April 13: Is time ripe now, in old age, to photograph the eternal?
“La modernité, c’est le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent, la moitié de l’art, dont l’autre moitié est l’éternel et l’immuable. Il y a eu une modernité pour chaque peintre ancien.” (Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, half of art, of which the other half is the eternal and the immutable. There was a modernity for the [artist] of every era.) Charles Baudelaire in Le Peintre de la vie moderne (1863)
Robert Ashton, whose exhibition Bush Theatre continues at Qdos Arts Gallery, Lorne until April 25 2021, studied Photography at Prahran College 1969-71 under both the notorious Gordon De Lisle (1923-2002) and later, Athol Smith. He is a contemporary of mine, now 70, but had graduated before I enrolled there.
Head of department De Lisle was of the old school, a cadet at 15 on Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and a reconnaissance photographer with the RAAF in WWII, after which he moved to a prestigious address in Melbourne’s ‘Paris End’ amongst other professionals in Collins Street and there freelanced for industrial and government clients, and produced his ‘art’ photography on the side; graphic arts film high-contrast, often solarised, photomontages popular in the era, and nudes among the sand dunes, for his self-published 1970 book Of Woman Love and Beauty, possibly inspired by Sam Haskins.
After a near-fatal heart attack, De Lisle was replaced by Shmith, but did not stop working. He went on in 1974 to set up his own art gallery on the Sunshine Coast, and in between was featured in the gritty 1972 catalogue Concern: The Ilford Photographic Exhibition from submissions to a competition, the overall winner of which, GTV 9 employee Barrie Bell, now a freelancer, won $1000 and a round the world plane ticket for two, for his posed street photographs of a couple of ‘down-and-outs’, as they were then known.
The title Ilford chose nodded perhaps to the Cornell Capa edited The Concerned Photographer books of 1968 and 1972 but the contents are effete by comparison.
De Lisle’s series, treated with darkroom magic, improbably showed “the raped land, Australia, as it would appear to a [of course, nude] woman who returns from the dead to discover that her country, too, is dying,” and won the ‘Creative’ section, and $500.
Paul Cox, with assorted imagery, was also included, along with Rennie Ellis whose King’s Cross junkies are, unlike Bell’s actors, the genuine article. It was Robert Ashton’s cousin Ellis, with whom, as assistant director, he partnered to found Brummel’s Gallery above a coffee shop in Toorak Road, South Yarra, opening December 1972, the first in Melbourne to show photography exclusively.
Ashton was an associate of Ingeborg Tyssen, Paul Cox and Bill Heimerman who together were instrumental in founding The Photographers Gallery and Workshop around the corner in Punt Road, and he and Carol Jerrems shared a Mozart Street house in St Kilda. Ellis and Ashton at the time ran a studio in Greville Street near Prahran College.
His talent was noted by writer and musician Mark Gillespie, who with Fred Milgrom, Colin Talbot and Morry Schwartz had started a new publishing venture, Outback Press, and he commissioned Ashton for the book Into the Hollow Mountains, A portrait of Fitzroy. Its images were first shown at Brummels in a exhibition of that title in December 1974 alongside 32 images from Jerrems’ A Book About Australian Women. They were re-exhibited forty years later at Colour Factory, and promoted “as a rare documentation of day-to-day Melbourne and glimpse into an era that, while not actually all that distant, is most definitely a thing of the past.”
Ashton’s photos in the book were accompanied by writings by the publishers Gillespie and Talbot and of a now stellar cast of Australians; John a’Beckett, Helen Garner, Peter Oustabasadis (π O), and John Romeril, on that roughhouse inner city suburb, now gentrified beyond recognition around the remaining residents of its Housing Commission flats.
The contrast with the overwrought photography in Concern, Ashton’s approach in this commission is simply honest, respectful and sensitive, and still stands scrutiny after the critical revisionism in photography during the 1990s damaged faith in documentary imagery.
Ashton did not come from Fitzroy and unlike his colleague, the brash and gregarious Rennie Ellis, was quiet, even shy, and like one climbing a mountain for the first time he needed a guide, which came in the form of the Lovett brothers, from the well-respected Gunditjmara family, who gave him entry to the Builders Arms and Champion hotels and introduced him especially to the First Nations subjects.
Ashton’s documentary work of the 1970s has come to represent the era; his photograph Bernard Diving featured in the 1988 exhibition, and on the cover its catalogue, The Thousand Mile Stare, a survey of Australian photography published by the Victorian Centre for Photography, deployed across front and back cover so that his inclusion of his own shadow becomes a savvy endnote on changing attitudes to the photographic record of the ‘modern’ to which Beaudelaire refers above.
And yet, the documentary image that brings us closer to places and truths from which we are insulated, continues; my friend Jim McFarlane and his associate Anthony Dawton have for years photographed together for refugee charities in some of the poorest countries in the world, in some of the largest camps in the Middle East and emergency and chronic disasters in areas that have included Niger, Kashmir, Gaza and Zaatari.
Anthony’s new book NOTLONDON, is about to be released, and he has allowed a preview to appear here. He introduces it with reference to those experiences in the Third World:
The misery and dangers of day-to-day life in these places, where living has been reduced to below the minimum required to maintain any dignity and self-respect, is shocking. I would return from these trips shaken and upset but pleased to be back in London to recharge my batteries.
Except, increasingly out of the corner of my eye, I was seeing a street life I had not noticed before. Thousands of people were living on the streets as damaged, scarred, hungry and as far away from their homes, as any of the refugees I had encountered on my work overseas.
In this virtually hidden place beyond the periphery of most Londoner’s vision is a NOTLONDON of homeless people of every age and background, in doorways, under arches, in Underground stations, covered in cardboard boxes and thin blankets, and if you know where to look in the evening, in queues on the back streets of central London waiting for open-air kitchens to give them their only meal of the day.
It’s as though there is a conspiracy not to see these people and yet they are there, in their thousands, on London’s busiest and wealthiest streets just out of sight, a whole city of homeless people, nearly a parallel dimension, searching out the best spots to beg and sleep, anxious about where their next alcohol or drug fix is coming from and hoping hyperthermia will not claim them in the night.
If you sit on the pavement with them, they readily engage you in conversation. It is rare, they tell you, that anyone talks to them. The narratives that have reduced them to living on the streets are usually of abandoned or abused childhoods. Of mothers and fathers whom they never knew or at least never knew sober. Or they are stories of heartbreak and betrayal, frequently the stories of the younger homeless. They are lonely, often scarred and tragically too ashamed to return to families that would welcome them back.
NOTLONDON is a tragic, precarious and dangerous place.
I would return a few days later to give them a copy of their photograph.
Sometimes they were still there, sometimes their colleagues simply told me they had gone away or, all too frequently, that they had died, usually from hyperthermia, drugs or any number of underlying health problems. But gone away or dead, their ‘spots’ were quickly occupied.
Dawton’s monochrome digital imagery proclaims a classical documentary intent that harks back to Ashton’s Fitzroy, inherited from Lewis Hine and W. Eugene Smith, his heroes, and from the great photojournalists Werner Bischof, Robert Capa, Leonard Freed, André Kertész, David Seymour, Dan Weiner in Cornell Capa’s The Concerned Photographer exhibition at London’s Photographers Gallery (their first, in 1971) and in the resulting two volumes of that title, a term that Capa felt described those photographers who demonstrated in their work “a humanitarian impulse to use pictures to educate and change the world, not just to record it.”
That ambition, and a hope that homelessness might be solved by photographing it, is considered in the introduction to NOTLONDON by Leilani Farha UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing (2014 – 2020)
I see in Anthony Dawton’s confronting, haunting photographs, this making visible of the invisible, capturing the unbearable hardship of a life of homelessness, while reflecting that each homeless person is just that: a human being with inherent dignity, struggling to survive.
These people, “transitory and fugitive”, subject here to witness, are present in — are a fact of — our modernity. They carry their possessions in the discarded bags of the boutiques and coffee shops, and sleep on their doorsteps.
Dawton’s reference in NOTLONDON to Jim Goldberg (b.1953) as an influence prompts reflections on the late work of the great photographers. Goldberg, in his late sixties, has gone back to his 1985-1995 series on Los Angeles and San Francisco homeless teens Raised by Wolves, regarded now as redefining documentary. His reflection on the project has resulted in his publication this year of Fingerprint, a boxed loose set of facsimiles of the Polaroids he took in preparation for his portraits, and on which his subjects wrote a response.
Robert Frank, at the same age, was making some of his last street photographs, this one featuring his own shadow and reference to photography itself; André Kertesz, at 86, was still fascinated by distortion, reprising his 1933 Anamorphics in photographs of the New York skyline through a glass brick and glass figurines; and Irving Penn had returned to the subject of flowers in a series of close-ups he made only three years before he died at 90.
Ashton may be 70, but by no means decrepit! HIs current practice is laborious; he photographs the bush around his home on the western coast of Victoria with a home-made, ultra-large-format camera and collodion plates in dimensions up to over a metre that he coats himself and prints often using the challenging photogravure technique, or processes the plates as ambrotypes (collodion positives) that are backlit in sculptural forms.
The show’s title Bush Theatre signals the physical and performative nature of such exacting work in vintage photography as much as it emphasises Ashton’s creation of a proscenium arch, the image.
There, the botanical forms make gestures conducted over long duration by the prevailing sea winds, light of the sun through overhanging foliage and over the seasons, the brute passage of large creatures like wallabies and wombats and the incremental effects of benign or malicious insects, in their search for water and sustenance in the humus and by interaction with companion plants. Shreds of bark hang from the tea-tree amid a mix of bracken, ferns, lignum, wattles, myrtle-beech, blackwood, banksias, goodenias, melaleucas, correa, heaths, daisy-bush and everlastings, saltbush, xanthorrea, spear-grass and spinifex, boobialla, wirilda, moonah and rare sheokes.
Ashton samples the semaphore of this range of flora in shadow-boxes; their whorls, and writhings, calligraphy, curls and clusters, in life or in their mummified remains, are drawn in silhouette by the subtle luminance of the bush beyond. He has devised ways to use glass; fish-bowls, bell-jars and test-tubes, to magnify his awareness of their vegetal fragility.
In their liveliness his landscapes are not a departure from Ashton’s youthful work as a street photographer but extend their trajectory; they capture and distill interactions of plants now, rather than people, in an environment far from the ‘urban jungle’ of Fitzroy, and at the pace that our mature years bestow and in which, acknowledging their increasing brevity, we value ever more the eternal and immutable.