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Magnesium-Blitz mit Schüttungseinrichtung  1928, glass plate negative, 9 x 12 cm, ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Fotograf: Photographisches Institut der ETH Zürich

Magnesium-Blitz mit Schüttungseinrichtung 1928, glass plate negative, 9 x 12 cm, ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Fotograf: Photographisches Institut der ETH Zürich

Photography.Ontology.Symposium. engages in critical debate with international scholars and specialists on the photographic medium. It will explore the relationship between photography's ontology, the camera as a human perceptual apparatus and the unconscious through themes of evidence, the archive, photographic practice and theory. 


2-3 JUNE 2016





With symposium speakers, Katherine Biber, Donna West Brett, Helen Grace, John Di Stefano, Danie Mellor and Toni Ross.

This symposium is co-presented by Sydney Ideas, the UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY'S Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, School of Literature, Art, and Media (SLAM), School of Languages and Cultures (SLC), THE POWER INSTITUTE, THE PHOTOGRAPHIC CULTURES RESEARCH GROUP AND THE ART AND THE DOCUMENT RESEARCH CLUSTER AT SYDNEY COLLEGE OF THE ARTS.

IMAGES: Magnesium-Blitz mit Schüttungseinrichtung 1928, glass plate negative, 9 x 12 cm, ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Fotograf: Photographisches Institut der ETH Zürich / PI_28-A-0026 AND Samuel J Miller, Frederick Douglass, 1847/52, Daguerreotype, 14 x 10.6 cm, Art Institute of Chicago and Walter Benjamin about 1925 © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Symposium was held 2-3 June 2016 but you can still download the program, abstracts and poster or subscribe for upcoming news. Podcasts of the talks are available. Symposium Podcasts.



Looking Forward and Looking Back: Rashid Johnson and Frederick Douglass on Photography

Samuel J Miller, Frederick Douglass, 1847/52, Daguerreotype, 14 x 10.6 cm, Art Institute of Chicago

Samuel J Miller, Frederick Douglass, 1847/52, Daguerreotype, 14 x 10.6 cm, Art Institute of Chicago

This talk considers Frederick Douglass’s propositions about the social power of photography.  Looking back at Douglass’s lecture “Pictures and Progress” through the lens of contemporary artist Rashid Johnson’s homage to the nineteenth-century orator, the talk examines Douglass’s surprising celebration of photography as an objectifying medium.  Douglass saw the persistence of photographs as both a conserving and a conservative force, and Johnson’s self-portrait after Douglass testifies to that doubled dynamic.  But Douglass also found progressive power in the technology’s capacity to alienate the self, an unexpected position for the formerly enslaved.  The talk explores Douglass’s complicated embrace of photography as a medium of objectification as well as progress, as a link to the past as well as the future.

Shawn Michelle Smith is Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  She has published five books on the history and theory of photography and gender and race in U.S. visual culture.  Her most recent book, At the Edge of Sight:  Photography and the Unseen (Duke 2013), received the 2014 Lawrence W. Levine Award for best book in American cultural history from the Organization of American Historians and the 2014 Jean Goldman Book Prize from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Her new book, Photography and the Optical Unconscious, co-edited with Sharon Sliwinski, is forthcoming from Duke University Press.

Presented with Sydney Ideas and the Power Institute:


Photo Profusion and Walter Benjamin’s Optical Unconscious in the Weimar Era.

Walter Benjamin about 1925 ©  Pictorial Press Ltd  / Alamy Stock Photo.

Walter Benjamin about 1925 © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

The last 30 years have seen a great deal of enlightening scholarship on Benjamin's optical unconscious. Yet much of this work expands well beyond photography, the actual subject of Benjamin’s formulation. This talk places the medium and its historically specific conditions at the center of renewed inquiry into this topic. It focuses on the multi-faceted concern around 1931 that photography had broken its modernist and populist promise to reveal unseen worlds for the good, teach rational modes of perception and operate as a straightforward means of enlightenment. Instead, photographic images in these years seemed fundamentally flawed by their great profusion, the commercial and political conditions that generated this flood, and the very contingency of any one image. The talk proposes that Benjamin acknowledged these shortcomings and responded by assigning the medium’s revelatory agency to the subjective realm of the unconscious where contingency played the very most important role in perception.

Andrés Mario Zervigón is Associate Professor of the History of Photography at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. He is author of John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage (University of Chicago Press, 2012) and coeditor with Tanya Sheehan of Photography and Its Origins (Routledge, 2014). His current book projects include Die Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung -- The Worker's Illustrated Magazine, 1921-1938: A History of Germany's Other Avant-Garde, for which he received a CASVA Senior Fellowship (2013-14); Photography and Germany, for the Reaktion Books Exposures series; and Photography and Doubt, which he is co-editing with Sabine Kriebel (Routledge, 2016).


Photography, Presence and History: Argentina’s Disappeared

This paper focuses on the connections between presence and photography in contemporary Argentina, and considers their broader implications for photography theory and historiography. Photography has been particularly important during and after Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-1983) as a means of recovering repressed histories and asserting the presence of the thousands of ‘disappeared’ who were abducted and murdered by the military regime. Photographic presence is a compelling issue in this context as the military not only made people disappear, it also eliminated evidence of the disappearance. Detention centres were kept out of public view, and authorities either destroyed or were careful not to produce evidence that could help families locate their loved one or understand their fate.

I argue in this paper that different approaches to presence in Argentinian photography offer a means of prizing open familiar and somewhat limited photographic dualisms of presence and absence to think about photography’s relationships to presence and history in new ways. The use of personal photographs in the public realm is central to the conceptions of photographic presence to be examined, from the public protests of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, to photographs used in formal processes of justice and the artistic work of contemporary practitioners. The apparent contradictions in some of these photography practices will also be addressed, as they simultaneously critique and recuperate formerly contested myths of photographic truth and presence.

Professor Melissa Miles is based in the Art History and Theory Program at MADA, Monash University’s Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture. Her books include The Burning Mirror: Photography in an Ambivalent Light (2008, 2010), The Language of Light and Dark: Light and Place in Australian Photography (2015), and The Culture of Photography in Public Space (2015, co-edited with Anne Marsh and Daniel Palmer). Melissa’s journal articles on photography’s history and theory have been published in Journal of Visual Culture, History of Photography, Fashion Theory, Photographies, Photography and Culture, Law, Culture and the Humanities and Word and Image, amongst others. She is the recipient of numerous awards and competitive grants, including a four year Australian Research Council Future Fellowship for the project ‘Photography and Its Publics’, which examines photography’s constitutive role in the public realm. Current research projects also include an Australian Research Council funded Discovery Project, with Prof Robin Gerster, on Australian-Japanese photographic relations.




VENUE: Philosophy Room S249 The Quadrangle.

PROFESSOR MELISSA MILES. Photography, Presence and History: Argentina’s Disappeared. ABSTRACT


VENUE: General Lecture Theatre K2.05 The Quadrangle.

PROFESSOR SHAWN MICHELLE SMITH. Looking Forward and Looking Back: Rashid Johnson and Frederick Douglass on Photography. ABSTRACT

Presented with Sydney Ideas and the Power Institute.


VENUE: New Law Lecture Theatre 104

9.45 am. WELCOME


Katherine Biber. Dark Archive: Forensic Photography, Visual Evidence and the Museum

The Forensic Photography Archive (FPA) is the world’s largest collection of police photographs, created by the New South Wales Police in Australia between 1912 and 1964. These materials are public records, however due to an historical anomaly they are held in the custody of a heritage and museums agency, Sydney Living Museums. Despite being a ‘closed’ collection, the Museum has sought to draw public attention to the scale and significance of the collection through selected interpretive projects, including exhibitions

This paper explores the nature and value of the FPA, as well as the sensitivities and dangers associated with its proliferation. Drawing upon interviews with curators, designers, playwrights, novelists, and a retired police detective, all of whom have undertaken creative work in response to the FPA, it investigates how these practitioners use criminal material in its afterlife, how they place different value upon its criminal and probative origins, and whether and how they draw limits or place boundaries upon their own creative endeavours. It sets out some of the frustrations they have articulated about barriers to accessing the collection, as well as disputes between them about aestheticising crime and trauma, and disagreements about whether and how to depart from the historical record in pursuit of creativity or fiction.

Professor Katherine Biber is a legal scholar, criminologist and historian. She is Professor of Law at the University of Technology Sydney, where she teaches and researches in the areas of criminal procedure and law of evidence. Katherine’s research examines the interactions of crime, photography, documentation and visual culture. She is author of Captive Images: Race, Crime, Photography (Routledge, 2007) and co-editor of The Lindy Chamberlain Case: Nation, Law, Memory (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2009). Her forthcoming book is titled In Crime’s Archive: The Cultural Afterlife of Evidence (Routledge, 2016). This paper is derived from research supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery grant, DP130102224.

Donna West Brett. Witnessing the Archive: The Stasi, Photography and Escape from the GDR

From 1961 to 1989 the border between East and West Berlin became a focus for extreme surveillance activities by the border guards, the Stasi, the West Germans, the Americans and the British with hundreds of thousands of photographs taken every year. The border authorities recorded each escape attempt from East Germany in notes, sketches and photographs, which were used as evidence by the Stasi and then archived. Among these records are disturbing photographs of unsuccessful attempts, where subjects are forced to re-enact their escape attempts before the camera. This paper examines a selection of these photographs drawn from the Stasi archive by German contemporary photographer Arwed Messmer and other photographic records from London’s Imperial War Museum archive. The paper will consider these photographs both in terms of their use as evidence and as emotive records of oppression, fear and treachery.

Dr Donna West Brett is a lecturer in art history at the University of Sydney and author of Photography and Place: Seeing and Not Seeing Germany After 1945 (Routledge 2016). She is coordinating editor and reviews editor of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art and member of the Photographic Cultures Research Group.

Helen Grace. The Plasticity of the Image and the Secrecy of the Device

This paper begins with Bazin’s ‘Ontology of the Photographic Image’, viewed through the different ‘lenses’ of Sartre’s L’Imaginaire and Simondon’s Mode of Existence of Technical Objects in order to consider the dissolution of photographic ontology in the increasing plasticity of the image itself. I want to argue that this plasticity, bearing few traces of what Malraux had meant by ‘plastic realism’, is the new ‘ontology’ of the image beyond photography’s ‘Silver Age’.  Exploring Simondon’s contention that culture is a system of defense against technics, I want to draw on current research on the evolution of cheap plastic optical devices and the pathways of technical knowledge transfers between Europe, the US and East Asia especially in the postwar period: pathways marked by piracy, secrecy and defense spending.  What follows is a massive proliferation of anonymous pictures: a phenomenon we might call image hyper-inflation.

Professor Helen Grace set up the MA Programme in Visual Culture Studies in the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong. In 2012-13, she was Visiting Professor at National Central University, Taiwan and has just completed a term as Visiting Scholar at Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is currently an Associate in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney and the author of Culture, Aesthetics and Affect in Ubiquitous Media: The Prosaic Image (Rutledge, 2014) and co-editor of Technovisuality: Cultural Re-enchantment and the Experience of Technology (I.B.Tauris, 2016).


John Di Stefano. Witnessing the Self: Making Visible the Displaced Self

In 1975, artist Shigeko Kubota produced a video work entitled My Father which encapsulated complex and compelling aspects of a diasporic subject caught between two countries and two identities. This paper will examine the distinct ways this work foregrounds the artist’s process of investigating her transnational displacement through the process of witnessing the unstable, shifting and disappearing realm of ‘home’. It will also examine how the work overrides the representational drive of much documentary- based practice towards a more performative mode of engagement.

Dr John Di Stefano is a visual artist/filmmaker, and Associate Professor at Sydney College of the Arts - University of Sydney. His current interdisciplinary research focuses on digital materialism, notions of temporality and disappearance in hybrid forms of documentary practices, and the essayistic form. His video work has been broadcast on American public television (PBS), and has won several awards, including the New Vision Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival.  Exhibitions and screenings include: Videonale - Festival of Contemporary Video Art (Kunstmuseum, Bonn); New Filmmakers - Anthology Film Archives (New York); Festival International du Documentaire (Marseille); Transmediale (Berlin); Kassel Documentary Film Festival; Human Rights Film Festival (Sarajevo); American Film Institute Video Festival (Los Angeles); Pera Museum (Istanbul); Barcelona Museum of Modern Art; Para/Site Art Space (Hong Kong); Hammer Museum (Los Angeles); MOCA (Los Angeles); Palais des Beaux-Arts (Brussels); Karsten Schubert Gallery (London); Domus Artium Museum (Salamanca); Wexner Center for the Arts (Columbus); and the Cinematheque (San Francisco). He has curated several projects in Australasia and North America. He is an editor for Art Asia Pacific, and has an active publishing career with his critical writings appearing in various international journals and publications.

Danie Mellor. The Logic and Contradictions of Proximity

In this presentation, I will discuss ideas about proximity in relation to the exotic and notions of the Other. Our relationship with distance—or nearness—to the 'subjects of' and experiences 'conjured by' photographs and other imagery will be explored, referencing in particular Okwui Enwezor’s frames of reference that investigate expanded fields of postcolonialism. It could be suggested that for some thing or subject to be continually exotic depends to some degree on an ‘at arms length’ relationship, for a sense of the unknown and mystery to be maintained. A question that will be posed asks do we as consumers of visual culture deliberately maintain a state of ’near and far' in an entrepreneurial way, so we can feel mystified by something or someone Other to us as part of an unconscious strategy of fulfilment?

Dr Danie Mellor is a contemporary artist whose work explores themes that are critically linked to cultural histories and concepts of the landscape. His multi-award winning work is shown internationally and within Australia, and is held in the permanent collections of major institutions and private collectors.

Toni Ross. Rancière’s Aisthesis and the ‘Politics’ of Unpurposive Action

Jacques Rancière’s version of the politics of aesthetics reprised in his recent book Aisthesis diverges from common ideas of political praxis. The power struggles of political activity are typically aligned with strategic thinking, calculated action, the taking of positions based on critical judgments and dissenting principles addressed to the status quo of any social order. Moreover, political projects are often judged by whether they succeed or fail to institute and maintain actual changes to the socio-political landscape.

In the pages of Aisthesis and elsewhere, however, Rancière formulates a politics of aesthetics expressed in practices and events of modern art and aesthetic philosophy (from 1764 to 1941) where the causal chain between actions and outcomes is broken or suspended. Although heterogeneous, the fourteen scenes of Aisthesis share a theoretical preoccupation with unpurposive action: activities of life or art considered devoid of useful issue since disjoined from predictable outcomes or effects. Focussing on scenes from Aisthesis and photographic works by Gabriel Orozco this paper discusses how and why figures of inaction, passivity and unpurposive doing assume political significance in Rancière’s writing.

Dr. Toni Ross is Senior Lecturer in art history and theory at UNSW Art & Design, UNSW Australia. She has published widely on contemporary photographic and video art and on the work of Jacques Rancière, and is Sydney reviewer for Artforum magazine.  


ANDRÉS MARIO ZERVIGÓN. Photo Profusion and Walter Benjamin’s Optical Unconscious in the Weimar Era. ABSTRACT



two concurrently run Free Masterclasses were available for postgraduate students and early career researchers in the area of photography history/theory and photographic practice. Each of the masterclasses was an informal workshop of 15­‐20 participants, lead by an internationally acclaimed photography historian (see below).  


Radical Periodicals and Photography

Between the First World War and 1970, the vast majority of photographs printed and consumed around the world appeared on the pages of illustrated magazines. These pictures rarely surfaced as autonomous entities, set off from their paginated context as the sort of discrete objects that generally figure in our standard histories of photography. Instead they were presented in carefully edited sequences, set cheek-by-jowl against other photographic series, and placed into the integrated company of text and graphic work. Illustrated magazines were sophisticated framing devices that heavily determined the meaning of the images they disseminated. Politically radical periodicals often used these tools to an extreme, bending and reversing a photograph’s meaning in a spectacular and self-evident manner. Our master class will inquire into the fevered politics of photographic referentiality in radical Weimar-era German magazines, and the significance of these machinations for the fate of modern photography.

Andrés Mario Zervigón is Associate Professor of the History of Photography at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.


Photography and the Unseen

In his “Little History of Photography,” published in 1931, Walter Benjamin first articulates his thoughts about the “optical unconscious,” ideas he returns to in 1936, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.”  He suggests that photography expands the range of human vision by stopping motion and expanding detail.  However, by bringing more into view, photographic technologies also make one aware of all that is ordinarily not seen.  In other words, by making more visible, photography makes the invisible newly palpable.  This masterclass will explore Benjamin’s brief discussion of the “optical unconscious” and consider how it encourages us to approach and understand photographs.  What does the photograph make visible, and what lies beyond its frame?  How does the photograph make us aware of things it does not represent?  And how can we bring the invisible into view in the ways we write about photographs?

Shawn Michelle Smith is Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.