It would be wonderful if someone comes forward to identify the mystery, unidentified thing in the ''signature photograph'' of the Things exhibition at the National Library of Australia. And yet, the exhibition's curator, Helen Ennis, mused on Friday on the eve of the exhibition's opening that the revelation of the contents of the bag held at arm's length by the man in the photograph (right) would almost be a disappointment. After all, knowing for sure would put an end to the fun of guessing what it is.
On Friday, speculation ranged from Ms Ennis' suggestion that it might be, from its ropes, some kind of a buoy or boating paraphernalia, to this reporter's gruesome thought that it may contain a severed head. Someone else suggested it was just the man's lunch, although his appetite must have been huge.
To select photographs for the exhibition, Ms Ennis spent months fossicking through the library's collection of 700,000 images.
''I was interested in this one because when I saw it, I couldn't tell what was going on,'' she says. ''You always think photography is going to give you everything you need to know. So I like the fact that in this case you have to begin with questions like, 'What is it? Why is he holding it like that? Is it because he loves it, or is it because he finds it repulsive?' He's well dressed … so here we have the relationship between a person and an object and photography's role in depicting that.
''But I reckon someone will come and say, 'I know what that is. It's such and such.' But meanwhile, I love the elusiveness of it.''
Few of the hundreds of other things in the exhibition are so mysterious but all have a kind of novelty, absurdity or poignancy about them. For example, if there were to be a people's choice of the best thing in the show, it might be the pair of enormous home-made ear trumpets Henry Grace is using to help him listen to birdsong (1964). Then there's John Curtin's lonely coffin at (old) Parliament House in 1945; the pair of stacked, conjoined shopping trolleys at Bankstown in 1963; the crocodile statue in the main street of Wyndham in 1994; and, of special interest on Friday to sociologist, self-described ''object photographer'' and ABC TV's Collectors panellist Adrian Franklin, Max Dupain's photograph of the shop window of a doll hospital.
Franklin, who opened the Things exhibition, said: ''It's going to be almost impossible for Australians to come around this exhibition and not find almost everything intriguing. You can see here the power of the photograph to document what we don't yet know is important. We may photograph things from everyday life without at the time knowing quite why we feel the need to do it. In most cases people think, 'It's important to remember this. We've got to capture it.' But they're not exactly sure why it's important. But this is the wonderful thing about it.
''This exhibition is about objects, and objects are not passive. They're very, very active. I'm an objects photographer and some objects will flirt with their photographer. There is practically no angle from which they won't look good. They turn you on. They're flirtatious. They're showy. They're brash. But other objects are exceedingly shy and elusive. However hard you try, you can't get the light right, the shade right. So objects have this kind of activity. The objects themselves are engaged in all sorts of activities with human beings. This is why we respond to them so well.''
Readers, do you know beyond a shadow of doubt what the flirtatious (and yet strangely shy) object is in the mystery photograph? ? If so, contact me at ian.warden@canberra times.com.au and I will pass it on.
The exhibition, Things - photographing the constructed world, will continue until February 17, 2013.