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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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
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.
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”.
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.
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
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
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.
[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.
[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
[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.
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.
[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.
[For examples of his work see Figures 19
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”.
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.
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.
The capacity of photography to document, they saw as its “greatest strength”
and considered the “most monumental...works [to be] documentary in nature”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
In Melbourne however, Group M claim to be the first to utilise such a
After Steichen’s departure in 1962, MOMA’s method of presentation reverted back
to the more discreet conventional means.
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
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.
(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”.
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
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.
[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
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.
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 strange...to hold an
exhibition of photographs” as so many “are not related...to 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
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.
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!”
There was however no attempt by the Reeds to bring them further into their
circle with invitations to their property Heide.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
The journalist and socialite Sheila Scotter, when interviewing Fred Mosse on
television, expressed surprise that there were few smiling faces.
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.
Unfortunately, it languished in the Australian embassy there for three years
and when it was eventually returned arrived in a mutilated condition and was
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, 
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.
Certainly the next group show A Time To
Love (Photovision 65) was far
smaller, comprising four photographers and 80 prints.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 them...so utterly had they been starved for love.” Other inmates ignored
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” [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.
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”.
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.
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
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.
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”. 
However, despite approaches to the Federal government, Reserve Bank and
National Library a sponsor could not be found and the project lapsed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 
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.
In the consultant’s role he sought to secure key documentary works for a
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Four
Lance Nelson personal communication 13/10/95; AB
1/215-230; CR 3/170-175; Letter Lance Nelson to Albert Brown 22/11/65.