The rationale for the Bowden Archives and Industrial Modernity is a simple one. It is a response to an insightful observation made by Gael Newton in her Preface to Photofile: an Australian Photography Reader in 1999 about one way to map new territory for an art history of photography in the Australian art institution. Newton says that:
“One of the ironies of the past decades is that Photofile has provided continuity in a field in which book publication on Australian photography has been erratic and disappointing. Currently there is a dearth of books in print on the most obvious topics. Huge amounts of work needs to be done in standard publishing of historical and contemporary research of a sustained nature.“
Art history is a historical construct. These gaps highlight both the artifice and fiction of art history writing and the shape of the narrative in art history as a mode of thinking. It signposts a pathway to re-interpret the written history of photographic culture in Australia; a pathway to uncover what happened, but which has faded, been forgotten or considered obsolete until it is rediscovered. This forgotten past informs or shapes the present through legacy, memory, trace, retrieval, mourning and commemoration. What is forgotten and repressed as obsolete haunts.
Photography for Barthes is a retrospective medium, charged exclusively with looking back — with history, memory and nostalgia. If photography in the 1960s was unknown territory, then the legacy of the past is the telos of the canonical art history of Australia’s visual art as it was constructed under the influence of the formalist modernist aesthetics developed and defended by Clement Greenberg, John Szarkowski and Michael Fried; and by art institutions such as the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the National Gallery of Australia (ANG). This modernist art history of photography (with its assumptions of the autonomous artwork, the original artist, medium specificity, and a high/mass culture divide) was constructed during the 1960s when critics were starting to become aware that a formalist modernism was problematic. This resistance lead to an avant-garde art history at October and a critical postmodernism emerging in the mid-1970s.
The Bowden Archives and Industrial Modernity is situated in the empty space of Australian modernist art history constructed in the 1980s. This is an empty, silent space because the art photography or photo art in Adelaide in the 1970s—2000 was overlooked by the art historians and curators. It has also been ignored in the national timelines of photography in Australia, as constructed by Daniel Palmer and Martin Jolly in their online Curating Photography project. The historical context is one in which the gate keepers of art photography in Melbourne and Sydney in the late 20th century ignored what happened in the regions outside of the Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney triangle. Gate keeping implies both power/knowledge relations, multiple points of cultural resistance inscribed with the networks of power and a particular way that art is identified as art in this historical context. A critical discourse of photography emerged through a questioning of a modernist aesthetic detached from history or politics.
If the past in this empty space had been buried as if it never happened, then contemporary South Australian photographic culture is notable for the photobooks by Adelaide photographers published the first two decades of the 21st century. These include Alex Frayne’s Adelaide Noir, Theatre of Life and Landscapes of South Australia; books by Mark Kimber, Deborah Pauuwe, Stavros Pippos; Che Chorally’s Sky Sea Me, Gary Haigh’s Mysteries of the Ordinary and the two texts by Gary Sauer-Thompson and Adam Dutkiewicz, namely: Abstract Photography: Re-evaluating Visual Poetics in Australian Modernism and Contemporary Practice (2017) and Adelaide Art Photographers c1970-2000 (2019).
These photobooks, which fill in one of the regional gaps in the national art history of photography, suggest a decentering of the narrative of canonical art history, and an opening to an alternate history.