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Group M - A Concise History
Group M was an active and successful collection of still photographers that emerged from The Moggs Creek Clickers.
Albert Brown played a large part in helping have still photography recognized by the Victorian Art Gallery (National Gallery of Victoria, NGV).
The following essay was written in May 1994 by three Group M members – George Bell, Albert Brown and John Crook.
"The Dark Is Light Enough"
A Concise History of Group M
The decade after World War II was a period of exciting change for photographers. The ready availability of small single lens reflex cameras, with large aperture coated lens combined with high speed 35 mm film, opened refreshing new horizons. No longer did the photographer have to depend upon heavy equipment or slow film. Suddenly, the everyday experience was opened in all its diversity and movement to the photographic eye. It was in this environment that young photographers were able to develop new ideas and images.
During the 1950's there was much activity at Moggs Creek near Airey's Inlet on the South west coast of Victoria. A group of people, principally from the Dunlop Ski Club, constructed holiday homes at Moggs Creek. John Crook who worked for Dunlop at the time, used photography to record tyre wear. He encouraged some of the group to consider the aesthetic aspects of photography.
It was soon realised these individual photographers would achieve more by being organised. Thus, the Moggs Creek Clickers formed.
The Clickers' motto, "The Dark is Light Enough", reflected a new photographic reality, as well as a more general philosophy. Being optimists, the Clickers would never have thought, conversely that, "The Light is Dark Enough".
As others, both professional and amateur became attached to the group, various subgroups formed; the Moving Clickers being especially active. But this is a record of the Clickers, who subsequently became Group M.
During this period "Family of Man" created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art, New York would be one of the most profound influences on photographic presentation methods to came to Australia. This was probably the first time Australian viewers were able to see photographs in a gallery atmosphere that were not under glass.
The impact of that exhibition can readily be recalled by any person who saw the display. David Moore and Laurence Le Guay were the only Australian photographers to be represented in the "Family of Man". Later, David Moore was to offer his services to Photovision's selection panel.
The "Family of Man" demonstrated an innovative method of presenting photographs on a scale never previously seen in Australia. Other influences, however, were also affecting the members of Group M. At the time "Life" magazine that published the work of Magnum, a group of professional photo-journalists, was widely circulated. This group included Robert Capa who covered the Spanish Civil War, His photograph of the death of a soldier, once seen, is never forgotten.
Members of the Moggs Creek Clickers knew of the work of the American Farm Security Administration photographers. Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Ben Shahn all worked for the FSA, under the leadership of Roy Stryker. They recorded the situation of rural and urban America, trapped in the inhumanities of the 1930's.
Importantly, the Moggs Creek Clickers were aware of Roy Stryker's approach to his team of photographers. The Columbia economics teacher insisted that his photographers have a complete grasp of the social scene they were documenting, before going into the field. Styker considered it vital that his photographers knew exactly what they were photographing and how it related to the overall regional picture
Bill Brandt, the English photographer, created images of the coal miners and the people sheltering from the London blitz. Herbert Ponting's Antarctic photographs also influenced the Clickers' approach to their work.
Lewis Hine had earlier in the century documented the poor, living in New York, and the children, working in the coal mines and cotton mills of America. He also recorded the human cost of world War I, and in the 1930's he photographed the construction workers erecting the one hundred and two storeys of the Empire State Building. Lewis Hine exposed the comfortable American class to the human cost of their wealth. As a photographer, he was able to stir a social conscience and to assist social change.
Earlier, Jacob August Riis had photographed the poor immigrants living in New York. In 1877 Riis became a police reporter for the New York Tribune. Haunting the police head quarters day and night, he made first hand acquaintance with the thousands of poor caught in police roundups.
He was outraged by the way New York landlords exploited the poor. In 1890 he published "How the Other Half Lives" which included documentary photographs supporting his written word. The young Thoedore Roosevelt was one who was inspired by this book to seek long-needed reforms.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Werner Bischoff and Eugene Smith also were inspirations. They showed that the reality of the human condition can be recorded very effectively by the still photographic image. Eugene Smith subsequently published the extremely moving story of Minamata, Japan.
All of these photographers set out, in the words of Roy Stryker, "to know enough about the subject matter, to find its significance in itself and in relation to the surroundings, its time, its function". The Clickers discussed this philosophy, at length. It certainly influenced the way in which they approached their subjects.
George Bell, one of the Clickers members emphasised the aesthetic importance of Ansel Adams' landscape photographs. Adams helped convince the American public of the importance of establishing a series of national parks, during the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Overseas, photography could help change society, but in Australia photography was virtually moribund, in this regard.
Unfortunately, most of the work of overseas photographers was known, in Australia, only from their material published in books or magazines. Except for the "Family of Man" few photographic prints were available. For example, only by viewing Ansel Adams' magnificent prints, can one appreciate the inadequacy of their reproduction on the printed page.
The Clickers bore little resemblance to camera clubs in Melbourne. Their trend was toward documentation, rather than pictorialism, that still prevails as an aesthetic goal among camera club members. At the time, cropping photographs was adopted by the camera clubs as a means of improving composition.
In an overstatement during an address to the Melbourne Camera Club, John Crook was able to produce a well-composed photograph by cropping. He reduced a 16" x 20" print to the size of a postage stamp to demonstrate the absurdity of this approach.
To be sure, the picture elements must be framed in an orderly relationship. If minor cropping during printing, strengthened the image, the Clickers did not hesitate to crop. Basically, however, the print reflected the photographer's vision of a particular moment preserved. Substantially manipulating the image after that moment was an anathema to the Clickers.
Although the "Family of Man" inspired the Clickers to emulate its presentation, there were many other influences at work. The work of most overseas photographers, at that time, was known principally from books and magazines. Even the camera clubs influenced the Clickers, but in e negative way.
Although craftsmanship was considered important, composition or technique, per se, was never considered sufficient to justify creation of a photograph. Above all, photography was considered a means of retaining the impressions that an individual deemed significant. The craftsmanship, the lighting or the composition was never considered an end in itself.
The Clickers considered that arranging people in artistic groups or poses was not required. Placing objects in specific places prior to taking the photograph was neither necessary nor desired. The photographer rather than his subject is the aspect critical to ensure a genuine composition. Similarly available light was considered to be of paramount importance where documentation is the essential aspect to be achieved. Flash light was seldom used.
They argued that if a picture could not be made without artificial light, it was not worth taking.
The Clickers held that creative documentary photography will always lie in the hands of the photographer. They considered that documentary photography would remain one of the most important aspects of the craft.
During 1957 [?), in a rented loft in Pink Alley, Central Melbourne, the Clickers presented their first exhibition. They chose the name "Photovision", for this and subsequent annual exhibitions. John Crook was prominent in these early ventures. Exhibitions of photographic prints, home movies and slide projections were regularly displayed. Some entrants, even then, were attracted from overseas.
The name "Clickers" was considered inadequate to reflect the seriousness with which its members approached photography. To some outsiders it was considered a joke. Pink Alley had shown worthwhile exhibitions could be mounted, but it was unsatisfactory as a venue for any large exhibition.
A new name was needed and a new venue for exhibitions. Henceforth, the "Clickers" would be known as "Group M". This epithet was a derivative of Moggs Creek, near Airey's Inlet. It also possessed an air of respectability, at least to the outside world, which the name, "Moggs Creek Clickers" lacked.
A decisive move by the Clickers was to entirely re-direct their activity from a club of enthusiasts, to a cohesive group capable of displaying photography in a manner not previously tried in Australia. At the suggestion of George Bell, members approached John Reed, Director of the Museum of Modern Art of Australia, in Tavistock Place, Melbourne.
Negotiations with John Reed proceeded well and between 1959 and 1965 Photovision was held in association with the Museum of Modern Art of Australia. Thus a more serious annual exhibition of photographs from contributors world wide, was initiated. Photovision, an annual event, always drew a ready response from both overseas and Australian contributors. The catalogues between 1959 and Group M's final exhibition, "A Time to Love" in 1965 demonstrated the scope of Photovision.
Among the reputable Australian photographers who contributed to Photovision, were Wolfgang Sievers, Marc Strizic, Lance Nelson and Richard Woldendorp. David Moore was a member of the selection panel for the displays.
The cataiogue for the 1961 Photovision illustrates Group M's attitude towards the manipulation of the photographic image. The catalogue proclaimed," Many entrants in what, were no doubt, genuine attempts at originality, resorted to the well-tried attempts of contrived distortion of the naturally definitive photographic image. These attempts to disguise the basic means of making the image, can be as retrogressive to artistic progress as Salon-minded photographers constantly working to pander to the most banal standards of Beauty."
The 1964 Photovision introduced the Eugene Atget Award to perpetuate the memory of the French photographer who dedicated his life to honestly recording his environment. The catalogue for that exhibition contained the words of John Crook. He wrote, "We must not forget the words of Albert Camus, "It is not necessary to succeed in order to persevere."
There is no doubt that the medium of photography does not stand high in Australian artistic achievements. Yet we know what the medium is capable of, and it must not let be down by human failure - by lack of intensity, boldness, imagination or perseverance." Photovision '64 was subsequently presented in Bowman Arcade, Adelaide and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston. The Director of the Queen Victoria, W. F. (Frank) Ellis, was so impressed by the work that in August 1965, he requested "Urban Woman'.
Photovision '65, entitled "A Time to Love", was a departure from the previous international competitions. The exhibition, opened by Professor John Willet, Sydney Myer Chair of Business Administration, Melbourne University, was the work of four members of Group M, George Bell, Albert Brown, John Crook and Roy McDonald, It comprised of about eighty photographs, covering four themes. The catalogue stated, "The photographs presented were specifically made to record, to isolate what we might instinctively reject." They dealt with a bushfire aftermath, Victorian aborigines, geriatrics and the mentally handicapped.
Writing in "The Bulletin", Bill Hannan said of Photovision '65, "We need much more of photography of this kind and calibre. It should be more widely commissioned, both for the archives and for the education of the community." This view was also held by Professor Geoffrey Blainey who in July, 1964 wrote, "I agree that photos of contemporary Australia should be systematically taken. The need for photo– as a source for future historians and educators and entertainers – is as strong in economic as social affairs.
Even in that part of industry which employs full time photographers in order to illustrate staff magazines or publicity brochures, the coverage is often inadequate and in some ways distorted. There are so many things that can best be explained visually and you could almost argue that historians in 2048 would value a systematic collection of photos or film from the 1960's more than say a set of Hansards from the 1960's."
Soon after his appointment as Director, Newcastle City Art Gallery, in September 1965, David Thomas wrote that he had been able to see "A Time to Love" in Melbourne and "Urban Woman" in Launceston. He stated that he, "was impressed with the quality and diversity of both exhibitions." He concluded his letter by saying, "best wishes to all in Group M for the excellent work you are doing."
In 1966, "A Time to Love" was exhibited in the Union Building, Monash University. John Margets of the Students' Representative Council wrote, saying the exhibition was an unqualified success.
During August 1967, "A Time to Love" was displayed, together with drawings and sculptures of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in the Mildura Arts Centre, as part of the Mildura Wintersun Festival. The Director, Thomas McCuliough, invited Lady Bawden to open "A Time to Love", which occupied the whole of the Centre's ground floor.
The first three Photovision exhibitions to be held in the Museum of Modern Art of Australia were so successful, that Group M members were encouraged to consider a bolder exhibition. Some of the members lived in the then outer suburbs of Melbourne, including Mt. Waverley, Box Hill and Eltham. They saw that many women were effectively trapped within their homes for days on end. Public transport did not serve these suburbs well, nor did many families possess two cars.
Thus began the concept of "Urban Woman". Initially, during late 1961 or early 1962 Group M thought it would be worthwhile to record these women. After all, they were considered to lead an easy life. Few realised, in those days, the frustration and the loneliness of this group of young mothers.
Fred Mosse recalls being interviewed by Sheila Scatter on ABC - TV. Having seen the exhibition, the interviewer asked why there was not even one image of a smiling woman. Fred replied that "Urban Woman" was a record of a number photographers' observations over several years; they had seldom seen smiling or laughing women in the context of their project.
The members set out to document aspects of contemporary women's lives. The scope was soon broadened to include any aspect of women's lives which the photographer himself thought worthy of documentation. The Melbourne Town Hall was booked about a year in advance as it was then, the most suitable venue. It was in a central location and offered the space necessary to display large photographs.
The exhibition was financed entirely by the members. No grants were sought nor obtained. Credit must be given to Fred Mosse who contributed substantially to the funds. None of the members were wealthy, nor did they enjoy high salaries. Most were employed as professionals; at least three were industrial chemists. The chemists had a small advantage, in that they understood the chemistry of the photographic process. All were committed to producing honest documentary photographs, based on an understanding of the subject.
Many had young families. As a result of financial constraints, the large prints were made under relatively primitive conditions. The images were projected from a normal enlarger onto a wall where the sensitised paper was pinned. Developing and fixing were achieved by rolling the exposed paper through wide, but shallow trays.
Selection of the prints and their size was determined by members, together with the designer, Max Forbes. The smaller sized prints were mounted on particle board, The larger prints on framed particle board. Before the exhibition, Max Forbes and Group M spent a week end in the Secondary Teachers College hall, within Melbourne University, deciding the grouping and the final presentation of the photographs.
Several days were subsequently spent in the Melbourne Town Hall erecting the exhibition. There were moments of concern, particularly when the partly erected centre piece collapsed. All concerned, however, were dedicated to their tasks. "Urban Woman" comprising of nearly two hundred photographs, was opened, on time, by Myra Roper, Principal of University Women's College.
Because funds were almost exhausted, a small catalogue was produced. In it Bill Hannan wrote," "Urban Woman" was chosen as the theme because its two elements reflect a basic conflict in modern life, a conflict between permanent human values and rapidly changing social conditions. Collectively Group M has made no attempt to preach a message."
With the assistance of Gordon Thomson, Deputy Director, National Gallery of Victoria, "Urban Woman" was crated and stored in the Gallery. From there it was subsequently sent to a number of exhibition venues in Australia. It was shown in the Geelong Art Gallery, early in 1965, the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, late in 1965 and in the Perth Town Hall for the 1966 [February] Festival of Perth.
The Department of External Affairs, Canberra arranged to have "Urban Woman" displayed at the Australian Embassy in Mexico during and after the 1968 Olympic Games. In addition, a sculpture by Clement Meadmore represented Australia's artistic contribution to the Games.
"Urban Woman" must have been displayed in Mexico for at least two years. In October 1970, L E. Phillips, Secretary, Department of External Affairs, wrote that he had approached Eric Westbrook asking him what should be done with the exhibition of photographs entitled "Urban Woman" which was loaned to the Australian Embassy in Mexico for exhibition at the time of the Olympic Games. He went on to write, "The Australian Embassy has advised that the photographs are now several years old and have outlived their usefulness as exhibit material in Mexico."
In January 1971, the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, advised that the Australian Embassy in Mexico City had arranged to return "Urban Woman". Sadly, when the photographs were eventually returned to the National Gallery of Victoria in August, it was discovered that they were so badly damaged, that they had to be destroyed. Despite their value in documenting an aspect of Australian life, no compensation for their destruction, has been offered by the Australian government.
Encouraged by some members of Group M, Albert Brown established early in 1965, a correspondence with Helmut Gernsheim the photo-historian. Having seen same press clippings and a description of "A Time to Love", Gernsheim wrote in, December 1965, "You seem to entirely agree with me that documentation is the most important function of photography today." During 1965, the University of Texas acquired the entire Gernsheim Collection, forming the basis of their collection of historical photographs.
On the advice of Helmut Gernsheim, contact was made with John Meaney, Curator of the Gernsheim Collection, University of Texas. An exchange was arranged. In return for some prints from "A Time to Love" John Meaney sent 35 mm negative copies of some material from the Gernsheim Collection. During November 1966, Group M mounted its last exhibition; prints made from the negatives sent by John Meaney. Professor Allan Martin, Foundation Chair of History, Latrobe University opened the exhibition.
The material from the Gernsheim Collection was also displayed as part of the 1967 Festival of Perth. Some time later, probably in July 1967, it was shown in the Marion Shopping Centre, Adelaide.
The Honourable Gordon Bryant, MHB, Wills was introduced to Group M and their ideas. As member of the National Library Committee, he realised the value of documentary photography. Gordon encouraged Harold White, the National Librarian to establish a photographic collection. However, Athol Johnson, the Assistant National Librarian, took a much greater interest than Harold White, in the photographic collection. Some time during 1966, Athol Johnson visited a number of institutions overseas, including the University of Texas and the Library of Congress to study their methods of dealing with pictorial collections. Shortly after, Athol succeeded Harold White as National Librarian.
Unfortunately, Athol died after only a brief period in that position. Had he survived longer, he may have assisted Group M with their next proposed project.
Soon after "A Time to Love", Group M considered their most ambitious project, "A Portrait of a Nation". This would have required a number of their members committing several years of their time to documenting life in Australia. Despite efforts to obtain sponsorship from a number of potential sources, including the Reserve Bank and the Prime Minister's Department, no financial assistance was offered and the project was reluctantly abandoned.
In November 1966, Albert Brown was appointed as an honorary photographic consultant to the National Gallery of Victoria. Although at that time, there
was no Department of Photography, it was clear that Eric Westbrook, the Director, planned to persuade the Trustees one should be established. There is little doubt the efforts of Group M influenced Eric's thinking. He was well aware of their work and in November 1966, wrote thanking them for the interesting exhibition from the Gemsheim Collection.
The association with the National Gallery of Victoria proved useful for Albert Brown. He was able to obtain promises for work from the Bibliotheque Nationale, Standard Oil, University of Texas George Eastman House, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, the Mitchell Library and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Supported by Professor Allan Martin, Professor M. Marwick and Professor Geoffrey Blainey, Eric Westbrook was able to persuade his trustees in April 1967, to establish a Department of Photography. Soon after, prior to moving from the Swanston Street site, Albert Brown arranged for work from the Museum of Modern Art to be exhibited.
In April 1966 "The Photographer's Eye", compiled by John Szarkowski, Director, Department of Photography, Museum of Modern Art was brought to Australia. After being exhibited in the National Gallery of Victoria it was shown together with Sydney Nolan paintings, as part of the 1968 Festival of Perth. It was exhibited in Shepparton, Ballarat, Bendigo, Mildura, Castlemaine, Geelong, Sydney, Newcastle and Adelaide.
Soon after the establishment of the Department of Photography, the National Gallery of Victoria published a booklet explaining why the department was established. It stated," The National Gallery of Victoria is in the forefront in recognising that in whatever field photography is seen as an invaluable service to mankind, it service to art and its potential as an art form can no longer be ignored." It continued, "The camera is supreme when its analytical eye is directed like some powerful beam of light onto the strength, the frailties, the involvements of humanity as in photojournalism."
In March 1963 as "Urban Woman" was being prepared, Helmut and Alison Gemsheim the great photo-historians, wrote, "Although the first generation of photographers remained true to the photographic technique, around the turn of the century there started a craze for controlled printing processes such as bromoil and gum prints, which enabled the photographer to give his picture the appearance of a chalk or charcoal drawing or of a reproduction of an oil painting.
This tempted many photographers to demonstrate their skill by manual interference with the photographic image. The more the original photograph disappeared in this metamorphosis, the higher was the praise bestowed by art critics. One wrote in 1898: "Photographers have broken the tradition of the artificial reproduction of Nature. They have freed themselves from photography. They have done away with the photographic sharpness, the clear and disturbing representation of details and can achieve simple broad effects." And so it came about that in 1899 photographs were hung in the Royal Academy, Berlin, a year after the Munich and Vienna Sessions had opened their doors to photography.
The Gernsheims continued," A reaction against this decadent style of Salon photography during the art nouveau period started in New York with the work of Alfred Stieglitz, who stressed that photography and painting are fundamentally different media, that each has its own functions and has to go its separate way.
Already in the mid-1880's P. H. Emerson had warned against the artificialities of the "fine art" photographers of the H. P. Robinson school, and became founder of Naturalistic Photography. Now, at the turn of the century, Stieglitz pioneered a new outlook, urging photographers to take their hand cameras out to record everyday life and activities - yet such subjects were frowned upon by art photographers as "inartistic work".
Fortunately the majority of the great photographers remained unaffected by the stifling atmosphere of societies and clubs, and in retrospect it is the independents who carried the day, and who are chiefly represented in the exhibition. There is nothing artificial or arty about their work; they remained true to their medium, its function and limitations, and did not prostitute their art for the sake of winning medals."
Despite the current policy of the Department of Photography to collect only prints, in 1969, one hundred and twenty-four negatives of Atget's work were acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria. The current policy seems to be at odds with the thinking in France, where the Mission du Patrimonie Photographique has been recently established. Its "primary aim is to preserve the whole body of work of French photographers in negative form and not merely to keep a limited set of prints selected by a curator."
The exhibitions which they prepare are printed especially from their stock of negatives. An excellent example of their standard of work was the exhibition, "J'aime la France", seen recently in Sydney and Perth, but not in Melbourne.
Mindful of the French perception with whom Group M fully concur, one must refer to the contemporary scene in regard to photography as presented in galleries representing the avant garde in photographic endeavour. Images are presented where manipulations, additions and embellishments are common practice. However, far from being avant garde, these types of techniques were practised a century ago and as the Gernsheims pointed out were condemned then as decadent by those who understood the medium.
Group M contend that such practise deprives photography of its greatest strength; that of documentation, if the student of photography studies the subject from its earliest beginnings in the nineteenth century to the present day, inevitably the most monumental individual and serious works are documentary in nature. If this perception is confused or lost, so too is photography as an aesthetic achievement.
The dark is surely light enough.
George Bell, Albert Brown, John Crook
Group M at Bonbeach in 1989' Left to right, Albert Brown, George Bell, John Crook, Cliff Restarick, Roy McDonald, John Bolton.
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