t h i n


The Archive




Having a deep interest in photography and making photographs has involved studying the history of photographers and photographs.  In order to develop my own practice, I needed to understand the 'how and why' of past photographic practice.  In the course of looking at and thinking about photographs I became fascinated with the 'functional' and vernacular types of photograph - photographs that have by-and-large been segregated from 'serious' art type photographs, that served the purpose of illustration or personal memory.  In these mundane photographs I found an honesty that opened to a more profound depth of experiential meaning.

The Robinson Collection

Image made from Robinson collection negative

Anonymous young woman  ( from OnLooking exhibition )

135cm x 106cm, silver-gelatin photograph, c1930/2006

Made from the Robinson Collection negative archive, Devonport Regional Gallery

The exhibition OnLooking was commissioned by the Devonport Regional Gallery.  Over a period of 10 months I researched and wrote as I made a series of large-scale photographs from the Robinson collection of negatives.  The Robinsons, Bert and son Albert, were commercial photographers who were based in the Northwest Tasmanian town of Devonport.

In developing the exhibition from this archive my first move is to search through the negatives for subjects that have some sort of resonance for me.  I do not begin with a specific theme that I then seek to ‘colour-in’, but develop what becomes the thematic premise from my past experiences and current responses to what I discover in the archive. 

David Martin, contemporary view of the archive

Anonymous group of riflemen   ( from OnLooking exhibition )

106cm x 135cm, gelatin-silver photograph, c1930/2006

Made from the Robinson Collection negative archive, Devonport Regional Gallery

David Martin, Contemporary view from the archive

Until recently, photographs from the Robinson collection have been utilized and considered as a historical resource.  The photographs have been ‘framed’ in text – and sometimes objects – and displayed to emphasise the idea that the photographs are an embodiment of the history of Devonport and surrounding districts.  Many people consider this ‘historicity’ as the collection’s sole province, the limit of their usefulness or possible substance.  Yet, I would maintain that while photographs of the past can be used to illustrate a variety of histories – both ‘tall tales and true’ – the photographs made from the archive are themselves not historical documents.  Certainly the negatives as objects are historical artefacts, but the photographs that are made from them now are ‘signs’ that we read from our present time.


Meanings are not properties of the photograph; they are ideas outside of the photograph.  Usually, collections of specific ideas, stem from a photograph's created purpose, adhered like glue.  The photograph then becomes only a sign for these specific ideas – so much so, that it often seems that the particular ideas are contained by the photograph.

Unknown athlete   ( from OnLooking exhibition )

135cm x 106cm, gelatin-silver photograph, c1920/2006

Made from the Robinson Collection negative archive, Devonport Regional Gallery

David Martin, conceptual view from the archive

Gilding the rhetoric of erasure

110cm x 88cm, toned gelatin-silver photographs, vintage gilded frame, c1920/2007

Made from the Robinson Collection negative archive, Devonport Regional Gallery

The above photograph is from The Road to Here exhibition. The exhibition was developed in response to my interest in exploring how 'pictorial' concepts about the landscape are, or have been, used to create not only perceptions of the places that we live in, but also to create physical boundaries that define our movements within these places. 

In the process of making this exhibition I began to explore the feelings I was experiencing of being more than just a researcher who facilitated the creation of the exhibition.  I began to feel like I was a person who was using the materials of the collection to create new, previously 'unseen', photographs – in other words I became their author.

David Martin,conceptual view from the archive

Detail:  Gilding the rhetoric of erasure

About Photograpy II

A photograph is a chair. Jean Paul Sartre told me so.  Rene Magritte made a painting of it, turned it into a pipe, and then said it wasn’t really a pipe at all.  Roland Barthes later found that the chair was indeed a photograph.  It turned out to be a photograph of his mother - but not one that he recognized.  Roland decided not to show it to us because we wouldn’t have recognized it either – we probably would have concluded that it was really a chair after all.

Artefact 1. Ten films arranged on a black three-tiered stand, which itself stands on a black perspex shape inside a vitrine. 

The blackness of the tiered stand and footplate represents the inside of the photographer’s mind - the blackness I see when I close my eyes; the boundless, murky place, within which ideas, imaginings and phantoms meld and morph. 


The stand size is the area of the human head; the shape of the footplate is that of a human skull when viewed from directly above.

The work is about the photograph being a product of the mind – in both its inception and reception.


I contemplate the latent shades and shadows imprinted on these rolls of film that contain the forms and ideas that once existed in the photographer’s mind.


About photography, David Martin, contemporary, conceptual, art, photograph, Tasmania

Artefact 1

45cm x 32cm x 6cm, plexiglass stand, 120 films, 2009

Undeveloped, exposed films - c1950/60, Geoff Lithgow estate

This Persil box was given to me.  It contained a human skull.  It was purported to be Japanese and souvenired during the Second World War. The skull had resided in this box for more than fifty years. The box now contains all of the films that I have used photographing the sky, every day for over ten years – 31 May 1999 to 01 September 2009.
David Martin, contemporary, conceptual, art, photography, Tasmania, Australia

Artefact 4

160cm x 60cm x 45cm (including plinth and vitrine)

vintage wooden box, 219 sheets of  36 frame 135 films, 2009



I photograph the sky every day.  I have been doing this since the 31 of May 1999.  I imagine that the photographs are about the photographer, about photography per sé, and about their subject – the sky.  I imagine many things about these photographs, what they are, what they may represent, and how I might utilize them, but mostly that is all I do with them – as they remain ensconced in closed boxes – imagine.   Some people may suppose that I could just imagine these photographs, and conjecture that their material existence is really unnecessary.  This may be so but, as far as I can see, all material things have an imaginary component, and if a material object did not exist then neither could its imaginary aspects.

Whatever I may imagine about my photographs of the sky, others contemplating the photographs will have their own associative imaginations of the photographed subject – however these may be formulated.  But as I am not showing you these thousands of photographs of the sky, you, dear viewer, are placed in a position where you can only imagine these photographs of the sky and their relationship to the wooden vessel.

There is Another World

There is Another World has been made from an archive, located internationally in Chicago, USA.  While sourcing images from this archive began as a matter of chance and circumstance, its remoteness, in both time and space became a significant component of the conceptual development of the project.

David Martin, contemporary, conceptual, art, photograph, Tasmania, Australia, Chicago,history

Pandora's box

90cm x 115cm, silver-gelatin photograph, 1954/2010

Made from press negative, The Chicago Suntimes

During the American Civil War, essayist and keen scholar of photography Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote in his book Soundings from the Atlantic:


                           Theoretically, a perfect photograph is absolutely inexhaustible.  In a picture

                           [painting, etc.] you can find nothing which the artist has not seen before you;

                           but in a perfect photograph there will be as many beauties lurking,

                           unobserved, as there are flowers that blush unseen in forests and meadows.


Holmes was writing literally about the magnificent abundance of detail that photographs were able to capture, detail that not even the photographer may have observed.  While we might readily concur with Holmes at this juncture, there is another parallel concept embedded in this statement that, to me, suggests that there can be things hidden in photographs that the photographers at the time do not, and cannot, see.  The photographer ‘cannot’ see these things because this unseeable is locked in an impermeable membrane of their present - a membrane that can only be permeated in a future time.  



David Martin, contemporary, conceptual, art, photograph, Tasmania, Australia, history, Chicago

Another World

90cm x 115cm, silver-gelatin photograph, 1954/2011

Made from press negative, The Chicago Suntimes

The photographs that I have chosen form meanings in my mind – meanings that are quite removed from the archive that generated and once governed their use.  They are now a part of my cognitive library.  In making this body of work what became important to me was that the negatives, from which these photographs are derived, were made in the era I was conceived.  


The particular North American era in which the photographs were made has a resonance with the rural Australia, both remembered and imagined, as the world of my childhood.

David Martin, contemporary, conceptual, art, photograph, Tasmania, Australia, history, Chicago


115cm x 90cm, gelatin-silver photograph, 1958/2011

Made from press negative, The Chicago Suntimes

David Martin, contemporary, conceptual, art, photograph, Tasmania, Australia, history, Chicago

The Sunday Visitor

115cm x 90cm, silver-gelatin photograph, 1960/2011

Made from press negative, The Chicago Suntimes