Helen Ennis: Reveries

Edited extract from Reveries: Photography and Mortality . Canberra: National Portrait Gallery, 2007

In 2007 I curated an exhibition on dying and death for the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. My motivation was to make it clear that contemporary photographers from Australia and New Zealand were engaging with issues around mortality in highly imaginative, compelling, and sometimes confronting ways. I hoped the exhibition would make a contribution to broader discussions about attitudes to death in Australian and New Zealand society. The exhibition opened at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and subsequently toured to the University Art Museum, University of Queensland and Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery. Working with the artists, families and others involved in the show proved to be a very profound, life-changing experience and I am enormously grateful to everyone for their generous support of the exhibition.

This is an edited extract from the introduction to the catalogue for the show (pages 2-5):

… I have a story to tell you about ritual or, to be more precise about the ritual of an elderly woman, Jean, who was a friend of mine. When she was in her early nineties she told me that she had found a new pastime which gave her an immense amount of pleasure. Every night during the late summer months she would take off her shoes and stockings and sit outside on a chair on her front porch. There, for hours, she would watch the stars moving through the sky. She said that I would be amazed at how many falling stars she would see during a single night. She also told me that she didn’t know why she hadn’t thought of doing this before—she supposed she had been too busy—why it had taken her so long to discover the joys of this nightly ritual.

I often think of Jean sitting there, bare-legged in the dark, rapt in the movements of the stars.

While neither of us could have anticipated it, these ruminations on mortality eventually became one of the many prompts for the Reveries exhibition. Another was a photograph taken by WH Corkhill more than 100 years ago. It surprised me when I first came across it in the National Library’s collection because it was unlike anything else I had seen. More importantly, it is one of those photographs that can’t be easily absorbed or assimilated, which causes a disruption—emphatically transforming ‘reality’ and making it unstable. Very little is known about Corkhill’s photograph but its disruptive effect isn’t simply a function of the lack of factual information. It is to do with the image itself and its ambiguities in particular. Is the child a boy or girl? How old is he or she? What is happening to him or her?

The narrative I’ve settled on for the time being is this: the child is close to death (probably from one of the ubiquitous illnesses that kept childhood mortality at high rates until the early twentieth century).The woman who holds her is her mother. She, or another member of the family, has asked their local photographer to come to their home and photograph them together. They all know that this is a critical moment in the child’s life, probably the last time that she will be photographed.

Corkhill, William Henry, 1846-1936. Woman holding a young child, ca. 1900. 1 photograph : glass negative. Part of William Henry Corkhill, Tilba Tilba photograph collection ca. 1890-1920.

Corkhill’s photograph is very specific. The mother and child and the material substance of their little world are delineated in exacting detail; the qualities of the fabric of the mother’s dress and the timber wall immediately behind her are highly textural, almost palpable. Nonetheless, and this phenomenon never ceases to amaze me, there is much that connects early photographic images to others produced several decades later, those which were featured in Reveries: Photography & Mortality. The most striking point of connection is the mother’s mode of address to the camera and the expression on her face—direct, grave and knowing. There can be no doubt that she is totally aware of the situation, fully conscious of mortality.

Like other photographs in Reveries the external world has been emptied out of Corkhill’s image and all energy is directed inwards. It is not only the effect of interiority that is shared, but the emotional intensity of the photograph as well. Then there are recurring visual elements, such as Corkhill’s use of a relatively close vantage point and the dominant elliptical shape in the composition formed by the mother and her child. The latter is especially significant because it raises the matter of archetypal and universal imagery. In this case it is the Pièta, the classic image of maternal suffering in which the Virgin Mary holds the dead Christ.

And lastly, there is the light; the bright, white light that has an insistent presence throughout Reveries. It can be understood, I think, as a portent or apprehension of death that has correspondences in literature, in fiction and non-fiction. American writer, Joan Didion, describes her own experience of this in her autobiography The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005, as ‘an effect of light: quick sunlight dappling, yellow leaves falling … a shower of gold, spangled, very fast, a falling of the bright’.

The final prompt for Reveries I want to mention involves a baby boy who died a few hours before his birth. At the ceremony held to honour his life, he was there for us all to see—not concealed in a coffin as you might expect, but lying in his bassinette where his grieving parents had placed him and where friends had sprinkled red rose petals and other flowers. His life was celebrated with music (the saxophone was played especially for him), poetry and a eulogy given by a family friend. He was talked to, whispered to, sung to, touched, caressed and photographed. Photographed as he had been many times during the days since his momentous arrival—with his mother, his father, his grandparents and other members of his family—photographed being bathed, being held, photographed in his hospital crib and in his bassinette.

All this helped me realise that, when it comes to death, photography isn’t necessarily a separate activity carried out in isolation from everything else—it can be part of a whole range of life practices, of ritual. These events also made it clear that sometimes photography’s links to the real world and its evidential authority are perfect, nothing else would suffice.


HELEN ENNIS is one of Australia’s leading photography curators, historians and writers. She joined the Department of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia in 1981 and was Curator of International and Australian Photography at the National Gallery of Australia from 1985-92. She has extensive experience as an independent curator and writer specializing in the area of Australian photographic practice.

Her curatorial projects include Mirror with a memory: Photographic portraiture in Australia (National Portrait Gallery, 2000); a retrospective exhibition of Olive Cotton’s photographs (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2000); and the two-part exhibition In a New Light: Australian Photography 1850s-2000(National Library of Australia 2003 and 2004). Her exhibition of the work of European émigré photographer Margaret Michaelis was shown at the National Gallery of Australia in 2005.

Helen’s publications include Olive Cotton (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2000), Man with a camera: Frank Hurley overseas (National Library of Australia, 2002), Intersections: Photography, history and the National Library of Australia (National Library of Australia, 2004) and the award-winning biography Margaret Michaelis: love, loss and photography (National Gallery of Australia, 2005). Her book Photography and Australia was published by Reaktion, London, in 2007.

In 2007 she curated Reveries: Photography and Mortality for the National Portrait Gallery and in 2008 curated A Modern Vision: Charles Bayliss, Photographer, 1850-1897 for the National Library of Australia. She is currently Associate Professor, Art Theory, and Graduate Convenor, Research at the Australian National University School of Art.