architecture, critical writing, history, Mallee

documentary photography: a note

February 26, 2017

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.

Carwell, Victorian Mallee

Carwarp, Victorian Mallee

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.


You Might Also Like

1 Comment

  • Reply February road trip: Parilla - Mallee Routes March 3, 2017 at 11:27 am

    […] the road in the car back and forth along Mallee Highway. I was mostly lining up possibilities for a documentary  style  autumn photoshoot and confirming that Murrayville would be my base […]

  • Leave a Reply

    error: Content is protected !!