Photography at Kew Depot (in the 1970s)

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These photos would have been taken whilst I was either waiting to start my shift or, more likely, when I was on a break during one of my shifts and I had some time to make the odd portrait. I would have been asked by the father to take the photos of his family:

2 girls, Kew Depot

From memory PSC had two streams –a commercial one for a professional career in the industry and an art one–expressive art photography. Two of the lecturers John Cato and John Riches were landscape photographers whilst Roger Hayne was more a commercial/industrial photographer. There were a number of visiting lecturers–eg., Jean-Marc Le Pechoux and Jennie Boddington. I cannot recall my tutors name.

Haynes’ teaching at PSC was influenced by the course that Ralph Hattersley taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Hattersley’s course was based on his book Discover Your Self Through Photography, which started from the premise that most people make photos because they want to record important memories in ways that add pleasure and meaning to their lives.

Hattersley had a psychoanalyitc perspective as he held that your pictures mirror you and your values.  Photos reflect the photographer’s values, that they mirror the “wolf” or ego within, and that lazy vision defeats discovering one self through photography, and getting good pictures. It isn’t enough to know how to take pictures. One needs to know how to think about the pictures taken, dig into them, and decipher them if the goal is to discover one self through photography and make better pictures. 

Bundy Clock

The courses at PSC gave me a basic craft education at PSC –enough for me to do b+w photography on my own. I left the college around 1980 before I graduated, as I had no interest in obtaining a piece of paper—the Institute of Australian Professional Photographers Student of the Year Award.

I left the tramways around 1979, just after I’d saved enough money to buy a Leica M4 rangefinder. I remained in Melbourne for another year or so before moving over to Adelaide. However, I kept returning to Melbourne to photograph for another couple of years.

As mentioned above this period was one of political confrontation to both wind back the Whitlam era reforms and to weaken union power.  I remember the tramway union calling a strike in 1976-1977, when the Fraser Liberal government attacked Medibank and introduced harsh anti-union legislation, particularly laws outlawing “secondary boycotts” (solidarity strikes). 

Flinders St, Melbourne

Fortunately, the nature of the Gough Whitlam Government’s Dismissal was an important factor that prevented the incoming Fraser Government from implementing many economic policies it agreed with, but politically could not impose on the electorate. Fraser’s involvement in the sacking of Whitlam left him bereft of the necessary political capital. Whatever his intentions, Fraser simply wasn’t capable of disciplining unions, forcing down wages or implementing wider economic reforms proposed by the neo-liberals.

Whilst at at PSC I was encouraged by the lecturers to take lots of photos, look at a wide variety of photography books, subscribe to Light Vision, go to all the exhibitions at the Photographers Gallery, Brummels Gallery, and the Church Street Photographic Centre and to attend workshops organised by the Photographers Gallery. I attended those by Ralph Gibson (1977) and William Clift (1978).

However, there was little in the way of exposition or critical analysis of the framework of assumptions of the formalist modernism of Clement Greenberg from the PSC lecturers. There was no course in either photographic criticism, or even an art history traditionally premised on innovation through stylistic shifts and the linear continuity of artistic styles. As this part of photographic culture was outside the horizons of what was basically a technical school there was no volatile, three-way interplay between art practice, criticism and history.

at Kew Depot 1

Though there was institutional art criticism in Melbourne, Australian art writing was underrated and neglected and the critical writing on photography was very thin on the ground. It emerged in Light Vision, but that magazine folded in 1978, and also in The Age which had a dedicated section  devoted to the arts – alongside politics, business, sport etc–written by Memory Holloway, an art historian in the Department of Visual Art headed by Patrick McCaughey at Monash University.

Even though photography is an integral part of the visual arts, photography in Melbourne in this period was encased in its own inward looking silo. Photography, as an alternate art form, was on the margins of the visual arts, and social documentary was at odds with the modernist black and white American fine print tradition’s emphasis on form that was then circulating throughout Melbourne.

at Kew Depot 2

The narrative structure of the 1970s was that it was a period of transformative and political change. Australian art in this crucial and dynamic period  was changing: painting and sculpture, which once held sway, were giving way to conceptual art, video and performance as the predominant mediums.

In this transition between modernism and anti-modernism the history of art could no longer be reduced to the history of painting based on the collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the art of Sydney and Melbourne; nor could the Sydney-Melbourne centric  art historical model of mapping patterns of influence and adaptation from avant garde centres (New York) to provincial Australia be retained. The overwhelming emphasis on painting in art history could not, and did not, account for the diverse practices and artworks being produced during the pluralist seventies. This pluralism was an counter to the formalist hegemony during the early 1970s.

Could the narrative structure of the 1970s be one in which photography served as a kind of mediation between the formalist modernism from which it emerged and the critique of modernism which it in its turn prepared?

3 Responses

  1. jamesmmcardle
    | Reply

    You’ve got a very valuable archive in these photos taken at Kew Depot; great shots in the tradition of documentary reportage. I’m sure the State Library would be interested in them. I was teaching at PSC in the early 80s and have significantly expanded the Wikipedia entry on the school – I’d be interested in your views on the institution.

  2. […] the previous post I mentioned that after moving from Melbourne to Adelaide to live, I frequently returned to […]

  3. Thoughtfactory
    | Reply

    Hi James, Thanks for the comments and support. The tramway photos are a part of a book that I am working on. They are a part of the 1st part of the book. (

    I have expanded the original entry (with extra text and photos) working off your PSC Wikipedia entry. The expanded text includes some observations about my experience at PSC.

    I will send you an email.

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