November 18: The expression ‘seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses’ comes to mind as I contemplate the work of photographer Ruth Maddison who was born today in 1945, into a postwar Australia Felix.
In 1975 she learned photography and hand colouring from Micky Allen, a painter and photographer. The result was Christmas holiday with Bob’s family, Mermaid Beach, Queensland (1977/78)
To an audience of the 1970s used to taking snapshots in colour (but rarely for artistic purposes), hand-colouring harked back to another era, of staid and stuffy wedding photographs of their parents’ and aunts’ and uncles’ generation and even Queen Elizabeth rated only hand coloured B&W rather than full colour photography for her portraits which still hang in dusty RSL halls and Mechanics Institutes throughout Australia.
In Dorothy Wilding’s picture of our monarch the hand colouring by her senior assistant Beatrice Johnson is a pinnacle of the art. Johnson worked on some of the most famous images of the Queen used on British and Commonwealth postage stamps from 1952 to 1967.
In wedding portraits the colouring of black and white prints was an expensive option when colour technologies like dye transfer printing was completely out of reach. In many cases the colouring was perfunctory, limited to rosy cheeks and perhaps some touches on the bridal bouquet, and a bit of a tan for the groom. It was regarded as daggy, worthy of ridicule.
Maddison’s pastel colours in the Christmas Holiday series is tentative, applied over images deliberately underprinted, a little pale, because colour doesn’t show up in the darker tones. The images poke gentle fun at the custom of celebrating, or enduring, Christmas (in summer here), amongst the extended family and in-laws that one rarely sees at any other time. Christmas Holidays was exhibited at Ewing Gallery in Melbourne in 1979.
Significantly the medium of hand colouring was mostly a woman’s craft. Until the 1960s they were part of the female retinue of professional studios among the receptionists, make-up artists and models’ dressers, though rarely were they photographers themselves; that was a man’s game. Athol Shmith‘s sister Verna worked for him smoothing the wrinkles from his studio portraits with a sharp pencil on the emulsion side of his large format negatives assisted by a special vibrating light box. She visited Prahran College where I was a photography student and demonstrated hand-colouring. Her technique was to wrap wooden skewers with cotton wool to apply oil colour in a waxy binder from white glass pots, like miniature make-up jars. The colour was worked into a matt print and built up gradually, with a small brush used for details.
That Verna came in response to interest being shown by my fellow students of the mid 70s points to it being something of a fad at the time in Australia. In the United States and to some extent in the UK the same level of nostalgia for a hands-on manipulation of the medium, if that was the prompt, was satisfied by a parallel movement among photographers there to revive screen-print, extending on what Andy Warhol had done in the 60s.
Significantly, an early exhibit of Maddison was the 1982 Women’s Work at Monash Gallery, Melbourne, and Developed Image, Adelaide, which recognised her feminist motives in making these images.
Maddison’s series Some Men of (shown at Watters Gallery, 1983) are much more confidently and boldly coloured in oil to the extent of almost concealing some photographic detail. They represent a wryly sympathetic, though firmly and affirmatively feminist, examination of men she knew and their family relationships and she continues to bring a feminist emphasis to humanist photography throughout her career.
Maddison’s subject matter includes street photography, women over 60, women living alone and single mothers, Jewish Families, deep sea fishing workers, the great Australian road trip, garden as personal memory. Hand colouring remains part of her work, though she now also employs the photogram, digital scans, inkjet prints, embroidery and fabric. Currently Maddison is part of the MAP (Many Australian Photographers) collective and this year was artist in residence at Bundanon Homestead.
That Maddison was part of an Australian, overwhelmingly feminist, revival of hand colouring in the 1970s and 1980s was recognised in the exhibition ‘Colour My World: Handcoloured Australian Photography’ at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra last year from 3rd April – 30th September, which includes here work alongside that of Micky Allan, Julie Rrap, Janina Green, Christine Barry, Fiona Hall, Miriam Stannage, Robyn Stacey, Nici Cumpston and others.