Gael Newton in her Preface to Photofile: an Australian Photography Reader made an insightful observation made about one way to map new territory for an art history of photography in the Australian art institution. Newton observed:
“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.“
The above gaps highlight art history as a historical construct, the artifice and fiction of art history writing, and the shape of the narrative in art history as a mode of historical thinking. They signpost a pathway to re-interpret the written history of photographic culture in Australia; and to uncover what happened, but which has faded, been forgotten or considered obsolete until rediscovered. This forgotten past informs or shapes the present through legacy, memory, trace, retrieval, mourning and commemoration. Photography for Barthes is a retrospective medium, charged exclusively with looking back — with history, memory and nostalgia. Memory is a bodily being-toward-the-world in which the past is not relegated to a remote corner of our consciousness but is always interacting with what we do here and now.
If art 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. This was constructed by art institutions such as the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the National Gallery of Australia (ANG) within a formalist modernist aesthetics 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 initially constructed in the 1940s by Alfred H. Barr, then developed and defended by Clement Greenberg, John Szarkowski and Michael Fried. In the 1960s critics were starting to become aware that a formalist modernism was problematic, and this resistance lead to the emergence of a critical postmodernism and an alternate art history by writers associated with October in the mid-1970s.
The Bowden Archives is situated on the margins of an Australian modernist art history; marginalized due to the art photography or photo art in Adelaide in the 1970s—2000 being overlooked by the national art historians and curators. Adelaide was 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. There is a particular way that art is identified as art in this historical context and a critical discourse of photography emerges through a questioning of a modernist aesthetic detached from history or politics. Supplements, such as The Bowden Archives, highlight the internal ‘lack’ in the canonical art history’s narrative, and show that the ‘inside ‘ and ‘outside’ boundaries between the narrative of conventional art history, and what is marginalized are porous.
Porous because the photobooks by contemporary Adelaide photographers published the first two decades of the 21st century activate our memories of the marginalized past. 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 help to fill in a regional gap in the national art history of photography, decenter of the conventional narrative and hierarchy of a canonical art history, open up alternate histories; and remind us that our memories of the past are already with is shaping how we interpret the present.
The Bowden Archives and Industrial Modernity is a salvaging of an uncompleted MA (by dissertation and photography) on Romanticism and industrial capitalism under Brian Medlin at Flinders University of South Australia. This was abandoned for a PhD in philosophy prior to the neo-liberal downsizing of the humanities and its reconstruction is an assemblage from unruly 1980s photographic and textual archives through weaving together images and text. Its salvaging as a form of memory work consists of three sections of photos and text in the form of an interpretative reconstructive approach to the archives through the horizons of my past experiences.
This image text breaks away from the modernist type of photo-book with its images and a minimal introductory text; thereby challenging and resisting the modernist dichotomy between image and text. The relationship between image and text is multilayered. Text and image collaborate, are supplementary, or in tension. The archival fragments are over layered with material from the perspective of the present.
Photography, archive, text and memory are closely connected. Walter Benjamin showed that modern memory relies on the materiality of the trace, or the visibility of the image. Photography is bound up with the processes of remembering, forgetting and interpreting. We associate photographs with memories; they are the relics of our time. Kodak, for instance, commodified memory in that the snapshots they processed offered consumers the means to preserve their personal memories of the significant events in their lives. This process of recuperative memory through returning to the archive is not simply remembering the past – recuperating it – but remembering memory itself, where it appears to have slipped away.
If photography is the presence of absence (of what has been), then the photographic/textual archive filters and mediates what is preserved and recalled. Hal Foster in his “An Archival Impulse,” article in October identifies the emergence of art focusing on archives which demonstrates the pursuit of a kind of “counter-memory,” that is, artistic practices that seek to retrieve and represent what he terms “alternative knowledge.” It opens the possibility to continue the critical enterprise of documenting and recovering neglected or marginalised knowledge, but this time with an emphasis on history and historical archives.
What is forgotten and repressed as obsolete haunts. The past is anchored in the present as we relate to the present through a flow of retained and inscribed memories. The ambiguities in photos and text have the power of reactivating sediments of earlier meanings from the past. These transfiguration of the commonplace flow into the present through their affective impact on the viewer, helping to inform an imagining of different histories to those we have inherited and, hopefully, to encourage interpretations of alternative futures in the present.
The historical time between a possible MA and the actual Bowden Archives can be understood as a becoming, rather then a flow of time between two through connecting static snapshots of now moments. IInstead of equating the photographic with the logic of the cliché that leaves no place to think its multiplicity, the photographic can be understood as a becoming whose moment is transformative and demands something of philosophy.