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A History of the Australian Centre for Photography 1973-2013
Toby Meagher, Research Paper–June 2013
The paper was written for a Masters in Art Administration at COFA.
Chapter One: Overview of topic, Research methods, Outline of paper
Chapter Two: Introductory history of photography in Australia in the 1970s
Chapter Three: The 1970s: Origins and Vision
Chapter four: The 1980s: A broader scope for the medium
Chapter Five: The 1990s: The re-birth of the ACP
Chapter Six: The 2000s and beyond: Continued growth
Chapter Seven: Conclusions
Appendix A: ACP Exhibition Records (1974-2007)
Appendix B: Selected Source Material
Special note: This paper refers to the ACP archive and its condition at the time; considerable archiving activity was conducted by the ACP's archive officer/curator Belinda Hungerford during several years up to the end of 2015 when the ACP ceased archive activity with the move from Paddington.
At the time of writing, the ACP was then housed in its own building on Oxford Street, Paddington. In 2014 the ACP sold this building and moved in mid 2016 further down Oxford Street in Darlinghurst.
After several years of changes, including that sale of its own building on Oxford Street, on 20 November 2020 the ACP announced it was going into 'hiberantion'. Effectively this meant it ceased operations - till further notice.
For more on the ACP - click here
See also Blair French's 1999 publication - Photo Files
The Australian Centre for Photography (ACP) has played a significant role in the development of photography in Australia. This paper provides a history of the Centre from conception to present day.
An introductory history of Australian photography in the 1970s will be provided to contextualise the origins of the ACP. Using material from the ACP's archives, the social, cultural and fiscal forces that have shaped the Centre will be elucidated. The paper will draw attention to both the practical and ideological drivers that have seen the Centre grow from a humble practitioner-based initiative through to a highly professional cultural institution of National significance.
The history of this rise provides a fascinating reflection on the shifting state of the photography in Australia over the last 40 years.
I would like to thank all those who helped with the completion of this paper. The ACP and Kon Gouriotis for granting me access to the Centre's archives. In particular, Belinda Hungerford and Michael Fitzgerald, who generously gave their time to accompany me on trips to the archives, and offered their helpful insights and advice. Gael Newton, who provided me with the inspiration and direction for this project and who has been a constant support. Joanna Mendelssohn, for not only supervising my research paper, but mentoring me over the last two years and continually providing invaluable assistance and encouragement. And finally, special thanks go to Fran Meagher for her proofreading, interest and support.
Thank you all.
Chapter one: Introduction
1.1 Overview of topic
This research paper will explore the origins of the Australian Centre for Photography ('ACP' or 'Centre') and its impact on photography in Australia over the last four decades, since its inception in 1973. In Australia in the 1970s, photography was a freshly invigorated medium. A new generation of artist-photographers had initiated this change, through both their art and the formal structures which were used to present it. The ACP was born from this practitioner-based initiative.
As there has never been a definitive history written on the ACP, the core research for the body of this paper was derived from the primary resource that is the ACP's archives. The archive, whilst poorly catalogued, contains the paper files (notes, correspondences, budgets, exhibition programs etc.) from the entire history of the Centre. It is an important resource and a significant reservoir of information, not only with regards to Australian photography, but to wider Australian history. The archive deserves a significant investment of time, money and effort, to be properly catalogued, so that it can become an accessible resource for all. Sadly, this task was well beyond my reach and this research essay provides only a cursory glance at the depth of information contained therein. There is certainly room for a comprehensive doctoral thesis to explore the Centre's history in greater depth.
In 2004, ACP became a major recipient under the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy of the Australia Council. The body of this research paper will examine how the ACP grew from a fledgling community-based exhibition space in the early 1970s, to one of the leading organisations in Australian contemporary visual culture. The ACP's exhibitions have played an important role in identifying and promoting major artists of Australian photography and the ACP's exhibition history is examined in the following pages to highlight this pivotal role.
The ACP initiated the first major retrospectives of works by photographers, Max Dupain, Olive Cotton and Mervyn Bishop, as well as organising early exhibitions of photographs by Bill Henson, Tracey Moffatt, William Yang and Trent Parke. Since the mid-1970s, it has also operated a wide variety of public programs and workshop facilities for the wider community. In 1983, the ACP began publishing Photofile, as a small community newspaper. The publication has grown to reflect the shifting forms and contexts of photography and a wider program of publishing has produced numerous texts that have directed photography and photographers, across Australia.
This research paper will explore the history of the ACP with particular focus on its exhibition program. The research will clarify the relationship between the ACP and the rising profile of photography, by mapping the development of photography as a medium, against the origins and changing aims of the organisation.
1.2 Research methods
The primary aim of this paper is to write a history of the ACP, so as to better understand its place in the landscape of Australian art history. As there is no existing history written on the ACP, the central research method of this paper has been a physical examination of the primary documents that reside in the archives of the ACP. This archival material, as it currently exists, includes all the archived paper files from 1970 through to today.
The archived material is currently held in an offsite storage facility in Sydney's inner-west. The material itself is stored in hundreds of old boxes, in various states of decay, with a cataloguing system limited to vague indications of the dates of documents or exhibition material contained in each box. There were many instances in which the cataloguing notes and box labels did not correspond to the material contained. Whilst this made the research particularly difficult, it also made important discoveries particularly rewarding.
As the storage facility was located offsite, I had to be accompanied by staff members of the ACP (Belinda Hungerford and Michael Fitzgerald) in order to gain access. This limited the time I could spend with the material to a selection of days made available by the generosity of the staff. As such, I focused my time on seeking out key boxes, skim reading files and photographing hundreds of documents. In my own time, I was then able to sift through these documents for pertinent information, exhibition history and points of potential interest. The most notable limitation of this method was that if I missed photographing a document whilst on site, then the material was missed and not recorded in my research. Such are the vagaries and shortcomings of an inaugural history.
By undertaking primary source based research, I could examine and interpret the primary material for the purpose of producing an original history, without reliance on the interpretations made by secondary sources. However, qualitative research of secondary histories of photography in Australia did provide a valuable framework for discussion of the ACP in context (in particular, the writings of Helen Ennis, Anne Marsh and Gael Newton).
Due to the physical limitations of the research and the high volume of such poorly catalogued material, the time required to do comprehensive research was well beyond that which was available to me, in the timeframe of this course. As such, this paper by no means purports to be a comprehensive history of the ACP but it does begin to give shape to the guiding narrative of the last four decades of the Centre.
1.3 Outline of paper:
The introductory history of Chapter two will provide the framework, upon which archival research of Chapters three to six will then explore the history of the ACP and its contribution to the cultural landscape of Australia. This primary research will be integrated with wider, qualitative research, into photography's changing national and international profile. The paper will unpack the exhibition history of the ACP, as well as highlighting key movements in the genre and the growing status of individual artists, as a direct result of the exhibition, education and publication strategies.
Chapter two: Introductory history of Australian photography in the 1970s
This Chapter will be used as an opportunity to establish a clear picture of the historical landscape that gave rise to the ACP - the social, political and economic conditions that facilitated its birth. A significant proportion of the chapter will be spent examining the relevant history of photography, as an artistic medium, in Australia. The chapter will draw on qualitative research from key authors on the history of photography in Australia including Anne Marsh, Helen Ennis and Gael Newton.
Chapter three: The 1970s: Origins and Vision
This chapter will record the history of the ACP from an idea expressed in a letter in 1970, through to the early years of the Centre with a successful exhibition, workshop and publications program. The chapter will look at the exhibition space, the financial situation and the directorial approach, in this formative decade. Key items of discussion will include the American influence on Australian Photography and the ACP's role in the establishment of photography as an artistic medium. The majority of the research for this chapter will be drawn from primary documents from the ACP's archive. The research will draw upon internal and external correspondence, minutes from key meetings, newspaper clippings and exhibition records.
Chapter four: The 1980s: Expanding the medium
This chapter will continue discussion of the role of photography in the early 1980s. By establishing the significant changes in direction in the middle of the decade, this chapter will outline the ACP's role in broadening the scope of the photographic medium (into photo-media and new media). The chapter will also discuss the active role the ACP played in increasing the representation of women artists in Australia, by highlighting important decisions taken by the then director and exploring the exhibition program for the latter part of the decade.
Chapter Five: The 1990s: The re-birth of the ACP
Chapter five will explore the dramatic infrastructure changes that vastly increased the scope of the operation of the ACP, with significant growth to the exhibition program, the workshop and the reach of Photofile. Throughout the 1990s, under Deborah Ely, the ACP began to record yearly activities in a more thorough manner. These 'Artistic Reports' form the basis of the research for Chapter five, with additional information sourced from archival letters, exhibition programs and reports and wider secondary resources.
Chapter Six: The 2000s and beyond: Continued Growth
Chapter Six will examine the significant growth of the ACP in the new millennium. This portion of the paper will assess the expanding scale of the Centre's operation by focusing on visitation records, examining the website activity data and highlighting the workshop enrollments at the overall financial growth of the Centre. The management restructuring and constitutional changes will also be examined to highlight the growing professionalism of the Centre, as a response to its role as a key cultural institution.
Chapter Seven: Conclusions
The conclusion of this research paper will outline the key historical moments for the ACP and provide a concise summary of the ACP's role in some of the central developments in the medium, including; the American influence, the establishment of photography as a medium, broadening the scope of the medium, the rise of women's photography, establishing an Indigenous photographic vision and highlighting significant infrastructure developments.
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Intro & Chapter 1 / Chapters 2 & 3 / Chapters 4 & 5 / Chapters 6 & 7 / bibliography / Appendices