The Photograph and Australia

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Ian Poole vs The Photograph and Australia; © Gary Cranitch, Brisbane, 2015.

At the Official Opening of The Photograph and Australia, I should have been concerned when the speakers spent more time defending the curatorial policy rather than lauding the (mostly) fabulous collection of photographs gathered from around the country.

Major photographic exhibitions at the Queensland Art Gallery are few and far between, so this survey production prepared by the Art Gallery of New South Wales is a not to be missed opportunity.  The exhibition’s curator (Judy Annear, Senior Curator Photographs at The Art Gallery of NSW) has an enviable CV from the Australian photographic world.  With the imprimatur of the AGNSW behind her it was a given that collecting this body of work was so successful.

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Tracey Moffatt’s work sits high above historic images of aboriginal Australia. Photo ArtsHub

No, my problem with the show is the layout.

In her catalogue introduction Annear describes the show as taking a conceptual rather than strictly chronological approach to the medium.   This leads to the placement of three photographs, (Beauties, variously 1994/97) by Tracy Moffatt above a case of albums and c1860/80s photographs.  Moffatt’s found photographs have been reprinted in slight colour variations, after the style of Andy Warhol.  Despite a half column of supporting description in the exhibition catalogue it is still difficult to correlate their importance within the show.

The small room full of cartes de visite probably will display more examples of the genre than most viewers will ever see in a lifetime.  Certainly interesting, but obviously AGNSW has a huge enviable collection from which to select.

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Only to Taste the Warmth, the Light, the Wind; Olive Cotton, c1939.  (Major promotional image)

In the absence of Australia possessing a domiciled Julia Margaret Cameron, it was always going to be an historical fact that white Anglo-saxon men would feature in early Australian photographic history.  The placement of 40+ variable quality self portraits by Sue Ford along a single wall is an amazing piece of revisionist feminist photographic history.  Ford has clearly earned her place in Australian photographic history with critically acclaimed output going back to the 1970s, but this token filler in a room containing some solitary iconic images by Max Dupain, Olive Cotton, David Moore, Axel Poignant and Mervyn Bishop beggars belief.

The 1883 astronomy photographs of Joseph Turner illustrated an historical moment for Australia, but the inclusion of the additional later images did nothing for the survey.  Similarly the amazing Charles Bayliss illustrations of the world famous Australian inventor Lawrence Hargrave‘s plane models was of a first time interest to me; but their relevance in Australia’s photographic history is drawing a long bow.

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Out in the blizzard at Cape Denison; © Frank Hurley, 1912 (National Gallery of Australia).

On a positive note!  Following three visits to the exhibition, the purchase of the catalogue, research of many online reviews (positive and negative), and the purchase of Photofile, vol 96, I did manage to maneuver my way through the display space and find many old and new favourites to delight, educate and excite me.  Frank Hurley’s depiction of an Antarctic blizzard has probably never been bettered.  Ignoring the degree of difficulty factor, the composition and emotion contained in this relatively small photo was enhanced on discovering through research, that it was one of Hurley’s personal favorites.

As opposed to the image used for the catalogue cover (Beauties, Moffatt), the use of Olive Cotton’s Only to Taste the Warmth, the Light, the Wind was a master stroke.  It brought to light a photo which was sadly unfamiliar to me.  It has a strong aesthetic, but my long distant commercial background noted that the grain structure held up well in the large format illustrations featured in and around the Gallery.

I was very familiar with the JW Lindt image of the body of Joe Byrne hung on a wall to be photographed, but had never seen an original print.  In what is arguably Australia’s first news photograph it neatly illustrates the then preferred newspaper technique of an artist drawing being superseded by photography.  We see in the left hand bottom corner the bowler hatted artist (drawing pad under arm) walking away from his nemesis JW Lindt.  Lindt also features in a personal favourite – Coontajandra and Sanginguble, 1893.  The tall narrow crop of this carbon print (61×30.5cm) indicates that Lindt recognised an aesthetic contained within the photograph, as well as the strong detail shown in the body scarification.  I compliment Annear for including the most subversive images on show – a series of small postcards making a political statement in 1900 regarding the policy of Federation.  The photos of Thomas Hinton may or may not illustrate someone of an unsound mind, but they probably come close to being the first known Australian “selfies”.

Viewing a good version of Max Dupain’s Sunbaker, 1937; dark, rich, moody and all about the body not the face, was a joy.  Not the pale copies we often see in printed versions.  But where o where are the sporting photographs.  One would assume that the 1956 Olympics recognised a growth spurt and turning point in Australia.  With small exceptions press photographers don’t exist in Annear’s world.  The inclusion of Mervyn Bishop smacks of tokenism in this survey.  Which is sad as Bishop deserves and owns his place in Australian photography, but there are so many other great documentary photographers from Frank Hurley onwards.  Where is a “surf culture” illustrated? (with the exception of Dupain).

I think this leads me to my main criticism.  The Photograph and Australia was too grand a project and of course had a difficulty from its inception.  As someone who has spent a lifetime trying to demystify photography and make it accessible to an everyday viewer, this exhibition is the antithesis of approachable, accessible photography.  It relies heavily on academia and a convoluted rationale so loved by post-graduate students.

Much of the exhibition is wonderful, much of it is valuable beyond words.

It is a must view moment, but in an attempt to display photography as high art it missed a great opportunity.


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