(This text relates to the Snapshots gallery).
The 1970s-1990s period was a melting away of all that was once solid and stable in the emergence of flux and flow in Australia’s social democratic culture and economy. Australia celebrated its opening to the forces of the global market. This period of rapid societal and political change witnessed the end in 1972 of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and of conscription, and an emergence of a social liberal perspective on civil rights and the women’s liberation movement. It swept a Federal Labor Government, led by Gough Whitlam, into power after 20 years of conservative rule.
Photography was onside with its opening to the rest of the world, and aligned with, the progressive thinking in the 1970s. Optimism banished pessimism. Photography was gaining a place in the art institution and in art history in the 1970s, with its inherited notions of artistic genius, innovation, vision, technical excellence, period style rarity and aura. Art photography was heavily promoted by The Photographers Gallery in Melbourne in the form of a ‘fine-print’ tradition of photography as an autonomous modernist art, and it was experienced as darkly framed black and prints on a white gallery wall.
These were heady, optimistic days: American photography exhibited circa 1977-9 included Wynn Bullock, Ralph Gibson, William Clift, Oliver Gagliani, Aaron Siskind, Emmett Gowin and Les Krims. This was in stark contrast to the advertising/fashion work that had dominated Melbourne photography; or the 35mm street photography with its celebration of subjective vision of the first generation of artist photographers from the Prahran College under Paul Cox, Athol Shmith and John Cato shown at Brummels Gallery in South Yarra.
Prahran College of Advanced Education stood for creative art photography compared to RMIT, which emphasised commerce and industry. The body of work produced by these creative, artist photographers in the 1970s was premised on individual freedom of expression, and it helped to revive the medium as an art form in Australia; a medium that art historians were saying had been in a deep freeze since the Pictorialist era at the beginning of the 20th century.
Modernism circulated through the various public and private photographic galleries in Melbourne, such as The Photographer’s Gallery in South Yarra and the Church Street Gallery in Richmond. Modernism’s form was that of Greenberg’s formalist modernism that had been reworked by John Szarkowski, curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), to assert the aesthetic value of the photographic medium against the mass culture of journals, magazines and television. Szarkowski’s concern in the Photographer’s Eye is with photographic style and tradition and the shared vocabulary of photography that belongs to photography alone. The formal characteristics he identified were modes of photographic description, since Szarkowski stopped short of the move to abstraction, in that he left untouched the classical classical system of representation that depends on the assumed transparency of the picture surface.
I’d studied photography at the Photography Studies College (PSC) in Melbourne under John Cato during 1977-79, whilst working as a conductor on the Melbourne trams. I left a dynamic Melbourne for the historically conservative city of Adelaide at the end of the 1970s, as I wanted to establish a critical distance from both the American fine art print tradition and a formalist modernism. Going to the periphery was a way to establish a critical distance as there were no resources in Melbourne’s photographic culture to help me critically assess the American understanding of art photography. No one I knew in the art institution was reading or talking about the critical essays on photography, modernism and postmodernism being published in October by Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster or Douglas Crimp.