One of the more noticeable characteristics of the contemporary photographic culture in Australia is the dearth of independent critical-writing or public criticism that endeavours to convince the wider public of the worth of art photography through the process of explicating, encouraging, elevating, supporting, critiquing. There is next to nothing icy way of photo criticism in Adelaide:—the Broadsheet Journal has closed down, whilst The Adelaide Review, Artlink and Tulpa basically overlook/ignore photographic exhibitions The consequence of this lack of cultural building blocks is that art photographers working on long term projects live in a critical vacuum, despite the shift online to a networked digital world.
Many traditional photographers would not be concerned about this vacuum in photography’s critical discourse as they have no real love for art criticism, but it is a depressing situation that we find ourselves in. Criticism is a crucial part of making and enabling a photographic culture, and photography has been at the centre of critical debates and themes throughout late twentieth and 21st century art photography’s and it has had a crucial impact on contemporary art in this period.
This lack of a critical impulse and discourse about contemporary photography is reinforced by the lack of value around the arts in mainstream media and among the public more generally. The entire journalism industry has been going through a major phase of disruption, and arts coverage has been the first to go in the mainstream media. It has been decimated over the last decade, which makes the newspapers irrelevant.
The primary reason for this is that the arts are no longer a priority for the mainstream media that is still dependent on advertising and sales revenue. The shift to digital means that the emphasis is now all about what rates online in terms of the most clicks from readers. Since the reviews of exhibitions are not being read, other than by those immediately connected to them, so the media publishers stop publishing art reviews. As his well known, the advertising model is broken and people do not want to subscribe to the mainstream media. Arts coverage in the mainstream media is directly commensurate with the advertising dollars it brings in re the page’s profitability. This means that arts coverage is in its own silo – it survives off the strength of art-related advertisers only.
That leaves specialist platforms to critically cover the visual arts and the arts in general in the form of independent, specialist content publishers with an online presence.
What is notable here is that the infrastructure for this independent critical writing and publishing is lacking in a flattened, all-commodity world where image-embedded data has become co-opted by corporate surveillance channels. Critics aren’t covering the shows or the exhibitions because there are only a few outlets and even less money to pay them to write their reviews. There is no career path as an art journalist. It is true that new digital platforms or hubs have emerged. But Junkee doesn’t do reviews of photography exhibitions and books, presumably because since photography is not central to contemporary pop culture. Nor does SnackableTV. The Australian Book Review has broadened to incorporate national arts coverage, but the literary-based reviews of independent photography books are very limited. Photography has a low profile in Art Monthly, which is Australasia’s flagship visual arts publication and provides a critical platform for its artists.
That more or less leaves the specialist photography publishers. Beta Developments in Photography features photographic portfolios not reviews of exhibitions, essays in art criticism, or book reviews whilst the sister publication One Thousand Words (about photography), which did feature critical essays and exhibition reviews on photography, appears to have died in 2015 unmourned. Photofile, which is published by the Australian Centre of Photography (ACP) is very Sydney centric, like the ACP itself, despite its brief or role to be a national centre for photography. In Melbourne there is the Australian Arts Review and Arts Hub with both having an online presence, and they do cover photography shown at the top tier: exhibitions at the major galleries such as the Contemporary Centre of Photography and the Monash Gallery of Art in Melbourne, and the major photography festivals, such as Head On.
The upshot of this is that the photographic arts that are not in theatre institutions top tier struggles to develop a public presence even with the photobook as a medium. Firstly, the exhibition spaces for this art photography are limited. The Queensland Centre for Photography, for instance, closed in 2014 when its public funding was withdrawn by the conservative government. Secondly, there is scant public money to support the state centres of photography these days. What little funding the arts has had in the past is gradually drying up. Thirdly, when public spaces are available–as in some regional galleries in Victoria and South Australia –there is little critical take up in the writings in the national hubs or platforms. Their eyes are turned elsewhere–to Asia? The Melbourne based Excerpt Magazine has been on hiatus since 2015. That leaves us with a fractured ACP’s relaunched Photofile, which is now being published less frequently.
Australia’s dwindling photographic magazine landscape is a dismal state of affairs. It means that the low key 3 year Mallee Routes project, which is being published in terms of exhibitions and photobooks in regional galleries in Adelaide, South Australia and Victoria, will not be critically reviewed by the national institutions within the contemporary art world. Similarly, for other photographic projects of specific photographs in specific contexts in a visual culture shown in regional galleries that defend cultural value, develop community and place, identify local artists and nurture their creative careers. But the lack of critical reflection is as if the advancements in digital technology, which have ensured far superior printing and reproduction quality and so enabled DIY photo media publishing, has not happened.