December 11: A photograph is an enigma that compels us to ask: “What, who or where, is it?” In doing so we are begging a visual question with words.
This problem of the equivalence between language and pictures, or photograph and caption, was the conceit of an exhibition, Phiction: Lies, Illusion and the Phantasm in Photography that I curated nearly 20 years ago for Horsham Regional Art Gallery.
William Mitchell in his 1994 Picture Theory: essays on verbal and visual representation puzzles over the conundrum;
“[W]e still do not know exactly what pictures are, what their relation to language is, how they operate on observers and on the world, how their history is to be understood, and what is to be done with or about them.
I am currently working on project to celebrate Australian photography of the 1970s and 1980s, in particular that by graduates of the remarkable Prahran College, known by many as “an Australian Bauhaus”. I have started by writing Wikpedia entries on the institution, and on its contemporaries, the galleries that thrived around it; The Photographers’ Gallery and Workshop, Brummels Gallery, Pinacotheca, Realities Gallery and Christine Abrahams Gallery, all of which contributed to a renewed interest in the medium and promoted it to the art market. I’ve also made a few necessary additions to the encyclopaedia entry on Joyce Evans, director of the Church Street Centre for Photography.
In doing this my thoughts return to the works from the Horsham Regional Art Gallery which I assembled for Phiction. A regional gallery, its director Jean Davidson decided, given her small budget and on the advice of the NGV’s Jennie Boddington and commercial gallerist Joyce Evans, to specialise in the collection of diverse examples of Australian photography; documentary or photojournalistic, others with an artistic intent. At the time its holdings in the medium would have challenged some metropolitan institutions. Amongst them were some by Prahran graduates; Geoff Strong, Ewa Narkiewicz, Bill Henson, Carol Jerrems and others.
Phiction (the title amalgamates photography and fiction) was designed to highlight the way we read photographs, and the right and capacity we have to read them for ourselves. It asks what possible correspondence there is between the meaning contained in a photograph and that transmitted by words. To do so, it employed ‘snapshots’ from Australian fiction, most not even two hundred words long intended not to dictate a meaning, but encourage and challenge the viewer to question the image for themselves in seeing how, or how not, did the writing equate with what they were seeing.
To challenge the viewer for interpretations, Phiction presented images not easily explained; many of them illusionistic, some deliberately lie, pretending to be something they are not, some presented apparitions. In addition no text and image pair could be an exact ‘fit’ since none of the writers intended their writing as a caption, and none of the photographers were illustrating the text. In this way the exhibition forced a confrontation between the ‘deaf’ image and the ‘blind’ text. Such lack of exact correlation prompts the viewer to substitute it for their own reading to decide for themselves if photographs are lies, illusions or phantasms.
Amongst them were arresting images of people’s faces, including those made by Bill Henson, Julian Smith or Joyce Evans. But do they pretend at portraiture?
Legendary Prahran College graduate Carol Jerrems‘ 1975 Vale Street (incidentally one of the first works collected in 1976 by Horsham Regional Gallery) confronts us with a young woman, standing barefaced and bare chested in the late afternoon light, while her louche male companions hang back watchfully in the ivy-hung shadows. She would be as candidly comfortable, it seems, amongst the cinema verité cast and setting that co-exists in the same Melbourne in Helen Garner’s novel Monkey Grip released only two years after the photograph was made. Both image and words purport to an autobiographical honesty on the part of the authors.
Our house was full again, people home from holidays, but the summer still standing over us. We climbed the apricot tree in the back yard and handed down great baskets full of the small, imperfectly shaped fruits. Georgie made jam. Javo and I sat in the sun on the concrete outside the back door, cracking the apricot stones with half bricks to get the kernels out. I was learning how to reach him without talking, though sometimes I was afraid he hadn’t understood. We talked about this, lying on my bed with our bare legs under and over. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I like the way you love me. I feel comfortable in it.”
Helen Garner, Monkey Grip
However, that is not so.
This woman and her dark companions are co-conspirators with Jerrems in forging what would seem to be another document in the by then mannerist manifestation of the street photograph, a form pursued with particular vigour by Jerrems.
The woman Catriona Brown is an actor who posed for Jerrems, and the young men Mark Lean and ‘John’, whom Brown had never met before, were members of the skinhead ‘sharpie’ gang whom the photographer befriended while teaching at Heidelberg Technical School and whom she photographed and filmed in nearby Banyule Reserve at Viewbank on the Yarra River. One of them, it is said, had once raped Jerrems.
The shoot takes all afternoon, and a shift in location, from the comparatively genteel Mozart Street, St. Kilda where Jerrems rented with fellow Prahran College students lan Macrae and Robert Ashton, a few blocks away to struggletown Vale Street, parallel and neighbouring Blanche Street where I lived then in a $15-a-week weatherboard. Eventually Jerrems convinces her subjects to remove their shirts, and the iconic image was created. It featured in the 1976 book Australian Photography edited by Laurence Le Guay and in 1979 was on the front cover of Australian Photographers: The Philip Morris Collection. Jennie Boddington, ex-filmmaker and curator at the National Gallery of Victoria had begun to collect Jerrems work as early as 1971, and the Gallery continued to do so.
The notoriety of Vale Street has been much debated, in particular during a conference that generated the catalogue essays for the exhibition Up Close on at Heide Museum of Modern Art in October 2010, in which Jerrems is compared to Larry Clark, Nan Goldin and Sydneysider William Yang who addresses the conundrum of text and image by covering photographs in longhand biographical writing.
The comparison is superficial, and unfair. Clark’s book Tulsa was published in 1971 so certainly was available to Jerrems, but his exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery and Workshop was not held until Sept/Oct 1979. It was Diane Arbus who was of greater interest to Jerrems. Nan Goldin was photographing for what became The Ballad Of Sexual Dependency, but it was not published until five years after Jerrem’s premature death in 1980.
Yang’s exhibition, Sydneyphiles was held in 1977, and his book Sydney Diary of 1984 documenting the emergent gay community and Sydney party scene only comes to general attention after the tragic decimation of his subjects during the AIDS epidemic.
They are quite evidently not her influences.
Jerrems was inspired by working with director Paul Cox who recruited his students (including Phil Quirk who took the film still above and who is my co-conspirator on this 1970s Prahran photography project) as crew on his early films. He regarded Carol as his best student and she operated a cine camera for him and appears as part of a lesbian couple in his 1972 60-minute drama The Journey.
The Arbus-like confrontation in Vale Street is cinematic; what we see actually happened, but why it occurred was as fiction. The extract that I chose to accompany the photograph was from Helen Garner’s celebrated story which is part autobiography. Both the novel and the photograph move art, through feminism’s “left field”, into postmodern reinvention. Photography was the medium that took a leading role in bringing this new sensibility to prominence in Australian art practice.
The other influence on Jerrems was renegade photographer Rennie Ellis, both personally and stylistically. He also photographed the sharpie culture, but with his own extrovert, freewheeling approach he knew exactly what he was after—something that would shock, but titilate, middle-class sensibilities. His larrikin urging of his subjects to “Show us yer tits” would usually find them complying…Vale Street would not have taken Rennie all day to shoot!
They were very different personalities, but the opening show at Ellis’ Brummels Gallery was Two Views of Erotica: Henry Talbot/Carol Jerrems (14 December 1972 – 21 January 1973) jointly exhibited by Jerrems with an older lecturer Henry Talbot who invited her to teach photography with him at the Preston Institute in 1975 and for whom she posed nude. Jerrems and Ellis in 1976 exhibited Heroes and Anti-heroes together at The Photographers’ Gallery in South Yarra.
You don’t have to be psychologist Paul Ekman to read in her pose, in the Ellis shot of Carol at an opening at Brummels (left), that she was painfully shy. Perhaps she aspired to having his hutzpah, but she certainly took her photography so seriously that she pushed herself into the edgiest situations, ones in which she must have been uncomfortable, amongst the unpredictable skinheads, and posing for Henry Talbot!
In 1979 Jerrems began teaching at the School of Art in the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education, Hobart, but was admitted to hospital on 12 June suffering Budd–Chiari syndrome. Despite the pain, she documented (in advance of Jo Spence, whose Cancer Shock dates from 1982) her prolonged stay in Royal Hobart Hospital then traveled to Sydney that August to contribute to the Visual Arts Board photography assessment panel for the Australia Council. However, on 19 November 1979 she was admitted again to hospital in Melbourne. She died 21 February 1980 at the Alfred Hospital in South Yarra.
While it was her experiences of Prahran College and the gallery milieu that was a major influence, no doubt The Photographers’ Gallery and Workshop, itself an influence in Melbourne photography for nearly 40 years, might not have happened without Carol.
Paul Cox, Ingeborg Tyssen, John F. Williams and Rod McNicoll had founded the Gallery and Workshop in 1973 at 344 Punt Road, South Yarra rented since 1965 as a photographer’s studio and accommodation by Paul. It was the second gallery devoted to photography to be established in the city after Brummels (1972). Ian Lobb, who had undertaken workshops with Ansel Adams and Paul Caponigro, took over the Gallery in late 1974.
That year, Jerrems and Lobb were teaching photography at Coburg Technical School where they met American Bill Heimerman who was teaching English and was renting rooms above the Photographers’ Gallery. The two inspired Heimerman’s interest in photography and Lobb and Heimerman became co-directors of the gallery from the beginning of 1976, with Heimerman operating it on his own after 1978.