January 4: Strata

4January 4: Micky (Michelle) Allan’s use of hand-colouring in the 1970s in her formative series: Babies (1976), Old Age (1978), and Prime of Life (1979), led its revival in Australian art photography.

Since My Trip (1976), Allan has also been an inveterate traveller across this continent, unveiling its enigma through her photography, painting and mixed media works. Born on this day in 1944, she shares geography with George Burnell, also born on this date, but more than 100 years before, in 1832.

There is mounting evidence that indigenous Australians settled here up to 125,000 years ago. The incursion of Europeans into this continent 229 years ago is therefore a very recent event, and our occupation a mere blip in this vast time record, and yet we have done great damage in our time here, and virtually destroyed the indigenous culture.

The earliest anatomically modern human remains found in Australia (and the earliest beyond Africa) are those of Mungo Man, dated at 42,000 years old. These remains of Mungo man and Mungo woman, ritually buried, were found in the 1980s at Lake Mungo, a dry lake near Mildura at the threshold of the true Outback. This is the earliest known site in the world where ritual burial took place, indicating both the human sentiment of remembrance and the feeling that there is more than life, that the spirit may remain.

I visited Mungo while teaching at La Trobe University which has a campus at Mildura. Micky Allan (who also worked at La Trobe 1992-1997) produced an exhibition in 2008 about camping at the Lake. It is a weird place, ephemeral and shifting, where nothing seems solid. The wind and the rain work the sand in to sculptural forms, temporarily solid as moisture builds up around the roots of the mulga, but soon eroded and carved away. More uncanny still are Ice age human footprints tracking for many metres and some 20000 years old that were discovered in the Willandra Lakes in the Lake Mungo National Park in 2003.

Allan’s Lake Mungo exhibition comprised of paintings; Allan then had entered a phase in her art in which she was devoting her time more continuously to painting rather than photography, though the two media have interacted in her work throughout her career as evidenced in this early narrative sequence about the end of the day at a school for children partially disabled by cerebral palsy, Yooralla at 20 past 3, of 1978. The result is a poignant and compassionate representation of disability which retains a respectful distance and the dignity of the young subjects. Sadly, I fear such a series might no longer be acceptable to make and exhibit as it dares too much! For me, remembering my partner who worked there in the early seventies, it has always been an important work.

The Mungo project of 2005/6 may thus be seen as an extension of the layered mark making in the hand-coloured early work like Yooralla at 20 past 3, and the ‘ages’ series. Of the multicoloured layers of the Lake, each signifying a different tie period, Allan writes;

For me, layers of time seemed to endlessly absorb and reabsorb into each other in a motion not unlike that of the tides. Within this motion, I tried to evoke the changing rhythm of night and day by making one work for each night and each day I was there.

In Eagle Day, above, one of the materials on which Allan paints and draws is film, thus continuing a thread of photographic influence in painting which runs through projects and exhibitions which were predominantly painting and drawing from 1987. The ACCA Experiments I: Micky Allan – For Love of the Divine, of 1989 was an installation or ‘garden’ of works on paper and other materials and invited audiences to contribute their own images of flowers.

Micky Allan (1989) For the Love of the Divine: Transfiguration Room, Red Wall, enamel paint on film.

Across the wall in one of the rooms at ACCA was stretched a sheet of film painted on the reverse in brushwork of red. In the River Room a mural, derived from a photograph depicted the waters and luxuriant shores of a tropical river in charcoal and silver paint. These materials, film and silver, ingredients of traditional photography are also reflective, and introduced a light-influenced nuance. Photography remains part of Allan’s image making even where painting predominates. Photographs as such continue to be used now and then, and especially in Botany Bay 2010 which uses colour photography to revisit a 1980 black and white and hand-coloured series on the rather grim Sydney suburb and port. In Botany Bay 2010 and her most recent work, Allan arrived at the use of glass engraving as a means of layering her imagery and of combining the abstract and ethereal with the photographic, a reminder too of the glass plates of nineteenth century technology.

Micky Allan (2010) Gulls, Brighton-le-Sands engraved glass over digital print

It is in Desert Dies, Desert Blooms of 2011 that we see in Allan’s collaboration with partner Steenus von Steensen, a liberation of the photographic brought about by the potential of high-quality inkjet printing on paper, enabling a rich intermingling of both the media of painting and photography and of two artists’ ideas and participation.


The Mallee, in far north-western Victoria and into South Australia and New South Wales is semi-desert which borders on the Murray River which runs through all three states and is named after the many types of Mallee trees, which are really shrubs from the Eucalyptus family which reach far into the sandy soils for any moisture, drawing it up through multiple trunks and stems. They are phoenix plants, able to rise again from their tough roots after fire or extreme drought. The partners represent the extremes of this location by splitting vertical images, often with the divider forming an horizon under and over which are fields of colour, oppositions of red sand and red skies, the sickness of blue-green algae (above) opposing the health of the river in full flood, salt pans under scattered cloud.

Allan’s visits to the Mallee and to Lake Mungo cross the tracks of George Burnell and his partner E. W. Cole 150 years earlier. Having emigrated from Tenterden in Kent, England Burnell had settled in Castlemaine, Victoria, with his wife (née Taplin) and two children in the 1850s. There he formed a photography partnership with Cole. With Burnell operating the wet-plate camera and Cole preparing and processing the glass plates they spent the first four months of 1862 travelling the length of Murray in a flat-bottomed boat, taking views en route, in what must have been an extraordinarily arduous journey, which the partnership did not survive.

Artist’s boat, Murray River No. 58 from the series ‘Stereoscopic views of the River Murray’ 1862, Murray River albumen-silver photograph (stereograph)

They finished at what is now Raukkan in Lake Alexandrina in South Australia, then an Aboriginal mission station. The Art Galley of South Australia holds a complete set of sixty of their albumen silver Stereoscopic Views of the River Murray (1862) which were the commercial result of their venture, sold through Rigby Bookseller in Hindley Street. Burnell, who had no studio of his own, went into business probably with another photographer, bringing over his family to Adelaide to join him. His brother-in-law Rev. George Taplin, who ran the mission at Raukkan published The Folklore, Manners, Customs, and Languages of the South Australian Aborigines in 1879 including some of Burnell’s views.

Burnell’s are some of the earliest photographs of the traditional lives of Australian aboriginal people. Paul Foelsche who photographed them extensively in the Northern Territory from 1869 is probably the only other contender, while Blood and Nixon’s 1867 photographs of them at Anlaby pastoral station show them in second-hand European clothes and top hats in a halfway state between traditional life and a semi-squalid vagrancy. Fred Kruger’s views of Aboriginal people at Coranderrk Aboriginal Mission Station in Gippsland, taken for presentation to Prince Alfred during his 1867 royal visit, are picturesque, projecting a vision of harmony, productivity, and peace, assuring viewers of the residents’ appropriation of a rural peasant lifestyle’.

Burnell encountered the indigenous people he photographed along the Murray, and some of his stereographs are titled with place names such as Pental Island, near Red Cliffs and Mildura, that show he was not far from locations that Micky Allan and Steenus von Steensen were later to photograph.

He presents us with the ghosts of a population then thriving in the riverine environment on all its bounty. The river Murray now is a sad trickle in comparison, its strength and health sapped by the demands of farming irrigation and towns’ water supply, salination, pollution and diversion. He documented the making and use of bark canoes for fishing and hunting; shallow, elegantly efficient in their use of materials, they are astonishing in being able to float at all, let alone support several men standing or sitting without capsizing!

BURNELL, George Australia, 1830 – 1894 Aborigines in their canoes, Overland Corner No. 55 from the series ‘Stereoscopic views of the River Murray’ 1862, Murray River, South Australia

We owe a great deal to the unsung Burnell. His imagery viewed in stereo reaches not only into the broad spaces of the Murray, but also into a fading Arcady. The aboriginal people by the time he photographed them were losing their lands and hunting grounds and their river to a procession of squatters, settlers and station owners, and those in his pictures wear European cloth. Like Burnell, William Barlow (1860s), Townsend Duryea (prior to 1874) and Bernard Goode visited the Point McLeay mission at Raukkan but they set up ‘studios’ in the Mission’s buildings and many of the resulting photographs were directed and anthropometric, ‘scientific’ images.

His was a far-sighted undertaking providing sights no living person can witness. It must have cost considerable effort since the wet-plate requires being coated just before use, which had to be done in less than ideal conditions on the River, amidst insects, mud and dirt. The partners chose their season well; high summer or winter would have made the task impossible.  The stereo pairs consist of albumen prints since there no reliable means of mass reproduction existed. At least one newspaper reproduced the the photographs in engravings with the alterations you can see in the example below tracked down by Ken Orchard; the photographers’ boat, cut off by the edge of the frame, has been exchanged for a more picturesque aboriginal canoe and the trees adjusted to give them a European verdancy.

Amongst Burnell’s remarkable images are two in particular that provide insight into the practices and beliefs of the enigmatic relatives of Mungo Man and Mungo Woman who cared for their remains. Though each group had specific funeral customs, some smoke drying bodies before placing them in trees, on platforms, or in rock shelters or buried depending on local custom. Some placed bodies in trees or platforms to later collect the fallen bones for burial.

BURNELL, George Australia, 1830 – 1894 Aborigines’ graves, Wentworth, Junction of the Darling, Murray River No. 48 from the series ‘Stereoscopic views of the River Murray’ 1862, Murray River, New South Wales albumen-silver photograph (stereograph)

BURNELL, George Australia, 1830 – 1894 Aborigines’ graves, Yelta [near Mildura], Murray River No. 47 from the series ‘Stereoscopic views of the River Murray’ 1862, Murray River, Victoria albumen-silver photograph (stereograph)
Burnell depicts aerial burial, but not in trees or on a simple platform; these are in effect houses for the dead, not unlike the houses of the living.

BURNELL, George Australia, 1830 – 1894 Aborigines in their wurley, Point McLeay, Lake Alexandrina No. 52 from the series ‘Stereoscopic views of the River Murray’ 1862, Murray River, South Australia albumen-silver photograph (stereograph)



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