I searched for a printer in photogravure for over twenty years before finding master printer Lothar Ostenberg. The photogravure process, which sees photographs etched into copper and printed traditionally with ink, has a long history stretching back to the early nineteenth century. Lothar still uses the Talbot-Klíc Dust Grain Photogravure Process, dating back to 1879.
I sent Lothar two of my most iconic photographic images — ‘Countrymen’ and ‘One with the Land’ — created during Ceremony when I worked with Woomera-Mornington Island Culture Collective on Mornington Island, Queensland (1978-1979). These images have deep, enduring cultural resonances. Silver gelatin prints of both are held in the The National Gallery of Australia and The National Portrait Gallery.
When we met, Lothar had a collection of handmade papers in his flat-liner drawer which had been waiting for years for a special project. Using these, he prepared two dust grain copper plate negatives from my digital files — this, he assured me, was a most difficult process.
I went through my collection of papers — samples of rare Gampi and Kozo I had on hand for proofing and unique, old handmade papers that had been waiting in my flat-files for years for a deserving project. In Juno Gemes’ prints they found their perfect destiny. (Lothar Ostenburg)
We reached across the waters to one another — from Brooklyn in NSW to Brooklyn, New York City — to give these two images new expressions as photogravures which I call Spirit Maps.
Meshing Bends in the Light
Just under the surface
mullet roll in the current;
their pale bellies catch
the sunken light, the skin
of the river erupts
above purling. The sky
hangs over the boat a wall
of shuddering light
smudging the wings
of a whistling-kite,
in the developing chemicals,
black crabs hold their
claws up into the light
of the enlarger, yabbies
ping in the drain. A westerly
howls through the
darkroom. The tide
is always working
at the base of the brain.
The turning moon is
up-ended, setting on the silver
gelatin page: a hook
stopped spinning in space.
Owls shuffle their silent wings
and dissolve in the fixer.
Shape words over what you see.
The river flows from your
eyes into the sink, bulrushes
hum with mosquitoes
that speckle the print.
The last riverboat mail-run
scatters letters across
the surface, the ink
runs into the brackish tide.
I had asked the Lardil Elders on Mornington Island in 1978, ‘What images should I make — what do you want your fellow Australians to see?’ Their instruction to me was: ‘Show them that we are still here, we been here all along. Show them that our culture is still strong. Show them that my girl’.
Canticle For The Bicentennial Dead
They are talking, in their cedar-benched rooms
on French-polished chairs, and they talk
in reasonable tones, in the great stone buildings
they are talking firmly, in the half-light
and they mention at times the drinking of alcohol,
the sweet blood-coloured wine the young drink,
the beer they share in the riverless river-beds
and the back-streets, and in the main street—
in government-coloured parks, drinking
the sweet blood in recreation patches, campsites.
They talk, the clean-handed ones, as they gather
strange facts; and as they talk
collecting words, they sweat under nylon wigs.
Men in blue uniforms are finding the bodies,
the uniforms are finding the dead: young hunters
who have lost their hunting, singers who
would sing of fish are now found hung—
crumpled in night-rags in the public’s corners;
discovered there broken, lit by stripes
of regulated sunlight beneath the whispering
rolling cell window bars. Their bodies
found in postures of human-shaped effigies,
hunched in the dank sour urinated atmosphere
near the bed-board, beside cracked lavatory bowls,
slumped on the thousand grooved, fingernailed walls
of your local Police Station’s cell—
bodies of the street’s larrikin koories
suspended above concrete in the phenyl-thick air.
Meanwhile outside, the count continues: on radio,
on TV, the news—like Vietnam again, the faces
of mothers torn across the screens—
and the poets write no elegies, our artists
cannot describe their grief, though
the clean-handed ones paginate dossiers
and court reporters’ hands move over the papers.
During Ceremony, I watched the same dance movements repeated again and again, the dancers feet making ever deeper grooves in the soft earth, illuminated by firelight. The women danced all through the night to make the young men strong for the demands of the Ceremony ahead of them. Repeating and remembering, making strong…These images are etched into my memory for a lifetime.
Reflecting on these experiences, Lothar and I decided to make each photogravure print both a repetition and a unique work, repeating the two images with diverse ‘chine collé’ for each, utilizing a mounting technique in which japanese paper (washi) is glued onto backing papers, adding different tonings to each image. Thus, we were echoing one ancient cycle with another, one ancient process with another…
Working as one – remembering and repeating, as in the process of Ceremony – each unique photogravure is an act of making culture strong.
Over the years, my work has been a continuous act of advocacy and reciprocity to the Elder’s instructions. I feel honoured and blessed to be entrusted to take this important story of truth, endurance and cultural survival forward. Even during these challenging times for our nation.
It came into being from the splintered limbs
swam out and flowered into being
from chopped saplings and wood-chips
its pages glowing and telling their numbers
this a numbat’s fragile skeleton
this the imprint of the last chalk-moth
Members of court in the old languages
mumbled as wings of ground parrots flicke
At night we discovered new seeds
in an old gum’s stump as shoals of insect memory
floated out from a bee-eater’s nest
then the rasping call of an adder
We looked into the white-rimmed eyes of the elders
and wanted to turn away
until pages began stroking air
that carried back doves from the black bamboo
Australia the goshawk circled a lake
we croaked amphibian prayers to reflected skies
then stumbled off through the spinifex
Mornings threaded the whale bones with flame
as poetry baked like a rock
on the final page of dense black marble
of slate-thought that shone
until the eyes of a hunstman took us
into morning’s spokes a white trap-work
where caught finches hung their hearts drumming
Australia we sobbed through the paperbarks’ songs
to birds and the gentle animals
and to the soft-stepping people of its river-banks
Robert Adamson’s poems have been reprinted from The Golden Bird, New and Selected Poems (Black Inc., 2008) with kind permission of the author.
Juno Gemes photographs are currently showing in Diversity, a celebration of cultural diversity by renowned Australian photographers (also featuring Pat Brassington, Blak Douglas, Nasim Nasr & William Yang). The exhibition opens tonight, Tuesday 8 May, 7.00 – 9.00 pm at Art Atrium. The artists will also be in conversation with Sandy Edwards on Thursday 10 May, 6.00 – 8.00 pm. For details visit Art Atrium.
Juno Gemes is one of Australia’s renowned social justice photographers. In images and words she has dedicated forty years of her photographic work to advocating for justice and change in the social and political landscape of Australia, in particular creating understanding and respect for the lives and struggles of Aboriginal Australians, a process that culminated in her being one of the ten photographers invited to document the National Apology in The Federal Parliament in 2008. Her landmark exhibition, Proof — Portraits from the Movement 1978-2003, was exhibited at The National Portrait Gallery in 2003 before touring Australian Museums for five years. Gemes has exhibited regularly in London, Paris and Budapest, and has had twenty solo shows and contributed to many significant group exhibitions in Australia. She has been a partner to the renowned Australian poet Robert Adamson for 30 years.
Born in 1943, Robert Adamson grew up in Neutral Bay, Australia, a harbourside suburb of Sydney. As a juvenile delinquent, he often sought refuge on the Hawkesbury River at the home of his paternal grandfather, who fished its waters for over four decades. He found his way to poetry, and over the past five decades he has produced twenty books of poetry and three books of prose. From 1970 to 1985 he was the driving force behind New Poetry, Australia’s cutting-edge poetry magazine, and in 1987, with his partner Juno Gemes, he established Paper Bark Press. He has won all the major Australian poetry awards, including the Christopher Brennan Prize for lifetime achievement, the Patrick White Award, and the Age Book of the Year Award for The Goldfinches of Baghdad (Flood Editions, 2006). His most recent book is Net Needle (Flood Editions, 2015). He currently holds the Chair in Poetry at the University of Technology, Sydney, and lives with Gemes on the Hawkesbury River.