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Photography in Australian Fiction

X-Ray image of hand, Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen

Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen, X-Ray image of hand

Last year I met an Italian student called Giorgia Tolfo from Bologna University, who was in Australia to research her thesis, The Photographic Act in Contemporary Australian Fiction. As part of her research she interviewed me and a number of other Australian writers (Delia Falconer and Gail Jones amongst others) who have used photographic motifs in their work.

She’s not the first person to write on this subject. Paul Genoni published a paper in Antipodes in 2002 exploring the use of photography in novels such as my second novel, The Deep Field, Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, Liam Davison’s Soundings, and Thea Astley’s Reaching Tin River (you can access the paper via the Curtin University Library site, though you’ll need to click the pdf symbol in the top right corner to actually read it). But it was interesting to find an Italian student struck by the same resonances between the various works she was writing about (she’s also incredibly bright and very charming, which never hurts either).

Anyway – I just received an email from Giorgia, telling me not only has she passed, but she’s received the highest mark, which is fantastic news. And, since I suspect her thesis isn’t likely to find its way into print in English in a hurry, I thought I might reproduce some extracts from the written interview I did for her after we spoke.

1. What is it that interests you about photography and what was it about photography you set out to investigate in your novel? Was there a particular influence or reference that urged you to write about photography?

I initially became interested in using photography as an element in the novel after looking at a book of photos of museum exhibits by Rosamund Purcell. The images were largely of objects from 18th century cabinets of curiosity, but there were images of fossilized ammonites amongst them, something about those images of ancient stone shells struck a chord with me..

Over time this idea of photographing fossils merged with the ideas I was also interested in exploring, about endings, and continuance, and deep time, and the idea that our own presence in the world might be part of a larger cycle, and a larger order. I remember reading Sontag, and Barthes, and being struck by their insistence that photography must be a representation of death. That seemed right to me, but also wrong – photos are also, necessarily, a form of connection to the past, a kind of persistence through time, in the same way a fossil is, and they connect us to the past, even as they remind us it is gone, and in so doing suggest something about the way loss is always with us, but part of us, and the capacity of things to go on, and endure.

2. In your novel, The Deep Field, Anna begins taking pictures of ammonites and fossils, but only after a scene in which the shells are explored by the blind character with his hands. Was this an attempt to link the idea of tactile memory to the idea of fossils as tactile memories of now vanished organic organisms? What do you see as the best form of memory – visual, tactile, emotional?

I was interested in different ways of being in the world, and particularly by the idea that the blind inhabit a non-spatial world made up of tactile and auditory experience connected in time, rather than spatially. Like virtual reality and cyberspace, that seemed ot me to suggest a very different way of being in the world, and one it might be useful to understand better as technology continues to alter the contours of our identity and the world we inhabit. But I also wanted to connect this idea of the new, and the futuristic to the very ancient, hence the shell on Mars, and the high tech photos of fossils. By doing that, and by playing on the way the blind inhabit their temporal and experiential world I thought it might be possible to suggest something of the way we exist within memory, and experience, rather than the other way around.

3. What do you think about the relationship between fiction and photography? Do you think that the former can help people to better understand the social, emotional and private value of the latter? Do you agree on the fact that fiction is more powerful than theory in exploring the possibilities of photography, being able to create new and not necessarily real situation?

Fiction and photography are necessarily very different. Fiction is narrative-based, and is therefore connected to change. Photography is something sliced free of time we must project a narrative, or meaning into. One explains us to ourselves, the other denies explanation (a process you can see at work in Sebald). But at the same time, both work by opening up imaginative possibility.

That said, I’m always a little wary of the use of photography in fiction. Photography is necessarily documentary and ambiguous, and there seems something dishonest, or sentimental about the impulse to invent stories which displace that ambiguity and fill it in with invented meaning.

As for the question of whether theory or fiction is more useful for exploring the possibilities of photography, I’m not sure either is particularly useful in that context – it’s photography that will explore its own possibilities most usefully. Theory may help us understand it better, criticism may help us understand particular works and practitioners, but I’m really not sure fiction has much of a role to play at all – its interest in photography is almost always for its own, imaginary ends.

4. Do you think there is a peculiarly Australian way of thinking about photography evident in Australian fiction, or do you think the use of photography in fiction is more universal?

I do wonder whether there is a a peculiarly Australian way of thinking about photography you see coming through in writers as diverse as Gail Jones, Delia Falconer, Liam Davison and myself. All of us are interested in exploring a photography as a way of making sense of loss, and transience, rather than as a simplistic memento mori. If this differs from its use in fiction from overseas (and I’m a bit short on ideas for examples to be sure it does) I wonder whether it has something to do with the fact that if you’re in Europe, particularly, or connected by the Jewish diaspora to that European experience, photography might well offer rather starker reminders of the past. Australians are, at some level, interested in finding a way to make sense of their past, and to find reconciliation with it in the present; it’s possible that for Europeans and others the past is something that needs to be put behind them.

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