The Shadowcatchers: a history of cinematography in Australia’ (2012) by Martha Ansara is a stylish coffee-table book which is being launched this month. Martha describes part of the journey she has taken with the NFSA and the national audiovisual collection to find some of the beautiful images that accompany her work.
Main image: 'Kakadu Man’ (1989) Film Australia, National Interest Program. Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. John Hosking (cinematographer). Courtesy Film Australia Library, National Film and Sound Archive
Sometime in 2008, I found myself on a bus in the industrial outskirts of Canberra, traveling to the fabled vaults of the National Film and Sound Archive. I was looking forward to my journey’s end and looking back also to the beginnings of this trip, which started many years previously, when the NFSA had not long been in existence. The sleek new building wasn’t even thought of then and the Archive seemed to consist of a heap of uncatalogued boxes of goodness knows what, dumped into the shabby old Institute of Anatomy, with here and there an archivist clinging to a cluttered desk, puzzling over a stack of index cards. I remember being led up some stairs to a narrow mezzanine which overlooked one of these strange storage/work spaces. It was lined on one-and-a-half sides with filing cabinets, and in these filing cabinets was the photographic collection – all kinds of photographs, as alphabetically arranged as possible, and often having little more identification than a title. I think it took me a day to look through every drawer in every cabinet in search of photographs relating to the film oral histories I was recording, but I can no longer remember what I found.
So here I was again, perhaps 20 years later, traversing the wilds of Mitchell to continue my search. My oral history work had been transformed into a photographic history of Australian cinematography, entitled The Shadowcatchers, soon to be published (or so we thought) by the Australian Cinematographers Society (ACS). And by this time, the digitisation of the Archive’s photographic collection had begun and images could be easily viewed through an elegant online catalogue. Meanwhile, however, the collection had expanded – as collections do – and I found that within the vaults the grey filing cabinets still existed and there were many more of them than ever before. In fact, it took me a week, flipping as fast as I could through neatly arranged drawers of photographs, to identify the wonderful production stills which would fill out the history which the NFSA’s digitised images were already contributing to the book. The photos – covering the period from 1901 to the present – were all now beautifully catalogued, but again some had only a title and many of the people in them remained unidentified.
At any rate, over the next year or more the Archive scanned the selected photographs for us, upgrading those that had previously been scanned at too low a resolution at the beginning of the digitisation program. Amanda McCormack, who looks after Access, patiently sent them on to us – again and again. Today’s digital technology moves so fast that everything is out of date almost as soon as the work on it has been completed and as cinematographers have high standards for images, we were nothing if not demanding. Eventually, I paid another visit to the NFSA to talk with digitisation specialist Darren Weinert who, like so many Archive workers, is more than a technician, having a great enthusiasm and a broad knowledge of his field. He then located the absolutely best originals of some photos and scanned again … and eventually, the layout for the book began.