December 30: In considering the development and new directions in photography since the 1970s it is worth comparing imagery that came before, in the 1940s and 50s, as a kind of ‘classical’ or ‘Academy style’.
Germane examples are provided by a man who has had something of a revival of late. Keith Planta Phillips (1898–1973) was made an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society (one still may, if you follow their guidelines) early in the 1950s.
Phillips was born in Prospect, a suburb of Adelaide and educated at Pulteney Grammar and Adelaide High School. We first meet him as an earnest amateur photographer of modest means at age 17, just before he volunteered for service in WW1, in the Australasian Photo-Review of 16 August 1915 amongst the letters to the editor on p.25;
Mr. Keith P. Phillips, Victoria Street, Prospect, S.A., writes :
‘‘Under separate cover I have enclosed two photographs on Austral Pearl Paper, which I believe to be at least five years old. I have had the paper myself for over three years, and the friend who gave it to me, said at the time, that he had had it two years for certain, and probably more. (He gave it to me because he thought it was too old.) Enclosed is portion of the packet which contained the paper. I thought you might possibly be able to tell when it was manufactured from the number (B. 1677) stamped on it. If you have any way of ascertaining when the paper was made I should be very pleased to know, as I still have a small sheet left.”
(The paper was coated in March, 1908, and is now over seven years’ old.)
Maker of Austral Pearl Paper, chemist Thomas Baker, was a significant figure in the foundation of the Australian photographic industry. In 1884, at thirty years of age, on his Abbotsford property, on the banks of the Yarra River at ‘Yarra Grange’, he set up a cottage industry where, as legend has it, he and his wife Alice and her sister Eleanor manufactured plates at night, and sold them by day. They were first in Australia to successfully manufacture and market photographic dry plates. His ‘Special Rapid’ plates were a welcome advance over the inconvenient and cumbersome wet plate process. Their decrease in exposure times allowed the capture of high-speed postwar technology evident in this image The Silver Streak by Phillips.
In 1887 Baker formed a partnership with the more extrovert John J (‘JJ’) Rouse, an accountant who used his emerging talents as a salesman to service a network of retail outlets around Australia, competing with and taking over existing photographic companies. Meantime Baker worked on improvement to their line to include high quality matt and glossy bromide paper.
In 1905 Baker and Rouse became the Australia wide agency for Eastman Kodak USA in a partnership known as Australia Kodak Ltd, before a name change in 1920 to Kodak (Australasia) Pty Ltd. The factory expanded to manufacture the new Kodak Duplitized X-Ray Film and was the base for further Kodak products in Australia including Kodachrome film and cameras, and during the Second World War produced materials for aerial reconnaissance, mapping and medical X-rays. In 1959 due to the continued expansion of the business Kodak Australia moved to new premises in Coburg. Only in Australia would a former Kodak building be converted to house a brewery, but Carlton & United Breweries (now Fosters Group) survives while Kodak (Australasia) Pty Ltd failed to rise to the challenge of digital imaging and is no more.
After serving in WW1, from 1936, Phillips worked as a freelance photographer, then at the Adelaide Steamship Co and the Romney Studio, Adelaide. He photographed the John Martins’ department store pageant and many other South Australian iconic events and places.
After also serving in WW2, Phillips was present on 16 August 1945 when, as the Adelaide Advertiser described it, …
… in Victoria Square floodlights lit up the surroundings like day … from Montefiore Hill Adelaide looked like a fairy city. Coloured neon lights, searchlights, floodlights, rockets, Roman candles, and the headlights of motor cars threw a lurid glow against the sky. Dominating the whole scene was a giant illuminated V … In both city and suburbs there was also the glow from stained glass windows in churches where thousands offered up prayers of thanksgiving for peace.
Hundreds of rockets shot through the sky, weaving delicate smoke trails, and showering red, green and white stars … ‘
Phillips was working, but his Pyrotechny, is a celebration. Taken from about 10 metres away from the statue of Adelaide’s planner Colonel Light, the picture silhouettes the pointing figure against a dazzling sky full of fireworks launching and exploding. His long exposure records trails of light across the night sky punctuated by starbursts while the blurred heads below evoke the milling crowd which came to the lookout to share the glorious spectacle. It’s a picture that is still striking, and appropriately it was selected for the cover of A Century in Focus: South Australian Photography, 1840s-1940s by Julie Robinson, Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings & Photographs at the Art Gallery of South Australia since 1988.
At this point however, Phillips left behind his freelancing to became the official photographer for the University of Adelaide and the Waite Agricultural Research Institute until 1963, exchanging the freedom and creativity of the self-employed cameraperson for scientific photography and film (a publicity movie intended to attract staff from the United Kingdom after World War II) and in 1960 he accompanied the University expeditions to the Pearson Islands and Central Australia.
His scientific imagery starts to appear in Walkabout magazine which was Australia’s answer to National Geographic and over the five central decades of the mid-twentieth century (1934–1974) was one of the country’s best-loved illustrated weeklies, beside Women’s Weekly in which his pictures also appeared. Judging from his preparation in photographing a seal in a navy cap, this more populist application of his imagery was an intention, while in others (below) scientific objectivity prevails.
During this time, sporting the titles ARPS (Associate of the Royal Photographic Society) and Artiste of the Federation International de l’Art Photographique, he was active in the Adelaide Camera Club and offered the “K.P. Phillips Landscape Trophy”.
Camera clubs employ a process not unlike that of the Royal Academy that ruled nineteenth-century artistic taste; a team of judges, themselves of high status in the club, decided on members’ advancement and bestowed various ‘gongs’, medals and prizes for achievement.
After retiring from the University Phillips continued to exercise his aesthetic judgment as Pictorial Editor for Rigby Limited and published two books of his own photographs — one on the Flinders Ranges and one on the Barossa Valley.
In the 1 April 1958 issue of Walkabout magazine another statue, of explorer Captain Charles Sturt in Victoria Square, Adelaide, appears in a more prosaic Phillips photograph.
There is a residual Pictorialism that clung to the imagery of the camera clubs even into the 1950s, and it is evident in Phillips’ own landscapes, though no doubt his employment of the image for scientific, and now photojournalistic purpose is the cause of his shift to a more matter-of-fact record.
As a contributor to Walkabout the factuality of his imagery aligned with the ethos of the magazine:
Now in its thirty-fifth year of publication, WALKABOUT has unswervingly maintained an editorial policy aimed first at presenting factually as many facets of Australia’s Way of Life as possible.
Though his shot of Brownhill Creek was shot on colour transparency film (left) it was not until after my father Brian became editor that colour was reproduced inside the magazine. [Unfortunately, some of Phillips’ colour transparencies irretrievably suffered fading during the many years they were on display at the Waite and Roseworthy Campuses].
Photography in Walkabout represented the vast Australian continent and the western Pacific countries, but contributors to its pages espoused both conservative nationalism beside progressive modernist ideals.
At times its editorial voiced an anti-capitalism and populism with a leftish slant. It may have kept politics and the country’s ideological struggles in the background, but the editors’ emphasis on “factual photography” fed a more progressive educational purpose nuanced by their captioning, which below confers an heroic status on migrants, with perhaps a nod to Arthur Streeton‘s 1891 painting Fire’s On.
Despite the classicism of his imagery, there is a strand of surrealism operating in Phillips’ shots, like these; the first was made of an abandoned homestead in the marginal landscape around Quorn, above the Goyder Line in South Australia where grazing proved disastrous…
…and the second on the Pearson Islands; an image from the University expedition featured, in monochrome, in the Walkabout story above in which my father responded with a caption ‘Sculptor Henry Moore might envy this Pearson Island formation.’
By the 1960s, even the most hidebound academic conservatism in the backwaters of photography was shifting, though Phillips did not survive to see the sea-change of the 1970s.