‘If I could locate another woman’

michaelis-isolation-and-loss

Margaret Michaelis,  Parramatta River, Sydney [self-portrait], 1948, NGA 86.1384.267

Gail Jones’ intricate and luminous novel of 2004, Sixty Lights, tells the story of Lucy Strange, a colonial quester in the Victorian age who becomes passionate about photography and its metaphysical implications. Sixty Lights could be described as a kunstlerroman of the photographer – perhaps the first of its kind, in contrast to the Australian kunstlerromans which focus on the painter, such as Patrick White’s The Vivisector and David Malouf’s Harland’s Half Acre.

If kunsterromans relate to an ‘actual’ artistic referent, then Sixty Lights surely looks to the brilliant, idiosyncratic oeuvre of Julia Margaret Cameron. Some of the traces the novel bears include the protagonist’s intended marriage to a colonial in India several years her senior, and her maculate hands and apron, stained by silver nitrate.

Rereading Sixty Lights recently, I was curious to find the following passage within a letter written by the protagonist to her benefactor:

You ask for news of my work and I can report truthfully that my knowledge of chemistry is improving – largely through correspondence with the Society of Photographers – and that I am slowly mastering the wet collodion technique […] although the men of the Society of Photographers consider thumbprints a sin and me an irredeemable sinner for refusing their wise counsel […] If I could locate another woman interested in photography, I feel sure I could speak honestly and openly of these matters and defend more confidently my maculate aesthetic. (199)

In this aside, the narrator touches on a time in photography when women would seek out other women to enhance both creative and professional prospects. Although photography was a new discipline and theoretically  amenable to self-expression through experimentation, it was not devoid of the hierarchical structures endemic to the traditional arts of painting and sculpture, nor those of the applied arts. Photographic societies could be elitist and were male-dominated; in Australia, few women amateur photographers have been located from 1840-1870, probably in part due to their exclusion from such societies. This marginalisation continued until the early twentieth century in Australia, in contrast to the situation in North America, which had more flexible entry from the 1880s.

In the golden age of studio portrait photography, 1880-1920, women such as Ada Driver and the Moore sisters hired only women assistants. Such tutelage was early feminist by design, instilling confidence and financial autonomy in the next generation of women photographers. Women became increasingly mobile, socially as well as geographically, and learned how both artistic and commercial ambitions could thrive as a result of feminine networks.

One key aim of our research in ‘The Complete Craze’ is to illuminate the social connections and networks that supported women’s photography; and to imagine women’s photography, too, as a form of social association. When productive connections took place, like that between Ruth Hollick and Pegg Clarke – what made them work? When connections did not seem to either stick, or even happen at all – as in the non-relationship between Olive Cotton and Margaret Michaelis, both running their Sydney studios in close proximity during the war years – how could this happen? What can longing to connect, and missed connections, tell us about the politics underpinning photography’s social dimension?

In two days I’ll visit the archives of Cotton and Michaelis at the National Library of Australia and the National Gallery of Australia, respectively. I hope to find some information that might explain their missed connection, with the view to place this in a broader context of the early history of women photographer’s collectivity, prior to the politically conscious, strategic collectivism and sociality of feminist photography after the 1960s.

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