(This text is Part 1 of The Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia and refers to the Snapshots gallery. Footnotes are in the pdf).
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. The expanding field of photographic form (chemical photography, cinema, television and video) became the dominate visual form of global capitalism in late modernity. New York saw itself as the centre of the modernist world. Pop Art had reopened the gates that had been closed against the everyday and it pushed towards an acceptance of the power of the everyday.
Photography was onside with its opening to the rest of the world, and aligned with, the progressive thinking in the 1970s. Optimism had 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, which was experienced as darkly framed black and prints on a white gallery wall.
These were heady, energetic days with the arrival of American photography exhibited circa 1977-9. This 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.
In those days 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. Their sense of being modern was not that photography was innovative; but that it was revolutionary in the tacit questions it addressed to itself about its own status as photographic art.
During 1977-79, I’d studied photography at the Photography Studies College (PSC) in Melbourne under John Cato, whilst working as a conductor on the Melbourne trams. American Modernism, with its revolutionary ethos, circulated through the artworld — 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. The photos were simply accepted as art works. So what was the theory that made these American photographs art works? No one I knew in the Melbourne art world was reading or talking about the critical essays on photography or modernism, let alone the postmodernism being published in October by Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster or Douglas Crimp. There was nothing in the way of a conversation about modernism, the nature of art history, or art’s developmental narrative.
Nor was there any critique of the modernism circulating in the background — modernism in the form of the judging eye of Clement Greenberg’s formalist medium specific modernism, in which arts self-determination was underwritten by its combat with the world. It defined itself as other to the everyday. According to Greenberg painting in the first half of the 20th century drifted progressively further away from representation to contemplate the essences of its form, resulting in non-representational art such as the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock. In short, Modernist painting became its own subject — the flatness of the canvas. Greenberg’s central interest was quality in art with its appeal to Kant’s aesthetics to underpin the question of criteria. Kant had argued that judgments of beauty are non-conceptual, and secondly that they are universally valid, that is, they are in no sense merely personal. Greenberg’s formalism, ignored beauty and concentrated on judgments being universally valid.
This modernism was reworked by John Szarkowski, the curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), to both assert the aesthetic value of the photographic medium against the mass culture of journals, magazines and television and to reaffirm the Modernist imperative that art should be about art. The 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. Szarkowski stopped short of the move to abstraction, in that he left untouched the classical system of representation that depends on the assumed transparency of the picture surface. This formalism constituted the self-revolutionizing history of modernist photography in relation to previous photographic styles.
To question the modernist theory behind this — eg., has a progressive historical narrative of art come to an end?—was judged to be the perspective of an antagonistic philosophy in an adversarial mode seeking to encroach upon, control, or usurp art’s free play; to not let allow art to speak for itself, to speak without the mediation of philosophical reflection. Philosophy disenfranchises art by seeing art as conceptually deficient. Philosophy was dismissed because art was no longer in the grip of philosophical aesthetics since photographic art was a “purely” visual practice.
At the end of the 1970s I left a dynamic Melbourne for the historically, culturally 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 its formalist modernism underpinnings. Going to the periphery of Adelaide with its straight lines and the experience of boredom whilst walking the empty streets in Adelaide was one way to establish a critical distance. So was hanging out with the avant-garde at the Experimental Art Foundation and discussing the nature of art.