Two exhibitions have captured the very essence of life at the time of the photographers, writes Karen Kissane.
TODAY’S FAMILY portraits take on a different meaning when they reach newspaper files. The family members who had been so carefully staged by a studio photographer, snuggling up and smiling at the camera as if they are the picture of happiness, have now endured the kind of catastrophe that brings media attention: a death, a disaster, a crime perpetrated from without or from within.
Perhaps the camera had captured a fleeting moment of wholeness and affection; is that not the point of the family portrait, to be a reminder of happy memories? But in some cases – the mother who killed her five children, the father who abducted his four – it is clear that the portrait was about the construction of a polite reality for public consumption. As in the film Ordinary People, the contrived images veiled the anger, sadness and distance of the people behind the smiles.
In previous generations, studio photographers did not strive for good cheer. The boomers’ parents and grandparents stared solemnly at the camera, poses formal and fixed, immaculate in their Sunday best. Even brides and grooms failed to show a glimmer of a smile, perhaps because they had already discovered some grim realities of married life (those pictures were often taken weeks after the actual wedding).
This is why the images in a new exhibition of family portraits by Sydney photographers Harold Cazneaux and Cecil Bostock are so enchanting – in terms of their humbleness, their joy and their spontaneity, they are out of their time.
Cazneaux and Bostock were founding members of the Sydney Camera Circle, a key group in the development of photography as an art form in Australia. Cazneaux died in 1953 and Bostock in 1939. As well as their formal work with landscape and studio images, the two took tender, intimate pictures of their children and their extended families that are as remarkable for their unpretentiousness as they are for their romantic lighting and composition.
In Bathing Baby in 1909, Cazneaux photographed his wife Winfred washing their daughter Rainbow in a small tin laundry tub, gentle light filtering through a nearby window on to the head and shoulders of the pensive babe and her mother’s puffy Edwardian sleeves. The ordinariness of the scene is attested by the household mess of an apple core, and soap that sits in a broken dish.
In The Quest in 1910, Rainbow is a toddler. She holds a cloth toy and a piece of fruit as she leans forward with sweet eagerness to peer at something out of frame. Rainbow is now 98. According to her daughter, Sally Garrett, who has helped with the exhibition, as that picture was shot, Rainbow’s parents were asking her, “Where are the fairies? Look for the fairies in the peach tree.”
Leanne Fitzgibbon, acting-senior curator at Bendigo Art Gallery, says of the exhibition: “We are peeking into the artist’s private life. In the photographs you can feel the parental gaze, the love that comes from behind the camera.”
We think of the “glamour portrait” as a new fad; the catering to narcissism of the woman who has herself – and sometimes her children – made over and photographed and airbrushed to maximise allure.
In fact, even Cazneaux’s pictures have their own “glamour”, in the original sense of the word as a magical enchantment, a spell that makes something appear more attractive than it really is, like a crone in the guise of a damsel. His “glamour” is the idea of childhood as an age of freedom and innocence. The studio portraits of earlier eras are seeking “glamour” too: that formal dressing, those stiff poses, project an image of orderliness and propriety, and reveal little about the inner world of the subjects.
But there are other, grittier portraits from that time that are filled with soul, even though their artistry was accidental.
City of Shadows is a Sydney exhibition of police photographs from early last century. Many of them are noirish shots of city alleyways and dingy lodgings that were the scenes of killings or accidental deaths. But many are mug shots, and they are quite unlike the dispirited flash photos of head and shoulders that are the mug shots of today.
They were taken in natural light, on glass negatives, and many are full-length. The criminals in front of the lens seem utterly relaxed: the jauntier ones flirt with the camera, the belligerent ones glare. Conmen who have dropped their mask of charm have a hostile, snaky gaze; women who have been jailed look back at the photographer with eyes luminous with despair.
“These police photos, for accidental reasons, look more like modern photos,” says Peter Doyle, curator of the exhibition. “They just got people on the hop. They seem to freeze something out of the flow of expressions and human animation. It gets some real essence of character.
“They got around the affectations and mannerisms and respectable expectations of the day because they were rascals. No one expected them to be bunging on any side.”
Several times, visitors to the exhibition have introduced themselves as relatives of people in the photographs. Two elderly men pointed to one thief and said, “Yes, that was our uncle.” A Melbourne family has identified one of Doyle’s most successful conwomen as someone from their family tree.
Among the rogues’ gallery are some members of the same families who were “in business” together. The McFarlane brothers, photographed with a third man in 1921, were semi-hobos with serious criminal records who went around like rag-and-bone men, in a horse and cart, stealing.
Robert seems the extroverted one, almost smiling at the camera. He stands with feet planted firmly apart, defiantly cocky despite the worn patches on his trouser knees, and the way his toes can be seen through the holes in his shoes.
The McGuinesses were also related. Hazel, 21, was arrested three times in 1929 on cocaine peddling charges, along with her mother Ada, who ran a brothel. On the last bust, Ada threw the dope packets to her daughter and shouted, “Run, Hazel, run!”
In their photographs, Hazel’s eyes are demurely downcast, as if she is almost ashamed to find herself arrested. Her hard-faced mother, on the other hand, stares back at the camera with thin-lipped indifference. In court, a drugs bureau detective called Ada “the vilest creature it has ever been my misfortune to encounter”, but the whole bureau felt sorry for Hazel, who had been “reared in an environment of immorality and dope”.
In this case, it seems the camera did not lie.
Family Portraits: Harold Cazneaux and Cecil Bostock, is at the Bendigo Art Gallery, 42 View Street, until August 6.
City of Shadows is at the Justice & Police Museum, corner Phillip and Albert streets, Circular Quay, Sydney, until February 11, 2007. The hardcover book City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912-1948 is published by the Historic Houses Trust (NSW) and distributed by Thames & Hudson, $65.
First published in The Age.