towards another photographic history

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In his essay ‘Australian Made’ in Each Wild Idea: Writing , Photography, History  (2000) Geoffrey Batchen  contests the view that  Australian photography after 1945  was a dependent shadow of trends in the United States. He says that  this assumption underpins the histories of Australian photography written by Gael Newton in  Shades of Light: Photography and Australia, 1839–1988,  Anne-Marie Willis’s Picturing Australia: A History of Photography and Helen Ennis in the  exhibition catalogue, Australian Photography: The 1980s.

If this dependency was especially the case  for the Australian art photographers of the 1970s, then according to these texts, the 1980s signalled the beginning of  a new era of photographic art practice. Batchen’s main point is that  art photography was only one small aspect of developments in Australian photography during the 1980s,  and that there is no particular reason to concentrate a historical account of Australian photography in this period exclusively on art production. He says:

There were in fact a number of important debates and incidents specific to Australia during that decade in which photography was a central concern, and yet inexplicably they received little or no coverage in any of the above [historical surveys of art photography] books. Another history of Australian photography in the 1980s remains to be written, one concerned with the medium’s social as well as its aesthetic impact. The aim of this other history would be quite specific: to make visible the local configurations of power and resistance within which photography in Australia operated, then as now.

Batchen  then asks:  What would be in such a history?

For the sake of argument, he offers some fragments, along the lines of those who  managed to stage  effective interventions within the very grain of an established circulation of photographic images. He mentions  photography by indigenous Australians and the wilderness photography of  Peter Elliston and  Peter Dombrovskis. Another fragment in the 1980s that Batchen  mentions was  the work of B.U.G.A. U.P or Billboard Using Graffitists Against Unhealthy Products:

Marlboro, Bowden
Marlboro, Bowden

Batchen says during the 1980s this  group  “regularly terrorized Sydney’s advertising billboards, particularly those devoted to the promotion of cigarettes and beer. Ubiquitous urban billboard images were transformed through a judicious and witty application of spray paint such that their naturalized messages of desire and pleasure were made strange, sometimes on a spectacularly grand scale.”

This kind of political intervention also happened is Bowden, Adelaide.The above image in Bowden was done prior to 1981, was  that was the year  when the South Australian Government decided not to renew contracts for tobacco advertising on trains, trams, tramway busses and railway platforms.

BUGA-UP was more  of a movement than  a group. In Adelaide it was a movement of artists that grew spontaneously to target the absurdity of allowing drug pushing through billboard advertising on government property.BUGA-UP was an early example  of Culture Jamming.

Batchen says that these fragments point to  the possibility of a local point of view: a  distinctively Australian historiography, a mode of historical analysis that embodied and reflected on the specific character of Australian life and culture. Batchen finishes  his ‘Australian Made’ essay by saying:

If Australia’s photography is ever to challenge its current supplementary status in the world scene, its critics and historians must intervene within the political economy of the supplement itself. They must simultaneously demand that Australian photography’s regional qualities be recognized and appreciated in their own terms, even as they dispute the standards by which quality in general has hitherto been determined. This tenaciously double-edged critique of photographic history is the crucial project that still remains to be completed.

The Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia could be situated  as contributing to another history,  since as it  is a form of documentary photography in and about  Adelaide ,  it helps to deepen the tradition of documentary photography, which historically,  is a relatively slight tradition  in Australia compared to the US.

This Bowden work was  done without any awareness of the post-photography movement (that is, the bleeding of photography into other media), which was  derived from the  conceptual art moment in which artists made use of photography not as a fine art medium but as a means of deadpan documentation that also happened to be a convenient building material.  Edward Ruscha’s concertina-book Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), for example, was often exhibited as a photo sculpture: the book  stands upright in extended form, zigzagging its way across a floor or fanned out to fill a Perspex case.

The Bowden photography is traditional. I assumed  that photography was a medium;  the photography was of  an industrial suburb in an industrial age; it was a photography that assumed  the traditional realist orders of sign and referent, that is, the separation of real and representation on which the presumed veracity of the photograph has for so long been founded.

The work was made  before the emergence of the end of photography  as a medium-specific art  meme in the 1990s; and the undermining of its indexical relation to the world it images, a relation that is regarded as fundamental to its operation as a system of representation, by digital technology and imaging. What emerged from this undermining was the narrative of the displacement of traditional photographs by computer-generated digital images and  photos becoming digital data processedand disseminated in an digital  economy.

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