Trawling through a box of family snapshots taken from his Tasmanian childhood, the London-based cultural commentator Peter Conrad has the first of several epiphanies that he goes on to describe in his new book At Home in Australia. The importance of photography, he decides, comes from the place where the personal and the public blur. "The private souvenirs have become documents," he writes, "and what they document is a fraction of Australia's history. They are about a group of people, myself included, huddling together in order to feel at home in this strange new country."
A country's photographic archive can play a similar role, chronicling the buck teeth and braces of nationhood with the acuity that only a camera can bring (in Australia's case, those braces came in the form of the Sydney Harbour Bridge). In 2001, Conrad, who had previously lent his symphonic scholarship to 20th century art and life in Modern Times, Modern Places (1998), was invited by Canberra's National Gallery of Australia to sift through its photography collection and write what he thought. The resulting At Home in Australia (Thames & Hudson; 256 pages) is, as Conrad puts it, "a family album for the nation." Those looking for iconic images will be disappointed by the guest curator's selection - and contemporary photography seems to pass Conrad by. Instead, like a seasoned picture editor, he shows an eye for that idiosyncratic detail that will service his discursive words.
Like Narcissus, Conrad spends much time peering into the pool of Australian photography to see his own reflection. In Paul White's 1978 shot of shadows cast by two lawn-bowling ladies, he sees the legs of his mother, and his father in the sweat-stiffened hat of Edward Cranstone's wartime construction worker. His own youthful escape to Oxford in 1968 is embodied in Jon Rhodes' 1974 shark-finned convertible stranded in a Hobart paddock, with best offer written across a window.
Elsewhere, Conrad stands back with anthropological detachment. Viewing the suburban backyard of Tim Handfield's Cairns, 1978, he comments on the social contract of the Hills Hoist ("no secrets are allowed," he writes, "since you are expected to hang out your clean linen for the scrutiny of those living next door"). With the ghostly loner of Roger Scott's Anzac Day, 1973, he is struck by the Halloween quality of Australia's one day of the year. Here Conrad confesses to "a tug of war between opposed feelings - a yearning to be absorbed into Australia and a need to stand apart."
One detects a tug of war, too, between Conrad's desire to write about himself and about the country he left behind. About the latter, he speaks in generalizations that can, at times, grate ("Australians from the first were inured to disappointment," he writes; prone, he adds, to "a cheerful fatalism"). About the former he speaks with more authority, providing the "decisive moments" of his own personal odyssey. Watching Sydney's annual bacchanalian Mardi Gras street parade in 2002, the author realizes "home is no longer the place I remember, a weatherboard box containing a conventional and supposedly happy family."
Given the book's battle between public and private selves, it's perhaps no coincidence that some of Conrad's best passages are reserved for Olive Cotton, a pioneer of modernist photography, who died in Cowra, New South Wales, on Sept. 28, aged 92. A former collaborator, wife and studio manager of Max Dupain, she was the private shadow to his great national image-making. If his 1937 Sunbaker was the public incarnation of Australia's sun worship, her Max After Surfing, 1939, was its verso, intimate and interior. Where Dupain was interested in the industrial stasis of modernism, Cotton was drawn to movement - the mysterious dance of her Teacup Ballet, 1935, for instance, or the musical play of light across a country track in The Patterned Road, 1938, with a gum tree as conductor.
Conrad writes movingly of Cotton's 1992 photo of a bird launching itself from a burnt eucalypt branch, likening it to the Platonic image of the soul's release from the body. With Cotton, something spiritual was always bursting through. And with At Home in Australia, Conrad reminds us that a nation's self-portrait is built up as much from these private epiphanies as from images of pomp and ceremony.