I have finally picked up working on the Adelaide Photography 1970-2000 book with Adam Dutkiewicz that is to be published by Moon Arrow Press. There has been more than a year’s break from the early stages of planning due to other book and exhibition commitments by Adam and myself. We have just called for submissions for the portfolios in the book, and we are now sitting back and waiting to see what comes in from the call out. Though it is not really clear at this early stage what kind of work will be submitted, the book’s explicit regional focus will fill one of the gaps in the art history of Australian photography that has traditionally been written around a cumulative teleology of styles and periods.
The design of the book is simple: each photographer will be given 6-8 pages to present their work from this period, and they will have a text to describe their work and their biography or profile. As there are currently around 20 photographers who expressed an interest in submitting a portfolio and there is some text, the book looks to be around 130 pages. The launch of the book will be at an exhibition of some of the prints in Adelaide early in 2020.
The year 2000 is a useful cutoff point for the book because this is when photography started to go global: the explosion of websites, art fairs, festivals, biennales, travelling museum exhibitions, catalogues, conferences, artist residencies etc associated with the international transmission of objects, ideas and photographers operating across the boundaries of nation states. If this meant that the hold that European and North American artists had over the production of contemporary art has been broken, that the art world has become more event-driven with biennials and art fairs in far-flung locations, then it also means the biennales are institutional sites whose ways of seeing contain an aesthetic regime of experience.
My own portfolio is structured around my shift from street photography to topographics. This would exclude the landscape photographs, and it foreshadows my turn to, and latter embrace of, a topographical approach to still photography. The topographical turn, which was made during this period, with both the Port Adelaide series and the spatial interpretations of Adelaide, was largely shaped by using large format cameras. It was a foreshadowing in the sense of my not consciously relating this to the New Topographics tradition in the US, even though I was consciously photographing a human altered landscape.
One reason for this lack of awareness was that the photographic culture 1970’s to 1980s in Adelaide was characterised by a lack of knowledge of the photography that had gone before, both in the 19th century colonial period, the first half of the 20th century, or Frank Hurley’s series of Camera Study books on each state, major city, and eventually on Australia as a whole. Unlike Melbourne, Adelaide also lacked a knowledge of what was happening in the US and Europe. When Ed Douglas arrived in Adelaide in the late 1970s to establish photography department within the South Australia School of Art he observed:
Adelaide was then a provincial city without a nationally recognised artist working with photography. In fact, nationally, photography had a relatively low level of recognition in the visual arts. The history of photography in Australia was represented by a single, casually researched, book by Jack Cato…..After the overwhelming breadth, diversity, and intensity of Sydney, Adelaide felt like an overgrown regional town. The general knowledge of photography students consisted of Max Dupain, or possibly David Moore, and the odd international photographer like Diane Arbus.
Despite the 1970s being the Dunstan decade with its emergence of social movements (aboriginal land rights, feminism, environmentalism etc) the lack of the buzz of cultural energy in the visual arts meant that art photography was bootstrap stuff in an isolated provincial city. This meant that as photography seemed to have little artistic baggage or accumulated history of the kind that weighed so heavily on the shoulders of painters or sculptors, so it offered the promise of a new start. Seemed because there was the tension between the photograph as trace and the photograph as picture, that is to say between the photograph as document and the photograph as artwork.
The primary aim of photography curating in the 1970s in Australia was to establish photography as fine art, to include photography as a specific medium within the canon of modernist art practice, and to construct a modernist photographic cannon of master photographers and iconic images. Photography was a young medium knocking on the doors of art. Establish photography as a fine art medium was done without realising that photography’s vernacular and reproducibility complicates, and makes problematic, its place in the art gallery that is based on the constant exclusion of the vernacular and of reproducibility itself. As Martin Jolly says photography as a creative art threatened the grounds of the art museum’s hierarchies and collection policies.
The assumption is that art photography has value in our culture beyond its market market price and that culture is is a more worthy activity than commerce. What might that value be?
One answer is given by the avant garde in Adelaide associated with the Experimental Art Foundation (EAF). This was formed in 1974 by a small group of Adelaide artists and theorists, in order to both encourage new approaches to the visual arts and to promote the idea of art as ‘radical and only incidentally aesthetic’. The emphasis was art practices that were analytical, critical and experimental, and which challenged established thinking and expanded cultural discourse.
The energetic visual activity in the Adelaide periphery was the new, local avant-garde concerned to a sweep away older, diffuse, awkwardly connotative ways of seeing. This included those abstract modernist ways of seeing associated with the refugees from fascist, war-torn Europe who endeavoured to realise the dream of a lively, experimental culture in Adelaide in the 1950s and 1960s, documentary and late modernist formalist photography. The iconoclasm of the avant grade saw photography as a document, index, trace to performative, conceptual, or land art practices and not as a picture or artwork that would critically inform, challenge, or reveal.
During the 1970s to 2000 period the acceptance of photography as art seemed tied to a vision of it as conforming to a Modernism that stressed formalism, beauty, originality, authenticity and subjective expressiveness and as a radical critique of that Modernism. In the 1980s photographic art became entangled with Postmodernism centred around an Anglo-American reading. This sets up a dichotomy between those values associated with Modernism – the aesthetic, its autonomy and medium-specificity – and postmodern anti-aestheticism that used photography to take issue with aesthetic theory in general, and painting as vehicles of allegedly regressive forms of experience and art making.
What emerged in the 1980s was photography as a picture in the form of the ‘postmodern’ arts of appropriation, quotation and re-photography premised on the assumption that the mass media pictures in a world dominated but advertising were untrustworthy, illusory, distractive, hegemonic, dangerous to ‘firsthand experience’. Hence the critique of representation or race, gender, sexuality, consumerism. This is a concept-driven model of photography as art.
The year 200o is also a good cutting off point for the book because things shifted in the late 1990s apart from the internet and globalisation. Contemporary photography as a picture was reinterpreted as a rethinking of, and reinventing, a painterly pictorial tradition i.e., the longstanding tradition of image making to which 19th century paintings (eg., whose of Courbet and Manet) belong. Here the photograph and the camera that makes it, have replaced the brush, paint and canvas as a new painterly medium or art with its focus on the pictorial syntax. This autonomous, free standing image declares its own artfulness through the realisation of a composite, synthetic photographic tableau or picture through the use of digital technology to combine the various elements so that the joins do not show.
Here the photograph as a photo-painting is apprehended as a tableau, if it is given to be seen, by whatever means, as an internally organised image that compels on the basis of that organisation. As exemplified by key international figures such as Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Hiroshi Sugimoto, the picture is designed to be ambiguous, and it absorbs the viewer in aesthetic appreciation. The pictures–eg., Walls 1993 A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) or the 1999 Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona– are an event or mode of experience rather than just a picture of everyday life. The formal conventions of this hybrid, composite ‘auratic art’ – in the Benjaminian sense of the term – are for example large-scale formats, technologically sophisticated color prints and limited editions.
The adherents of this dominant sceptic regime in visual art, such as Jean-François Cheerier or Michael Fried hold that a lack of ambiguity and absorption makes the photograph naive, illustrative and documentary. Yet documentary offers a divergent path for contemporary photography–as it goes against this logic of picture-making of the absorptive model or what Julian Stallabrass calls the ‘museum photograph’ (and its ties to the art market). This divergent path is one characterised by photography’s ability to offer subtle critical comments on the social and economic reality in which we live, and its tradition of actively taking part in transformative social processes.