Group M and the Moggs Creek Clickers



Philip Bentley's Thesis Introduction   /  chapter 1  /  chapter 2  /  chapter 3  /  chapter 4   /  conclusion   /  Illustrations  /   bibliography Group M 





When John Crook saw the destruction the Ash Wednesday bushfires of February 1983 had wrought upon his Belgrave home he broke down and cried. Caught on film by a passing news photographer his image became one of many which documented the human cost of the conflagration.[1] This situation was not devoid of irony as more than twenty years before Crook had been involved with a photographic collective which had sought to raise the medium’s standing in Australia by emphasising its capacity to document the human elements of society. Now though, photographer had become subject.

Under the name Group M this association espoused a philosophy of optimistic humanism, seeking to engender social change, and foster greater connection between individuals, by acting as a mirror to humanity. To fulfil these ends they mounted an annual photo exhibition, Photovision, from 1959 to 1966. Open to contributors worldwide it sought to place more emphasis on the documentary approach to photography, rather than the technically perfect but often thematically vacuous works which were to be found in the salons and camera clubs of the day. As well, Group M mounted two group exhibitions: Urban Woman (1963) and A Time To Love (Photovision 65). Although the exhibitions gained less notice at the time than had been hoped for, Group M’s perseverance meant that a number of these exhibitions toured Australia in the 1960s, Urban Woman going as far as Mexico for the 1968 Olympics. Even more important, the group’s concerted lobbying of art and archive institutions to raise the respect accorded to photography contributed to the creation of the Photographic Department at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1967.[2]

Thirty years on the former members of Group M are seeking to have their work assessed for posterity and to stage a retrospective exhibition. This thesis forms part of the project. Since the group was never a constituted organisation the manner of its existence today is problematical. Hence the commissioning has been undertaken by those most involved with the retrospective, principally Albert Brown, with support from George Bell and John Crook. Unlike some commissioned works it has been important to Brown and his compatriots that this chronicling should be impartial. Whilst they have provided information and support there has been no attempt to influence the author.

The photographic historian Anne-Marie Willis has pointed out that there have not been a surfeit of books about Australian photography, and what there has been have been prone to fall into the trap of seeing photography as a stand-alone medium rather than “bound to other institutional forces which need to be examined as well.”[3] In particular, she has highlighted the predilection of narrative studies to concentrate on the “great man” approach, or to attempt to fit photos into a predetermined past.[4] Whilst remaining mindful of these pitfalls this thesis tells the story of photographers first, photography second. This perspective has been the result of a number of factors, not the least amongst them being my own background in social history, not photography. A photographic theorist would undoubtedly ask different questions of the evidence and thus present different answers. For my part I have sought to relate and interpret the story that has been told to me; to place Group M in the context of its social milieu, while not disregarding its connections to photography both in Australia and overseas. Beneath all this though I have striven to see the members as people first, rather than to define them purely by their creative activity.

This then is the story of Group M, its activities, philosophies and exhibitions. It is also, in part, the story of the social network out of which it grew, the intriguingly titled Moggs Creek Clickers. It is my contention that the principles espoused by Group M were first formulated in the Clickers as a result of a mixture of certain charismatic personalities with the buoyant mood of post-war Australia.

There are, as with any work of this type, some limitations. Thirty years, while not very far into the big picture, is still enough for memories to fade and documentary evidence to be lost. Exact dates in particular have proved difficult for most interviewees. Where possible I have sought external corroboration, but failing that have resorted to such broad notations as ‘the mid-1950s’. The Ash Wednesday bushfires are implicated again, as along with Crook’s house, they destroyed his photos, equipment, substantial Group M memorabilia and two mounted exhibitions.[5] Access to photographs has been another problem area since no exhibition remains intact, and most shots exist only in negative form. Thankfully, as part of the selection process for the retrospective, a variety of works have been transferred to CD ROM. I realise however that what I see is far from the total output, nor is it displayed in a medium or context anything like it originally would have been. But historians are used to dealing with incomplete records, indeed they tend to accept the situation as an occupational hazard. They are therefore willing to flesh out the past from whatever skeletal remains exist.

The principal sources for this work have been former members of Group M who have been interviewed for their recollections. I am well aware that memory is not the past, nor indeed history, but rather can be the way we “provide security, authority, legitimacy and identity in the present”.[6] I have thus attempted to discern between opinions expressed now and those in the past and to realise that with each participant I am dealing, to a degree, with two people. I make no claims therefore that this is the absolute truth, rather I present it as an amalgam of people’s recollections tested against each other and my own historical training, then analysed in their social, temporal and cultural context.

This is still a work about photography and I have referred to the appropriate debates where necessary. The group’s position in Australian and international photography has been evaluated and analysed by an investigation of the considerable body of critique that has been produced on documentary photography in the last twenty years, as well as the observations of those who have been active in the Australian scene both then and now. Many of the points I make in my discussion of the photographic background are well-documented and references are included as much to point the reader to a fuller discussion as to substantiate information.

In summary, this thesis concerns photography, but is at the same time about wider notions. In charting the course of Group M a light is shone on a vibrant aspect of post-war Australian society which reveals a strand of Melbourne culture otherwise consigned to the outer reaches of memory.

>>>  Chapter One

[1]Ash Wednesday 1983 Bushfires (Herald & Weekly Times, Melbourne, 1983), p. 66.

[2]Leading member Albert Brown lobbied for the department’s creation and was appointed honorary photographic consultant in 1966. See letter from NGV director Eric Westbrook to Brown 11/11/66 located in the Group M archive held by Brown. Brown and other members, George Bell and Harry Youlden, are represented in the gallery’s photographic collection.

[3]Willis, A-M., Picturing Australia: A History of Photography  (Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, 1988), p. 276.

[4]Ibid., pp. 255 & 260.

[5]The exhibitions were A Time to Love (Photovision 65) and Historical Photographs from the Gernsheim Collection (Photovision 66).

[6]Hamilton, P., “The Knife Edge: Debates about Memory and History” in Darian-Smith, K., & Hamilton, P., (eds) Memory and History in Twentieth Century Australia (OUP, South Melbourne, 1994), p. 15.


>>>  Chapter One





 /  make contact    /   photo-web    /     other papers & research  /


photo-web • photography • australia • asia pacific • landscape • heritage • exhibitions • news • portraiture • biographies • urban • city • views • articles • portfolios • history • contemporary • links • research • international • art •