Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 2, 1992
Photogenic Papers
Edited by John Richardson

A practical man: portraiture between word and image

Helen Grace

They are not lonely but voiceless; the city in these pictures is swept clean like a house which has not yet found its new tenant. These are the sort of effects with which Surrealist photography established a healthy alienation between the environment and man, opening the field for politically educated sight, in the face of which all intimacies fall in favour of the illumination of details. (Benjamin 210) 1

A portrait exists of three men (figure 1), the portrait is uncaptioned and serves as a frontispiece to a collection of photographs entitled - Views Taken During Cleansing Operations, Quarantine Areas, Sydney 1900 under supervision of Mr George McCredie F.I.A. N.S.W. Within the title an ambivalence exists; on the one hand, the presentation of images follows the conventions of landscape photography and in particular the market in "views" of scenic locations; on the other hand, the title refers, not to an exercise in landscape photography but to a specific administrative exercise involving the active tidying up of the landscape rather than the passive enjoyment of it. The photographer who trades in views also attaches his name to the images produced, claiming authorship of the particular perspective which he presents. In this case, however, authorship is not claimed for the photograph but rather for the activity which is recorded by the photographs and which it is assumed the photographs illustrate: the cleansing of the city following an outbreak of bubonic plague. The presentation of the collection follows the conventions of both the album of views and the official report. There are six albums containing almost 400 photographs and each of the albums has the title professionally printed on the cover. On the inside at the beginning of each album, a captions list - a table of contents - refers to each of the individually numbered photographs, although the separation of the caption and image serves to render the images anonymous.

The one photograph which is uncaptioned and unnumbered is a portrait; three men, dressed in suits; a view of officials, presenting, in a sense, the official view of the outbreak, the official response to it, standing for themselves but requiring to be identified. This photograph represents the perfect instance of what Barthes may be referring to when he says the photograph is without future (90-91); the absence of a caption identifying the figures assumes that the men speak for themselves and that the image will only ever circulate within a social space in which they are known - well known, perhaps even household names. The photograph is a monument and the men are positioned not unlike the statues of other famous men around town. But, for some reason, oversight perhaps, they remain, in this context, anonymous. Yet, it is likely that in looking at this photograph, we are also looking at the authors of the rest of the photographs. The seated figure in the centre of the image is George McCredie, the architect and consultant engineer in charge of cleansing operations, and the three men together appear in a number of the other photographs.2 In a sense, however, it is not necessary to know who the men are, since without this knowledge, the portrait functions rather like one of Francis Galton's composite images,3 for the men are types, administrative types, colonial officials overseeing an operation, hoping to gain their superior's approval for their work.

The picture is a key structuring device within the albums. It stands in some sense as a mirror of the point-of-view of the photographs. For a moment, the camera is turned on those who look at the city with an eye to its destruction/reconstruction. But even at this stage, the subjects control the perspective; the portrait does not have the same quality as the rest of the photographs. It is more formal in its composition; the men are posed in a carefully selected environment, a scenic spot on the edge of the bay. They displace the view, they stand in front of it, they present themselves and their work to be viewed, assuming that in their public work, their labours will be approved of. Operating within an environment where approval must be given before work can begin, the men present themselves for our approval. Tenders have been called for; they tender themselves. But, at the same time, it is assumed that approval has been given, so that the photograph also records the satisfactory completion of the public work and the portrait presents itself as a kind of memorial to the greatness of the men.

Dressed in suits, they are suited to the job of administration, well suited to the task which has been executed in their name by the men who are photographed doing the physical work - and who are not given an opportunity to present themselves in their "Sunday best", but are photographed at work, sometimes unaware that a photograph is being taken, and at other times serving to provide the human scale necessary to a reading of the dimensions of the city and buildings. They are not, then, men, individuals, but other human types, part of an environment, a contrast to the building types which are also present.

The men of the formal portrait, however, are individuals as well as types, speaking of their importance by the manner of presenting themselves to the camera. They are responsible for the cleansing and demolition of a large section of the city and for the production of a set of photographs. Even though they have not physically carried out the labour involved, it is their heads which will role if their work is deemed unsatisfactory. And so they must establish guilt elsewhere, to minimise the risk.

The search for the guilty begins with the first of the captioned photographs.4 It presents itself well, clean and tidy; it will have to be forced to confess. The photographs were taken to document the cleansing operation, to prove that the state was justified in its actions in case objections were raised at a later date.5 Legal evidence was therefore produced which was never called before the Bench. The first album of photographs contains relatively little evidence of guilt. Everything is, at first, neat and tidy. But as the series progresses, the scene becomes increasingly forensic; its secrets begin to be revealed. It is as if the taking of photographs has its parallels in police "verballing"; an interrogation continues until a confession is produced - the buildings are forced to speak - and then a recording process (a typewriter, or in this case, a camera) produces the detail of the confession which the accused is forced to admit to and to sign. The signature in Views Taken is the caption; the place name, a building or location utters its own name, its fixed address, its position in the spatial geography of the city, an admission of guilt.

These photographs circulated in a space already mapped out for their reading. The caption lists suggest that they are reference points to be referred to another map of the city. The cartographic process produces place names within a certain geography; time and space are charted within the exploration of the city limits - and the parallel exploration of the limits of power which are being tested in this process. An outbreak is visualised in schematic form, containing loci of concentration. Maps are produced, the photographs form part of an atlas of the city, their captions providing an index of trouble spots which can be pinpointed on a map - here, a case of plague; there, the workplace of a plague case; another set of dots indicates the place of residence of a plague victim. A concentration of disease can be mapped onto the space of the city and the photographs produced as indices, and as proof that the state acted correctly in demolishing the buildings should there be any dispute on the part of those displaced. In this scenario the photographs become almost empty signs, open to appropriation by history. In the historical imagination the photographs "speak" for themselves, they come to represent an idea of the space of the city whereas, if anything, they represent nothing other than the State's attempts to represent itself in the best light.

The photographs are pictures of suspects - suspicious buildings. In a number of cases the convention of the mugshot is employed - a front view and a side view, a profile. In the frontal view, the official (health or sanitary inspector) approaches the building's facade, meets it eye-to-eye, so to speak. This is the first stage of the approach. An accusation is made, which the building denies, and certainly, on the surface of it, nothing seems amiss. The facade conceals; that is its intention. It presents a view to the world, it reflects a noble purpose. The grander the facade, the more noble the purpose. This is the age of the facade; a building which does not have a noble visage, a building which is hidden away from other buildings, in a side lane, for example, must have something to hide. At first the official approach will be to go door-to-door, entering from the front. Every building will deny the accusation and will also deny entry, so that entry will have to be forced from another angle. In the first volume of photographs over half the "portraits" are of the fronts of buildings. As the official purpose makes its aims clear, its desire to see from other angles, to see the hidden perspective, its pornographic desire to see the building unclothed, will also manifest itself. After the first volume of Views Taken, nearly three-quarters of the photographs are taken from the back or the sides of buildings, the back view being the most common.

An approach is made from another angle. The side lane is the first discovery which the official makes in his exploration of the other side - the under side of the city. The existence of the side lane may not be official, it may come into existence because of illegal building; the official needs to know where it leads or what it conceals. It provides another entry point to the invisible city which the official is seeking to discover. It may lead to horrors which the official has never before encountered but desires to see, to come face-to-face with in order to justify his reforming zeal. A man stands in profile in a doorway, looking towards a gap between two buildings which has been closed by a corrugated iron wall. Perhaps it is a secret opening, advertising posters further conceal the space. The man in profile directs his gaze accusingly. There are signs in Chinese attached to the window and the door of the building in which the man is standing, but the caption of the photograph reveals what the photograph itself cannot say: 'Chinese sleeping apartments in lane between 315, 317 Castlereagh-street'. The facade of the building conceals its evil purpose. It is this sort of thing which must be stamped out as the city is modernised.

The invisible city is that space which must be brought into existence so that the mechanisms of the modern city can begin to operate. Public health is the focal point around which revolves the impetus for discovery of the invisible city of unspeakable horrors and sanitary evils. Once the official has tentatively ventured down a side lane there is no stopping him; his curiosity is excited; he loses his fears of the inhabitants of these forbidden places. He is ready to enter the other side, the reversal of the facade.

As already noted, most of the photographs in Views Taken are of backyards - disorder becomes visible. Buildings are said to "face" the street, but behind their facades other hidden worlds are known to exist. As an observer described it in 1858:

Several lanes of irregular angular shape proceed into [the street] bordered by very closely packed and chiefly brick cottages, the dirty and low appearance of which defies description.... I walked through these miserable alleys which are quite shut out from common view and almost form blind alleys. No more secure and private retreat for vice is afforded in Sydney. (Jevons)

The irregularity of the space disturbs. There is a physical unease for the bourgeois as he enters these spaces:

The room into which we were ushered was very long but low, in it about thirty men and women were grouped together. On our entry, the buzz of voices ceased, and the motley assemblage gathered around us. Then commenced a torrent of interrogation, mostly in slang, "What's he shook?" "has he sloped?" and other flash phrases.... "Is he fly?" said a slinking individual, and at the same time I felt a twitch at my pocket. (Shaw 27)

The bourgeois is outnumbered and he enters a foreign space, in his own home town, where he does not speak the language. He feels displaced. The space must therefore be ordered in a way which will break down the control of the "lower orders" whose comfort and ease is envied by the reforming interloper. So he begins a long process of taking pleasure in the revulsion he feels. This process is all the more urgent in Sydney in 1900; although the Dickensian squalor evoked by mid-nineteenth century observers is long supposed to have disappeared, the same model for expressing feelings of horror of certain spaces and inhabitants remains. In the colony which is about to become a new nation, and a modern one, there is some discomfort about this state of affairs. The evils of Old World cities, their unhealthiness and lack of sanitation are well-known, and the optimism which characterises a belief in progress is contradicted by the presence in the New World of the same evils.

The backyard is entered as if it were an ancient excavation site. The objections by the locals to the brutality of the excavation and the plundering of the site are cast aside, since the archaeologist is informed by science and knowledge, and his work is done in the name of civilisation. The carefully nurtured ecology of the site is ignored, or rather, is entirely invisible to the excavation teams. All they see is disorder - chaos, filth. It is assumed that the camera also sees the same thing, although in order to be read this way the photographs have to be placed within a context which makes this a natural reading. This is achieved at both the "verbal" and the "visual" level.

No clear distinction between the verbal and visual exists; language, speech and sight are collapsed into the assumption of an objective view by a privileged individual subject, speaking truthfully of what he sees. This is rendered in the language of what used to be regarded as realist fiction, until its methods and literary technique proved to be particularly efficacious as a description of worlds previously unknown to the "dear reader" - the subject addressed in both fictional and non-fictional writing in the nineteenth century. After all, the worlds being entered and described for the benefit of this readership were so unbelievable ("beyond description") that the distinction between fiction and non-fiction at this stage was (as always) extremely tenuous. The eye which sees and the hand which writes are united in purpose, and the arrival of photography - the pencil of nature - further assists in the achievement of a totally convincing portrait.

But there is some value in making a distinction between the two registers - the verbal and the visual - in that each becomes a support for the other, producing a consensus of knowledge. At the verbal level, certain horrors have been placed in circulation - sanitary omissions, building code violations, the filthy habits of certain people. These can then be sought in a photograph, inscribed upon the image by the desire to see the forbidden. At the same time, the photograph exists as "proof" that something is visible to the eye. A written description puts into circulation a particular picture, but one which can always be accused of subjectivity. A photograph can claim a certain neutrality - but can also be accused of faking it. The authority of written language is used to resolve this doubt, the language of science convinces by its rhetoric of rational argument. Following this rhetoric, the photograph opts for an aesthetic style which refuses the rhetoric of style. To be "aesthetic" in this context would fail to convince. So the image must not declare itself to be a photograph but rather more simply as something which the naked eye has seen, an anti-aesthetic encounter with the world. At the same time, a new authority has emerged in which the photograph is seen to have a power of its own to convince, by virtue of its being a photograph. The image is able to prove the meaning of the words.

It is in the view of the backyard that the merits of words and images combine so effectively. As we have seen, the front of the building, the facade, is hollow; its contents cannot be seen; no amount of accusative language will make it reveal itself. The truth lies elsewhere, in the rich detail of the back view - the other side.

The official is only interested in that which is hidden from view, in the back lanes and blind alleys. Once he has uncovered this perspective, he will engage in a surfeit of looking. Since his own body will always be the absolute measure of value in the invisible city which he has managed to penetrate, he will be particularly fascinated and horrified by the working classes, whom he will attempt to save.

The process of salvation involved unpleasant missionary work, in which concerned private citizens interested in reform were themselves obliged to go "into the interior", regularly touring working class districts to enquire into "social problems". Women and children were frequently their concern, particular attention being paid to prostitution and "Juvenile vagrancy". This tourism of the abject, this search for evil, was as obsessive in its attention to detail as earlier searches had been by keen zoological and entomological amateurs tracking down new species. But there was a difference. The earlier epistemophilia could be indulged with an assumption of a certain objectivity of the observation process - a species barrier existed. The discoveries of organic chemistry collapsed this boundary, so that the observation process was unable to preserve the same distance between the observed subject and the observing subject.

It is the night which holds the greatest appeal for the philanthropic epistemophiles, for it is in the depths of darkness that the greatest discoveries are to be made. The question of sexual desire seems to be a particular focus of the nocturnal wanderings of the suburban family men who are obliged, by virtue of their membership of public committees, to volunteer for the personal inspection tours which are the source of so much knowledge in the development of the city. Frequently, language is unequal to the task which they have set themselves and they are unable to speak of what they see, referring only to the 'fearful immoralities which do not come to light but which are far more important and widespread than would appear' (City and Suburban Sewage 12). The presence of the unspeakable is regularly confirmed in the minutes and in the reports of the "Personal Inspections of the City and suburbs". An evening spent inspecting inner city hotels will end up at midnight on the shores of the heavily polluted Darling Harbour where, 'nothing that has been said or written on the subject of this horrible nuisance can equal the foul reality'.6

Gradually, a new focus of evil begins to emerge, one which is able to preserve, in a limited sense, the concept of species difference which has been shattered. Miscegenation threatens all that the bourgeois holds dear - to imagine that white women, even children, will succumb to the seductions of another race undermines the faith he has in reason and progress as he has defined it. The most shocking discovery of all is to be made in the quarters of the Chinese.7 A fascination with the Chinese and opium-smoking develops, and particularly with the propensity of European women to become involved in the depravity.

The regulation of non-familial accommodation in the city is accompanied by the imposition of a new ordering of domestic space; norms of ventilation, lavatories, water closets and proper divisions between sleeping and eating, cooking and washing, men, women and children are instigated. This is done by consensus in the architecture of the home and by coercion in the common lodging house, a category of accommodation which inquiries find hard to define. In the process, non-familial accommodation is rendered proper and more powers of inspection are given to the police to control the depravity and the spread of disease. Evidence brought to inquiries supports the view that the worst common lodging houses are those kept by the Chinese; they are 'revolting and almost incredible' (Common Lodging Houses).

What is it that has been seen during inspection? The aptly named James Richard Seymour, City of Sydney Inspector of Nuisances provides the evidence with an unequalled graphic intensity:

I have had a good deal of inspection amongst the Chinese. The Chinese live eight or ten in a room and lie on stretchers something like this table. I have gone into a room and found a small lamp in the centre and a Chinamen with a woman between his legs, naked all but a petticoat and another Chinamen in the same position on another part of the stretcher; in the next room the same and in the next the same. These were white women, some of them married women and others women of the town. I have found another Chinaman laying with his arms round a woman, one hand on her bosom and his other hand under her legs pulling her parts about like a dog. In another place there was a Chinaman had a girl on the table, sitting up, with his trousers down and one of the girl's legs over his shoulder, she was under the influence of opium and he was using her - having connection with her - and seven or eight Chinamen waiting at the door to do the same with this woman. In Cyrus-lane I found the same thing in many places. There, in particular, we tried all we could to waken two girls who were laying under the influence of opium; there was a third, lying on the same stretcher, who said it was no use trying, for they could not awaken for some hours. She said she was just getting ready. She said "They do what they like with us while we are under the influence." I asked her if she could not refrain from it and she said "No, we cannot keep away from it." The way our women are used by these men is something beyond description [my emphasis]. (859)

Language proves more equal to the task when the threat is so close to home. Nothing is 'beyond description' when 'our women' are at such risk. But where is the observer situated in the account? How does his presence affect the actions he observes? How is it possible to know such things? A rigorous attention to detail, an almost scientific precision is clearly involved, and a power to describe - or imagine - what is happening when one is not seen to be looking. Presence becomes a barrier to inspection, unless the scene is a performance for the benefit of the observer. The intensity of immediacy finally effaces the observer, who can no longer admit to "being there" at the moment of observation - only at the moment of repeating the narrative for a different audience. The power of the message is achieved, not only by the force of realism but also by another new skill which develops in forensic science at this time - the skill which is called "photographic memory".

Mr Seymour's vision has a powerful effect on the committee. A petition calls for a 'stringent law to be passed to suppress the atrocities committed by the Chinese population in the heart of the metropolis' (Petition of Certain Residents). The outrage reaches its peak in this account and the Chinese become the targets of attack. Nuisance inspectors concentrate on their premises, constantly discovering filth in the buildings for which the tenants are prosecuted, while European landlords and owners are left alone. Police raids on Chinese gambling houses are stepped up, until protection rackets provide a truce. An anti-Chinese gambling league is formed by businessmen concerned that their trade is being affected in areas where there are concentrations of Chinese. Respectable Chinese merchants are also concerned and offer to subscribe to the League, but their money is refused. After some years a Royal Commission on Alleged Chinese Gambling is held and brings down very moderate findings; the Chinese are law abiding, aside from their propensity to gamble; 8 they are charitable to their own kind, who are thus not dependent on the state for relief. They protect the women with whom they live, women who themselves have been victims of the men of their own white race. Allegations of police corruption are unsupported by evidence; the Chinese are not prepared to speak out and do not understand the evidence process. Police are given further powers to inspect; Chinese furniture is to be stamped; it is recommended that a Common Lodging Houses Act be passed (indicating the inaction that followed the Select Committee Inquiry, fifteen years earlier) and a Bill for the better government of the city is proposed. Lengthy evidence is given by some witnesses about gambling, but other witnesses see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing. And no-one again reports having seen the shocking sight which Mr Seymour had seen in 1876.

Photographs of alleged gambling houses are presented and witnesses asked if they understand the white paper notices posted outside. Although the signs are in Chinese the Europeans understand what they signify (Royal Commission on Alleged Chinese Gambling 95). The photograph begins to provide an indexical means of shortcutting the descriptive process of inquiry which has depended for so long on verbal accounts that always fall short of description. In the end it is the anachronistic loquacity and force of Mr Seymour in 1875 which leads to the use of another means of graphic depiction by the end of the century.

The outbreak of a feared disease in 1900 produces a response which has been mediated by the experience of the previous fifty years and a certain consciousness of the threat which sections of the population, as much as the disease itself, pose. The clean-up operations that were instigated following the outbreak consisted of what can only be seen as an extremely violent attempt to cleanse the city, not only of an unwanted disease, but also of its unwanted population. Chloride of lime, carbolic, sulphuric acid and limewash were used in large amounts to cleanse vast areas of the inner-city.

The over-enthusiasm with which the cleansing operations were conducted led to the criticism of one professional. Peter Behrendt, a German-trained architect and engineer objected to what he regarded as a reckless waste of disinfectants - only to be sacked from his position because of complaints that he was "too economical" (Petition by Peter Behrendt). Buildings were demolished in what was an ad hoc slum reclamation programme.

But the most noticeable feature of the cleansing process was the production of a set of photographs to document the activities. Remaining in the shadow of the process was George McCredie, the Consultant Engineer in charge of the operations, and in a sense the author of the images. The photographs represent what might be seen as a shorthand account of the Plague outbreak, an account which, in its silence, proves to be as powerful as the graphic descriptions of verbose functionaries, and is in some sense all the more powerful, since the evidence of witnesses lies hidden in the public record. The photograph, which may also lie hidden, has a capacity to attract attention to itself by its difference from the rest of the text. But this difference is in a sense produced within the verbosity of witnesses' personal accounts, it becomes a product of their language, and of testing the limits of language. To shortcut a reading of the evidence, the reader goes immediately to the photographs and the maps at the end of the report, searching them as if hoping to find within them the findings and recommendations of the committee. But the power which the photograph achieves in this context is only possible through a certain relation to language and in terms of the same structure of difference and repetition which is the condition of possibility of language itself. The photograph, situated amongst the written text is immediately different. Photography can, finally, be said to speak for itself, because the graphic language which it uses has become exhausted through repetition in its written and spoken forms. The rhetoric of the photographic image is able to supply the clarity and force which is required by the new, efficient and economical form which the state begins to take. But what happens to the bureaucrat in this process? How does he locate himself in the process so far described?

In a conventional art-historical approach underpinned by an auteurist impulse, it has been possible to track down and identify the photographer involved in producing Views Taken using photography itself - rather like an early instance of the forensic technique of tissue matching, and not unlike the application of St Jerome's principles and norms for establishing the authenticity of sacred texts, which Foucault sees as constituting the critical modalities for displaying the function of the author.9 Signs within photographs - an unknown man with a moustache, an S-shaped pipe, certain facial characteristics - are identified and compared with another photograph, the portrait of a man, John Degotardi, held in a family archive. Personal anecdotes verify the evidence; an artist is revealed, one who has an interesting past, an appropriate pedigree - a father who was a photolithographer, a grandfather who was a printer.

But another shadow lies across these arresting photographs, a shadow which art history, or rather "the history of photography" has no way of illuminating. A bureaucratic process deserves some claim to authorship of the images in order to register the complexity of the process by which the photographs came into existence and to note the fragmented structure of authorship which necessarily surrounds them, rendering the pursuit of an artist, or of any single author, the least interesting of the possible explanations that might be given them. In the official presentation of the albums, a different proper name claims responsibility, not in the terms of the declaration of artistic or even sanitary vision, but much more in terms of the simple pragmatism of administrative structures - in order to satisfy the measures of accountability. In concentrating on this shadowy figure, George McCredie, we will see a neat elaboration of Weber's image of the functionary harnessed into the apparatus (987) and, in this case, imprisoned by it. Although his name is registered on the cover of the public record, McCredie disappears under the weight of the cleansing process. Damned with faint praise in the parliamentary discussion,10 he becomes the functionary who carries out an unpleasant task, conveniently removing, and indeed demolishing himself, in the demolition process. His appointment to the task is not officially acknowledged and the written report that he gives the process is relatively brief, concentrating on the empirical details of the operation - the number of rats collected, the amount of rubbish carted out to sea - and is included in the body of the parliamentary debates rather than as a separate report. At the end of 1900, the annual report of the President of the Board of Health functions as the official account of the management of the outbreak, and the only mark of McCredie's official presence that remains is his name on the cover of the photographic albums.

What is the process by which a man can enter the public service without being a member of it, remaining invisible within it? A conventional anti-authoritarian and anti-stasis perspective would look for a scandal behind the scenes - deals being done, pay-offs being made, official incompetence etc. - and in some ways this is the obvious answer. But a more complex set of relations of dependence is involved. George McCredie became dependant on the state in the way any reasonably ambitious man in a young colony would. As a builder from an eminent family of builders, in a colony which was being built, his dependence arose early in his career. Government contracts were relatively easy to come by for competent builders of good reputation, so that it was possible to work for the state without becoming one of its employees, maintaining a valuable independence, being one's own boss. A thriving business could be maintained, topped up with government work. No formal higher education existed in the colony for engineering and architecture, but after leaving school at fourteen to enter an apprenticeship, a practical man could go to night school and call himself an engineer and architect after he had built a few public buildings and applied to be a member of a professional association. Then, he could contemplate public life and statesmanship, entering parliament relatively easily and his future would be assured. This was the advantage of the New World; anyone could rise to a position of prominence by hard work and individual effort. The opportunities were limitless.

This was also George McCredie's story until 1884. A "native", born in the colony in 1859, he was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly in 1893, having been given twenty-four hours notice to speak at a public meeting (The Elector). As a parliamentarian, he did not make a large impact and admitted himself that he was 'practically speaking a quiet member'. He sought re-election in 1894 after a new electoral act redistributed the boundaries, but he was not returned. He resumed work in the building partnership he had already established with his elder brother, working on the construction of wharf buildings on the Darling Harbour foreshores and on a government contract to build telephone tunnels in the city.11 But in 1896, complaints began to be made about the workmanship involved in the telephone tunnel constructions. Footpaths were said to be subsiding and the City Council, in particular, was upset, resorting to legal action by the City Solicitor against the Telegraph Department. The Mayor and the Acting City Surveyor conducted a tour of inspection, with a photographer to record the evidence, and in 1897 a Select Committee Inquiry, chaired by William Lyne, was presented with a set of photographs as proof of the evil which was said to be occurring.

McCredie defended the company's work by arguing that the complaints were politically motivated, alleging 'combination' between the Builders and Contractors Association, the Chamber of Manufacturers and the Australasian National League, against the system of day labour which was employed by McCredie in this and other jobs (Construction of Telephone Tunnels). For the Conservative bodies involved, contract rather than day labour was desired because this meant higher commissions for building contractors. The Unions, on the other hand, preferred day labour, which allowed for the regulation of hours of work and a limitation on the length of the working day. Although McCredie was no socialist, he had publicly expressed opposition to the "sweating" of labour in his policy statement (The Elector 2). Economic depression in the 1890s had led to the reduction of wages and to an increase in "sweating", and in 1896 - at the very point that McCredie Bros. ran into their problems - new Factories Acts were being implemented. The spread of the day labour system in government work, following the adoption of the scheme by the Board of Works, was therefore being resisted because of the importance of the sector for the builders and contractors. Conservative bodies used journals such as Liberty to express opposition to what they called 'the day labour fetish', which was regarded by them as socialistic, and they lamented the 'immense amount of harm' that had been done to the Colony as a result of socialist thought. The telephone tunnels project became a particular focus of attention in the opposition to day labour, and in the Select Committee Inquiry it was McCredie's opponents who presented the bulk of the evidence. These opponents included Isaac Ives, the Mayor of Sydney and a member of the council of the Australasian National League, and David Davis, Honourable Treasurer of the Chamber of Manufacturers. McCredie charged that the partnership's construction work had been deliberately sabotaged,12 presenting reports of interference, but the weight of expert opinion was against him. Amongst the experts whose evidence was presented - the most eloquent, and the most inarticulate - was photography itself.

The first witness called was the Acting City Surveyor, who presented the photographs and constituted a means for reading them on the basis of expertise, which is seen here to be based on a certain assumption of the obvious value of practical knowledge and, as a result, a faith in the photograph's ability to speak for itself when called upon to corroborate:

What are your qualifications to pass an opinion?

I have had sufficient experience to know when a hole is or is not properly rammed (Construction of Telephone Tunnels 8).

This assumption of the obvious value of practical knowledge serves throughout the Minutes of Evidence as proof of truth. Elsewhere, Arthur McCredie is asked to specify the process to which cement was subjected in order to test its effectiveness; again it is the practical which satisfies the builder of the efficacy of his methods, based on his experience and on the norms of a practice which has been established through repetition:

We simply had a practical test of it; we did not put it under any test by machine (26)

A textbook, Practical Tunnelling, is also referred to as a source for the knowledge upon which the McCredies carried out their work, citing a reference to the methods of building the Paris Underground in support of their own methods. In George McCredie's evidence, he is asked about his qualifications, a source of constant anxiety in the colony, where most of the senior government posts were given to candidates from England or Scotland who had letters after their names. McCredie explains the means by which expertise is granted in the colony. Practical experience confers status, few of those who call themselves engineers have diplomas or certificates: 'Most of the engineers in the city who have these letters after their names either apply for them or are recommended for them at Home' (141).13

Only the photograph is not asked to state its qualifications; an assumption is made of the objectivity of its evidence because it has no subjectivity which can be cross-examined. And yet, this absence of subjectivity means, in practice, that another subject must come to interpret the objective speech which the image utters, inscribing the photograph with geographic directional markings and with a grid-like framework through which its voice might be heard.

You produce some photographs?

Yes, they are marked 1, 2, 3, and 4. No 1 is as follows:- Standing in excavation, with the building looking westerly, between Hagon's and the centre door of the Civil Service Co-operative Society's new building, giving a view of the tunnel and the earth above it, showing struts now carrying timber. No 2 is a north-westerly view, in which are seen the footings of Hagon's building, and the packing down the side of the tunnel, and supports now carrying timber. No 3 is a south-westerly aspect of the northern side of the excavation....

But the 'I' which presents the photograph's evidence is not the 'I' of the photograph's own speech, it is that of another's speaking for the photograph:

What defects, if any, are shown in photograph No 1? [figure 2]

When I went down the side of this tunnel, the packing on the top of the tunnel was very loose. I could poke the long handle of a shovel or a pickhandle through it anywhere. I did that in the presence of the five gentlemen there. In photograph No 1 the timber over the tunnel is shown by the line marked AA. The earth above it is shown between lines AA and BB. The defective packing is over the crown of the tunnel under line AA.

A chemical reaction to light and the resultant effects is interpreted as having a realist correspondence with observed phenomena; a photographic effect correlates directly with a physical reality, the sign of one becoming the signifier of the other:

Have you any other photographs?

Yes; I produce photograph No 7 [figure 3].

What does the photograph show?

It shows wood blocks, and concrete, and the subsidence of the original foundation.

And does it show a vacant space?

The black represents the vacant space - without filling.

Finally, the physical correspondence is grounded in standardised norms of measurement and the photograph takes the subject into its own reality, disclosing its absolute truth; "you" enter the picture and "you" are "really" in the space which it depicts, occupying, in fact, the vacant space which it has left for you - identification is complete.

What does photograph No 9 disclose? That is, looking from above, over the tunnel and the concrete?

They run from 7 1/2 inches, 9 inches, and 1 foot 3 inches, up to 2 feet 1 inch.

What about photograph No 10?

You are standing in the hole and looking under the full extent of the concrete, and the photograph shows a vacant space of from 4 or 5 inches up to 15 inches. (6)

If we could imagine the existence of these photographs in the absence of the speech of the Acting City Surveyor, how might we read them? We must admit that they are barely figurative, almost abstract. We must search for any vestige of speech which they might be said to utter. The photograph's speech, in such a context, is a highly garbled one, or else it is mute, saying nothing, refusing to speak unless forced to do so. Refusing to speak for itself, it is forced to sign a confession which it has not written; this is the process which is called "verballing" and in the case of photographic evidence becomes the very condition of speech of the photograph. These remarkable images, also completely typical, convey the details of the process by which the photograph comes to have meaning, and it is within this process that we see the very constitution of photographic meaning and the means by which the language of photography comes to be spoken - its grammar, its rules of composition, its rhetoric.

In the complaints against McCredie Bros., the photographic evidence speaks for itself, uttering the speech which has been prepared for it, not so much by photography itself, but rather by an empirical discourse which appropriates photography, and a political discourse which the photographs are also required to take on. Two and a half years later, George McCredie sees fit to use photography in the defence of his actions in exactly the same way that it had been used against him. Its evidence provides us with an eloquent suicide note. In his account of his work in the 1890s, presented to the Telephone Tunnels Inquiry, McCredie mentions all the projects which he and his brother had built - the Huddart Parker & Co wharf Buildings, the Union Steamship Company's premises, the Illawarra Steamship Company's works, the AUSN works, additions to Howard Smiths. When we compare this list with the list of captions accompanying the plague photographs, we realise that the same names recur; McCredie was, in fact, obliged in 1900 to demolish all the work he had done in the previous decade, obliterating the marks that he had made on the city as a builder; destroying, in a sense, his life's work. He died in 1903 aged 44. It is not so much an individual life story which is being told here, but rather the fate of a certain structure of practical knowledge in the developing colony. It is also the story of the ambiguous and highly political uses of official photography.

A set of photographs, Views Taken, has come to be highly valued as historical evidence in the re-writing of the story of a city. To some extent it is "the history of photography" that gives value to the images by its acknowledgment of some of the image characteristics and the identification of them as aesthetic qualities - the fineness of grain, the broadness of tonal range, the softness and warmth of toning, the stillness of the compositions. But already there is a nostalgia at play; these qualities belong to a photography that no longer exists. The emulsion type, the film stock, the optical qualities of the equipment used, the 'imperial' dimensions of the glass plate negative have all disappeared in the technological development of the practice, and at the very point of disappearance of certain technical possibilities, the myth of photography arrives and the images become history itself. Lurking in the pages of Select Committee reports, however, another photography is to be found, one which cannot be appropriated within the classical conventions of portraiture and landscape; photographs which teach us the language which photography is said to speak, not by their beauty but by their ugliness.

It is these most primitive of photographs which finally illuminate the most hidden and yet the most central recesses of the city. The holes in the ground which are ostensibly represented in the Telephone Tunnel pictures might almost be seen as being symbolic of the demands which the use of photography places on the historian; emptied of meaning, they require the historian to fill in the details, to cover over the gaps which they reveal, to find a descriptive language which is adequate to the task of interpreting the hieroglyphics of photographic language. And it is not the art historian who is able to find this language, but rather it is the subject who acts as the surveyor of the city since it is not an aesthetic language that is ultimately required but a political one, a pragmatic speech of cleanliness and order. We might say with some irony that it is the Acting City Surveyor's use of photography which bears the same signs as Atget's famous photographs, and Benjamin's words in relation to them bear repeating: 'As the pioneer, he disinfected the sticky atmosphere spread by conventional portrait photography in that period of decline. He cleansed it; he began the liberation of the object from the aura' (209).


1. Benjamin is referring to Atget's pictures of Paris.

2. Photographs 149, 150, 200, 242.

3. See Allan Sekula, "The Body and the Archive".

4. Photograph No 1. East Front, Huddart Parker & Company.

5. NSW Parliamentary Debates, 4th July 1900, Second Reading on Darling Harbour Resumption Bill; Sir William Lyne: 'We have kept an accurate account of every premises and of every wharf, and have photographs of everything which has been resumed by the Govt., and which is likely to be destroyed, in order to show what condition these properties were in at that particular stage; so that hereafter, in going to court, if there is any occasion to do so, we shall not have evidence brought in regard to facts which did not exist at the time the resumptions took place'.

6. "Reports of Personal Inspections of the City and Suburbs" in Final Report, Sydney City and Suburban Sewage & Health Board, 1876. The final report consists of one hundred and thirty pages of personal inspections.

7. '[S]ome steps are necessary to put down with a strong hand the evils connected with the residence of Chinamen in the city'. Chairman's Summary, 11 th Progress Report.

8. Evidence by a Truth journalist to the Commission suggested that most of the clientele in the Chinese gambling houses was European.

9. See M. Kelly, "More to the Obvious than Meets the Eye: The Historic Photograph as Evidence" and Michel Foucault "What is an Author".

10. He is said to be 'as good a man as the Government could have obtained under the circumstances'. Story (Randwick) NSW P.D. Vol 103, p.107.

11. A.L. & G. McCredie had been the builders of the G.P.O. and were given the telephone tunnels job because of this. See "Minutes of Evidence" in Select Committee on the Construction of Telephone Tunnels. Votes and Proceedings, Vol 5. 1897. p.1.

12. An early instance of the institutionalisation of corruption in the building industry in Sydney which is now recognised as endemic. See Evidence to the Royal Commission into the Building Industry, 1991.

13. England is still "Home", even at this point when "natives" are seeking recognition and nationhood.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Benjamin, Walter. "A Short History of Photography". Classic Essays on Photography. Ed. A. Trachtenberg. New Haven: Leete's Island Books, 1980. pp. 199-216.

"Bio-political sketch: George McCredie, J.P., MLA Prospect and Sherwood". The Elector: A Journal of Information for the Electors of NSW, Comprising Portraits and Biographical Sketches of Candidates, Summaries of the Election Law, Maps of the Electoral divisions, Instructions how to vote. Electioneering News. Sydney: July 11, 1894.

Chairman's Summary of Report of Select Committee on Common Lodging Houses. Parliamentary Papers. Vol 6. NSW Legislative Assembly, 1875-76.

Foucault, Michel. "What is an Author". Language Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Trans. D.F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1972. 113-138.

Jevons, W.S. Social Survey of Australian Cities. 1858.

Kelly, M. "More to the Obvious than Meets the Eye: The Historic Photograph as Evidence".Photofile (Winter 1983) pp.2-3.

"Minutes of Evidence". Report of the Royal Commission on Alleged Chinese Gambling and Immorality and Charges of Bribery Against Members of the Police Force. 1891-92.

"Minutes of Evidence". 11th Progress Report Sydney City and Suburban Sewage & Health Board. August 10, 1876.

"Minutes of Evidence" Select Committee on the Construction of Telephone Tunnels. Votes and Proceedings. Vol 5. 1897.

Petition of Certain Residents of Sydney. Parliamentary Papers. Vol 6. NSW Legislative Assembly, 1875-76.

Petition to the Legislative Assembly by Peter Behrendt. Votes and Proceedings. Vol 2, 1900.

"Reports of Personal Inspections of the City and Suburbs". In Final Report, Sydney City and Suburban Sewage & Health Board. 1876.

Sekula, Allan. "The Body and the Archive". October 39 (Winter 1986), pp.3-64.

Shaw, W. Land of Promise. London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co, 1854.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Ed. Guenther Roth & Claus Wittich. New York: Bedminster Press, 1968.

New: Xmas Day, 1995 | Now: 22 March, 2015