And furthermore ...

One Man's Treasure encourages the use of anonymous photographs posted here to illustrate books and album covers.
If an image appeals to you, contact John Toohey at

Sunday, 26 December 2010


Australian snapshots from the 1930s and 40s
"You should have come down and had Christmas dinner with us. We had a chook but it was as hard as a football."
Ruth Park, The Harp in the South

Ruth Park died on December 14th. She was 93. This may not mean much to non-Australians but her two novels set in Surry Hills during the Depression, The Harp in the South (1948) and Poor Man’s Orange (1949) have become Australian classics. Park wouldn’t hear a bad word against her husband, Darcy Niland, yet there are reasons why her novels remain in print when most of his have been forgotten.

Park wrote a lot more children’s books than she did adult fiction. She is a link between authors like Niland and the playwright Ray Lawler, who describe the lives of working class men and women, and children’s writers like Colin Thiele or Ivan Southall and they all have something in common. Long before intellectuals started problematizing the idea of ‘Australian identity’, they were certain of what it wasn’t. English children had drab lives trapped in dirty, polluted cities and they didn’t get up to a great deal. Australian children lived in small country towns. They rode horses, fished in creeks and got involved in all manner of scrapes and hijinks. Even the adults with their various afflictions and woes understood how fortunate they were. The writers weren’t that inept to claim that life was perfect but when you compared Australia to other countries it was about as close as anywhere got. And the worst place a child could end up in was England. Even if Australians sang ‘God Save the King’ whenever it was required of them (every conceivable opportunity) and radio announcers still affected BBC English accents, how could you trade the eternal sunshine of an Australian childhood for grim, damp England?

Not too many people remember their childhood in Australia being quite so carefree and adventurous as Park, Thiele et al made out. Still, they can recall moments and, as it happens, a lot of old family photo albums give us glimpses that prove the writers weren’t just spinning fantasies. Obviously, people photograph what they want to remember and they are very selective, but the photos here could all be scenes and portraits from a ‘timeless Australian classic’. All of those children’s writers traded on a nostalgia for their own childhoods – what was or what ought to have been – and even the books they published in the early 1970s had the feel of a time since past. They kept up to date with technology but the sensibility and the values belonged to more distant times.

If that world of long summers in magical small towns ever existed for longer than the press of a camera shutter then you have to say that by the late 1960s it had vanished. Most people now lived in the cities and more of them were going to university. A different consciousness took root. Filmmakers in particular turned on the country towns. They became places where the Aboriginal residents had wretched lives, the town drunks were no longer lovable but mean and beat their wives and inevitably, the smaller the town the more sinister its secrets. Shame, The Cars that Ate Paris and Summerfield represented a loss of innocence that was long overdue though their point of view was every bit as romanticised as what had come before, just darker.


Sunday, 19 December 2010


 Anonymous postcards

To me, photography is an art of observation. It's about finding something interesting in an ordinary place... I've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.
Elliott Erwitt

Maybe it’s not hugely interesting but it still is that we look at photographs differently when we don’t know who took them. Not only are we much more tolerant of an anonymous photographer’s flaws, they can actually make the image more impressive. The photographer who took this shot of the Turkish footballers may have been a professional in the sense he was paid to take it but a real professional would have aware of the shadow and done something to be rid of it. It’s the shadow however that makes this photograph. Without it the image would be very ordinary. It’s as though we need a name before we can begin a proper critique. 

Everybody knows what a bad painting is; it’s one we glance at and move past. The same applies to bad writing or amateurish music, but a bad photograph can sometimes stop us in our tracks. Somebody made a mistake. They either ignored basic rules or were ignorant of them and what we can get is an image elevated from the merely intriguing to the almost great. The only other medium so generous to creators and viewers is the cinema, where some awfully bad films are so strange we suspect we are experiencing a whole new point of view for the first time. 

Lee Hazlewood, the writer behind some classic ‘dumb’ songs like Some Velvet Morning, reminded an interviewer once that dumb does not mean stupid. Dumb means not knowing the limitations. Dumbness can accidentally push the boundaries. Without the innate quality of dumbness some great songs would have never made it to the recording studio, and vernacular photography would have ceased to be interesting years go. Take this photo of a group of men standing around an old wind up turntable. A ‘good’ photographer would have realized the dog nuzzling the man’s crotch and the fellow at the back with his arms upraised were just wrong. This photographer didn’t and what we get is a scene full of little incidents to look at. The coat on the wall is out of place, but it isn’t.  

The world’s museums are full of paintings by unknown artists attributed to ‘the school of (insert artist, studio or town here)’ but someone has at least made an effort to locate them within a frame of reference. With photographs we don’t care. The mystery of who took it and why is intrinsic to the image and to attempt to solve it would be to devalue the work. Which brings us to another point. Once we know the name of a photographer we can fix a certain monetary value to a work. Without a name the value becomes entirely personal. We have a form of anti-economics, where the vale is so purely subjective as to challenge the orthodoxy that an object’s value needs a certain consensus to legitimize it.

All of the photographs in this gallery are postcards, which may matter because somebody thought they were good enough to print and distribute. All of them are anonymous and some of them have an element of goodness that, if we knew the photographer and were that photographer well known, we’d be quick to label them minor or even major masterpieces. Others frustrate our expectations. The real point here is that we don’t have to label them, or rather we mustn’t. To do that would be to make the fatal mistake of calling them art, which they might be but which they also most certainly are not.


Sunday, 12 December 2010


Cinema film stills and portraits

My mother said it was simple to keep a man, you must be a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom.”
Jerry Hall

When Cindy Sherman exhibited the first Untitled Film Stills in 1978 she didn’t change ideas about women in cinema so much as confirm them. People were already very familiar with the stereotypes Hollywood had thrown at them for the last seventy years; the whore with a heart of gold, the sacred mother, the ingénue waiting to be rescued, the dumb blonde, the feisty redhead, the conniving brunette. Great actresses, we were told, created their own personas but they didn’t really. They were given a recipe, so to speak, sent into the kitchen and if the result didn’t meet expectations they were passed over. Sherman was astute. She avoided the high end of Hollywood, opting for B movies. There’s a sense with a lot of her images that you recognize the films they come from, you’ve seen them, but on late night television when you weren’t giving them your full attention. Another detail she was careful about; the stills are never high drama. They come from quiet moments in the film, just before or after a major scene. It’s as though you know the film but can’t recall that particular instant.

Could a man have pulled off the same trick as Sherman? Well, it wouldn’t have had the same resonance. In 1978 the imagery of women carried far more weight than studies of masculinity. It was more closely analyzed, particularly by people who thought of masculinity as something to react against. The manly clichés were still in abundance too. John Wayne was having successive parts cut from his cancerous body but he was still technically alive and no one yet had any idea how far or how low Sylvester Stallone would take his comic book parody of the all American male. If Sherman’s work was parody, it was of a subject that hadn’t yet been exposed to it. The characters she played were essentially bit parts, supporting actresses, the hero’s girl, the one whose only significant contribution to the film was her looks.

 And another thing; Sherman realized that when it came to women, Hollywood had created dozens of stereotypes she could work off. When it came to men however it had been lazy. Forgetting types like the cowboy or the soldier, (Sherman wasn’t interested in the immediately obvious.) men were generally banally realized, strong or weak, meting out violence or taking it, morally upright or dissolute. Complex characters were rare and they tended to wear their complexity like giant tattoos on their foreheads. Besides, how could a photographer successfully parody something that was already satire anyway? A male photographer setting out on the same project would have soon found himself trying desperately to avoid the kind of clichés she could exploit because hers had been incidental in the first place.     

Looking through this collection of publicity photos and film stills we can see why Sherman could pull off something a man couldn’t. The women appear here as various types, the mother, the temptress etc. You don’t have to recognize the film to know the roles they fill. The same can’t be said of the men. What is really apparent is how often the men must describe themselves through violence. They are involved with forces beyond their control and spilling blood will usually be the only response they know. The women are different. They will survive, thanks to the virtue they were either born with or discovered halfway through the film, if not that, their native cunning. We get the feeling that by the end of the film most of the men will have met a sticky end. The women will get what they want. We get the same impression looking at Sherman’s photographs. The girl hitchhiking into the night will be picked up by a saviour who changes her life. The noise that alerts the insouciant librarian won’t affect her so much as she thinks. There’s danger and menace everywhere but this is a make believe world; everything will be fine.

Sherman made 69 film stills in the series and said that she stopped making them in 1980 when she ran out of clichés. 69 seems an arbitrary number; she could have surely come up with a few more, yet how many would a man have made?


Saturday, 4 December 2010


Small studio portraits

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The Man who Shot Liberty Valance: John Ford, 1962

We are all types. All of us can be fitted into categories that describe who we are, predict our behaviour and attitudes and are the first step towards others understanding who we are. This is nothing new. Marketing departments may have made a science of determining behaviour patterns based on disparate scraps of evidence but it’s a primal response to assess people based on first impressions, which are themselves a form of categorization.

The invention of photography changed a few things and one of them was that it gave ordinary people licence to create a permanent image of themselves that even others who the sitter was likely never meet in the flesh would form their opinions from. There are stories from the 1860s of people preparing themselves for hours before heading off to the studio for a CDV portrait. Before it was taken the photographer would discuss the desired props and backgrounds. Afterwards the print was taken to the retouching department where wrinkles and scars were carefully obliterated. The result was an image that friends would immediately recognize even though it was a fiction. The sitter was who she said she was yet somehow she looked taller and more elegant than in real life.

This ability of the camera to tell the truth while wrapping it up in deceptions has become the most powerful function of photography and we’ve never yet come up with a term to describe this dissemblance that the medium relies on.

Case in point: These are all small portraits of real people who sat for the camera and presented an image of themselves that was part truth, part invention. The most interesting aspect doesn’t have to do with trying to determine where fact ends and falsehood begins. It’s more to do with the question of why, when we face the camera, do we draw on types that are familiar and obvious? Why can’t we invent new types?

This has to do with the truth factor. No matter how thoroughly we glamourize ourselves, we still need to make our portraits identifiable. A man goes into the studio and asks to be made to look like a movie star. The photographer places the camera at a particular angle, the lights are set up, the man tilts his head one way and – snap – he is transformed. But the effect would be useless if that transformation was total. He needs people need to know it is still him - the short guy with mundane ambitions and the not so glamorous office job. If no one recognized him and thought he was carrying a snap of a Hollywood star in his wallet, well that would be tragic on several levels. The paradox is that in order to understand the sitter we need to think about the fiction they have invented. That they want to look like a certain type tells us more about them than any other visual clues.

Another point about the power of photography is that it is so easy to effect this transformation. One camera and a light source is all we need and it is done in less than a second. Thanks to photography we are all who we want to be.