusual ice forms that is the most memorable. In expedition photography, especially of polar subjects, I think there is a close association with wonder because of the revelation of what had hitherto been unknown. Hurley exploited the unfamiliarity and strangeness of Antarctic scenery, which everyone wanted to know about then, and I think still now - its wildlife, the icebergs and ice formations - to great effect. This one is actually called ‘Ice mushroom’ from the National Library’s collection (image shown http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3257140).
For Hurley securing a negative was merely the first stage of an image-making process defined by constant and continuous re-assemblage. I am not going to into that, but I want to point out this is another version of the turreted iceberg that you can see as a beautiful carbon print of in the Glorious Days exhibition. This is from the National Gallery Victoria, probably in its original frame (image shown http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/no-title-a-turreted-berg/ngEcDakEy5uspg?projectId=art-project&hl=en). It is worth rushing down to the exhibition just to see that alone. For Hurley getting the negative was just the first stage and all sorts of things could follow on from that. Here it is in the version of a lantern slide, which is something very different again. It could be projected huge and had all that wonderful luminosity and other worldliness.
Hurley described himself as ‘a showman’ and he incorporated these different forms of photography - still photographs, composite prints, coloured lantern slides and so on - into his lectures and live performances in order to maximise visual impact and physical, sensory experience. That is why Hurley, who still looks old-fashioned in some ways, is very contemporary in others because of this desire to stimulate your senses, to create theatre around photographs and around photography to try to make as many connections with you as possible.
Turning to art photography. Art photography was already established in Australia in this period, but its establishment was slower and smaller than in some other areas of practice. What Walter Burke said in 1913 - he was the editor of Australasian Photo Review - was that art photography was ‘still of puny growth’ compared to some other areas. As he saw it, having a small population, because Australia only had about four million people at that time - remembering that Indigenous people weren’t counted in the census - scattered across such a large continent made it difficult to assess the progress of art photography in Australia. He noted that it took three weeks for a Sydney correspondent to get a reply from Perth. He felt that tyranny of distance as operating within Australia. He was a New Zealander by the way, so he came from a much smaller country where it seemed easier to hook up with the other photographers.
But that said, art photographers were very ambitious in intent in this period before the First World War and from my point of view they did consciously enter into the web of international exchange and influence. Despite the geographical and temporal distances, they were in constant dialogue with photography and photographers overseas, especially in Britain and to a lesser extent with the United States. This degree of interaction in the pre-war period is greater and much more complex than was long assumed. I am not going to go into it here. We had always assumed that in the colonies you have a derivative model and the centre is somewhere else and that the exchange was one way. It was much more complex than that, the way modernity was understood. So the way it plays out in photography is actually a really interesting story.
I am going to show you some examples of the art photography that Australians were doing at this time. This one is by John Kauffmann who had travelled to Europe and come back in the late 1890s. It is called something like ‘Grass and trees’, which is surprising because a lot of the images do have much more literary and suggestive titles. This vintage print called ‘Razzle dazzle’ of Bondi in 1910 by Harold Cazneaux (image shown http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/111.1975/) , who probably was the most eminent pictorialist photographer, is in the exhibition. People like Cazneaux, Kauffmann and all the other art photographers were very familiar with the work of their international counterparts either through travel or through magazines and journals that were published overseas and devoured locally. They also held exhibitions in Australia of international work and had been doing so for decades.
Cazneaux was someone who had a lot of success in the international salons. Just like his predecessors, he sent his photographs away and he debuted at the London Salon of Photography to much acclaim in 1911 and continued to exhibit there annually until 1952, so that is no mean achievement. For a photographer to show at the Royal Society in exhibitions or at the London salon, that was the pinnacle of your achievement. In relation to the Olive Cotton biography I am working on now, that is what she said in the 1930s, that it was the height of her ambition to have her works shown in London. Cazneaux never travelled overseas himself but he regularly contributed to these international exhibitions and publications. This is his photograph, ‘The bent tree’ from 1914 (image shown http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/152.1975/).
The art photography that people like Cazneaux were promoting is known as pictorialism, and its exponents were called - often derogatorily - the ‘fuzzy-wuzzies’ because they didn’t want sharp focus. They actually went for very generalised soft focus, ‘olde world’ effects, low-toned, impressionistic images and so on, using a lot of hand-work and manipulation to align their photographs more with print-making and with drawing.
Pictorialist photographers have fared relatively poorly in photographic history over the last century. They have been dismissed for not appearing modern enough in either subject or style. But what I would argue is that photographs like these do have a contemporary resonance because of the idea that is now commonplace where we think of photographs not just as images but as objects - objects that have material properties so the surface of photographs, the texture of them and so on, is appreciated much more these days. Pictorialism self-consciously makes an appeal to lovers of beauty and other forms of art. All the different printing techniques they used and the nuanced soft colours actually slow down apprehension of an image. They are created to cause the eye to linger. There is a lot of contemporary interest in slowness and in quietness, so I think the pictorialists have something to offer there.
There is not only pictorialism’s appeal because of its sensory physical material properties but also an argument for long-term relevance, which might look odd because what Harold Cazneaux and Walter Burke argued is:
Even though these photographs might not look typically Australian or might not be what we expect now, pictorialists wanted to create works that were distinctively national in atmosphere and treatment. What they saw then as being crucialwas all to do with sunshine and they argued that Australian art photographers should work with the sun. Burke said that ‘too many amateurs have endeavoured to show Australian scenic subjects plunged in gloom’ and they felt an alternative approach was required:
You see the beginnings of that before World War I, and then it follows right through where people want to give you a sense of the glare of Australia and the particular qualities of light. That is especially evident in the work of Max Dupain and other modernist photographers.
Turning to popular and professional photography, the final group of photographs I’ll look at takes me back to a comment I made at the beginning of my talk about the remoteness of many photographs from a century ago - and remember I am talking personally here. I am going to look at some portraits to elaborate on this phenomena.
This is Rudolf Buchner’s portrait called ‘Louise Lovely’ which is a portrait of the actress Louise Carbasse. (image shown http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/glorious_days/about/an_australian_style#thumbnail3). Portraiture continued to be a mainstay for professional photographers in 1913. Using Walter Burke again, he wrote that the photographic studios were in excellent health in this period:
That is where the photographic industry was really flourishing. A lot of professional photographers had their own studios, and you would go there to have your portrait taken. That would be their main mainstay.
But the magazines, as I mentioned, were beginning to be significant market players as well, reproducing photographs of celebrities. These are some examples by May and Mina Moore, pioneering women in this field. They were two New Zealanders who moved to Sydney in 1910. They are represented in the show with some lovely celebrity portraits of musicians and actors. Then these kinds of photographs were reproduced in magazines like Lone Hand either illustrating articles or announcements.
This is opera singer John McCormack (image shown http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/glorious_days/about/an_australian_style#thumbnail2).
Here you have English soprano Maud Percival Allen as Brunhilde from Wagner’s Ring Cycle (image shown http://trove.nla.gov.au/version/182669383.
Here is Clara Butt and Kennerly Rumford http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an22947508. I know from reading this marvellous catalogue Glorious days, and the essay that Roger Neill has written about music in this period, that Clara was an English contralto and global superstar and her husband was a very accomplished baritone. I wouldn’t have known that were it not for the essay.
What I want to go back to is what I said at the beginning: I struggle with some of these photographs made a century ago and my lack of connection to them. I can see how pretty they are and how accomplished they are and how in relation to a lot of other portraiture from the time May and Mina Moore’s work does excel. But using these few as a case study I think some of the lack of connection comes from the following: their brown tones, which are no longer in use. We associate sepia with a bygone age. We are much more used now to seeing our portraits in colour. Then there are the poses of the figures and photographer’s point of view where the full figure is often represented within the frame and the photographer doesn’t come in much closer than that. This of itself creates a sense of distance and of decorum in fact. Then there is the averted or indirect gaze of the subjects. They either don’t look at you or, when they do look at you interestingly, the mode of address to the camera, even if they are looking directly, is somehow reticent.
What I want to do is not that fair on them in a way but just to show you what I mean: if you compare our photographs of celebrities with some of those from 100 years ago, of actor Cate Blanchett, of the Queen taken by Polly Borland, who iss an Australian photographer, and showing you how that photograph has been reproduced in a magazine, and then someone like Nicole Kidman. (images shown) All I have done - and I had a great deal of fun doing it - was try to find celebrities from the acting and musical professions as famous as May and Mina Moore’s subjects. Here is Nick Cave and Paul Kelly photographed by Martin Philbey for The Age in 2007.
Our celebrity portraits superficially look very different. They are much more like likely to be in colour. They are much more likely to involve relatively close-up views of the body and of the face. You can see the photographer has moved in much closer so you don’t get that physical distance or separation from the subjects. And of course the images are constructed to convey something quite different - the address of the subject to the camera is to give you some sense of engagement but it is of course a mock intimacy. I think at first glance portraits such as these - we will start there with Cate Blanchett - look very different. They don’t have the decorum of the Edwardian period which to me seems so polite in the exhibition. These ones owe a debt to fashion and advertising photography that were precisely the areas not developed 100 years ago. And yet, for me the question arises: are these contemporary portraits ultimately any more revealing of their subjects than those by May and Mina Moore?
My aim today has been to discuss some of the differences and similarities between photography in 1913 and now. I have wanted to give some brief historical context and to show briefly how some things remain the same and others appear to change significantly. Ultimately what fascinates me most are those photographs that leap 100 years to connect with us now, that enter into a dialogue with our present and our time - what, why, and how they do it. Thank you. [applause]
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: I will ask Helen to take a seat over here because we are now going to have a chance to have some questions. Please wait until you have a microphone because we are recording this. Are there any questions?
QUESTION: Helen, that was wonderful. I notice on one of the photographs there was the photographer’s signature - I think that was the sisters from New Zealand. I was wondering were they superstars in their own right? Why did some people sign them and actually how did they do it?
HELEN ENNIS: That’s a great point, because in the nineteenth century you would see that photographers would have their own studio stamp but you don’t see a lot of nineteenth-century material signed by the photographer. What you have put your finger on is this idea of the photographer and the studio, the whole authorship thing, beginning to become important. There were always studios that had outstanding reputations that if you wanted to have your wedding photography done you would go to that one in particular. But it meant that around this period individuals are claiming a higher profile and they begin to sign on the fronts of photographs. They do it in pencil or they might do it in pen and ink. That tradition is something that is still very much with us where, even to value photographs now, it means if something has been signed, the signature has a cachet with it. It will actually endorse or enhance value if something has been signed that way by the photographer. How they did it? Pencil or pen and ink. It’s interesting, even if we use Max Dupain as an example who is 20 years later than that, he would write onto the photograph itself not below the photograph. But that meant even when you had your mount you would still see his signature because it wouldn’t be below. So he’s really making it obvious that he’s the star there as well.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: I was going to say May and Mina Moore were extremely effective and popular photographers, because they had started off in one city and then were able to spread.
HELEN ENNIS: Yes, that is quite right. They had a studio in Melbourne and a studio in Sydney as well. It was pretty unusual for women at that stage to be as prominent as they were, because women generally had been supporting others in studios. The Moore sisters had a terrifically high profile, and you can see their clients were really the best of the day. Their business thrived.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Helen, that was excellent and I enjoyed your talk. We are doing some family history that spans mainland as well as Tasmania and including overseas. Was photography particularly well developed in Australia compared to perhaps Europe? And, if so, were there photographs that actually chronicled just how ordinary people lived? That’s a very good example of people who actually worked the land, and that was obviously the vast majority of people who started off living in Australia from the mid-nineteenth century to 1913.
HELEN ENNIS: I think you can say unequivocally that Australians have had a love affair with photography right from the start. Within a few months of the invention of photography being announced on the other side of the world, there was a bloke on a boat with a camera who turns up in Sydney and takes some photographs. It just meant that it really didn’t take long at all. Right from the start Australians were really engaged with what photography could do for them.
It is just that our own photography history is a very particular history. What I have tried to argue in the research that I have done is that you don’t look at English models, American models, European models and Asian models to try to understand what happened here. You have to look at the circumstances and particularity of our own history and our own experiences.
What is clear is that in the first decades of photography here, it was usually itinerant or travelling photographers who were involved. We didn’t really have our first-born generation until later in the nineteenth century. So the first photographers came and they went - off they went again on those very boats back to England and the States or wherever they had come from. It took a while for our native-born photographers to flourish. But it didn’t take more than a few months for photography itself to flourish here. The number of studios just grew exponentially. There were hundreds of studios by the 1860s right across Australia.
The democratisation of photography,of what you are describing where people chronicle everyday life, it really isn’t until the early twentieth century that this begins to happen. Until then photography is much more in the hands of professionals or people who had some money behind them and were able to get the technology and the access to information. So they needed a good education and so on.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: There are some really interesting hybrids like [William Henry] Corkhill who obviously wanted to be a professional but ended up because of his milieu taking what are like snapshots of the locals.
HELEN ENNIS: Corkhill who Michelle just mentioned - there is a wonderful collection of glass plate negatives by Corkhill in the National Library’s collection. We have had a fantastically rich history, but what I have tried to argue is that it’s a vernacular kind of history too. If you go to collections in Europe, England and America, what you will find is that there is an argument that the photographs from the 1840s and the 1850s - the whole noble, heroic early stages of photography, these are the backbones of collections, the most important works. But then if you look for those in Australia, not only will you not find them but what you will find instead is something quite different and so deliciously scrappy, ill-formed and ad hoc. Our early traditions are quite different but hugely invigorating and interesting. That is why you have to understand what were in our circumstances, the circumstances of colonisation, that gave rise to the particular practices we have here, which have endured too because our photography still in many areas has a very distinctive flavour, even in this age of globalisation.
QUESTION: Thanks very much, Helen. When we look at the work of Frank Hurley and his great talent to ‘photoshop his work’, I guess, for a modern comparison, was that something that was a challenge to Hurley to gain the acceptance in that media at the time?
HELEN ENNIS: You used the word ‘photoshop’ and I meant to say that because I think if Frank Hurley were alive now he would have gone mad for photoshop. It would have made everything so much easier for him. There are a couple of aspects to your question. The first is what Hurley did with composite negatives. He would make a number of negs and then bring them together in one print. Now that wasn’t uncommon. People had been doing that for decades because they often couldn’t get a dramatic sky in the early photographs. It would come out very flat. So they would have a negative of wonderful cloud formations, then take the photograph of the city, put the two together and, bingo, you had the perfectly formed and much more dramatic representation of something. He wasn’t the first to be doing composite printing.
I guess where Hurley attracted a lot of controversy was using all his composite and early photo-shopping stuff, all his forms of manipulation, and calling it documentary because for a lot of people that wasn’t accepted as documentary. But I think Hurley’s take on documentary is actually perfectly sound. There is a great quote where he was on the battlefield in Flanders after he had come out of Antarctica - it must have been the most amazing conjunction to be in the snow, marooned in Antarctic for years and then, as he says, be on the blood-red battlefields in Flanders - and he said, ‘If you just took a normal neg, it would look basically like people were out for a picnic.’ There would be no drama in it. In order to give people a better sense of what was happening and to be truer to the scene, he needed to have a number of negatives to communicate that. I am sympathetic in a lot of ways to his take on documentary and I think you can see it as being quite contemporary - as long as you know they are manipulated. When you look at a newspaper now, the byline should say ‘digitally manipulated’ or something so you don’t accept the image as verbatim but you realise that someone is still trying to show some version of the thing as it was.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: And even this one has been digitally - not digitally - this one has been manipulated, hasn’t it?
HELEN ENNIS: By Harold Cazneaux. Well, Cazneaux too, he was someone who always had a drawer full of skies. But he did not only a lot of manipulation before the final print but also after the print, if he were making his pictorialist images, by choosing paper. We often think of photographs as just having an emulsion that is flat and one dimensional - photographs don’t give much that way. If you look at pictorialist images you will see they choose all sorts of textured papers so you get much richer surfaces and so on because of that. Cazneaux is one of those where you want to look at how he manipulates the final form through all those sorts of techniques as well.
QUESTION: Do you have any advice for us in looking after our photographs which are now close to 100 years old?
HELEN ENNIS: Two things: one is you have to keep them in the dark, and the other is you need to keep them dry. My kids now are in their early 20s and I had some snapshots out the other day from the 1980s, and they have already shifted. With colour photography from that period, the dark and the dry are not going to keep them stable - it’s inherently unstable. As you know, colour slides are much more likely to endure than the prints.
But if you are making prints now, then you can make things that are much more archival than those commercially processed colour photographs were. I think the hardest thing to keep photographs sound is if you live in the tropics, because things just go so mouldy and awful. It gives rise to different ways of dealing with photography.
A question for example in Australia is: why did we not have a lot of expedition photography out in the deserts and so on compared with the American west; why have we not got that tradition? It was simple; it was just to do with the weather; it was too hot and the photographers couldn’t coat their glass plates and couldn’t deal with the instant congealing and so on that they would have got.
In research I have been doing on post-mortem photography, I couldn’t understand why there didn’t seem to be post mortem photography coming out of Queensland in the late nineteenth century. Then someone pointed out to me that the bodies of the deceased in Queensland in the 1890s had to be buried really fast, usually within 24 hours, so there wasn’t even time to get the photographer in. All these conditions that we have in Australia will affect the nature of photographic practice and what it is that has survived for us. That’s an elaboration, but certainly keep your photos in the dry and in the dark.
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Once more, I would like to thank Helen for an absolutely fantastic talk. Please join me in thanking her. [applause]
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Date published: 4 July 2013