EJANZH: Neville on Long

Chris Long, Tasmanian photographers 1840-1940. A Directory. Tasmanian Historical Research Association & Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 1995.

Reviewed by Richard Neville.

The compilers of lists engage upon an ill- rewarded task. General readers are thankful for the effort, but their peer group tend to patronise the enterprise as hack recovery work which adds to the database but does not move the argument. Chris Long however, in his list of Tasmanian photographers working between ca.1840 and ca.1940, has a very definite argument. As a long-time participant in the environmental movement of Tasmania, he wants to “provide hard evidence to show that conservation always had a prominent place in the minds of thoughtful Tasmanians.” This, he says, can be seen in the tradition of Tasmanian landscape photography.

Most readers of his book will probably not pick up on this insight. Rather they will be using it to date their family photographs or, in the case of libraries and museums, using it to date image for catalogue records. Tasmanian photographers will become an essential companion to my colleague Alan Davies’ Mechanical eye in Australia, and will find a place on every reference shelf. It will add to Debra Squires Gippsland in focus : a directory of photographers to 1950 and Sandy Barrie’s unpublished lists of Queensland and Australian professional photographers until 1920.

The intention of listings is often misunderstood. Anne-Marie Willis, in her Picturing Australia of 1988, criticises Mechanical eye in Australia for unearthing and presenting a ‘wealth of information on how photographers presented themselves to the public, what they considered marketable and how they envisaged the uses to which their medium could be put’ but not drawing conclusions from the data presented (p.259). She disparagingly refers to the book as an ‘archaeological dig’.

Neither Davies nor Long claim to be writing a history of Australian photography, and indeed their primary purpose is not about drawing conclusions. Their books cannot be read as histories for they are simply an alphabetical ordering of facts. Rather they see themselves as providing the bricks and mortar of histories that probably other people will write. Neither see their lists as a point of closure, but rather the beginning of the discourse – the point from which other histories will start. That is not to say that neither have strong ideas about photographic history. One motivation for both authors was to try to dissipate the overwhelming, and highly inaccurate, influence of Jack Cato’s 1955 book The story of the camera in Australia. The history Cato presents is a highly personalised narrative one, almost like a kind of unedited published oral history centring around the ‘personalities’ of the photograph world. Both know that the actual history of photography, like most history, is far more complex and cannot be forced into a linear narrative.

I do not want to suggest at all that the broader theoretical issues of photography and representation can not be broached until a list of every photographer working in Australia has been compiled. Nineteenth-century visual culture is in dire need of a great deal of ‘digging’ before its real extent and depth is properly realised. Armed with the results of these searches, theoretical and analytical texts will be much more rewarding.

With the privileging of recent theoretical stances such as post-colonialism, it seems that attempts to move away from the constraints of narrative histories has meant that – with nineteenth century art historical research anyway – primary research has often suffered. This is a great pity because the context of the creation of images is often mis-construed – and the context is often the key to the image. When Nicholas Thomas says in his caption to The Reverend J. F. Goldie and theological students, Rovania, Solomon Islands 1915 (reproduced on p.52 of Pirating the Pacific, Powerhouse Publications, 1993), that the “Rev Goldie is the only person not looking at the camera, emphasising his assurance and detachment” he is in part describing a fact, and in part offering a supposition. It is true that Goldie is the only person, in the centre of straight rows of students, not looking at the camera. But Thomas does not provide any evidence for his supposition, and to read such a deliberate intention into the image does surely require some firm evidence. Could it not be instead that Goldie was momentarily distracted? Thomas may be right, but to me it seems that the image suits Thomas’ argument, and that he has worked from his argument down to the image, rather than working out from the photograph.

Part of the problem is perhaps that people tend to drop their critical facilities when they approach photographs. While a camera will pretty much record things before its lens, it does not necessarily mean it is telling a truth, especially when language is used to explain it. This is self-evident in genres like propaganda but less so in images which are read as being more benignly illustrative. Thus David Moore’s well known image, whose caption European migrants arriving in Sydney 1960 taps all sorts of real emotions about the migrant experience which have been embedded in the nations “meta-consciousness”, depicts in fact the arrival of a local steamer into Sydney. Stripped of its migrant resonance the image becomes something else.

Historians are rarely adept at using images to illustrate their texts. For many historians photographs exist in a sphere outside the normal boundaries of scholarship, and they are not treated as historical artefacts in the way they would consider other sources of evidence. Thus Geoffrey Dutton’s picture researcher for his 1981 The Australian heroes : a rousing roll call of 47 of Australia’s greatest heroes and heroines can blithely use a photograph of Edward Woodward to illustrate a biography of Harry Morant; or John Pilger’s researchers do not appear have a problem with illustrating the convict experience with film footage from The term of his natural life and photographs taken on board the Success, an 1890s show biz recreation of a convict ship which toured Australia and the US.

It is probably the patina of truthful realism of photographs that so beguiles people. We tend to trust photographs – especially if they are “documentary” – and take their content at face value without considering the circumstances of their creation. So Tasmanian photographers provides a valuable resource tool which helps bring some sense of specificity to photographs. It is broader in scope than Mechanical Eye, finishing around 1940 and also includes cinematographers, another of Long’s research interests. He lists professionals and amateurs (whose names are marked with an asterix). The books lists all known early nineteenth century photographers, and where possible provides addresses and the dates the photographer was at that address. Unlike Mechanical Eye, Long also gives a biographical account of each photographer, the length of which varies depending on the amount of material already published on the photographer and Long’s perception of their importance. In this sense the work is more than a list, taking on the form of a biographical dictionary.

The entries of early photographers often have to be read in conjunction with Joan Kerr’s (ed.) The Dictionary of Australian Artists 1770- 1870 and Mechanical Eye as Long does not repeat its information. If Kerr and Davies are not simultaneously consulted then important information can be missed. As Long moves into the twentieth century he is forced to be more selective in the photographers he includes, so he lists only the “most notable” amateurs.

This is a potential and acknowledged problem: Long notes he had to make a judgment of the subjective worth of each photographer’s output, and he is much more prepared to offer aesthetic comments about the works of photographers than is Davies. To a certain extent this fairly minor point is the least satisfactory part of Tasmanian photographers – his own preference for landscape photography is so obvious that one cannot help but be a little wary of his judgements. Indeed he says himself “Preferences and prejudices will be evident in some of my assessments of the work of Tasmanian photographers. These attitudes have evolved after lengthy consideration of the surviving photographs.” (p.x) Such an explicit admission of something that we all do is possibly refreshing, but it is also potentially problematic.

While the quality of the reproductions of the numerous photographs is not great, they are more than adequate and cannot be faulted on selection. The book is worth purchasing for these alone. Some of the images such as Howard & Rollings Fanny Cochrane Smith singing and Horace Watson recording Tasmanian aboriginal songs (1903) now have a particular resonance. This is the strength of compilations such as this – that the strangest, and sometimes most potent, photographs are brought together in the one book.

Sometimes the entries are not clear. His important argument that Adolarious Boyd, the superintendent at Port Arthur, was the photographer of the well-known portraits of Port Arthur convicts rather than Thomas Nevin is not found in the Boyd entry, but rather under “convict photographs”. No “see also” reference is provided to that entry – rather one is given to Charles Woolley for whom one can see no obvious link. It would be very easy, therefore, to miss the substance of his argument. To a certain extent the book has the look of something produced by desktop publishing, and it seems to have the usual infelicities and typo’s of that genre. Editor Gillian Winter’s description of its publication history suggests that it was a difficult birth, and indeed she describes it as a “draft publication”, which is not altogether reassuring.

Perhaps there can be discerned some divergence between the intention of the editor and the author. Winter argues that despite its acknowledged deficiencies, its publication was warranted because of the interest in photographs “as elements of family and local history.” This suggests Winter probably wanted a more straightforward list, whereas Long appears to be more committed to the idea of an interpretive history and probably sees Tasmanian photographers as an interim publication.

Long’s introductory “retrospective essay” is clearly a condensation of many years work and simply provides a bare outline of the history of the project and his ideas on Tasmanian photography. His emphasis is of course on landscape photography. In part he sees landscape photography as being “natural” in Tasmania, because ‘Tasmania’s mountain and rainforest scenery, combined with its long and often rugged coastline, are resources which Tasmanian photographers can claim as almost unique in the Australian context’ (p.xiii). Long argues that modernist photography of the 1930s did not take root in Tasmania because of the state’s ‘predominantly rural environment” (p.xiii). While one can see his basic point, surely the nexus between landscape and culture is much more complicated than this.

Long pleads for state bodies to take on the care and maintenance of photographic archives of closed studios (p.ix). This is a vexing question, because they are expensive to store, and even more expensive to make accessible, particularly if the donor does not provide any indices. While new technologies are of considerable assistance, the greatest expense is always in the human labour of indexing such collections. The State Library of NSW, a regular buyer of especially contemporary documentary photography, is occasionally offered studio collections. Often the answer has to be no, especially for portrait studio archives, which have most meaning in the community which they document. We simply cannot collect everything. Yet the archives of the Sam Hood studio, the Australian Photographic Studio, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition or the Holtermann collection are some of the most important things the Library has acquired.

Tasmanian Photographers is a curious, yet rich and valuable, book. It is a mine of information which will amply repay close scrutiny. Family historians and library cataloguers will find it extremely useful, yet one can only hope that its deeper complexities will also find some fertile grounds.

Richard Neville is a Curator of Australian Pictures at the Mitchell Library, Sydney.