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 Four

The Responsibility of Perception


In terms of impact it is fair to say that Group M have had a far smaller public profile than members would have liked. Whether this has been unfair treatment, or just desserts is a matter for investigation. A critical exploration of their activities must involve an assessment of their use of the documentary medium, especially in the light of the criticisms it has more recently received (see Chapter I). This will inevitably lead to a discussion of what role documentary photography may have in the world today. Whilst there is scope for an entire dissertation in this last question, a limited review is needed to tie Group M in with the wider photographic scene.

The group’s poor profile at the time appears to have been largely attributable to their being in the right place at the wrong time. The late 1950s through to the 1960s was a transitional period in Australian photography. It lay on the cusp between the outward looking modernism of the pre-, and immediate post-WWII period, and the more personalised statements from the 1970s on. [1] Although Group M’s influences characterise them as modernists, they may still have benefited if they had been active five to ten years later. During this period they may have found a more receptive atmosphere, both within the medium, and in the world at large. At their time of operation outlets for work, be they in print or in galleries, were rare. By the 1970s specific photographic galleries had been set up, and more aesthetically based photographic courses had been established. [2] Both of these created an environment where photography was disseminated and discussed in greater depth. The group may well have received greater criticism, but they would at least have come under more notice. As it was, they had to spend valuable energy in trying to create an environment open to receive what they had to offer.

Group M’s legacy has also been less than what may have been expected. Although they played a part in creating the Australian photographic scene that followed them, a number of factors, including their unaligned stance, and relatively short period of activity, have rendered them largely invisible. Their major supporters were their contemporaries or predecessors, and their period of visible activity did not extend into the photographic renaissance of the 1970s. Had they been able to ensure that more work was held by institutions, or represented in publications, they may have retained greater currency. As it is what printed material that survives does so in reasonably inaccessible catalogues and journal reviews. It is not surprising then that they have rated only minor mentions in the photographic studies of Gael Newton and Isobel Crombie, and nothing at all in that of Anne-Marie Willis. [3] Unfortunately the redirection of photographic energy away from the salons, and towards the universities, has seen the activities of other amateur proponents—such as Group M—similarly overlooked. This is perhaps understandable when one surveys the then photographic scene from a current position. In comparison with what has followed, Group M look far more like a camera club than members considered themselves to be. With time, what appeared to be important differences have become less distinguishable as photographic expression has broadened. Indeed, one could argue that certain shots produced by Group M could easily have been found then, as today, in salon exhibitions. [4]

Another paradox one strikes when seeking to assess Group M is that for all their self-professed adherence to the traditional documentary ethic, not all their output or thought is as closely allied to this area as one may expect. In post-war America there was a line clearly drawn between two styles of photographic expression. On the one hand was the outward looking, conservative, populist, documentary style, characterised by the Family of Man. This was countered by artists seeking to use the medium as a personal tool for psychological and spiritual contemplation. [5] As Harry Callahan reflected:

If man wishes to express himself photographically he must understand...his relation to life. I am interested in relating the problems that affect me to some set of values that I am trying to discover and establish as being my life. I want to discover and establish them through photography. The interior drama is the meaning of the external event and each man is an essence and a symbol. [6]

These photographers sought to redress the perceived faults of the documentary which for Minor White amounted to showing “to society less than it is and to people only a fraction of what they are”. [7] They consequently attempted, in the words of Aaron Siskand, “to see the world clean and fresh and alive as primary things are clean and fresh and alive”. [8] To achieve this they utilised photography centred on the close-up, the textured, the abstract and the fragmentary. [9] It is easy to assume that because Group M were so simpatico with the Family of Man that members adhered to the total photographic approach advanced by this exhibition. This is not the case. By operating outside America the group was not subject to exactly the same influences. Whilst their outlook was predominantly outward some of their number—notably John Crook and George Bell—did at times seek a form of expression based on personal revelation. Compare for example, Siskand’s statement with this of Crook’s:

It is perhaps one of the photographer’s jobs to continually try and see the world afresh...thus through the photographer's expression all may come to understand more about the world around them and take delight in deeper feeling and wider breadth in their vision. [10]

This manifesto could also apply to Bell. Of all the members of Group M, it was he who most clearly produced works privileging an intimate understanding of the world, predicated on a feeling for the fragmentary and the textured [see Figures 57 & 58]. Finally, Group M and the Moggs Creek Clickers before them were certainly not a party to the conservative agenda of the day. They held left-of-centre views and sought to change the hide-bound salon system. Group M therefore were positioned further away from the modernist documentary ethic, especially in its Family of Man incarnation, than they themselves believed.

The primary reason for this disjuncture is that for key members of Group M, the humanist philosophy contained within the documentary path was a vital component in their outlook on life. They adhered to it with a zeal that bordered on the religious. They may not have followed any particular faith, but the passion with which they espoused the documentary cause made up for this. The depths of this passion are based, I believe, on an experience of the self-transformational power of documentary photography. Time and again in their testimony one strikes a similar refrain. For Albert Brown his camera gave him insight and understanding of various disadvantaged groups. For Roy McDonald his work made him “more human” and “changed him as a person”. For John Crook his camera was his “third eye” which “helped [him] to see”. [11] The practice of recording their subjects had a powerful effect upon their lives, bringing them into contact with situations, and probably emotions, which they had not experienced before. Kiko Denzer has been quoted in Chapter I as suggesting that much of the zeal of early documentary photography came from the reactions of concerned members of the middle class upon the discovery of poverty. Denzer contests it “gave them a place in the world” and encouraged them to “forge a personal understanding” of how the other half lived. [12] That Group M’s work had a profound effect upon their lives cannot be argued. Neither can there be any denying the group’s sincerity in their desire to effect social change. Where the matter is more open to debate is how far this ‘personal understanding’ can be relayed to a third party. As James Guimond has detailed in a survey of comments by viewers of FSA exhibitions, the work “touched [them] selectively”. [13] Euan McGillvray has similarly suggested that the documentary idiom has never fully dealt with the problem that whilst the photographer may be included in the ‘decisive moment’, his or her audience is not. [14] Whilst clearly some viewers can be moved by contact with an experience by photographic proxy, it is unlikely that this epiphany will strike universally. Group M’s ‘mission’ may have been based on the noble cause of engendering social change, but its success could never be as sweeping as was hoped for.

Having found the use of the documentary ethic by Group M is problematical does this invalidate the work? And what of the style worldwide? Does it have a place in the postmodern world to “sharpen our indignation [and] act as a shaming device”, [15] or “are we as a culture now too cynical—or just too exhausted—” to be affected? [16] “Have we let intellect dominate emotion to such a degree that our hearts are closed?” [17]

In its traditional expression, the style still finds its supporters and one can find examples of its ability to promote social justice. A notable case is that of the inhabitants of the Japanese coastal town of Minamata. Progressively poisoned by the dumping of mercury waste in their bay by a chemical company, they fought for many years to obtain compensation. An important element in their struggle was the photography of Eugene and Aileen Smith. They documented the human cost of the poisoning—the illness and birth defects—and publicised the cause worldwide. [18] For the Smiths, whilst endeavouring to be “honest and fair” there was no attempt at being ‘objective’. Theirs was a cause in which they believed passionately and they wished to convey that passion to the reader. [19] However whilst their work has been hailed by some as “photoactivism at its best”, to others it is mere “histrionics”. [20] A similar dichotomy permeates reactions to the work of the Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado. A recent series of his, Workers, revises Lewis Hine’s or Wolfgang Sievers’ essentially positive relationship between humanity and work, by highlighting his subjects’ exploitation as much as their dignity. For some, Salgado’s work has a mythic, monumental presence that sweeps the viewer up and inspires an emotive response. As one observer put it: “It’s like a Family of Man exhibition for our time, stripped of the original’s sentimentality...tougher, warier and much more bitter.” Others though have been less impressed, finding a “strong sense of 1930s to 1950s moralistic photojournalism” or “heroic archetyping” that is disturbing. [21]

The point is that contemporary criticism of documentary photography has seriously challenged not only its objectivity, but also its claim to being a universal language and ‘the truth’. Photography is seen to be enmeshed in a variety of other discourses—social, political and economic—capable of “oversimplifying ambivalences and complicated realities”. [22] Photographic reality is similarly seen to be mitigated by other agencies such as the camera itself, the photographer’s choice of subject and manner of depiction, the where and how of the way works are viewed, and the intertextuality between images. [23] More recently, the development of digital imaging has opened the way for easier manipulation of a picture, further compromising the by now forlorn claims of the medium to some form of objective truth. The question raised by this is whether the above points compromise documentary photography irrevocably. Certainly it is possible to come away from a reading of Susan Sontag’s On Photography despairing of ever being able to use a camera again.

As in all things there is a middle path, but it is one that requires a broadening of the definition of the term documentary and a recognition of the potential pitfalls inherent in its practice. The strength of Sontag’s criticisms overshadow the fact that she was not seeking the destruction of the entire medium, but to revise the use of photography in modernist and capitalist discourses. [24] Australian photo-journalist Peter Davis argues that rather than negating the power of the image Sontag is suggesting ways it can be better used. For Davis the importance of Sontag’s work lies in its opening up the medium to the debate on the subjectivity of truth and the rights of the subject. [25]

The documentary canon can also be redeemed by the realisation that such work can have a wider variety of expression and presentation than that which was current during the period when modernism was at its peak. Whilst certain images may stand alone in their ability to communicate solely  by visuals, not all documentary photographs are equally informing. Peter Davis has often found it necessary to include text with his work, both as captions and accompanying articles. He considers that this is a strategy which can mitigate the potential power imbalance between photographer and subject, by allowing the subject to present his or her own story more fully. [26] Innovative display can also heighten the effect of documentary photography, something Group M members were clearly aware of. In recent years, the American photographer Alfredo Jaar has sought to shape creatively a viewing environment for his work, by employing mixed media installations that juxtapose his photographs with an unusual means of display. By symbol and metaphor he leads viewers to his point of view. This is illustrated in his exhibition on the plight of the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong entitled Fading. By placing images under water in shallow metal trays, he highlights the print development process, and reflects on how issues such as those of the boat people can have a brief currency in news reports before ‘fading’ from view’. [27] The Italian Dennis Del Favero stretches the form even further. His response to the rape camps of Bosnia has been to juxtapose interviews with victims, with photographs of portions of the human body, displayed in large unframed prints. [28] Although not descriptive in a FSA sense the work contains just as much ability to shock and spur into action.

The above suggests that there are choices available to would-be documentary photographers that allow them to function as an effective vehicle for change. Whilst the criticisms of the past twenty years have trained the spotlight upon the fallacy of the medium’s claims to objective truth in general and the field’s ability to exploit its subject in particular, the power lies with each photographer to make choices that can redress the matter. By recognising the power a photographer may have over how reality is represented one can be more sensitive to the issue. By choosing to be less intrusive, one can interact more with one’s subjects, and become aware of potential networks of power which govern the relationship. But in the end it is still the photographer who holds the camera. Peter Davis tells the story of an experience in India just after the 1994 earthquake. Initially, he felt impotent as a photographer to allay the suffering, so began to work with the rescuers removing rubble. However he reverted to his chosen profession after an Indian pleaded with him to use his pictures to relay the situation to the world. Davis did this and his photographs were used to encourage international relief. [29] For Davis, in this situation, his equipment and experience were more valuable than his brute force. Whilst one can no longer accept that the medium conveys an absolute truth, photographers can still operate successfully if they are prepared to accept the responsibility for how they choose to represent reality. [30] Each needs to have in effect a responsibility of perception.

>>>  Conclusion

[1] Newton, G., Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988 (Australian National Gallery and Collins Australia, Sydney, 1988), p. 132.

[2] Ibid., pp. 137-39.

[3] Newton, Shades; Crombie, I., Sites of the Imagination (NGV, Melbourne, 1992); Willis, A-M., Picturing Australia: A History of Photography (Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, 1988). Newton discovered them when following up a reference to Urban Woman, but as I have indicated some of her comments have been wide of the mark. See p. 198, note 17.

[4] A point made by Euan McGillvray in personal communication 2/6/95.

[5] Green, J., American Photography: a Critical History 1945-the Present (Abrams, New York, 1984), p. 75.

[6] Callahan in Ibid., p. 54.

[7] White in Ibid., p. 55.

[8] Siskand in Ibid., p. 54.

[9] Ibid., p. 53.

[10] Crook in Australian Popular Photography July 1962, p. 43. Indeed on being read Siskand’s quotation Crook readily agrees with it. Interview with John Crook  11/9/95 2/80-100.

[11] Letter Albert Brown to University of Texas, 10/1/91, p. 2; interview with Roy McDonald 4/8/95 1/240-50; John Crook in Photovision 64 Catalogue.

[12] Denzer, K., “The Documentary Imagination of Lewis Hine” History Today Vol. 38, August 1988, p. 55.

[13] Guimond, J., American Photography and the American Dream (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1991), p. 101.

[14] Euan McGillvray personal communication 2/6/95.

[15] Alexander, G., “The War for Reality” Photofile 46, November 1995, p. 2.

[16] Edwards S., & Coleman L., “Sebastião Salgado: An Archaeology of Photojournalism” Photofile 46, November 1995, p. 7.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Smith, E. & A., Minamata (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1975); Age 30/9/95, p. A16.

[19] Smith, Minamata, pp. 7-8.

[20] Photoactivism- Gemes, J., “Profile: Juno Gemes” Photofile 46, November 1995, p. 24; histrionics- Martyn Jolly, photographic lecturer, in Edwards & Coleman ,“Salgado”, p. 12.

[21] All in Edwards & Coleman ,“Salgado”, pp. 6-13. Mythic- Matthew Sleeth, photographer, p. 8; monumental- Annette Mauer, teacher, p. 8; Family of Man- Craig McGregor, photographic lecturer, p. 11; moralistic- John Williams, photographer, p. 9; archetyping- Peter Solness, photojournalist, p. 12.

[22] Guimond, Dream, p. 18.

[23] Ibid., p. vii.

[24] Green, American, p. 195.

[25] Interview with Peter Davis (hereafter PD) 1/8/95 1/240-60.

[26] PD 1/125-50. Obviously by framing the text the photographer preserves the dominant position.

[27] Davison K., & Jaar, A., “The Art of Inclusion: Alfedo Jaar–an interview, Photofile 46, November 1995, pp. 14-19.

[28] Cohen, B., “Motel Vilina Vlas–Dennis Del Favero” Photofile 46, November 1995, pp. 28-31.

[29] PD 2/20-35.

[30]PD 2/100-120.

>>>  Conclusion





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