SA colonial photography: a note

Magee says that Sweet excluded anything that could be considered negative — the heat, illness, hardship, unfriendly encounters with Aboriginal people etc – about this Northern Territory settlement in the Empire. This was an interpretation of colonial settlement to promote Britain’s expanding empire. They are images of hard won colonial triumph to ensure that South Australia would become a great central state.

Sweet was selling the colonial dream as part of South Australia’s promotion of its settlement of its Northern Territory with the express purpose for attracting investment and migration.

Captain Sweet, Palmerston, 1870

Paul Foelsche is then situated in Shifting Focus as developing Sweet’s initial images of the new colony In the 1880s. He provides a series of photographs of the colony’s progress and the benefits of Australia’s colonisation: evidence that Port Darwin was a suitable harbour from which to settle the Northern Territory, and that it possessed the essential resources necessary for colonisation – access, water, productive soil and the potential to build roads and shelter. And that is all there is on expedition photography in South Australia in Shifting Focus in the sections on the pioneer colonial photographers of the 1850s-1880s.

In Judy Annear’s The Photograph and Australia (Art Gallery of NSW, 2015) expedition photography starts with Frank Hurley’s photos of Antarctica made on Douglas Mawson’s 1911 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. This was designed to gain Australia prestige through Australia being strong enough to investigate and claim new territory. Goyder’s expedition and Sweet’s Darwin photos are not mentioned.

These two texts — Shifting Focus and The Photograph and Australia — are not that much help. The basic assumption is that occasional ‘modest scientific expeditions’ in South Australia had employed the camera, but until 1869 none of the great expeditions into unknown territory in Australia had official photographers. The deeper underlying assumption is that of a national history of photographic styles premised on significant photographers and master images within the boundaries of the nation state. This version of history is devoted above all to originality and innovation, with the camera apparatus and its limits and creative possibilities becoming photography’s central narrative.

As Stephen Pinson observes in his essay on Daguerre in Photography and its Origins much of the historical writing on photography, particularly during the past thirty years has continuously looked inward, rather than outward; scholars and critics “have extolled photography’s virtues as an art form in and of itself, traced its technical pedigree as a revolutionary innovation distinct from other visual arts, interrogated its discursive spaces, and analyzed its etiology, meaning, and medium specificity.”

Captain Sweet, Todds,Bluff, Roper River, 1870

However, the interaction of visual culture and social and intellectual history in which photography was situated was European. The way that photography was understood in the nineteenth century imagination was in terms of photographic truth: photographs carried scientific credentials and exhibited optical precision. Photographs were understood to be visually truthful and scientifically correct, were part of the topographic tradition of the traditional print processes. There is a whole terrain of visual representation out of which photography emerged, and this gave rise to aesthetic alliance in reproductive media between lithography, engraving and photography in nineteenth century France. This rejects the discourse of “photographic exceptionalism”: the idea that the phenomenon of photography can be properly understood only by detaching it from any comparison with the other visual media (and with printmaking in particular) and that photography is the logical culmination of the search for meaningful communication in the visual realm.

The reintegration of photography back within a history of which it is supposedly the apotheosis — engraving, etching, or lithography — undercuts this purely technological evolutionary model of development in reproductive media. In this teleological media history  of displacement new media (photography) effectively render more traditional print media obsolete.  Thus Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” held that photography and film are held to triumph not only over painting, with its aura of uniqueness, but even over the reproductive techniques that preceded them. Burin engraving was eclipsed by the first stirrings of technological modernity, while lithography was but a fleeting interlude between intaglio techniques and the appearance of photography. Over the last thirty years scholars and critics have continuously looked inward, rather than outward; they have extolled photography’s virtues as an art form in and of itself, traced its technical pedigree as a revolutionary innovation distinct from other visual arts, interrogated its discursive spaces, and analyzed its etiology, meaning, and medium specificity.

Stephen Bann in his Parallel Lines (2001)  argues that photography and printmaking developed along parallel lines, with practitioners sometimes crossing between technologies for a variety of reasons. Photography did not replace other media, rather functioning alongside and in many cases in collaboration with older technologies of visual representation, from painting to print. Bann, in his Distinguished Images: Prints in the Visual Economy of Nineteenth-Century France (2013), highlights that Felix Nader, for instance, was both a photographer and a lithographer. What we have in the mid-19th century is a constellation of overlapping technologies with photography being one print medium among many available image technologies at the time.

Sweet, Palmerston, 1870

The foundational rhetoric of the photograph as an unmediated representation made from nature was debated by nineteenth-century art critics such as Charles Baudelaire in France, and John Ruskin and Lady Elizabeth Eastlake in England. The relationship between the photograph and Nature was held to be the direct result of light bouncing off some portion of three-dimensional material reality to produce a visual analogue on a light-sensitive two-dimensional surface. In this encounter, the role of the photographer, if acknowledged at all, was assumed to be less instrumental than that of the camera or the light. Rather, the individual holding the camera and the human eye were successfully prevented from interfering with and, thereby, adulterating this moment of virtually unmediated transcription of Nature onto paper.

The ideal of mechanical objectivity was to suppress interpretation, judgment, or theory in the reporting and picturing of scientific subjects — to produce a perfect mimetic copy rather than something new.Baudelaire, Lady Eastlake and Ruskin in rejecting the photograph as artistic whilst recognized it as truthful, helped shape the opposition between “art” and “science” and with it came the notions of science as objective and art as subjective. A fact-based empiricism held that as an act of representation, photography was transparent, invisible; the photograph, by extension was neutral, objective, unmediated. Seeing a photograph was effectively the experiential equivalent of observing the object directly.

Captain Sweet, Fort Hill, Palmerston, 1870

Prior to this opposition photography was linked back to the roots of the early topographical tradition: making accurate representations of a scene, object or view in order to provide an objective record of an actual place. By the mid-19th century topography and creativity or imagination were seen as incompatible by the above critics.

One thought on “SA colonial photography: a note

  1. Pingback: Captain Sweet in the Flinders | The Long Road to the North

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