Colour in Darkness: Exhibition Film


I think the reason why they were
colouring the photographs was really to try and give
the best possible impression of what it was like over there. It’s this idea of seeing the war
through their eyes, to bring home to
the Australian public those locations that
they themselves had seen. Having these images in colour, it gave you more of an immediacy, an impression of
“That was the authentic image. “That is what my brother saw
himself.” (SOMBRE PIANO MUSIC) Captain William Donovan Joynt
was a VC winner. And he returned from
the Western Front in 1919, and he established
a photographic studio in Melbourne. And he decided to produce
an exhibition of photographs from World War I. Obviously, the war ended towards
the end of 1918. For many, there was a big delay
in coming home, in finding ships
and getting put on a ship, and then the length of time
it took to come home. So there were…there were
Australian troops and nurses arriving home through a lot of 1919. And then this exhibition
started in 1920. And, of course, we know that
the 1920s was that decade where Australia was in mourning. Every town and city in Australia were
planning to construct war memorials and also the beginnings of Anzac Day. And so it’s this whole beginning of
a new language of commemoration that really is so familiar to us now
in Australia. One of Joynt’s main aims was for
the Australian public to feel proud. They are wanting to show that
Australians did their best. They punched above their weight
for the British Empire. Patriotism and loyalty is bound up
in this exhibition, and what great brave feats
that the Australians had done. So it was really showing that
to the Australian public. HELEN CASEY: It does seem that
the idea behind this exhibition and using the diggers’ photos
that they took themselves was to give a more intimate,
more personal impression of what their experience was. It is interesting because it was a time when
a lot of research and discovery was being made around
colour photography. So that didn’t really become viable
commercially till the ’30s. So this was right on the cusp
of that. Although, on the one hand,
you think they were using colour to make it a little bit more
naturalistic. Maybe too that was partly
to balance the fact that they were blowing
these very small prints up into these very large prints and they were losing
a lot of the focus. And so, that’s why, you know,
part of the beauty of these photos is that you have this very surreal, like, slightly out-of-focus
sort of sepia image, and then this very naturalistic,
very subtle colouring, and it gives them a haunting quality. (SOMBRE PIANO MUSIC) ELISE EDMONDS:
These are very soft colours. So even though, often, they are
depicting a devastated landscape or depicting soldiers
being taken prisoner – so, challenging subject matter – they are very gentle
and soft to look at. So it’s this juxtaposition, I think,
in the images. One of the interesting things
for conservators and one of the things
that gets us excited is looking at the materials
and the techniques. And so thinking, “Wow, how’s…” you know, “..this little studio
in Melbourne in the 1920s…? “What…what were their…
what did they have available to use? “And how did they achieve
these effects?” You know, you feel
a little like a detective ’cause there’s very little
information about the process. This is one of
the first ones that I realised that you could see
they used a stencil. Oh, yeah,
you can see it on the boot. HELEN CASEY: So when we finally got
the original material into the lab and went through them one by one
and to see what condition they’re in, the first thing I wanted to do
was get magnification and a torch and really have a close look. So this is really helpful because we’ve got here
all that is left of the long wall of the Cloth Hall. And this one is actually
a Frank Hurley. So Colarts has actually hand-coloured
the original Hurley print, and it’s amazing. So this is the medieval Cloth Hall that was pretty much completely
devastated due to bombing. And this is incredible here – this lamppost that’s been painted
in this kind of aqua green, but it looks like
it must be airbrushed because it kind of fades out
to the bottom there and you can see the sepia print
underneath. Yes, it’s definitely, um, airbrushed. And what’s interesting is
even the small amounts of colour on the shoes and on the faces
at the front, they’re airbrushed as well. HELEN CASEY: Airbrushing
had been developed in the US in the late 19th century. So it’s still fairly
new commercially, and especially, you know,
in a little studio in Melbourne. And the quality of the airbrushing
is…is really quite impressive. But what about here?
You can see there’s… They’ve painted the caps.
Or is that…? Yeah, you’re right.
Well spotted. And then also, um, the shadows,
which is interesting. JEMIMA WOO: Yeah. HELEN CASEY: They’ve actually got
a single brushstroke of, like, a white, which is an interesting
choice of colour to highlight the shadows. ELISE EDMONDS: There’s such detail, and the length of time
it would’ve taken this artist to actually minutely, you know,
work on each shadow and each rock, it’s quite extraordinary, actually,
isn’t it? HELEN CASEY: Yeah, and obviously
what they were thinking is the theatrical impact
of when we stand back, because when I look up close, it doesn’t actually
make a lot of sense, but when you come back, you think,
“Well, that’s why they did that.” ELISE EDMONDS: It is almost 3-D, because the soldiers are almost
coming out of page, almost. JEMIMA WOO:
As the exhibition designer, this is probably the most exciting
part of the process because you get to work with
the conservators and the curator and learn not only about
the exhibition itself in its entirety but every item in the exhibition
and the details about that item. ELISE EDMONDS: So this is
an interesting one. Oh, yeah. For one, you can see
the airbrush trailing off. That is… Yeah, that confirms
your, um, thoughts, Helen. They’re beautiful. They’re something that
I didn’t expect at all. I think you look at them at first and you can tell whether they’re…
they are paintings or photographs. And when you actually listen
to Helen dissect how these photographs were coloured, you then realise the amount of work
and the techniques, and I think that’s really special
about this exhibition. So Colarts,
being a commercial studio, they were producing these prints,
these reproductions, and colouring them, um, not only for exhibition, but they
were selling copies of these prints. And you see that, even in
the Colarts exhibition catalogue, there’s several pages
where they’re advertising that you too can have your own image. So in the mid-1920s, Joynt sold a set to ANZAC House, and I think that’s where
our collection has come from. So our collection may have hung on
the walls in the RSL in Sydney, at ANZAC House, for quite a while, which might explain the faded nature
of many of them. (GENTLE PIANO MUSIC) HELEN CASEY: A lot of them
have drips and large stains, a lot of surface grime. And then some of the bigger ones
have very big tears. It’s sort of nice
that we’ve got a team of six conservators
working on them, because they’re pooling their ideas
and doing different tests and seeing what will work, and so they can all share that. (GENTLE PIANO MUSIC CONTINUES) WENDY RICHARDS: Well, I’ve been
working on this intermittently but for about a week now. I’m mixing the colours
for the infills, which are the areas that
there were literally holes in. Um, so those
I’ve started to patch. I’m going to do two layers
of tissue there. And then I’ll be doing infill,
touching up with watercolours – and that I’ll just mix as I go – in all these little cracks. HELEN CASEY: The main technique
is to dye Japanese tissue. So there’s this whole process where the conservators are
experimenting with different colours and setting up all samples that they can then match
to the different areas that they need to fill. And what they do is try to match
sort of a mid-colour of the colours around it. Obviously, we’re not trying to
make up what’s missing. But we just don’t want to
draw your eye to that spot. We want your eye just to be…to be
able to enjoy the whole work and not be focused on…
on these areas of loss. (PIANO MUSIC CONTINUES) It’s very time consuming,
and that’s… At the moment,
I think we’ve identified 20 that we’ve considered definitely
need treatment to be stable enough to exhibit. And possibly 20 to 25 hours
on each one. When you think we’ve got 151 of them
and you times by 25 hours… Some of them would be quicker
treatments than others, but it is…it’s a massive project that will go beyond
the exhibition itself. (PIANO MUSIC CONTINUES) HELEN CASEY: It has been
an amazing process to watch because the before and afters can be quite significant
and very gratifying. But it’s a very rewarding project
for a conservator because we are getting
really nice results. And also, they’re such interesting
and beautiful things to work on
and to work with. So the original exhibition
had over 260 prints in it and we only have 152. There are, um, around 11 prints that
the Australian War Memorial hold. Some of those are duplicates
to what we have. But they also have some ones
that we don’t have. So it’ll be really interesting to see
the ones that are in Canberra. I’ll just… So I can see one immediately that looks very familiar to us
at the State Library. So we’ve got this one here –
‘A Bunch of Souvenirs’. But, um, I must say your ones here,
your prints, are much richer in colour. So this is one we don’t have –
‘Old Stick in the Mud’. We’ve got a few of
‘Tanks on the Western Front’. Um, and I think it just sort of shows the incredible, cumbersome nature
of them. Yes, I think
they had initial impact because of their size
and the noise that they made. ELISE EDMONDS: Right. But I think, overall, it was a somewhat fraught
piece of machinery. And, very interestingly, you can see
the soldier having a good look at this very new technology. Many of the photographs… Private photographs
we have in our collection actually show very similar things – that soldiers love to have their
photographs taken with these tanks. So this is a really lovely close-up
of the same thing. ELISE EDMONDS: Yeah. We have some evidence of some soldiers from the Boer War
having cameras. But I don’t think
it’s anywhere near as common as it was in the First World War. I think, by the time
the First World War comes along, I think there’s been a great
expansion in photography knowledge. Cameras have become far more
accessible to people. The marketing of the cameras
kicked in and certainly the Vest Pocket
Kodak camera, of course, is something that was marketed to
soldiers as the soldier’s camera. And I think,
the soldiers going off to war, it was a natural thing
to want to take a camera and record your own experience. It’s rather nice that everyone wanted
to record their moment of it. ELISE EDMONDS: We have many
examples in the library’s collection of these very small little prints that were produced from
these soldiers’ cameras. We have huge albums-worth of the photographs they took
in Egypt. And then, of course, as the troops
move into the Western Front, we still have photographs of them in France and Belgium. And also in London,
when they go to London on leave. They’re still keeping their cameras, even though, by the time Australian
troops got to the Western Front, it was decreed that you were
no longer allowed to have cameras for security purposes. But we have some extraordinary
photographs of men in trenches in different parts of
the Western Front. And even an extraordinary photograph of a stretcher bearer
holding a white flag as they walk across
sort of no-man’s-land looking for wounded soldiers. So they were clearly
still taking photographs, and apparently there were even
camera clubs formed by soldiers serving on
the Western Front. (GENTLE PIANO MUSIC) JOANNE SMEDLEY: So, late in 1916, the appointment of the official
Australian photographers happened. And from sort of late 1916,
early 1917, you start having Hubert Wilkins
and Frank Hurley, who are both polar explorers
and adventurers being appointed as Australian
official photographers. And from that point onwards, you start getting a really
substantial body of work that was created of the Australian
experience on the Western Front. (SOBER PIANO MUSIC) Yeah, so here’s another one,
on the left, that we’ve got in our collection
in Sydney. I mean, again, the colour
is really rich. It gives a real feeling
of the landscape and, um, you know,
the use of these chemicals. JOANNE SMEDLEY:
There’s a lot of drama in this particular image, for sure. And I think the colourisation
really enhances that one enormously. JOANNE SMEDLEY:
Colour photography in itself was quite unique. There were some colour negatives that were taken by Australian
official photographers. But there was no colour paper that
could actually produce those images. And so the only way that a studio
could actually produce those images was to hand-colour. Many studios employed artists and produced a colourised version
of a black-and-white image. So this one on the right, we don’t have
in our collection in Sydney – ‘The Charge of the Light Horse
at Beersheba’. So this is one I’m quite interested
in looking at. There is a bit of a story
to this particular image because it portrays a really
momentous event – purportedly anyway. And perhaps we should have
a closer look at it. ELISE EDMONDS: Yes, great. The original image in our collection was in a series
that was of donated prints. And in the caption, it talks about
the charge being an actual charge. Except that it’s a little unproven. You can certainly see the men
with their arms up. Heroic. You know, that whole idea of
the glorious cavalry charge. Mmm, and of course, Australian Light Horse
were not cavalry. They were mounted infantry. Right. And so the idea was to use their horses
to get close enough and then they would dismount
and fight. Yep. JOANNE SMEDLEY:
But the viewing print that we have, obviously the same image,
but it’s black and white. But none of the explosions
that you can see here are evident in this print. It certainly adds to the drama. Is it a re-enactment
or is it the real thing? The conventional feeling is that
it is a re-enactment. We sort of look at negatives
as being an absolute record of a moment in time, but then you could also,
as Frank Hurley did, start to incorporate other elements
into photographs because he wanted, through one image,
to tell a story that he felt would have better
reception, say, in the press or… Um, so there’s a famous photograph
called ‘The Hop Over’, where you’ve got soldiers
coming through a trench and you’ve got bombs exploding and you’ve got all these aircraft
flying over and it’s all kind of put together. It’s the Photoshop of its day. ELISE EDMONDS: The official war
historian, C.E.W. Bean, was very opposed to
this practice of Hurley’s. And there’s parts of Hurley’s diary where he talks about having arguments
with Bean. And them both storming off
because Bean did not approve of this. Bean was very much a stickler
for the truth. And he writes about this
in his diaries, you know, justifying that
he really wanted to explain to the Australian public really what it was like to be
in the middle of a battle. But, of course, a photographer
can’t be in the front lines in the middle of a battle and survive,
let alone take photographs. I mean, you might get a beautifully crafted
official photograph and it’s taken with all the skill
and attention and care and so on that a professional photographer
can bring. Um, you can still get some very good
soldier photography, but a lot of it’s not. But it’s not really about
how perfect the image is. It’s really about the story
that it tells. People are still really interested
in colouring historical black-and-white
photographs. And now, with, you know,
such amazing technology, people can get that exact colour
of a, you know, a ribbon or a jacket. There’s that real feeling of
authenticity. So this idea of, you know, going back
in time and seeing for yourself or meeting this person for yourself, there’s that real immediacy in it. (GENTLE PIANO MUSIC) KENT ROWE:
To complete a project like this, you do need something to drive you. But the angle I came from was if I could wind back the clock
a hundred years and I’ve got all these photos and I go and see the diggers and I go, “Look, guys,
I’ve got these photos of you guys. “In a hundred years’ time, I’m gonna
publish a full-colour book. “Would you wanna go in it?” And, you know, I think they’d say,
“Yeah. Put me in.” (PIANO MUSIC CONTINUES) Uh, there’s over
200 individuals in this one. And how many different colours in
the tunics did we use on this one? Uh, we try and do
at least four or five. KENT ROWE: You watch
a multimillion-dollar movie and all the soldiers on the front
line are in the same tunics. They’ve all had the same tailor. But it wasn’t like that. The AIF
had multiple suppliers of tunics. So on the front line, they weren’t
all in the same, identical colours. Sure, we use creative licence with,
say, for example, there might be some vehicles
in there. Some of the ladies’ dresses, you know.
We just had to, at that point. But when it come to
their patches, their boots, their belts, their buckles, we were quite particular about that. These days, Photoshop
is very cut and paste. You can stop and start. You can undo. If you make a mistake, you can…
(SNAPS FINGERS) ..take it back. These guys wouldn’t have had that. These guys were painting and,
you know, doing it all by hand. What they did was permanent. I think there was a lot more guts
in what they did than…than this process,
yeah. (LAUGHS) KENT ROWE: We worked on
over 400 images, five to 10 hours each –
some more, some less. It took five years. It was a…you know,
it was a long, hard process to do. But in a way, it was our commitment
to the commemoration. I’ve had people say, “That photo
looks like it was taken yesterday.” And I go, “Yes, that’s what
I wanted to achieve.” It makes you…it makes you realise
they were just like you and me. As for the Colarts collection, when I first heard about it,
I actually thought, “Well, what a great way to grieve
for the community.” You know, they can go to these shows and view where their loved ones
were lost. It must’ve been dreadfully emotional. You know, in a period where
tens of thousands didn’t return, tens of thousands returned
in a dreadful state, and millions suffered, I, uh…I just hope that it…
that it helped. So the exhibition, we understand, was very well received. You see reviews
in many major daily newspapers as well as regional newspapers talking about the images
are so realistic. And there’s often quotes by eminent
people, often retired officers. And, of course, they say,
“Well, I was there “and I can say that these truly are,”
you know, “exact representations
of what we saw.” I find that interesting,
particularly in the 1920s, you might’ve thought that the Australian public
were sort of sick of war, you know, not wanting to see
these sort of images. But there was obviously
a real interest. People respond differently,
I think, to exhibitions than, perhaps, reading a book. And I think having the opportunity
to see all these images in one spot must’ve been a wonderful
sort of experience. And I think colourising, I think,
made those images quite special. And trying to bring the Western Front
into Australia in a way that could help people
understand what had happened and what the environment was like,
what the landscape was like, and how their sons, brothers,
fathers, uncles and so on had operated in that environment. (SOMBRE PIANO MUSIC)

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