This text was written for a talk at the opening of the Mallee Routes exhibition at the Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery in 2018. A different opening talk was given by Mark Thomson from the Institute of Backyard Studies.

Alternate photographic histories

In her Preface to Photo Files: An Australian Photography Reader in 1999 Gael Newton, then the curator of Photography at the Australian National Gallery, observed  that the ‘place’ of photography in Australian visual culture is largely an irrelevant issue for most contemporary photographers. Place is opaque and elusive —Aristotle remarked is something overwhelming and hard to grasp. Place in Newton’s text refers to an Australian identity, a national style and character. However, the conventional place of photography in the art historical narrative is one of photography as fine art, where the art gallery, with its commitment to preservation, is the obvious venue of art.  

We can unpack what Newton means by place through turning back (re-turning) to art history in Australia, since the conventional place of photography in the art historical narrative is one of photography as fine art, where the art gallery, with its commitment to preservation, is the obvious venue of art.  Since Bernard Smith’s Australian Painting 1788-1960 art history has been a post-colonial project to create a distinctive Australian culture that was independent of British colonial power.

Smith’s foundational text of Australian art history as an academic discipline applied academic research methods to Australian painting, and interpreted that research with references to the standard theoretical works of Western art history. This text, which was also a seminal work of Australian art criticism, effectively distinguished and established a body of work that was seperate from the metropolitan centre. It argued that a national school had developed and that this was a crucial influence in the establishment of an Australian national identity. The underling art historical project was political in that it was one of building a strong national culture in a global world.

Australian Painting established the platform on which Australian art history is built including the histories of Australian art photography: the material is arranged chronologically, organised in terms of periods style, with the history an historicist one of a linear history of styles. Australia was seen to be a young but maturing society. The maturation emerged in the visual arts with Drysdale, Tucker and Nolan.

The standard art historical accounts of modernist photography in Australia says that the 1970s in Australia saw the formation of the ACP in Sydney and the Photographers’ Gallery in Melbourne (both in 1974) and the appointment of specialist photography curators for the first time in the state galleries of Victoria (1972) and New South Wales (1974). If, as some critics argued, cultural dependency was especially the case for the Australian art photographers of the 1970s, then it was the 1980s that signalled the beginning of a new era of photographic art practice in the context of the emergence of globalization, feminism and the artistic explosion of new Indigenous Australia art.

Newton’s assumption is that art photography is not just another type of photography, as a form of visual rhetoric to be mastered alongside advertising, photojournalism  and fashion photography. In an age of mechanical reproduction and the consumer logic of the same and the simulacra of the commodity, mass media and entertainment dominating the public visual space, art photography is what the editors at Photofile and the curators at the art galleries accept for reviewing,  publication or exhibiting. The assumption is an understanding of how art or creative photography functions in society: an assumption of aesthetic difference, which under a modernist regime of art has been premised on the formal qualities of the imagery as well as the credentials of the photographer. Hence the bifurcation of the image into a supposedly pure art and the public images of consumption and power.

This is the dominant account  of art-historical writing on photography, with its  claims about the ontological status of photography that separates the medium entirely from other forms of art. Photographers, by and large, have accepted this place of photography in an art historical narrative centred on the integrity of the medium, canonical events and figures in the history of photography, and an expressionist theory of art. They accept that photography becomes a work of art when it becomes a part of art history and enters the art gallery (the art world), even if they do not accept that such photography is also enabled or enfranchised as art by a certain theoretical context (ie., modernism).

This interpretation of ‘place’ in photography in Australian visual culture can be contested. There are the well known regional gaps in the national histories. The art photography and photo art in the regional histories of photography within Australia, eg., those of Tasmania, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia have been excluded from the national histories and so cultural displaced. These regional photographic cultures are seen as provincial, lacking in quality and not disturbing, uprooting, or radicalising the medium of photography. Photographically speaking the regions are no-places and the photography produced becomes the nameless art of the culturally displaced–a lost history.