In the mid-1970s, Sue Ford first exhibited her Time series. These photographs, straightforward mugshots of herself, her friends and acquaintances, are fascinating documentations of the changes wrought by time. In three or four frames, people grow older before our eyes. Television 's "Seven-Up" documentaries brought the process to life, tracing the progress of a group of English school children into adulthood.
John Grech's Holtermann Rephotographs series applies this principle to geographical location, looking at what a hundred years has done to a particular area of New South Wales. And this is a particular area. Hill End, which was once (if you believe the legend) the largest inland city in Australia, is today along with its neighbour, Gulgong, a virtual ghost town. That fact alone gives this little group of settlements a special place in Australian folklore. We retain today a kind of nineteenth-century moral fascination with the spectre of the boom-town gone bust, with all its Ruskinian overtones of the frailty of human endeavour. The fall from grace of Hill End has an almost biblical dimension. Human greed and ambition will be punished and nature will emerge triumphant in the end. it's the sort of stuff that Romanticism is made of.
Fortuitously, from an historical point of view, Hill End and Gulgong are also two of the most thoroughly documented nineteenth-century Australian rural towns, thanks to a gold-wealthy citizen named Otto Holtermann. Holtermann commissioned the American and Australasian Photographic Company to document the entire area, street by street, in 1872-3 and the company's photographers, Beaufoy Merlin and his assistant, Charles Bayliss, put together an archive of over three-thousand images. The Holtermann Collection, now in the State Library of New South Wales, is one of our most important historical documents and the images have been much reproduced.
Sydney photographer John Grech has taken thirty of the original plates and rephotographed the same sites today, trying, as far as possible, to duplicate exactly the viewpoints of the earlier images. In doing so, he has produced a document about the passing of time which is far more complex than we may at first expect and which brings into question the assumptions that people tend to make when they use the Holtermann pictures as somehow representative of Australian history as a whole.
Grech 's accompanying statement, which aligns his project with that especially dry and bloodless kind of theorising which characterizes so much art criticism today, does the Holtermann works and his own a disservice, as we might expect from any attempt to squeeze the complexities of nineteenth-century aesthetic thinking into a 'post-modernist' mould. I think he has misread the originals, although in the long run, this probably doesn't matter very much, because the photographs he has produced are so good they can survive on their own merits.
The visual evidence of the Holtermann photographs themselves argues strongly against his assertion that "Merlin and Bayliss probably didn't think they were expressing their 'visual aesthetic' through their work at all", and that their work is "an expression of a nineteenth century 'realistic' aesthetic" (an odd terminology whose meaning he doesn't explain). It is, I think, a mistake to assume that because these photographers had been commissioned, they were simply fulfilling the terms of their commission and no more. There is too much tendency these days to think of the Victorians as po-faced and slightly simple-minded, thus passing over the rich complexities of their thinking about matters of art and culture. The Merlin and Bayliss photographs are famous not just because they are an important social document, but also, and perhaps primarily, because they are splendid photographs. While many are simple recordings, many more are sophisticated, self-consciously romantic images, full of humour and poignancy, no more just straight documentation than are John Grech's.
A perfect example of this is photo number 13 in the exhibition. It depicts a men's clothing store named in bold letters across its fake, clapboard facade "The Greatest Wonder of the World ". In Grech's 1988 retake, it is still there, but it is now "The Greatest Wonder of the World Video Shop", although it has lost its impressive clapboard facade and therefore appears to have shrunk.
Graham Bennett, the modern owner, stands outside with his wife, his child and a customer. They don't look as proud or as well-dressed as their nineteenth-century counterparts. In the 1870s it was a real event to be photographed outside your store. Certainly worth dressing up for. These folk adopt almost mock-heroic poses, beneath the splendidly absurd title of their shop. Of course they are sending themselves up, and the photographers have entered into the fun.
The Victorians would have understood that kind of self-deprecating humour perfectly and they used it constantly in advertising and promotion. Their sense of fun was, on the whole, probably much more highly developed than ours is and it was linked to a deep sense of insecurity about the collapse of traditional values, the despoilation of the environment and the uncertainties of the future. Black humour, as a genre, was a Victorian invention and it originated from the awareness that, to paraphrase Ruskin, the hand of God was missing. These insecurities, as Grech's photographs indicate, were not without foundation.
On the other hand, "The Greatest Wonder of the World" as title for the video shop is merely historicist kitsch. The reasons it was funny in the 1870s no longer apply.
There is no reason to assume, when we see a sign such as "Carpenter, Joiner, Builder , Cabinetmaker and Undertaker" outside a tiny bark hut surrounded by a mud hole, that it's only we who can see the joke. The fact that the site today has become an RSL Hall is a joke whose subtleties would, I suspect, be appreciated by fewer citizens. The deadpan humour (if you 'll excuse the pun) of Grech's photograph is perfectly mirrored by that of Merlin and Bayliss and sets up a serendipitous rhythm over a hundred years of history which is both touching and enlightening.
More poignant, however, are the photographs which show the complete disappearance of whole communities. They comprise what a Victorian critic might have called "mute testimony to human folly ". Canadian Lead in 1872, for example, is a small but apparently lively town and an 1870s view of Reef Street, Hill End, shows a busy thoroughfare with the hillside beyond stripped of its vegetation and littered with buildings, many constructed of brick and stone. By 1988 they have all gone, Canadian Lead is a paddock, the Hill End view is one of Elysian calm.
It is this that makes these rephotographs so interesting: the evidence they present of human ambitions reversed, of human enterprise thwarted. This is the way the Victorians themselves, Merlin and Bayliss included, would, I'm certain, have read John Grech's photographs. In this sense, what Grech has done, rather than provide any post-modern recontextualisation of the originals, is to complete the cycle of social documentation that Merlin and Bayliss began. He has provided, in microcosm, a perfect illustration of the late eighteenth- century notion of the cyclical development of the state which, in its rise to economic wealth and power, sows the seeds of its own destruction. The idea of a community greedily gobbling up the source of its own existence is a powerful one, especially today.