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 



Chapter Three

Crusaders in the dark


The Moggs Creek Clickers’ singular blend of light-hearted entertainment and serious-minded thinking helped sustain the organisation. It also served as a litmus test for potential members, ensuring that those who joined would be of the same inclination. Whilst it therefore had a positive function within the group, in dealings with the outside world there were those who worried that the sense of fun was liable to give them a non-professional appearance.[1] The renaming of the Still Clickers as Group M was seen to help redress this problem. The shift in emphasis also reflected the growing influence in the group of those who had joined primarily for the photography, rather than other events. Of these, the two most important were Albert Brown and George Bell.[2]

Albert Brown (b. 1931) [Figure 6] was yet another industrial chemist. He had initially been introduced to the Moving Clickers by Don McDonald, with whom he worked at Nicholas Pharmaceuticals, but he quickly became involved in the wider Clicker movement. He found that their humanist philosophy struck a chord within him, and gave direction to his rudimentary interest in photography. Like other Clickers he was impressed with the Family of Man, and then worked his way back through other prominent documentary photography. He was particularly impressed with the ‘research first’ approach proposed by Roy Stryker for the FSA, and sought to emulate it in his own work. Blessed with an organisational bent, he undertook a MBA in the mid 1960s afterwards working in a managerial capacity in the scientific field.[3] He thus provided a sense of structure to anchor John Crook’s visionary zeal. It was Brown who took the time to promote the group’s cause, creating a network of supporters in galleries, archives, and academia.[4] It was also Brown who, after the group had wound down in the mid-1960s, continued to push the case for ‘purposeful photography’. His efforts were important in the creation of the Photographic Department at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 1966.[5] [See Figures 8, 9, 25, 26, 42-45 for examples of his work.]

George Bell [Figure 7] was born in 1920, making him older than the other members. He also stood apart by coming from an artistic, even vaguely bohemian background. He had trained in commercial and fine arts at Caulfield Technical School in the late 1930s, and had only just begun a paid job when he was conscripted in 1941. He thus is the only member of Group M to have served in WWII. Bell saw action in Papua New Guinea, where he became interested in the indigenous way of life. After the war he explored this fascination further when he returned there for a year in 1948. This was a reflection of a restless spirit within him that immediately prior had caused him to travel around Australia. He spent some years in Sydney where he was active in the art group SORA.[6] On returning to Melbourne in 1949 he held a number of manual jobs before securing employment at the Herald and Weekly Times where he worked from 1953-75, first as an electrical engineer then as a press artist. Dissatisfied with the progress of his painting he took up photography in the 1950s. [See Figures 10, 11, 27, 28, 46-49, 57, 58 for examples of his work.] Like his future compatriots he too was drawn to the documentary field, finding in the work of the pioneering nineteenth century German portraitist Nadar a quiet dignity, and the Family of Man an inspiration. Camera clubs however were a disappointment, being more oriented to social events than aesthetics, and quite a come-down intellectually from the artistic circles in which he moved. Upon stumbling across Photovision 59 he recognised kindred spirits. Impressed by the sense of community he had experienced in the fine arts world he moved to replicate it in the Clickers. It was also he who suggested approaching John Reed at Melbourne’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) with regard to staging future Photovisions there. Somewhat to his chagrin he never got on with Reed and arrangements were made instead by John Crook who did.[7] Crook continued to play a prominent role in the group and his passion was responsible for much of its energy.[See Figures 12, 35, 36, 50-52 for some surviving examples of his work.] As John Bolton recalls though: “John drove a lot of things [in Group M]; sometimes in the right direction, sometimes off the road”.[8]

Each member of the triumvirate of Bell, Brown and Crook brought to Group M a particular talent. Crook was the visionary, Brown the organiser, and Bell the aesthetic heart.[9] Around them circulated the other members, each with a varying degree of involvement. Unlike the Clickers, Group M was not a large organisation, probably never having more than 15 members. Not all of them were as passionate for the documentary approach as the inner group, but the latter’s enthusiasm buoyed the interest in others. Following the intent of the Clickers to eschew the organised format of a camera club, formal meetings were rare, and participants primarily photographed alone. Members would come together to plan and set up exhibitions, but between times contact could be more haphazard. The more active members saw each other more often. For others, contact could be restricted to chance meetings in the darkroom John Crook had created for members’ use, in a loft behind the butcher’s shop in South Melbourne owned by his father.[10] When one speaks of Group M as an entity then, one is referring to the ideas of the inner group supported by those at a further remove. These included some who could be said to be primarily Clickers, such as Cliff Restarick, Fred Mosse and Eric Smith [Figures 5 & 14]. They exhibited rarely, but were important for their technical, philosophical and/or financial contribution. Also in this category was Grier McVea [Figures 1 & 2]. He worked with John Crook at Dunlop, and contributed to four exhibitions without ever being heavily involved.[11]

As time passed, new members joined who had not come through the Clickers, thus changing the group’s complexion further. John Bolton (b. 1945) [Figure 13] was in his late teens, and worked with George Bell as an engineer’s assistant at the Herald and Weekly Times. Like many members he had dabbled in camera clubs, but found a stronger sense of purpose in Group M. Although happy to adopt the documentary imperative, Bolton’s primary use for the group was the darkroom facilities. Unlike older members he does not see his involvement with Group M as the ‘best years of his life’. Instead he regards this time as giving him an excellent grounding in the mechanics of photography from which he could strike out as a professional in the early 1970s. He has concentrated on commercial photography, principally of food, since then, and has had no qualms about this change of direction, nor of losing most of his work from the period in two floods.[12] [Some of his work can be seen from a distance in Figure 40.] Roy McDonald (b. 1937) [Figure 14] was also younger than the average member, but held opinions close to the group’s heart. A Classics master at a Melbourne private school he, like many of his compatriots, had been drawn to the medium both from an artistic, as well as technical point of view. The craft was easily picked up, and provided a means of artistic expression that was more approachable than that of fine arts. At weekends around the inner suburbs, and later overseas, he sought a form of innocent charm that he often found in the antics of children at play. His work therefore speaks of a time when a solitary man photographing children would not be seen as sinister.[13] [For examples of his work see Figures 15, 16, 29, 30, 53-56.] Harry Youlden (b. 1933), although exhibiting in Photovision 62 to 64, spent much of the 1960s overseas. Based in London he worked as a society photographer, living a casual existence which, if one accepts his word for it, was not dissimilar to that enjoyed by David Hemmings in the Antonioni film Blow Up. His influences and output being far wider than the documentary, and his natural reluctance to be a part of any group, position him at the outer reachers of Group M.[14] [For examples of his work see Figures 17 & 18.] Other fringe members such as Tom Biltoft, John Ralton and Norm Cox drifted in and out, and only exhibited occasionally.[15]

The early 1960s also brought two aspiring interstate professionals to Group M’s ranks. Brisbane born Lance Nelson (b. 1934), by now living in Sydney, had been invited to contribute to Photovision on the basis of some photographs of children in a Sydney exhibition. Despite the distance between them, he found the group’s support an encouragement in helping him to pursue a personal interest in the documentary to balance his commercial work.[16] [For examples of his work see Figures 31 & 32.] Richard Woldendorp (b. 1927) had emigrated to Perth from Holland in 1951. Buying a camera on a return visit to Europe in 1955, he felt an instinctual satisfaction with photography which led him to pursue it as a profession. Like Nelson, he found the spirit of the group invaluable in encouraging him to undertake a documentary style at a time when it held little interest in the circles in which he moved. He credits the group’s support as being important in his development, to the point where today he is hailed as one of Australia’s foremost landscape photographers.[17] [For examples of his work see Figures 19 & 20.]

The aims of Group M were largely the same as the Still Clickers. Within the group members sought to encourage the production of ‘meaningful’ photographs, which would “render all with sympathy and love, but without too much sentimentality”.[18] In the wider world they saw themselves as “crusaders”, carrying the torch for documentary photography into a world darkened by popular indifference, and the disinclination of camera clubs.[19] Like the Clickers, they were not radical by nature and wished to spark gentle change, not a social revolution. They were nominally left-of-centre politically, and predominantly without religious affiliation.[20] The capacity of photography to document, they saw as its “greatest strength” and considered the “most [to be] documentary in nature”.[21] Thus in the best of modernist traditions they saw their path as a redemptive one, saving the medium from those who would dilute its primacy of vision. This included those pictorialists who would seek to create an unnatural image via artificial lighting, superimposition, severe cropping, or methods of developing to give a painterly effect. The Clicker motto “The Dark is Light Enough” was carried over, and given a further interpretation with regard to the use of available light techniques.[22] Shooting spontaneously was also encouraged. Someone like John Crook, with an SLR and access to cheap film and free developing, often shot at random, working on a ratio of 100 shots to every one he would use. Albert Brown and George Bell feel they kept more to 20:1. A professional photographer, like Wolfgang Sievers, using a large camera and expensive film, might take a day and produce only two images.[23]

The single most important influence upon the group was the Family Of Man, not only for its expression of humanist ideals, but also for the innovative way it was displayed. Members were impressed by the bold statement made by the audacious size of the prints, the informality of the mounting, and the extra level added by the linked narrative.[24] This latter point is not very surprising considering the interest that had been shown by the Sliding Clickers in developing the narrative potential of slides. Whilst influences were drawn from both sides of the Atlantic, the group placed more store by the American tradition than was the norm in camera clubs. Thus while Europeans such as Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugene Atget were appreciated, Americans such as Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, and the FSA (see Chapter I), as well as the likes of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Eugene Smith were more highly prized.[25] Gael Newton in her book Shades of Light indicates John Crook downplayed the importance of Family of Man in favour of “a display of photographs of Hiroshima, the film On the Beach and local painters of urban alienation, John Brack and Arthur Boyd”. Crook refutes this, believing that Newton somehow mixed up interviews with George Bell and himself. Whilst he thinks that the aforementioned may have had an influence on Bell, he does not consider they were part of the Group M canon.[26] Group M therefore looked primarily abroad for inspiration, and Crook has no recollection of any earlier Australian attempts at exploring the documentary approach as having any impact on them. This includes Edward Cranston, the 6 Photographers exhibition and the spirit of Le Guay’s Contemporary Photography (see Chapter I).[27]

The Family of Man was exhibited in Melbourne in February 1959, whilst the first Photovision was held in May of the same year. The Pink Alley location was too small to accommodate big prints, but with the shift to MOMA the group pursued this means of display as an important part of their aesthetic statement. To achieve these ends required some technical brainstorming, such as creating a makeshift developing pan in an old bathtub to accommodate 3’x2’ prints.[28]

The big print, linked narrative, means of display for photographs, initiated by Edward Steichen and Herbert Bayer (see Chapter I), had been given impetus by Steichen’s appointment as the Director of Photography at MOMA (New York) in 1947. This move, considered to be the result of the trustees’ desire for more approachable exhibitions, undoubtedly had an impact on how photography was displayed worldwide.[29] In Melbourne however, Group M claim to be the first to utilise such a presentation.[30] After Steichen’s departure in 1962, MOMA’s method of presentation reverted back to the more discreet conventional means.[31] The subsequent embracing of the medium within the fine arts world has seen the latter means as the preferred method of display worldwide since. Today John Crook believes Steichen’s method is redolent with possibilities, but regrettably under-utilised.[32]

Photovision, while not exclusively a Group M exhibition, was where members primarily displayed their work and sought to encourage the documentary style. It initially encouraged international contributors to provide “some outside stimulus and strengthening” to Australian creative photography. By 1963 however, the “increasing quality of Australian entrants” had persuaded the committee to make it primarily home grown.[33] (A listing for all Australian contributors can be found in the Appendix.) It is of note that whilst it was well supported by leading professionals of the previous generation (Max Dupain, Laurence Le Guay, David Moore, Wolfgang Sievers and Mark Strizic) it seems that few later notables received their start here. It can also be seen that female participants were in a definite minority reflecting the previously discussed invisibility of women in the field at this time. (See Chapter II).

The stated aims of Photovision were part of the classic Clicker-cum-Group M manifesto. The exhibition sought to “encourage the development of creative photography” in “those who have something to say and feelings to express”. Expanding the notion of the redemptive qualities of the medium, it was suggested that “in the field of personal understanding between people photography can play a part not open to any other medium”.[34] However despite these positive statements the standard was generally below what the group was hoping for. Too few outside photographers it seems were able to express themselves in the fashion Group M sought. Thus by the last open exhibition in 1964, John Crook was reflecting on his disappointment that more immediate results had not occurred. “I thought: given the freedom giants will arise...”[35] On the other hand, Dacre Stubbs, President of the Institute of Victorian Professional Photographers, when reviewing Photovision 62, put a different perspective. He suggested that the inclusion of too many photographs displaying “too little evidence of photographic ability” was “frightening away the competent and significant photographer”. As someone who valued quality over content Stubbs held views diametrically opposed to Group M’s. Hence his idea of “skilful and imaginative execution” would no doubt have been quite different from theirs, and his judgement of the event as “just another snapshot exhibition” may actually have shown that the group was succeeding in their aims.[36] [For examples of various Photovisions see Figures 5, 21-24.]

The location of Photovision at Melbourne’s MOMA brought the group into contact with the seminal figures in the promotion and patronage of modernist art in the state, John and Sunday Reed. This gallery, in comparison with its grander New York namesake, was a small space upstairs in Tavistock Place (a laneway off Flinders Street). Although it had its part to play in the artistic life of Melbourne, the Reeds’ work here is generally passed over in art histories which concentrate on their more vibrant period a few decades earlier. At that time they were closely involved with the social realist school of Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and the like, the spirit of which was encapsulated in the Reed-edited journal Angry Penguins.[37] The gallery began in 1958 and in its first seven years of operation staged 120 exhibitions of sculpture, painting and photography. Funded by subscriptions and the Melbourne City Council it was never financially buoyant, something that saw its removal to the upper reaches of the Ball & Welch emporium in 1964, and its closure in 1966.[38]

Demonstrating how the Family of Man had brought photography under greater notice, MOMA staged a David Moore exhibition, Seven Years a Stranger, in April 1959. This was a rare showing of the craft in an art gallery. At the opening John Reed spoke of how initially it had “seemed a little hold an exhibition of photographs” as so many “are not any creative process.” However “for a creative personality the camera is...a perfectly legitimate medium through which...the life of our time can be...expressed and interpreted”.[39] Words such as these may well have motivated Group M to approach him. For their part, members remember John Reed as being a bit distant, but readily willing to indulge their wishes.[40] John Crook also reflects on the awe the group felt at suddenly becoming a part of the established art world. “Nolan’s Ned Kelly would come down and Photovision would come in!”[41] There was however no attempt by the Reeds to bring them further into their circle with invitations to their property Heide.[42]

As well as the open exhibitions Group M mounted two group shows Urban Woman (1963), and A Time to Love (Photovision 65). They also orchestrated a display on the history of photography, from the University of Texas, which had been in photographic historian Helmut Gernsheim’s private collection (Photovision 66). Most important in their eyes was Urban Woman, which was planned to be their response to Family of Man. Their aim was to present a themed exhibition with a topic broad enough to excite interest outside photographic circles.[43] No-one has a clear recollection of its genesis, but it is probable that a number of factors were involved. Conversations among members had addressed the issue of how the sudden post-war burst in suburban development had occurred ahead of infrastructure, effectively trapping women in their homes. Although on the surface the suburban dream may have seemed an ideal life, in fact it was often laced with frustration and loneliness.[44] John Crook, who makes no bones about the fact that women have always been a preferred subject, believes he already had some shots of women in an urban environment, but he credits George Bell with making the link and coining the name.[45]

Urban Woman therefore set out to document aspects of the contemporary urban woman’s life. It sought to produce a pictorial statement which could stand alongside a sociologist’s report, and possibly be used in academic research, or to influence government policy.[46] The group took it up as a major project, and worked on it in their spare time for over a year. They held discussions, took photographs, culled work and financed, mounted and hung the exhibition themselves. As the work progressed the difficulty in depicting a topic as subtle as this became manifest. The focus therefore was broadened to include many more aspects of a contemporary woman’s life.[47] The completed work (about 200 prints), displayed under the direction of designer Max Forbes [Figure 13], was opened at the Lower Melbourne Town Hall in September 1963. As with Family of Man, the photographs were presented in large format prints, although the only attempt at a narrative chain was their arrangement from youth to old age. [For examples of the exhibition see Figures 25-41.]

Despite the fact that photo journals, daily newspapers and magazines such as the Women’s Weekly all gave space to it, critical notice was rare, attendance was meagre, and the event lost money.[48] Reasons for this underwhelming response are worth exploring, especially given the tumult and shouting accorded to the Family of Man. Firstly some logistical problems told against them—the timing during the school holidays, for example, and in the opening week public transport was affected by a power strike.[49] Secondly Urban Woman was typecast in an unfortunate way. Was it a salon show, meant primarily for other photographers, or a major event, meant for the general public? Some form of publicity, be it the notoriety of a Family of Man, or an advertising campaign, which the group had no money for, would have been required if the exhibition wished to capture the public’s imagination. Against them also was the subtle nature of the work. Family of Man had a strong theme and used simple pictures which often made their point with a sledgehammer. Urban Woman was diffuse enough in topic to avoid an immediate impact. It featured many works whose impromptu nature did not shout their message, and thus made lay interpretation more difficult [see Figures 33 & 34 ]. Many of these are not works that bypass the mind and speak to the emotions and those that do are often the more sentimental, for example Roy McDonald’s children playing with autumn leaves [in Figure 34]. There are some clever observations, such as the advancing phalanx of behatted women [in Figure 34], and Albert Brown’s study of youth and old age at Glenferrie Railway Station [in Figure 37], but there are too many subtle shots.

Within Group M the general feeling is that Urban Woman did not succeed either. John Crook reflecting the ambivalence of its message calls it a “sour show”, which also did not provide the glamour which the general viewer may have expected it to.[50] Other criticisms came from women themselves. The academic Myra Roper, when opening the show, noted its lack of women depicted in important or active roles. “A lot of the pictures show women just waiting— waiting for buses, in queues, or waiting for a man to finish his tea.”[51] The journalist and socialite Sheila Scotter, when interviewing Fred Mosse on television, expressed surprise that there were few smiling faces.[52] Both these criticisms are fair comment up to a point, but they also speak of the group’s failure to realise that in the change to a more general view of their subject their work was likely to be judged differently. The classic documentary approach was to detail social iniquities in an attempt to provoke change. What the group ended up with was more a catalogue of women in the suburbs. That being the case a more balanced view may have been called for. However Group M, like the Moggs Creek Clickers before them, were not social radicals, and were in many ways a part of the dominant patriarchal culture of the day. Thus, whilst one can note their failure to recognise the patriarchal system, to criticise them for failing to expose it, is to expect more of them than they were likely to provide. Scotter’s observation is less valid since the staged, smiling portrait was clearly something they were trying to avoid, and most people caught on film in the street will not be smiling.

Whilst its immediate impact was not great Urban Woman did have an extended life beyond its Melbourne showing. It toured parts of the nation over the next four years, before being sent to Mexico in 1968, as part of Australia’s cultural input to the Olympic Games.[53] Unfortunately, it languished in the Australian embassy there for three years and when it was eventually returned arrived in a mutilated condition and was subsequently destroyed.

It is disappointing that a full visual document of the show does not exist. Making a judgement on individual works scattered across personal collections removes the impact that the prints’ size, and juxtaposition with each other could have. Even though the recent trend has been to criticise this form of narrative presentation, with regard to the diminution of authorial voice, [54] the evidence of what few photographs of the installation survive tells a different story. Seen together there is a synergy at work that raises the project beyond the ordinary, and mitigates individual shortcomings [See Figures 38-41]. That said though the show still fails to be a totally satisfying experience. The group appear never to have come to terms with the changed direction, and the final product seems just too lacking in focus to be a complete success.

The amount of time, energy and money required to stage Urban Woman had a draining effect upon the group. Various opinions are held as to how much this contributed to their eventual demise. Some, such as Cliff Restarick and John Bolton, consider that Group M came together primarily to produce Urban Woman. Bolton especially sees it as the glue which held them together. Thus he considers when the show was over it was only natural for things to wind down. Others, such as Albert Brown and George Bell, believe the group had more strings to its bow than this, and consequently see the demise as the result of other factors.[55] Certainly the next group show A Time To Love (Photovision 65) was far smaller, comprising four photographers and 80 prints.[56] It brought together four separate series all reflecting the higher, but unfashionable aspect of love, compassion. Unlike Urban Woman, A Time to Love was not a case of deciding a theme and then producing the pictures to fit. Rather it was the end result of a shared philosophy given different expressions. George Bell sought it in the aftermath of bushfires, Albert Brown in the plight of Aborigines, whilst John Crook and Roy McDonald dealt with topics that are no less unsettling today than they were then—geriatrics and the mentally ill, respectively.

The stated aim of A Time To Love was

to record and isolate what we might instinctively reject. It is through the process of recording that we may reach a modicum of truth and understanding. These photographs are not the product of inspiration, but lengthy negotiation, observation and patience born of responsibility to the subjects portrayed. The intention is not to shock, pry or distort, yet together with all artists and craftsmen there is a directed desire to extend beyond the individual experience and awareness.[57]

Albert Brown had had a longstanding interest in the ‘Aboriginal problem’. He was particularly dismayed by the unduly negative treatment he felt the indigines received in the press. Following the ‘research first’ principle of the FSA, he endeavoured to investigate his subject in depth, before visiting reserves at Lake Tyers and Swan Hill. Once there he attempted to win the confidence of the communities to enable him to record the conditions without prying.[58] His work was positioned quite differently from those of the early anthropologists who sought to document the noble or grotesque savage, or of someone like Axel Poignant, who had made naturalistic studies of tribal life just after WWII.[59] He attempted to present a ‘true’ statement of the reduced circumstances in which his subjects lived in an attempt to foster change. This was paired with reflections of aspects of their existence that were common to all humanity: children at play, motherhood, men at work. Brown hoped his photographs would help break down the walls of “prejudice and misunderstanding” by highlighting the normality of the many, rather than the delinquency of the few.[60] In this he was reflecting the assimilationist philosophy of the time, seeking to show the white portion of Australia how those in the black was seeking to become ‘civilised’, but were being held back by being treated as third class citizens. It is a notion rejected today as privileging the white way of life over the black. Whilst we may therefore recognise a fallacious underpinning to Brown’s approach, it should be acknowledged that for the time it was a liberal stance [Figures 42-45].

Living in the semi-rural suburb of Eltham, George Bell was mentally attuned to the havoc that a bushfire may cause and he was well located to record its after-effects. In his photographs he eschewed the human dimension and concentrated upon the natural, constructing pictures that were sensitive to pattern and texture. These works portray the stillness and fierce beauty of a landscape that has been purged and simplified. As such they tend to inspire more reverence and awe than compassion, but are still a worthy counterpoint to the other three studies of marginalised humanity [Figures 46-49].

Through visiting an elderly relative John Crook had become acquainted with the modern approach to old age, where the senile were consigned to geriatric institutions and languished there waiting to die. After the enthusiasm and vitality of the earlier years of his life, by the mid-1960s Crook had begun to go through a period of disillusionment.[61] This was therefore a topic that fitted his mood. It also no doubt appealed to the existentialist in him, allowing him to address both topic and mood actively. As with most of Crook’s work very little survives, but the few shots that remain reflect a vision that is at once challenging yet not intrusive [Figures 50-52].

For all of this though it is McDonald’s pieces that are the most confronting. Having been alerted to the then state of mental hospitals by his mother who worked part-time in one, McDonald gained permission to spend a few days within it. Judging from the pictures, both those with congenital conditions and the mentally ill were placed together in conditions of stark sterility. He found it a deeply moving experience, and spent his first day there in tears. “I saw shocking things...terrible things. I was run at and grasped by children screaming for me to hug utterly had they been starved for love.” Other inmates ignored him entirely.[62] Through it all he attempted to record what he saw without sentiment, seeing the lens as an extension of himself and his feeling. “I was very much possessed with seeing those feelings with my camera.” As important as this was, of even greater importance, he felt, was the impact it had upon himself. It was a “shattering experience for a rather spoilt, self-centred 20 year old” that made him “more human”[63] [Figures 53-56].

Unfortunately, virtually no shots of the installation now exist to allow a judgement of how the exhibition came together as a total experience. However, given the discrete nature of each segment it would seem to be less important overall. In keeping with the Steichen approach, works were displayed in small cubicles, designed to bring the viewers in closer contact with the images.[64] Again reaction and attendance were disappointing. Thanks in part to Albert Brown’s connections at the University of Melbourne he was able to affirm that for the first time “a few sociologists and economists had been attracted”.[65] Given the nature of the subject matter though it was unlikely to have been widely received. For whatever faults it may have, the group’s courage and resolve in producing such a challenging work at this time cannot be denied. In a way it gave form to many of the deeper concerns that John Crook, the Moggs Creek Clickers and Group M had been pursuing. As such it stands as a testament to their vision. It is consequently unfortunate that a quarter of it is now destroyed, and the rest is scattered in personal collections.[66]

This was the final original Group M exhibition. After A Time to Love most activities enacted in the group’s name were undertaken by Albert Brown. In the mid-1960s, for example, he had been trying to locate finance to enable the group to produce a major photographic study of Australia. To be called A Portrait of a Nation, this move had been sparked by a number of factors. The post-war period had been marked by a growing interest in the Australian identity which by the 1960s had reached the popular level. Right across society people were expressing what it meant to be an Australian, and it was only natural that Group M would be interested in contributing to this project. It makes even more sense when it is considered how key proponents of American documentary photography—such as Lewis Hine and Roy Stryker—had believed their photographs could educate the present, and teach the future about the past. These sentiments were echoed by the historian Geoffrey Blainey when writing in support of Group M’s proposal. He concluded that “you could almost argue that historians in 2048 would value a systematic collection of photographs or film from the 1960s, more than a set of Hansards...”.[67] This didactic element has been a strong thread in Group M’s activities, especially those orchestrated by Albert Brown. Further impetus was given by the group’s dismay over the standard of The Australian Image exhibition shown in Melbourne in April 1965. “Shallow...intellectually immature...incredibly superficial” was how John Crook described it in a letter to the Age and it presumably acted as a further nettle to spur the group on.[68]

A Portrait of a Nation was planned to be a substantial visual record of the “relations of Australians with their environment”, and “nationally important aspects of their life”. [69] However, despite approaches to the Federal government, Reserve Bank and National Library a sponsor could not be found and the project lapsed.[70] Ironically, two years later an American, Robert Goodman, produced his own ‘portrait of the nation’ in the book The Australians. Finance in this case was achieved by making his photographs available to various industries in exchange for their support.[71] In 1981 another photographic record A Day in the Life of Australia was published. Both are considered by Brown to be more superficial than what Group M would have attempted to produce.[72]

John Crook’s passionate demeanour had led him to a love-us-or-leave-us approach to public relations. Brown’s quieter, more methodical manner saw him develop a network of influential supporters as a way of achieving their ends. Convinced of the rightness of their approach, and with the strong didactic emphasis, Brown appears to have believed that public ignorance was their major stumbling block. Hence much of the thrust of his campaign was to seek ways to make good quality prints of significant documentary photography more readily available. If this occured devotees would have a chance to learn more readily from the masters, whilst other photographers and the general public could be more easily converted.

Towards this end Brown tried a number of avenues. An early endeavour was to seek the recovery of negatives of old Australian photographs in private collections. A letter was sent to the Age soliciting information, but the project did not get very far.[73] Something which was taken further, but still did not come to a full fruition, was the lobbying to establish a photographic collection at the National Library in Canberra. It was hoped this would provide a central repository for significant Australian works (their own included), as well as containing a selection of important prints from overseas collections. A submission was made by Brown in June 1964, initiating a dialogue between himself and the National Librarian Harold White. Whilst White was sympathetic to the cause, finance was, as ever, a problem and after some positive signs the project eventually lapsed.[74] Through contacts made during this time Brown managed to instigate an exchange arrangement with the University of Texas. Selected prints from A Time to Love  were swapped for  negatives from its collection of notable photographs originally held by Helmut Gernsheim. This became Photovision 66. [75]

Having had only limited success with the National Library, Brown changed his tack and lobbied to have something similar created through the setting up of a Photography Department at the NGV. Then Director, Eric Westbrook, had publicly indicated his sympathy for such an undertaking. After discussions Brown was appointed photographic consultant in November 1966, with the department being announced in April 1967.[76] In the consultant’s role he sought to secure key documentary works for a permanent collection.[77] Results were again less than had been hoped for, but he did acquire a series of negatives by Eugene Atget from the Bibliotheque Nationale with a grant from Kodak. Brown was responsible for bringing out the NGV’s first photography exhibition, John Szarkowski’s theme show from MOMA The Photographer’s Eye. He was also involved with the next two exhibitions Involvement and The Perceptive Eye. The latter, involving the work of five Australian photojournalists, including Lance Nelson, was displayed at the new gallery in St. Kilda Road.[78]

Having set up the department, the NGV appears to have had neither the funds, the staff, nor the space to do much with it. Brown, working part-time in an honorary capacity, did what he could, but much more was needed for it to function effectively. There was also the matter of what line the gallery would pursue. Brown’s vision of a documentary oriented department soon disappeared as other parties, notably the professional ranks, sought to have their say. When a photographic committee was set up in October 1968 it reflected these changed conditions. It was headed by Group M’s bete-noir Dacre Stubbs, and also contained society photographer Athol Shmith. Whilst Brown’s relations with the committee were cordial they clearly saw things differently. Eric Westbrook was sympathetic to Brown’s line but he was a consummate politician and went whichever way the wind was blowing strongest.[79] Brown’s involvement with the NGV was greatly reduced when he accepted a job in Adelaide in 1970.

Brown’s departure is a convenient point with which to mark the cessation of Group M’s activities. The final act in this phase however occurred with the destruction of Urban Woman in 1971. As its dispatch to Mexico had been arranged through the NGV it is to here that it was returned. No member of the group being available, the inspection was carried out by Dacre Stubbs. Given his previously stated indifference to the group’s interests it is not surprising that he was unimpressed by what he found. Whilst the work clearly must have borne the scars of it peregrinations, Stubbs’ description of it as “worn out” does not suggest it was unrestorable. Rather it is probable that the gallery baulked at the thought of having to store it. In an earlier letter he had commented that the NGV would be interested in acquiring portions of it as “there must be some very good work amongst [it]”. However, upon reflection the committee resolved not to acquire any since “we have an over abundance of this type of social appraisal and as a total exhibition it is somewhat out of date”. These words were like a slap in the face to Brown, and still are a cause of rancour today. Naturally enough he disagrees with Stubbs’ assessment, but at the time it appears it was enough to extinguish what small flame was still alight in him for Group M.[80]

Of course, the winding down of Group M’s interests began much earlier than this. Enthusiasm seems to have lessened after Urban Woman and group activities largely ceased after Photovision 66. In any group it is difficult to sustain enthusiasm in face of wider indifference. Whilst it remains a separate entity—as in the case of the Clickers—it is easier to manage, but with the natural desire to interconnect with the wider world the way is left open for disappointment to enter. Whilst the group members were a clear product of their times in some ways, in others they were ahead of them. Probably, had they been active five years later, the social climate would have been more conducive to their message. As it is, John Crook’s summation that they acted as a “commando act” to soften up the ground for what would follow seems fair comment. By the late 1960s a new wave of photographic thinking had taken hold in Australia. The salon style of presentation had lost its currency as younger photographers, drawing inspiration from the ‘straight’ approach, permeated the medium.[81]

As time progressed members lives changed, and more time was devoted to work and family matters. For example Cliff Restarick quotes a growing interest in skiing and music, and John Bolton cites romance and conscription as factors in their distancing from the group. For Albert Brown there was a change in occupation and later the move to Adelaide. More important was the loss of enthusiasm by John Crook. Far more an initiator than a maintainer, Crook’s period of disillusion led him to a desire to make stronger change in society than he felt they were achieving with their photography. Quitting his ‘comfortable’ job at Dunlop he became a high school maths teacher and undertook a BA in the social sciences at Monash University. Discouragement with the secondary education system, and ideas and people contacted at university, led him to found an alternative school in Belgrave. Later occupations have included working as a tertiary tutor in education, a city councillor involved in environmental issues, and leader of a gun control lobby. Whilst some members may have been tempted to see the disintegration as the result of a weakness of spirit, it is far more likely to be the result of a finite life-span inbuilt to such gatherings.

The questions that need to be asked though are: what was Group M’s legacy, and what impact did they have on the medium? At a wider level we may ask how their work stands up today in the light of the criticisms of the documentary approach that have arisen since their time. This also raises the question of what role the documentary way can have in the world today. These are points which will be explored in the next chapter.


>>>  Chapter Four

[1] Bell, G., Brown, A., & Crook, J., “The Dark is Light Enough: A Concise History of Group M” (Unpublished Manuscript, 1994), p. 3.

[2] This Bell, George William, should not be confused with George Frederick Bell (1878-1966), the Melbourne painter who vied with John Reed for control of the Contemporary Arts Society in the 1940s. See Haese, R., Rebels and Precursors. The Revolutionary Years in Australian Art (Allen Lane, Melbourne, 1981), pp. 14, 47.

[3] Youth- Brown in interview with George Bell, Albert Brown and John Crook, 27/4/95 (hereafter BBC) 2/250-280; Moving Clickers- Brown in BBC 1/50-60; Stryker- Albert Brown personal communication 27/4/95, p. 2; later employment- BBC 3/330-350.

[4] These included John Willett, who held the foundation chair of Business Management at the University of Melbourne, historians Allan Martin of Latrobe University and Geoffry Blainey of the University of Melbourne, the National Librarian Harold White, the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Eric Westbrook, and the photographic historian Helmut Gernsheim. Bell et al., “Dark”, pp. 8-9.

[5] See letter Albert Brown to Eric Westbrook 8/6/66 setting out his ideas on how the department should operate.

[6] Background and training- George Bell personal communication 27/4/95, p. 1; WWII and PNG- Ibid., p. 3; restlessness and SORA- interview with George Bell 23/5/95 (hereafter GB) 1/10-25. SORA stood for the Studio of Realist Art. Founded in 1945, it was part of the social realist thrust in the fine art world at the time. It proclaimed a far more militant political agenda than would be found in the Clickers or Group M. Their aim according to Haese was “to achieve a cultural climate sympathetic to radical action in society through creative activity.” See Haese, Rebels, pp. 170-174. Quote p. 172.

[7] Jobs- George Bell questionnaire response; photography- GB 1/75-80, George Bell Personal Communication 27/4/95, p. 3a; documentary interest- GB 1/70; camera clubs- GB 1/80-85; camaraderie and MOMA- GB 1/95-115. Nadar was renowned for portraits which captured the character of the sitter in an instant, rather than appearing overly posed. See Jeffrey, I., Photography: A Concise History (Thames & Hudson, London, 1981), p. 41.

[8] Interview John Bolton 26/7/95 (hereafter JB) 1/170-75.

[9] JB 1/195-200.

[10] Solitary shooting- Albert Brown personal communication 27/4/95, p. 2; butcher’s shop- JB 1/95-120. Bolton particularly remembers the pungent aroma of carcasses being boiled up for dripping.

[11] Interview with Cliff Restarick 24/8/95 (hereafter CR) 175-85; interview with Fred Mosse 11/7/95 (hereafter FM) 1/200-215; AB 1/175-205.

[12] Background- JB 1/1-15; camera clubs- 1/35-45, 60-65; darkroom- 1/155-165; summation- 2/245-260; life after- 2/95-120; floods- 2/35-40, 255-260.

[13] Interview with Roy McDonald 1/8/95 (hereafter RMc) 1/1-50, 100-120.

[14] Interview with Harry Youlden 31/7/95 1/1-25, 260-270. Although he claims never to have tried to copy another photographer [1/170-175], his interests range from the doyen of Australian pictorialists, John Kaufman, to patterned crystalline structures, some of which are in the NGV [2/1-10].

[15] Phone interview John Bolton 24/8/95. See also the complete listing of Australian contributors to Photovision in the Appendix.

[16] Lance Nelson personal communication 13/10/95; AB 1/215-230; CR 3/170-175; Letter Lance Nelson to Albert Brown 22/11/65.

[17] Richard Woldendorp personal communication 25/7/95; AB 1/230-245; interview with Wolfgang Sievers (hereafter WS) 1/310-20.

[18] Crook in Australian Popular Photography July 1962, p. 43.

[19] “In a sense we are all crusaders...” wrote Albert Brown to Dame Mabel Brookes 18/7/63, when asking her to open Urban Woman.

[20] These facts are based on the results of a questionnaire circulated to members.

[21] Bell et al., “Dark”, p.9.

[22] BBC 2/290-300.

[23] BBC 3/55-60; WS 1/325-330.

[24] Bell et al., “Dark”, p. 1; JC in BBC 3/5-15; Albert Brown personal communication 27/4/95, p. 3.

[25] Bell et al., “Dark”, pp 1-2; JB 1/60-75.

[26] Newton, G., Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988 (Australian National Gallery and Collins Australia, Sydney, 1988), p. 132; JC 2/1-15, 1/315-350.

[27] JC 2/15-35.

[28] Family of Man tour- Professional Photography, April 1959, p. 19; big prints- Bell et al., “Dark”, p. 7; George Bell in BBC 2/150-170; GB 2/15-20.

[29] Phillips, C., “The Judgement Seat of Photography” in Bolton, R., (ed.), The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 1989), p. 23.

[30] JC 2/310-20.

[31] Phillips, “Judgement”, p. 34.

[32] JC 2/255-260, 315-325. It is interesting to note however that Helen Ennis in her introductory essay in Australian Photography: The 1980s (OUP, Melbourne, 1988) characterises two of the hallmarks of the decade as “the production of large-scale prints and the arrangement of images in series” [p. 8]. These however were rarely in the documentary idiom.

[33] Photovision 63 Catalogue.

[34] Photovision 62 Catalogue and Photovision 61 Catalogue.

[35] Photovision 64 Catalogue.

[36] Professional Photography June 1962, pp. 24-26.

[37] The Reeds’ background- Haese, Rebels, p. 58; as patrons- Ibid., pp. 239-241; MOMA- Ibid., p. 291. See also Eagle, M. & Jones, J., A Story of Australian Painting (Macmillan, Sydney, 1994), pp. 198-202.

[38] History- Stocks, I., “Museum of Modern Art” Lot’s Wife 19/10/1965, p. 17. I have a suspicion that the author was in fact Ann Stock, then a research assistant to Colin Tatz, who had recently reviewed A Time To Love in the same journal. This may have been a deliberate pseudonym, but I tend to feel it was simply editorial error. Closure- Letter Pamela Warrender to Albert Brown 6/7/66. At a later date MOMA was re-established at the Reeds’ Bulleen property Heide where it operates to this day.

[39] Professional Photography April 1959, p. 20.

[40] Crook in BBC 2/170-200; CR 3/70-85.

[41] Crook in BBC 2/185-200.

[42] GB 2/180-195.

[43] CR 3/90-100, 120-130; FM 1/115-120.

[44] Bell et al., “Dark”, p. 5; CR 100-120; AB 2/10-40; FM 1/90-100, 115-120. Brown in a letter to Dame Mabel Brookes 18/7/63 makes the curious comment that they wished to show “the effect life has on so many women who renounce interest in living in their late thirties”. This clearly derived from a line of thought either then current, or perhaps based on some form of personal experience.

[45] JC 2/105-140.

[46] Hannan, B., Introduction in Urban Woman Catalogue.

[47] Bell et al., “Dark”, pp. 5-6; change in focus- Letter Albert Brown to Dame Mabel Brookes 18/7/63.

[48] Examples of journal articles include- Age 20/8/63, p. 6; Bulletin 14/9/63; p. 37, Australian Photo Digest August 1963, pp. 45-47; The Sun 21/8/63, p. 33; Herald 12/8/63, p. 17. The show cost £800 and returned £380- Letter Albert Brown to Prime Minister’s Department 17/12/65.

[49] Holidays and strike- CR 3/210-20, The Sun 28/9/63, p. 2.

[50] Crook in BBC 3/155-160; JC 2/125-40; CR 3/210-220.

[51] Roper in Age 27/8/63, p. 10.

[52] Bell et al., “Dark”, p.5; FM 1/105-110.

[53] It toured regional Victoria in early to mid 1965, was at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston late 1965, and was then shown at the Perth Town Hall in early 1966. Bell et al., “Dark”, p. 6.

[54] See Chapter 1, and in particular Green, J., American Photography: a Critical History 1945-the Present (Abrams, New York, 1984), p. 51.

[55] CR 4/65-80; JB 2/70-90; Albert Brown personal communication 27/4/95, p. 3; GB 2/160-180.

[56] No-one is positive from where the title is derived. It may be from the Pete Seeger song Turn Turn Turn (inspired by lines from Ecclesiastes and popularised by the Byrds in late 1965), since the phrase appears here, and on questioning, John Crook admits to being very impressed by Seeger. JC 2/180-200.

[57] A Time to Love Catalogue.

[58] Letter Albert Brown to University of Texas 10/1/91; Albert Brown phone interview 12/12/95.

[59] Willis, A-M., Picturing Australia: A History of Photography (Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, 1988), pp. 202-213.

[60] Brown A., “Victoria’s Dark People”. Statement displayed with A Time to Love.

[61] JC 2/105-125, 150-180.

[62] RMc 1/200-235.

[63] Ibid., 1/235-250.

[64] Letter Albert Brown to Helmut Gernsheim 4/10/65.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Selected works are contained in the University of Texas collection.

[67] Letter Geoffry Blainey to Albert Brown, 17/7/64.

[68] Age 7/4/65, p. 20.

[69] Letters: Albert Brown to Eric Westbrook 7/5/65, and to Helmut Gernsheim 29/11/65.

[70] Bell et al., “Dark”, p. 7.

[71] IAP 8/66, pp. 12-13; Newton, Shades, pp. 132-133; Goodman, R., & Johnston, G., The Australians (Rigby, Adelaide, 1966).

[72] Smolan, R., & Park, A., A Day in the Life of Australia (ADITLOA Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1981). Albert Brown personal communication 27/4/95, p. 3.

[73] One letter, from a descendent of the early photographer J.W. Lindt did explain how the latter’s negatives had been smashed by his (Lindt’s) sisters after his death, but few works were located. See letter from E.J. Hartung to Albert Brown 1/12/63.

[74] Submission- Letter Albert Brown to Harold White 24/6/64. Support came from John Szarkowski, Director of MOMA (NY) [9/6/64], Hal Missingham, Director of the Art Gallery of NSW [14/8/64], Laurence Course from the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne [25/11/64], and Helmut Gernsheim [5/1/65]. White replied in full 25/2/65. When he was succeeded by the Assistant Librarian, Athol Johnson, the group took heart as Johnson was a stronger supporter. However his untimely death, soon after, effectively ended the project.

[75] Bell et al., “Dark”, p. 7. The exhibition came from Texas, rather than being so entitled as Gael Newton incorrectly asserts, apparently misreading her notes again. Newton, Shades, p. 133.

[76] Consultant- Letter Eric Westbrook to Albert Brown 11/11/66; Photography Department- NGV agenda item 4/4/67.

[77] Approaches were made to holders of significant documentary photography: MOMA (NY), the University of Texas, Standard Oil, George Eastman House, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Bibliotheque Nationale and the Mitchell Library. Bell et al., “Dark”, p. 8.

[78] Report by the NGV Photography Department 18/8/70.

[79] Letter Albert Brown to Helmut Gernsheim 1/9/66.

[80] Letters Dacre Stubbs to Albert Brown 31/8/71 and 22/10/71; Albert Brown personal communication 27/4/95, p. 3.

[81]Commando act- Newton, Shades, p. 133; later developments- Ibid., pp. 134-154, JC 2/200-235.

>>>  Chapter Four




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