Consider the peacock, as does Carmel Bird in her newly released Telltale, which features on its cover the splendid creature as illustrated by my partner Lorena Carrington.
Those iridescent, shimmering, scintillating colours of the celebrated peacock tail I can assure you, having read the research, do not exist; the peacock’s tail is as brown, as boring, as the back of a cloth-bound textbook.
The colours are not in its feathers. They are produced by light refracted from the feathers’ minute, overlapping barbules; one million on each tail feather. Three layers of keratin tune an interference pattern as light reflects from their front and back surfaces, out-of-phase, shifting the wave frequency dark purple in the ‘pupil’ of the eye, blue in the ‘iris’ of the eye, bronze around the iris and green on the fringes. Like a hologram, the colours change with the angle of view.
The effect inspired one scientist in 1923, C.W. Mason, to “marvel at the perfection of nature’s method of producing these colours with such uniformity through successive generations, when a slight general variation…would be enough to alter its coloration completely.” Other scientists have determined that the colours have only aesthetic purpose for courtship; the ‘eyes’ scare no predators in its native India as they cannot see them. They are visible only to its mate the pea-hen, other birds, and humans.
It’s evolution, destiny; it’s a trick of light.
It is to Gabriel Lippmann (1845 – 1921), professor of physics at the Sorbonne, that we owe the application of this phenomenon to photography.
In 1886, Lippmann determined to confirm the wave nature of light by ‘fixing the colours of the solar spectrum onto a photographic plate.’ Effectively he recreated the effect of the peacock’s keratin by capturing the small wavelengths (e.g. 0.4 – 0.7 µm, i.e. 0.0004 – 0.0007 mm) of visible light within a thin silver emulsion then, after processing, projecting parallel rays of white light back through the emulsion by reflection. Light of approximately the same wavelength as the incoming light had left layers of darkened silver and clear film, and its colour was reflected back toward the viewer. Light of other wavelengths was absorbed by a black anti-reflection coating applied to the back of the plate after it had been developed. The wavelengths, and therefore the colours, of the light exposing the original image were thus reconstituted for a full-colour image. Quite likely, this is the effect which seemed to reproduce the hues of natural scenes in Reverend Levi L. Hill‘s discredited invention of the colour daguerreotype.
On 2 February 1891, he was able to announce to the Academy of Sciences:
“I have succeeded in obtaining the image of the spectrum with its colours on a photographic plate whereby the image remains fixed and can remain in daylight without deterioration.”
Lippmann was award the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physics for his “method of reproducing colours photographically based on the phenomenon of interference.”
However viewing had to adhere to strict conditions; the plate had to be fastidiously prepared in order to eliminate stray reflections; the viewer had stand with their back toward a small aperture admitting light from a bright neutral overcast sky into a darkened room so that parallel rays would be reflected back to them. The emulsion had to fine-grained, and therefore very slow, in order to capture the interference pattern, and so thin as to correspond to around ten wavelengths. Exposures were minutes- or hours-long. Pure hues in the subject generate the most vivid effect, as can be verified in the lush grass of the Swiss landscape and in the flowers, grapes and blue sky background of the still life. Each picture is unique, existing only on the original plate, and copies are laborious to make, so are rarely seen.
The Musée de l’Elysée de Lausanne holds 133 landscapes, portraits and still lifes made by Lippmann himself with his process, and its principle became the basis for Dennis Gabor‘s “hologram” which in 1971 also received a Nobel Prize.
Coincidentally, just released two days ago in hardback by Amsterdam University Press, is Hanin Hannouch‘s Gabriel Lippmann’s Colour Photography : Science, Media, Museums, with essays by William R. Alschuler, Klaus Hentschel, Lazaros C. Triarhou, Manuel del Cerro, Susan Gamble, Jens Schröter, Elizabeth Cronin, Rolf Sachsse, Jens Gold, Pauline Martin, Carole Sandrin, Hans I. Bjelkhagen, Nathalie Boulouch.
This reconstruction of colour may also be applied — by a virtuoso writer — to expression in literature, and that is certainly so in Telltale. Carmel remembers;
“When I was fifteen we studied Katherine Mansfield’s The Fly [a creature whose transparent wings glint with interference spectra]. I suddenly saw how the surface narrative and the narratives and meanings below the surface could dance together with an electrifying elegance to move the heart and illuminate the mind. This was my first conscious lesson in style and structure.”
Telltale begins with a warning about The Trickster, ‘timestamped’ by the author ‘2020,’ the year of two plagues, one the trumpeting of infectious lies and contagious cheating. The ‘unreliable memoir’ is an Australian currency, a genre even, coined in 1980 by the late Clive James for his first volume of autobiography, and which extends from a long-standing thread in larrikin Australian literature. Is Telltale such a memoir?
Fear not. You can rely on Carmel, though she too can be larrikin, out for a lark. She, the Bird, whose eyes, unlike that other’s one hundred, have re-read countless books lining her library during the COVID lockdowns to write this one, including “the very books handled with little hands, read with childish eyes, coloured in with crayons and pencils, kept forever and ever,” and in which she is “transported by memory into the moment on the bridge back in 1945, Once upon a time in Launceston, Tasmania.” That day, in Tokyo…
The book revolves around, and devolves from, Carmel’s memory of her walk, with her aunts, from Kings Bridge in Launceston along a path hewn from the black basalt cliff skirting the seething South Esk River to a picnic ground remembered as an emerald, peacock green;
“I identify with the child in the bobbing pink bonnet. Is she my ghost or am I hers?”
Her eyes have watched magical, often astonishing words spring from beneath her hand as she has written her eleven novels and eight collections of short fiction, the first in year 8 after her Miss Russell, “the queen of English teachers,” told her to write chapters of a novel instead of the weekly essay she set the class. Carmel amplifies trivial observation, The Woodpecker Toy Facts, into fiction that is ineluctably true; The Bluebird Cafe, Child of the Twilight, and Family Skeletons in which, she reminds us, the peacock also makes an entrance.
In 260 pages the range is vast; encyclopaedic, like the Harmsworth of her (and my own) childhood fascination, encompassing literature, leterrmairrener, lives, lovebirds, Loki, Lolita, Le Grand Meaulnes, Lear and Monika Lewinsky. Mercifully, she gives us an index!
As Miss Russell said of her budding writer “If we took a slice off her head we would find that the only thing in there is a metaphor,“ and it is true; this book is a criss-crossing, a warp and weft, a filmy interference pattern of expressions, images, tropes, allegory, parable and analogy, replete with symbols, emblems, and luminous literary conceits. The story arc like the peacock’s tail, is spanned with another; the bridge which brackets memory, false or true; “Can I remember without imagining? Can I imagine without remembering? What is an historian? What is a poet? What is memoir?”, Carmel puzzles.
There is “YA” literature, so why not “OA”? Like Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu this is a glorious book to read when one has lived one’s ‘three score and ten’ years. I revelled in memories shared with Carmel and marvelled at those which are hers alone.
We are all old too soon and may remind ourselves, whatever our age, that those earnest, appraising eyes in young Carmel’s picture aged seven at Dark Hollow School are the same as the sparkling, wise and playful ones in her author portrait.
On the endpapers of Telltale are 19th century photographs of the Gorge in which the picnic ground, the Kings and Alexandra bridges, and the peacocks, are found. The inclusion of these atmospheric 1890s pictures, made with long exposures that smooth the water surface, heightens a sense that we peer with Carmel into her memories, at one moment crisply recalled, at another, blurred by time. As I cannot obtain copies of the originals, photos of the book itself will suffice;
In 1879, brothers Henry (1853–90), Joshua (b. 29 October 1854), and William (1857–81) Anson, photographers of the above, purchased Samuel Clifford’s studio, including albums, cartes de visite and stereographs by Clifford in Hobart, and there produced albums now held in state collections including Views of Tasmania (1880) Tasmanian Scenes (c.1880-1889); Photographs Tasmania (1880); Souvenir of Tasmania (c.1880–1890); Picturesque Tasmania Taken by Anson Bros (1890); and Picturesque and Interesting Tasmania (1890) and traded in postcards and souvenir imagery of Tasmania. They were joined by the now better-known, Scottish-born John Watt Beattie in 1891, just as Lippmann was devising his interference colour imagery). He then bought them out and, according to Jack Cato, himself, like Bird, a Launceston native;
Almost immediately the studio was exploded into a huge business. The Ansons studio was a small part of the largest building in Elizabeth Street. It contained three storeys consisting of two large shops and upstairs offices. Gradually John took over the whole building. The shops were turned into exhibition rooms, one for landscapes, and the other for portraits and groups. The basement was used for making and mixing chemicals and sensitising printing papers. There was a large framing department, and workrooms and darkrooms, the Beattie Lending Library, the Beattie Museum of Van Diemen’s Land a relics, a huge studio where groups of seventy or eighty people could be taken, and access to a roof top for sun printing.
Tragically, Joshua Anson’s life is the stuff of melodrama. One can trace his career through the newspapers; starting with his comfortable childhood as son of innkeeper, also named Joshua, previously a clerk, who in 1855 took over the Bush Hotel in New Norfolk, 30 km N.E. along the Derwent from Hobart. The boys were all epileptics, which did not play out well in the mid-1800s. [Interference with transporter function on both neurons and glia (primarily astrocytes) activates or suppress epileptiform activity depending on which transporter is being blocked.]
They attended Hobart Town Academy that prepared pupils for ‘mercantile pursuits,’ run by Alexander Cairnduff (popularly known as “Plummy”) in Brisbane-street in central Hobart and they were frequently mentioned in reports as winners of first or second prizes for Greek, Latin and History over the 1860s. By 1872 Joshua had been apprenticed to the photographer Henry H. Baily.
From there things went badly. Given charge of the 94 Liverpool St. shop while Baily ran another at 139 Elizabeth St., temptation overcame him. On 9 June 1877, The Mercury, reports on p.2 of proceedings at the City Police Court, which I include here for an insight into the standing and value of photography at that time:
FELONY.— Joshua Anson, photographic artist, was brought up on demand by Detective Connors, on a charge of stealing sundry photographic goods of the aggregate value of £180 from the premises of his employer, Mr. H. H. Baily, of Liverpool-street. Mr. T. Sheehy appealed for the prosecution, and Mitchell for the prisoner.
Mr. Sheehy made an application to be allowed to withdraw the information then before the court, in order that he might file another that might be dealt with summarily.
The Police Magistrate replied that after reading the notes of the evidence he really thought he should not be doing his duty if he consented to the course suggested. In his opinion the charge should be proceeded with or abandoned altogether.
Mr. Sheehy replied that then he should reluctantly have to proceed. He then stated the case briefly, and
called H. H. Baily, photographer, who said the accused had been in his employ for five years. At various times witness had missed certain goods from his shop, and about five months ago he gave instructions to the police with regard to the matter. About the 26th of May witness missed some photographic albums called Souvenirs of Tasmania, when a search warrant was executed, and the four albums produced were found at the prisoner’s residence upon a table. The majority of the other articles produced were found by Detective Connor in the prisoner’s work-room. The prisoner admitted the goods belonged to witness. After the accused was arrested witness went through the goods with the police, and found the value of them to be No. 1 box, £40 ; No. 2 box, £85 ; No 3 box, £5 ; in addition to which there were quantities of glass, negatives, views, albums, and boxes, valued at £50 ; the total value being named at £180, although the real value of the goods exceeded that amount. Until the search warrant was issued, witness had nothing but suspicions that the defendant was taking the things. On enquiring of the prisoner on several occasions with regard to the loss of goods, his answers were sufficient to prevent his dismissal. Witness paid the prisoner £3 per week as wages. (By the Court : Never gave the prisoner permission to remove the articles from his premises.)
Detective Connor said, on 31st May he executed a search warrant at the residence of the prisoner’s mother, when Mr. Baily and the prisoner were present. Before doing so witness told the prisoner he had to search the promises for some property belonging to Mr. Baily, and he asked him to conduct him to his workshop. The workshop was situated in the yard, and the prisoner had the key. Witness found the articles produced (with the exception of a few albums) in the workshop, and they were identified by Mr. Baily as his property. Mr. Baily said to prisoner “you are an ungrateful fellow to rob me in this manner, when I was paying you £3, a week. The prisoner then asked him to forgive him, and said he would recoup him for all. Witness told prisoner it was too late then as the matter was in the hands of the police. The accused then said “I must be a fool, I must be mad.” There were some views on a shelf which Mr. Baily was doubtful as to whether they were his property, when the prisoner remarked “Take them all Mr. Baily; they all belong to you.” Witness had had the prisoner under his notice tor five or six months past. On searching him at the police station the detective found £19 in money, 10s. in stamps, and a number of papers. Witness examined the goods with Mr. Baily, and they were valued at £180 [$22,320.00 in today’s money] When taken to the Police Station and informed of the charge, the prisoner made no reply.
That concluded the evidence for the prosecution.
The prisoner, who declined to make any statement, was committed to take his trial at the next sessions of the Criminal Court. An application for bail was refused.
He served 18 months with remission and on his release took over Clifford’s studio in July 1879. In 1881 the younger brother William drowned, aged 23, at the Domain Baths, presumably as a result of an epileptic attack.The 1890s depression in Australia was beginning to bite and the brothers were falling behind on rent. Brother Henry, left the business to marry but was found dead in his bed, apparently after an epileptic fit, in March 1890.
On 14 April 1892 the Launceston Examiner reports;
Alfred Dermold, of Melbourne, stationer, praying that Joshua Anson, of Hobart, photographer, be adjudicated bankrupt, he being indebted to the applicant to the amount of £154 4s 6d, and having committed an act of bankruptcy in having filed a declaration of his inability to pay his debts. The hearing of the application has been fixed for April 25.
Having moved to rooms at 129 Collins St. Hobart, his next misfortune was reported in March 1993, and was due perhaps to the strain of his financial woes:
He was discharged from bankruptcy in September 1893 and had presumably been working in the brother’s’ former studio for Beattie, struggling to support his Henry’s family. In 1896, he turned once again to crime, pickpocketing cash to the current value of A$4,600.00.
Again his epilepsy exacerbated his woe. Though again the money he stole was retrieved from his lodgings, he was sentenced to a year’s prison;
Released on 26 July 1897, scarred and missing a toe, it is possible that Joshua reinvented himself as ‘John’ Anson in Western Australia.
You may read of such tales (though not Joshua Anson’s) and the darker histories of Tasmania that Carmel Bird details in her book, in particular the decimation of its First Nations to the point of being regarded as a dying race, despite their survival to this day.