easy days in Bowden

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Another image from  my wandering the streets in Bowden, Adelaide. On this occasion the picture was made  with a Leica M4. The  picture is an unfashionable  form of documentary photography, made when South Australia’s industrial decline was underway.

Australian photographic history in the late 1980s was premised on a narrative about being modern that was based on exceptional images produced by a few celebrated photographers and their transcendent achievements. This art history, based largely on  the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, was written in the context of the establishment of photography as an accepted and publicly funded art form.

These kind of histories of art photography were uncritically dependent on formalist art-historical narratives and standards of quality formulated in the US. Their narratives one of a move within Australian culture from an insular provincialism toward a more modern (and by that is usually meant “more international”) sensibility. Australian photography came of age with its embrace of  Modernist formalism. This narrative ignored, or gave little coverage to,  the regional character of  photography within Australia. For example,  the  diversity of  photographic  work  made in Adelaide in the 1980s was overlooked. That regional history has yet to be written.

easy days, Bowden
easy days, Bowden

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). Max Dupain’s work provided a ready- made genealogy, an extended history as well as an avant-garde tradition, on which an argument for Australian art photography could be built. The 1980s then saw the  development in Australia  of a substantial art world economy that made art photography  possible: a supportive network of schools, galleries, museums, magazines, and public funding that had been unknown in Australia  in previous decades.

The 1980s can be seen as the decade of the professionalism of a new generation of artist- photographers, the diversity of their backgrounds, the interest of many of these photographers in  French poststructuralist theory, the emphasis on grand, studio-induced images that suggest “excess, artifice and decadence,”and  the ability of these images to deny photography’s traditional claims to truth and realism.

This kind of documentary /street photography in Adelaide was squeezed between postmodernism adopted by  the professionally trained artist-photographers and those who  used photography as an alternative to established art practices, and who allied themselves to the conceptual and  counter-cultural  movements then being embodied in other aspects of the art institution. Documentary photography is a relatively marginal photographic  tradition in Australia. Despite Max Dupain’s documentary photography in the 1940s, this type of photography is usually seen as not art photography–it is usually held to be a form of photo journalism that we see in newspapers and magazines.

This is the old dividing line of between the work of art and the documentary image, between subjective interpretation and objective representation. What is usually ignored is  that the objective documentary image and the subjective, artistic approach is not contradictory as  the recent tradition has  accustom us to accept. Documentary photography, as distinct  from a document,  implies image making that has been shaped by indexicality, interpretation and  an agenda project.   It both shows a specific situation within the regional specificities of Australian life  and informs the viewer about it means.

This kind of photography has been pushed to the margins in order to delimit what is and is not proper to the art  history’s enterprise in Australia. There is a lacuna in photography’s history; an absence, if you like that would undercut   the  historical judgements of photography’s  Australian historians about art photography being the history of styles—from naturalism to  modernism, to postmodernism, to contemporary photogoraphy –and the notion of the artwork on which their art-historical chronology is based.





One Response

  1. Emma Cownie
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    Unfashionable photography, is it? Seems like a bloody good photo to me.

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