The provincial problem has traditionally been seen in art history in terms of the 1970s concern about the relationship of dependancy of Australian art to New York art, not the provincial or regional problem within Australia. But there is a regional/provincial problem since the judgement implicit in the national timelines and histories of photography in Australia is that Adelaide photography in the last quarter of the 20th century lacked the kind of reflexivity in identifying and subverting the conventions of photographic vision made mandatory by modernist art. It was not where the avant garde resided. The regional visual culture in Adelaide in the last quarter of the 20th century is ignored in Patrick McCaughey’s Strange Country: Why Australian Painting Matters. It does makes a formal appearance in Andrew Sayers’ Australian Art with a one line mention of the Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art in 1990 where it is as an example of the proliferation of large-survey exhibitions of contemporary art.
This means that the emphasis is necessarily on excavation and recuperation to establish an account of what happened in this regional non-place. It is true that the photographic culture in an isolated Adelaide was much quieter and more low key than in Melbourne in the late 70s and early 80s. It was more distanced from the metropolitan taste making of New York, and its art market/gallery system was limited, and it primarily supported the traditional art forms such as painting. There was no institutions such as Joyce Evans’ Church Street Gallery–an ambitious full-scale commercial gallery and bookshop that exhibited Australian work, vintage exhibitions and overseas work—-which existed between 1975-1982; nor an equivalent of the Ewing and George Paton Galleries, a public gallery at the Melbourne University Student Union that accepted photography as a primary means of expression and that photography was an vital aspect of the visual arts in the 1970s.
Establishing photography as an art form was a struggle in Adelaide and this was compounded by the dismissal of two dimensional art by the avant-garde at the Experimental Foundation of two dimensional art in favour of experimental and performance works (eg., Stelarc’s Event for Stretched Skin 1976). However, the Art Gallery of South Australia supported the work of the local art photographers after Alison Carroll was appointed Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs in 1977, and encouraged the acquisition of contemporary Australian artists and photographers by the Art Gallery South Australia.
The late 1970s and early 1980s were a period when art photography in Adelaide was the exuberant emergence of something new. Art photography meant photography as an intimate expression of individual concern, which was defined against both the narrative legibility and compositional resolution of photo-journalistic work and the purity of painting as a medium.
Photography developed an active presence in the art institutions. The graduates of the South Australian School of Art were developing their projects, forming groups, working on projects and having exhibitions. The 1980s witnessed the emergence of The Developed Image gallery, the South Australian Photographic Workshop and the South Australian Workshop (SAW). The Developed Image was the first photographic gallery in Adelaide, the South Australian Photographic Workshop was a collective of artists practicing in the field of photography who were associated with the Developed Image gallery; whilst the South Australian Workshop (SAW) was a collectively run artist studio space. Independent little art magazines such as Words and Visions showcased some of the art photography being produced. Enough art photography was being produced that the South Australian Photographic Workshop were able to supply, frame and install 180 art prints of South Australian content by South Australian photographers for the South Australian Law Courts Building in Victoria Square in 1983.
A core problem faced by photography was institutional: the visual arts had a low profile in Adelaide in the biennale Adelaide Festival of Arts, as it was only in the 1984 festival that the visual arts gained their own director. Photography had marginal status in Adelaide’s visual art culture, There were exhibitions of photography at both the Art Gallery of South Australia (The Centre: Virginia Coventry, Lynn Silverman, Leonie Reisberg, Sally Robinson, Ed Douglas, Barrie Goddard and Douglas Holleley) and at the Developed Image (Julie Rapp Brown, Timo Pajunen and Fimo [Wayne Fimeri] ) being an official part of the 1984 Festival. This was continued in the 1986 Adelaide Festival with the Naked Image exhibition with its exploration of primal body images.
Unfortunately, The Developed Image, which had helped to establish photography’s secure profile in the visual arts over the past six years, closed in 1986. This was due to a lack of public funding to enable it to become a regional facility of the Australian Centre of Photography, whose aim was to overcome the prejudice against photography in the art world and the legitmization of art photography in the art institution. The vacuum was filled by the Experimental Art Foundation, the Contemporary Art Society, and artist run centres/galleries (at the Living Arts Centre or One-Off Gallery) in which more conceptual, experimental or critical work (eg., the text and image books by Paul Hewson and Linda-Marie Walker) could be produced and circulated.
If the photographic scene was diverse and flourishing by the 1980s, there were notable limitations. Painting dominated the hierarchy of the visual arts, there was a distinct apartheid between photography and the rest of the arts with photography seen as a secondary medium. Though photographs were being made —eg., projects such as the 1982 Portrait of Elizabeth—photography lacked a cohesive and visible context or culture. There was an absence of any major photographic publications, a lack of critical writing on South Australian photography’s relation to the visual culture and no critic like Patrick McCaughey or Paul Taylor in Melbourne. There was little awareness about art photography in Adelaide prior to the 1970s, and no sense of the abstract photographic tradition in Adelaide in the 1950s and 1960s. There was little connection to both the history of the European modernist tradition in Russia and Germany between 1920 and 1940, or to the writings on photography by Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin. The exuberant emergence of something new happened in a cultural vacuum. So the work produced was second rate and unable to generate new problems.
This suggests a need to return to places as region to explore the different regional histories of photography within Australia, which is different to the concern about creating a national art. Such a return highlights how the art historical practices of framing, display, inclusion, and exclusion, contribute to our implicit conception of what art photography is and to the masking of art itself. As Arthur Danto suggests in his The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, theory or philosophy is not external to the production and understanding of art, but constitutes things as art and constitutes the art world itself. The conceptual and philosophical underpinnings of Greenberg’s modernism, for instance, in charting the history of art (ie., painting) from Impressionism to Cubism to Abstract Expressionism excluded Constructivism, Dada, Surrealism, Minimalism, Conceptual Art and Pop Art.
Though the Experimental Art Foundation favoured post-object art it fostered and encouraged openness and experiment in the arts; a critical and well argued art criticism in opposition to the art critic as publicist; an acceptance of the role of philosophy to question the assumptions of art history and cultural writing in the visual arts; a rejection of muddle argument and dogmatic art criticism; and a recognition that conceptual ideas-based art could be made in the regions as well as in the centres of Australia.
This provides a clearing within an erased regionalism out of which something new emerges: alternate photographic histories through a rethinking of art history in the context of the degree in which the place of an art work has been situated by art history (eg., Greenberg’s linear/painterly history). What emerges from being in a ‘flyover or no-place’ is an awareness of an art historical voice of authority that excluded everything that did not fit into a preconceived system. This was true of Greenberg’s modernism as it was of the neo-Marxist Art and Language groups emphasis on worker and community art that reflected everyday Australia life.If turn back to has
If we turn back to what has been excluded–an encounter with the being of art photography in South Australia –what emerges or shines forth is a remembering or recollection that South Australian art photographers — Michal Kluvanek, Ed Douglas, Mark Kimber, Ian North, Deborah Pauuwe, Stravos Pippos —did not have have a sense of themselves as provincial. They thought of themselves as being in a relation not only with America, but with places all around the world. This presencing provides an opening into the world of art photography –a pathway to different ways to think about the question of place and art photography–a remembering about what has been forgotten. The remembering is an uncovering, or a bringing forth, what was withdrawn by art history’s temporal stages premised on an underlying ground or principle.
Such a clearing opens up a way to contest Newton’s claim that the ‘place’ of photography in Australian visual culture is largely an irrelevant issue for most contemporary photographers from a different perspective. Instead of seeing place as the nation or its location in art history, we can view the idea of place as topos ie., where people live, work and play. Tasmania, or the Mallee, are good examples of place as dwelling, as they are a place where people have made their home as well as being a space. Place has been the focus of much Tasmanian photography in technological modernity that reduces the thing to a mere resource and place to simple location. Place is that on and in which photography finds its footing and support, from which it takes its orientation and direction. Yet art history has overlooked the place-based photography that has been produced of, and about, Tasmania. The systematic elimination of place as topos has resulted in the homelessness of particular kinds of photography in Australia.
Place as topos is different to place as provincialism and Australianness–(ie., nation, an Australian art and Australian cultural identity) in relation to international (ie., American) art as understood in the centre -periphery model. A geographic place (topos) as distinct from an empty space is where people live and and work and make their home. Their world does not consist of a mere assemblage of things or their instrumental ordering of the useful; their world is a unity of their belonging together. Place is not grounded in the human alone as it is only in place that humans can appear, even though such a place cannot appear apart from the human. Here the multiple elements of the place are gathered together in their mutual relatedness to one another–earth, sky, history, human, economy, culture. The salient features within a landscape that may be seen to give focus to it are themselves given their own character through the elements of the landscape that come into focus around it.
Heidegger in his essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ shows that the bridge appears as a bridge, not through the exercise of its own qualities in determining an otherwise featureless terrain, but through a coming to appearance in which bridge, river and the entirety of the countryside around it are gathered together as one and as many, and are thereby determined, in their being, as bridge, as river, as countryside. It is this essential gathering of elements in a mutual belonging together in which they come to presence.
Photographing the Mallee is a returning back to place as being-there, or locality of situation. It addresses the problem of place in the sense of a deep connection between the being of human beings and actual, concrete places. This photography is a response to the place or situation in which we find ourselves today, a situation that is indistinguishable from the time in which we live. It is a thinking of place. The return to place is a turning back to that which is always presupposed by our more specific modes of being. It is like the movement in which, having been engrossed in some activity, we look up to see the place that has been around us all the time, and that has also enabled and supported the activity in which we have been engrossed. Turning back to place brings place back into view from being unnoticed and in the background of our activities.
The photography is about appearing or presence of things in the Mallee—not in the sense of seeing though or beyond to uncovers what lies obscured by the everydayness of place; but a seeing that remains with, allowing things to shine forth in their presence and in that thing to light up the place that shelters and sustains them. It is a photography of surfaces.