Australian Photography: The 1980s was a photographic exhibition curated by Helen Ennis at the Australian National Gallery around 1988, the year of Australia’s Bicentenary. This event triggered debate on Australian national identity, Aboriginal rights, historical interpretation and multiculturalism.
This survey style exhibition focused on both new work by emerging artists, by which was meant a new generation of professionals trained in the art schools; as well as recent work by those artists who had began their careers in the mid to late 1970s, and whose work has often addressed more traditional photographic concerns in the 1980s.
In the catalogue Ennis observed that due to the centrality of photography’s position with postmodernism, some photographic work has enjoyed as high profile in exhibitions of contemporary art. However, photographs displaying more traditional concerns, for example, those made in the photo documentary and formalist styles, are rarely considered in the art world.
As an example of exhibitions of contemporary art that gave prominence to photographs Innes mentions Australian Perspecta and the Biennale of Sydney exhibitions held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. These were photos that displayed clear links to works of art rather than photography that seem to be derived from a particular knowledge of the medium and its history. Australian Perspecta, which was a biennial survey show to showcase Australian contemporary art ran from 1981 until 1999 and it is an example of the way in which the State Galleries focused on the big national and international survey exhibitions as well as the block-buster touring shows due to their capacity to generate large amounts of revenue.
The inference from Australian Perspecta is that documentary photography is the other to the art photography in the art institution and that it is constructed as a window on the social world. Moreover, photography in the selective construction of a modernist aesthetic tradition continues to be understood as a mode integrated within wider practices of contemporary art and not as an autonomous tradition.
However, the area where art photography and documentary photography overlap is a large and heated interplay—a zone of conflict?– in both the art and photo world. The context is one where the relationship between documentary photography and fine art photography is an uncomfortable one, in that documentary photography is often seen as tendentious work—work that has a motive beyond pure ‘artistic’ pleasure. Consequently it is tainted and beneath work that is purely fine art. Documentary work is like kitchen sink realism, realism is a dead end street and it is outside art.
What is not usually acknowledged is the way that documentary photography has continuously challenged and reinvented itself, and that contemporary documentary practices have varied rhetorical strategies, borrowing from the orator and the historian alike, do not share a formal style, and work within multiple dichotomies including its status as art and non-art, aesthetic and the ethic, as well as between artifice and authenticity.