Tuesday, June 10

the face of war (sandy callister) - part 3

Figure 12
‘Tribute from the Mother of an Anzac and from a sister, widow, or perhaps sweetheart’
Here is the final part of  Sandy Callister's talk, which she gave at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery on her book The Face of War in the context of the acclaimed New Zealand artist Laurence Aberhart’s ANZAC photographic series of World War One memorials. 


The Tapanui Roll of Honour

Nine months after the war ended the Illustrated Otago Witness published a photograph of the Tapanui Roll of Honour. The honours board representation shows a complex composite assemblage of 25 portraits of soldiers, their names and ranks inscribed under each photograph, all of whom were killed in the Great War. In this setting the soldiers from this community were all re-united and gathered together once again.

Displayed on a wall, the honours board serves to remind strangers and intimates of the relationships that binds these men together and ultimately to the shared ties that link them to this community. The use of the medium of photography to represent an honours board, which itself incorporates photographic material, would seem to be suggesting that photography is itself an art of memory. Moreover, the headline across the top of the honours board carries an Implicit directive ‘Lest We Forget’. But what exactly are both the Tapanui community and the readers of the paper being asked to remember? The photographic historian Geoffrey Batchen argues that artefacts such as these honour boards necessitate a different kind of looking than that accorded a single photograph. In part this is because they have multiple borders: their multi-layered framing requires us to scan across the image ‘forcing us to project our mind’s eye back and forth, into and out of the photograph[s] they incorporate.' In part it is due to the very materiality of the object. The physical weight of the Honours Board lends it a cemetery headstone-like quality, which adds yet another layer of complexity to this type of representation.

While such objects created in the immediate aftermath of the war are part of the visual language of remembering the dead, and remembering that they are dead, as objects they are also dedicated to a fear of forgetting. It is their physicality that pulls our attention from the past to the present and back again and in so doing allows us to imagine the complex set of relationships, overwhelming sense of grief, and desire to remember these 25 young men which gave rise to the creation of this work in the first place. We remember the community of Tapanui’s desire to remember.

Post-war memorial unveiling ceremonies

In the immediate aftermath of the war the Illustrated Otago Witness published photographs of Otago and Southland communities unveiling ANZAC memorials.

Figure Ten

'Unveiling of the Fallen Soldiers’ Memorial at Waikawa, Southland’

The photographs of the unveiling ceremonies at Waiwera, Quarry Hills and Waikawa show women, but in these photographs they are a presence in a larger group commemorating the loss of specific communities. The Lovell’s Flat unveiling is exceptional in that the image shows two women alongside the memorial and the caption informs the readers that the woman on the extreme right, Mrs. Tweed, unveiled the memorial, having lost two sons in the war. By 1923, the two women depicted at the ANZAC ceremony at the Cenotaph in Wellington have, in the captioning, become typecast as those that grieve. The caption reads: ‘Tribute from the Mother of an ANZAC and from a sister, widow, or perhaps a sweetheart (?)’. The women are relegated to smaller parts in a larger panorama. All too soon they disappear completely from the media coverage recording unveiling ceremonies and ANZAC commemorations.

Death’s attendant meanings are constructed by a culture. All these images allow us to see how death, mourning and grief were negotiated by a particular cultural group in a historical moment. Thus these representations help us see how a community saw its place in history.  We get a glimpse of overlapping communities: farming families of the Taieri Plains, the readers of the Illustrated Otago News, the member of First Church, the people of Tapanui.
Ninety four years after the  Illustrated Otago Witness published the photograph of the Tapanui Honours Board the Dunedin Public Art Gallery is staging this critical project of Aberhart’s documenting our World War One memorials.
While our art historians acknowledge Aberhart’s work as having key importance within the history of photography in this country, they do not link his work back to an earlier strand of New Zealand’s photographic history, albeit a more vernacular one. For in depicting the Great War memorial images he is a part of a much longer historical enterprise of memorialising, one with distinctly photographic origins. Approached in this context his photographs of the Katea Great War memorial in Southland are a part of a much richer photographic endeavour. A glance at the 1980 image and the modest, wooden house in the far right-hand corner and I am reminded of the images of the representations of the so-called typical Otago houses of the families with soldier sons. In the 1999 photograph, the entirety of the memorial is exposed and if we strain our eyes sufficiently it is just possible to pick out the details of the wording. The phrase ‘Lest We Forget’ reminds me of the same directive on yet another Southland memorial, the Tapanui Honours Board.
Aberhart’s images are the visible traces that lead us back to their origins in the studio portraits of soldiers kept by those they loved as a way of remembering their absence, and, in too many cases, reproduced once more in the rolls of honour. Aberhart describes himself as ‘an eclectic collector of cultural debris, as it washes up, and before it disappears.' Perhaps he is right and even the Great War memorials will be subject to ruin and decay. Nonetheless, they will not be forgotten, as Aberhart's representations now circulate within the ‘gentle embrace’ of the custodians of our leading art institutions, ensuring their immortality. What is forgotten is the way in which a body of photographs published during and immediately after the Great War played a complex role in the public and private representation of death and loss.

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