Adelaide, archives, black + white, film, topographics

Adelaide Photography 1970-2000: Submissions called

November 17, 2018

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.

sand dunes, Largs Bay, Adelaide

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.

Adelaide Hills + city

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.

pylon, Eastern Mt Lofty Ranges

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.

tree, Eastern Mt Lofty Ranges

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.

 

 

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