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Based on text from the original book: Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988
Gael Newton, 1988 Australian National Gallery


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Australia delineated

In 1726 a marvellous tale of four voyages was published in London. The book was Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World... By Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon, then a Captain of Several Ships. On the first of these voyages the island of Lilliput is discovered at 30 degrees 2 minutes south latitude in a region northwest of Van Diemen's Land. This island, renamed Tasmania in 1853, lies off the southeast tip of the Australian mainland. The Lilliputians thus 'lived' on the eastern end of the Great Australian Bight.

Gulliver's Travels was in fact a satire by the Anglo-Irish author, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)(1). He made his hero a cousin of the English explorer of the Antipodes, William Dampier (1652-1715), whose own books A New Voyage Round the World (1697) and A Voyage to New Holland (1703) had stimulated interest in these mysterious regions.

Terra Australis had appeared on world maps as a sprawling mass since the mid-sixteenth century. Various later explorers charted substantial parts of the west, north and southern coasts of this land that was known after 1645 as New Holland. It was not until 1770, when Captain James Cook (1728-1779) navigated the entire eastern coast that the true outline of the fifth continent became known in Europe(5).

Captain Cook's three momentous voyages of scientific exploration into the Pacific were undertaken for the British Admiralty between 1768-1779 and brought the Antipodean world fully into European consciousness(3). His unveiling of Australia as a geographic entity (though not circumnavigated until 1803) substantially completed the map of the world. In European eyes it was the last continental prize, only the polar regions remained as new-world frontiers.

In creating Gulliver's Travels, Swift drew on the explorations of his contemporaries and recent scientific and technological developments, including refinements to the telescope and microscope. Each of the four voyages offered a different perspective on human nature. In two of these, Swift seems to view Gulliver as if through a microscope, then a telescope. In Lilliput, Gulliver dwarfs his captors, in Brobdingnag he is a plaything of giants. Swift used the shifting dimensions of his hero to make telling observations on political events and the moral and social habits of his day.

In an age intoxicated by new scientific and territorial explorations, Swift brilliantly parodied the 'perspectives' revealed by the new optical instruments. He remained sceptical of the notion of progress and despaired of the inevitable weakness of man as a social animal.

Fortunately for Swift's literary purposes, in 1726 the Antipodes was still a suitably remote and poorly known region in which to locate his story. It remained so at his death in 1745. He would have had little awareness that the masses, whose collective behaviour he so distrusted, were beginning to escalate in numbers and social significance. The population of Europe would double between 1800 and 1900 from two to four hundred million(4). Pressure from the accompanying growth in the criminal population was one of the factors that led to the British Government's decision to solve the problem of their overcrowded prisons by establishing a penal colony as a strategic base in Australia.

In 1788 Governor Arthur Phillip (1738-1814) proclaimed the region of the Australian continent up to 135 degrees east longitude as the British colony of New South Wales, and began to build a settlement at Port Jackson on the east coast with little more than a thousand people, most of whom were convicts. From that point on, some 160,000 men, women and youths were transported to Australia, the majority to New South Wales until 1840 and to Tasmania until 1852. A final 9,700 were sent to Perth, Western Australia, between 1850 and 1868(5). This massive movement of people was prompted by the loss in 1776 of access to the North American colonies.

What Swift would have made of this social experiment can only be imagined, but present day Australian writer, Robert Hughes (b.1938), has described Australia's foundation as a dystopia, the model of the gulags of the twentieth century(6).

From the 1830s free settlers and assisted migrants swelled the ranks, whilst the Aboriginal people were being decimated. By 1860 the population was well over a million, half of whom were Australian-born, with convicts representing only a small percentage. By Federation in 1901, the white population was mostly native-born and numbered three and three-quarter million.

The British Government transported convicts in the hope that isolation in a new land would assist in their rehabilitation. Later, free settlers came to Australia in search of a change in fortune and status. The early photographers came from both these groups of settlers until Alfred Bock (1835-1920) became the first known Australian-born photographer. In 1855, on the death of his stepfather Thomas Bock (1790-1855), Alfred set up his own studio in Hobart. Bock senior had been transported to Van Diemen's Land in 1824, becoming respected as a portrait painter in the 1830s, and by the late 1840s one of the earliest resident photographers. For many, such as Bock, Australia was a land of hope and opportunity.

Photography predicted

The possibility of a new scientific frontier was suggested in 1760 by the French writer Charles Tiphaigne de la Roche (1729-1774). In his book, Giphantia, a traveller in the African desert is transported by a whirlwind to a land whose inhabitants are able to fix the images made by light rays. He describes how using 'a most subtle matter, very viscous and proper to harden and dry', coated on canvas, these images are impressed in 'the twinkle of an eye, after which the canvas is dried in a dark place for an hour. Once dry, the pictures 'cannot be imitated by art or damaged by time'(7).

Tiphaigne de la Roche was not a moralist like Swift, but a pioneer of the literary genre of science fiction. Nevertheless, both writers used fantastic adventures to unknown lands to express their ideas. What Tiphaigne described in Ciphantia was what we call photography-for which, it has been pointed out by photo-historian Helmut Gernsheim (b.1913), the necessary optical instruments and photochemical means of development existed as early as 1725(8). However, serious efforts to fix light pictures, as formed in the drawing aid known as a camera obscura, were not undertaken until the last years of the eighteenth century. The writer of Giphantia did not live to see real photographs as the earliest fixed images were not made until 1826. These were by Joseph Niépce (1765-1833). Commercial processes, the French daguerreotype and English photogenic drawing, were not made public in 1839.

This century of tardiness prompted Gernsheim to remark that 'the circumstance that photography was not invented earlier remains the greatest mystery in its history'(9). Others have puzzled over why similar precision instruments, the telescope and microscope, did not develop until the seventeenth century, when lenses and eye glasses existed as early as the thirteenth century(10). The same question has been asked of many inventions including lithography, developed in the 1790s by German Alois Senefelder (1771-1834), which required only a slab of smooth stone and a greasy crayon(11).

We can only speculate as to why Captain Cook did not have a photographic apparatus for his Pacific voyages, Indeed none of the artists on these expeditions are known to have used a camera obscura, although later colonial artists and draughtsmen in Australia made some use of such aids(12).

Clues as to the reasons behind inventions like photography may be sought instead in a complex of artistic, scientific, technological, political, economic and social trends. Like the layers of an onion these factors actually comprise the final shape.

Chasing shadows

The development of photography, itself an art-science, is a legacy of inter-disciplinary exchanges. The early experimenters and independent inventors of photography were often artists and scientists simultaneously. The subsequent history of the medium is a mosaic of contributions by artists and scientists. The story of these pioneers has been well documented in terms of a chronology of related optical instruments and photochemistry.

The refinement of the camera obscura in the seventeenth century, culminating in its use for photography in the 1840s, relates both to the development of naturalistic representation in art and to the development of precision instruments like telescopes, microscopes, marine chronometers, barometers and micrometers. These last named enabled the plotting of specific points as coordinates in time and space; a feat instantly achieved with the full development of photography in the nineteenth century. As exploration filled in the world map, science and art developed techniques for precise descriptions of its phenomena.

In recent years photographic studies have been widened to include a prehistory in vision and taste, The existence of a highly naturalistic, informal aesthetic, which seems to 'pre-visualise' photography, has been documented particularly in Europe in the half century before 1839 (few Antipodean examples exist)(13).

These aesthetic precedents have been placed in the context of a widening social base following the French Revolution of the eighteenth century and the Industrial Revolution in England going into the nineteenth century. Naturalism in art, without complex meanings, was seen as being suited to the taste of the growing middle classes. A new means of expression was required, one that was accessible to the new and international public(14).

The expansion of the population in the nineteenth century parallels the burgeoning of capitalism and industrialised economics, distinguished by the production of surplus goods. The consumers of those goods came from Europe but also from the widening world markets offered by territorial expansion and imperialism. Photography developed as a medium of communication and expression capable of matching this fantastic swarming of people, and reaching easily across the planet.

As early as 1829 English historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) christened his era 'The Mechanical Age',(15) and in 1857 Lady Elizabeth Eastlake (1809-1893) observed that:

Photography is made for the present age, in which the desire for art resides in a small minority, but the craving, or rather necessity, for cheap, prompt and correct facts is in the public at large. Photography is the purveyor of such knowledge to the world(16).

The ubiquity of photography, often seen as a mechanical eye to be used for this much-desired replication of facts, also brought forth critical responses from nineteenth-century writers like Frenchman Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). He was concerned by the acceptance of the photograph as reality, its equation with art, and its narcissistic elements as seen in the wish of 'our squalid society ... to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal. A madness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers(17).

A critical tradition in this vein seems to run down through to twentieth-century critics such as Walter Benjamin (1892–1940). Benjamin pondered the fate of 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in his seminal essay of 1936(18), to contemporary American writer, Susan Sontag (b. 1933). In turn her book of essays, On Photography (1977), probed the morality of documentary photography, observing that 'To collect photographs is to collect the world'(19).

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Picturing the Global Village

The other component of the modern media, the electric telegraph, was born at the same time as photography and stemmed from the same earlier researches into light, electricity and magnetism. Both mediums were developed practically before it was realised that they were the visible and invisible forms of electro-magnetic radiation(20). Eventually photography and the wireless telegraph became wedded in cinematic film and the 'media' of modern times(21).

In the I950s Canadian popular culture analyst, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1981), defined the twentieth century as the era of the 'Global Village' in response to the international impact of the media(22). McLuhan regarded advertising, film and television largely as a form of mass education in consumption.

In the same years, Edward Steichen (1879-1973) expressed another global vision through The Family of Man Exhibition (1955) that he mounted for the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The theme of the exhibition, which later toured the world, was the basic humanity linking the peoples of the world and it expressed Steichen's belief that photography was a major force in promoting peace and understanding between people. A contemporary American critic, Jacques Barzun (b.1907)(23), rejected its 'primitivism' which denied the regional, cultural and economic divisions between the different peoples. It was the grand era of the United Nations but also of the cold war and fears of global nuclear annihilation.

The Family of Man proclaimed itself the greatest photography show ever mounted(24). In its ambition and embracing of a world vision, it echoed London’s Great Exhibition over a century earlier, in 1851. The latter was concerned with production, being a display of the 'Works of Industry of All Nations'. It was a major early showcase for photography, although only six of the more industrialised nations exhibited photographs(25).

George Cruikshank's (1792-1878) image of All the world going to see the Great Exhibition of 1851(26), encapsulates the sense of the new mass culture and international world at mid-century. This consciousness also seems to be reflected in the early visual commentaries on photography which tend to show amateur and professional photographers swarming across the landscape, even raining down from above(27).

While the population was expanding, the world was apparently ‘shrinking’. During the Great Exhibition of 1851, cartographer and entrepreneur James Wyld (1812-1887) also built, in Leicester Square, the largest model of the globe ever seen. It showed how the world, which had been so poorly known a century before, was by 1851, at the feet of the London public(28).

This 'globalism' of the mid-nineteenth century had already been envisaged in 1834 by the naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859) when conceiving of his great publication describing the natural history of the whole earth, to be called COSMOS, Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe:

I have the crazy notion to depict in a single work the entire material universe, all that we know of the phenomena of heaven and earth, from the nebulae of stars to the geography of mosses and granite rocks and in a vivid style that will stimulate and elicit feeling(29).

A desire to encompass the world was echoed by the Illustrated London News, which began publication in 1842. Despite its title, the News was dedicated to a massive international readership:

Through all the world — wherever man can read —
This humble book to him we dedicate —
Filled with thick events which God decreed,
To wield his fortunes and to work his fate(30).

This theme was still a powerful one in 1936 when LIFE magazine was launched in America with a dedication that echoed that of the English prototype:

To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things — machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man's work(31).

This global context, in both its perceptual and economic-political aspects, is one of the most interesting possible impulses behind photography and maybe one of the many reasons why the medium reached its flashpoint in 1839, and not in 1726.

In 1839, L.J.M. Daguerre's (1787-1851) process of photography on metal plates was given free to all the world by the French Government although it was withheld by Daguerre's personal patent from commercial use in England and her colonies. Details of W.H. Fox Talbot's (1800-1877) photogenic drawing process on paper were also published(32). To scientists, photography represented a means of absorbing the natural history of the planet. To artists, it was a threat and a challenge. To the people, it shortly became a means of self-presentation and awareness. It was also a means of expressing a sense of the global village that already existed by the mid-nineteenth century.

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List of illustrations used in the original publication (captions may be abbreviated):

P.IX: P.William Westall, Land on the north side of Port Bowen, 1802

P.X: Alfred Bock: Self-Portrait, c.1855

P.XI: Major James Wallis:Hawkesbury & Blue Mountains, camera lucinda, 1815

P.XII: George Cruikshank: All the world going to see the Great Exhibition, 1851



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