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Before reading this 1994 article,
you may like to read my March 2023 comments on my blog on this piece - click here


gender, journeys and genres

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo

Gael Newton (1994)

An online version of an article originally published in Eyeline 24 autumn/winter 1994
(see notes on images at bottom of this page)


#1 Jay Younger, Gormandizer 1993 Installation from The Nature of Space, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane


Well it's official – we Babes have come a long way! Women photographers, we are told, have been dominating the photoarts for the last decade. The Ladies Lounge is no longer required; women have invaded 'all the genres once sacred to men'. In an article titled 'Game Girls Shoot Back', writer Craig McGregor, broke this news to the wider public reading the Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend colour supplement of October 9, 1993.

McGregor's interest in photography is long standing. He was a member of the all male founding committee for the Australian Centre (then Foundation) for Photography in 1973 and since then has written a number of key review features on the progress of contemporary photography.1 Deborah Ely, one of the equally 'dominant' women photoarts administrators and current Director of the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney, is quoted by McGregor as affirming the existence of a feminine aesthetic or approach, in which women photographers 'speak about things other than men do, more personal things, more taboo subjects, domestic life, sexual life.' Yet the article also concludes that a '"feminine" sensibility so infuses the whole that you can't even recognise it'.2

The 'game girls' featured in the article such as Tracey Moffatt, Anne Ferran and Robyn Stacey have profiles chiefly in the art world. Artist, Maria Kozic who uses photography as part of her mixed media palette was also drawn into the orbit of women photographers. Included too were Sandy Edwards and Lorrie Graham who earn their living in the male dominated world of commercial illustration and photojournalism. In the commercial field, women certainly don't dominate to the same degree and the issue of gender balance doesn't seem even to be on the industry's agenda.3

In his acknowledgment of the current visibility of women photographers, Craig McGregor also points to male perceptions of a link between the role of women's practice in expanding the repertoire of art photography and a decline in the dominance of a purist documentary aesthetic. Documentary photographer Jon Lewis is quoted as saying art photography is 'not real': he is referring to staged imagery or manipulated prints and the post-modernist embrace of artifice. Seen in this context, is the implication that art photography = women mucking about?

#2 Bette Mifsud, from Landmarks Watermarks, 1994


As a curator I can confirm that more than a few male photographers see the current attention to women (usually lumped in with representation of other marginalised groups) as now discriminating against men and the genres most associated with them.

I have been told in various ways that 'you have to be black or a female to get bought these days!'. This distorted perception is akin to the oft-cited studies of women on committees in which the men report 'they talked too much' and tapes show they hardly got a word in. Is it simply that women are getting some attention and this has become the myth of their dominance?

Interestingly another article on women, this time as war correspondents and television reporters, appeared in the Good Weekend in October, 1993. Phillip Knightley reported on how the women in the profession were expected to deal with the soft human-interest stories and yet at the same time were criticised for the way such stories distracted public attention from the real political issues and power plays. One of the women interviewed relayed that women reporters had to be good – but also good looking. She wondered how long 'an old bat like me would be allowed in front of a camera'. I noted that the illustrations in 'Game girls' were largely of attractive females.

Feminist Naomi Wolf, in her book The Beauty Myth (1990), has flagged the dangers of assuming that the mere presence of women means that we have reached the level playing field. Nor should a kind of unisex homogenisation be the goal for the future despite the fantasies of science fiction. Gender, race, even the medium of expression one chooses also represent cultures and traditions to be maintained and constantly re-articulated.

The position of photography as a valued cultural expression has travelled in tandem with the women's movement and with that whole raft of socio/cultural reforms of the counter culture since the seventies. Photography is said to have arrived, to no longer need affirmative action. Let's take our time on that one and digest what unique contributions this late arrival in the world of official art has made before we assume it has reached its plateau.

Is it ungrateful to feel we need to be wary of machos bearing gifts or to be suspicious of the language used in regard to the arrival and success of the formerly marginalised?

Game girls shoot back – the title was developed from a statement by Deborah Ely quoted in the body of the article: 'They're game girls, these younger women, their work is confident, gender inflected, they're more open about what photography can do'.

This affectionate reference suggests youthful pluckiness and an open-ended future for photography as a whole, but with the addition of 'shoot back' we are firmly lassoed to the familiar language of the shooter, the documentary picture hunter and the cut and thrust of photojournalism.

It is even more a matter of concern to find out that Ely never said the women photographers were 'game girls' at all! Several separate comments by Ely were joined together by McGregor who only read certain parts of the article back to her for correction.

The phrase Game Girls was used by me when describing work-in-progress by the Adelaide feminist group VNS Matrix.
I understood their piece was a reference to 'Game Boy' video games and I used this as an example of work with new technologies.6


#3 Bette Mifsud, detail Mute, 1990


I have the same sense of unease over the wording on the cover of The Independent Monthly of April, 1994, which was blazened with a red-nailed female hand making the 'V' for Victory sign. The article was titled 'Women on top', and a teaser for the feature article inside promised a look at 'where they're making it, where they're not, and why'.

The language could be a Cosmo cover line for an article on sex techniques – which indicates that such language is not restricted to men. The assumption behind the words is that one makes it by domination, by winning rather than simply enriching and changing a society. In feminist histories, the rise of the femocrats class occasioned angst as the new women became like the old men.

Whatever happened to the promise of feminism to modify the view from the top? With the focus of such celebrations, as appeared in the Good Weekend, remaining on the sex of the maker it is no wonder younger female artists like Tracey Moffatt protest at being treated primarily as specimens labelled Female and Aboriginal when they think their art might just have something to say outside their allotted gendered or ethnic space.7

The word games of the Good Weekend reminded me of another hidden agenda involving a review by the late Max Dupain of Re- Constructed Vision*, a Project show which I curated in 1981 for the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It was the first survey of contemporary photography outside of the naturalistic/documentary mode.

The makers of the photographs constructed their own visions rather than selecting moments for framing. The exhibition brought together staged and manipulated works by 'photographers', and works which showed the various uses made of the medium by performance and conceptual 'artists' such as Robert Owen and Mike Parr.

Presumably it was the sub-editor who picked up on the real thrust of the criticisms Dupain had to make of the new photography – as a kind of masturbation. The review was titled 'Exhibitors, stop it or you may go blind'. 8

Underlying this review (and affirmed by Dupain's careful counting of the equal numbers of female to male artists in the show) was a view that it was the women or an effeminacy in modern times which threatened to come forth like a pox and ruin true photography. In the same period McGregor also wrote an article for The National Times9 which expressed concerns about the directions of the new photography such as that exhibited in Re-Constructed Vision.

Christine Godden, then Director of the Australian Centre for Photography, and I had been interviewed for this article and I well recall the sting of seeing ourselves referred to as 'the young turks' (can we never get away from such aggressive terms?).
I recall also sensing the anxiety felt at the time at the threat art photography posed to documentary as the dominant and only form of endorsed practice.


#4 Lisa Tomasetti, Piacere, 1994


Is there an equation being made now, even if only by implication, that pure photography has been corrupted by its contact with art world effeminacy and also by the role which women have had as arts administrators and practitioners? Do we have the same kind of melancholy as is expressed in T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, (1917) in which he floated the line

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo

We know Eliot is impressed not by their erudition but by their ridiculousness in speaking the great artist's name. In his controversial book The Intellectuals and the Masses; Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia,1880-1939, (1992), John Carey, a Professor of English at Oxford University, locates such comments in a profound anti-feminist and anti-democratic position at the heart of modernism.

He provides evidence of this from the statements of literary heroes such as T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence and others (including Virginia Woolfe) which indicate their disgust with a society over which intellectual aristocrats had lost control as the arbiters of a classical taste. And as culprits? The middle classes, Jews, newspapers, popular culture and – women. Feminist art historians have also drawn attention to the misogyny underlying modernism. 10

The Good Weekend's claim that nowadays women are dominating exhibitions also needs some scrutiny. I would suspect that at best women have achieved an equal representation in collections and exhibitions and that, probably, only since the mid-1980s.

A survey in Photofile #41 (March 1994) of representation patterns in museum collections, 1984-1993, provides some harder evidence. Over the period women's representation has increased from about 10% – 20% initially to approximately 20% – 35% in recent years, but this should be seen in the context of generally increased representation of Australian photography per se.

Affirmative action policies ensure a balance rather than a dominance in contemporary collecting and exhibiting. If women are to be equally represented then perhaps acquisition and exhibition should be 60/40 in their favour? Given that women art school graduates are far more numerous in the first place there are many more competing for a 50% share. As with many other areas, proper surveys might well show that ten years after graduation females as a group are falling behind in obtaining senior status and positions. 11

In addition to querying the reality of claims of women's dominance there is a need to test assumptions about the specific contribution of photography to the arts and culture, and the role of gender and genres within the field. As a curator my perception is of immense vitality and rigour in women's work in the arts.

Consistently, since the seventies, women have been comfortable with 'making-over' genres to suit themselves and have worked with and through traditional notions of the beautiful, the decorative, the sensual and the domestic. Whether the most advanced explorations within the arts of taboo sexuality and the like, can be located in women's work alone is less than clear. Despite the uniqueness of Ella Dreyfuss proposing the beauty of the pregnant nude (featured in 'Game Girls'), the body, as such, has been explored by many artists male and female, hetero and homosexual.

#5 Marian Drew, 1993, Installation, Brisbane Institute of Art
The original was a C type photograph


Several recent scholarly publications will make the task of assessing the strength of women's achievements since the seventies easier: Anne Marsh's Body and Self: Performance Art in Australia 1969-1992, (1994) and Catriona Moore's Indecent Exposures; Twenty Years of Australian Feminist Photography as well as her Dissonance: An Anthology of Writing on Women and Art (both 1994). 12

Similarly the review of installation art scheduled for the Ivan Dougherty Gallery during 1994 may clarify a feminist history in this field and may consolidate the role which installation art and its use of photography has had in challenging a materialist art history. The journeys of women, photography and experimental genres over the past two decades have been parallel and interwoven.

That Australian culture has been irreversibly enriched over these two decades by the opening up of official culture on a number of fronts can be seen by looking at a publication of 1968, Life in Australia edited by Craig McGregor and photographer David Beal. Life in Australia was preceded by the enormously successful The Australians by visiting American National Geographic photographer Robert Goodman. The Australians sold some 75,000 copies between 1966 – 1967. 13

The imagery began and ended with blokes. The book evidently did for Australia what the Paul Hogan tourist promotions did a decade or so later in redefining Australia as a vigorous frontier. Life in Australia however was a more visually and intellectually ambitious project than was the American import. It included work by 29 photographers and 9 writers covering such areas as identity and sport. 14

The essays were frank and critical and give the publication the feel that it was an attempt to provide a literary book of essays in which visual language was equal to text.

The McGregor/Beal book aimed to recognise Australia as no longer a realm of homogeneous old Anzac blokes. But it is certainly difficult now, twenty years later, as an Australian woman, to recognise the society depicted in word and image in either book as one's own.


#6 Merilyn Fairskye, Invisible Painting, 1993 Installation Roslyn Oxley, Sydney, Installation photo by Sandy Edwards,
Collection National Gallery of Australia


#7 Merilyn Fairskye, Invisible Painting, 1993
Installation Roslyn Oxley, Sydney



The shock of Life in Australia is that no female voice was heard and of the photographers only two were female. Even the images seem to focus on 'action men' with fewer of the 'bikini babes' one expects of such publications in the Australia-at-a-glance tradition. In the chapter on the arts by Geoffrey Dutton women are non-existent except for a picture of an anonymous young ballerina and a mention of Norma Redpath.

McGregor teamed up with David Beal, and with David Moore and Harry Williamson in 1969 to produce In the Australian Art and Artists in the Making. Alas of some 62 artists only three women featured, Marea Gazzard, Judith Wright and Norma Redpath. Presumably the women artists, writers, or photographers, practising in the late sixties were considered to be just not significant enough to include.

I suspect the invisibility of women as thinkers and makers of culture applies equally to many other of the perspectives we now take for granted in a pluralist society.

It is a big journey we have all been on in a scant few decades. For Craig McGregor and his generation, the journey must have been extraordinary, and one wonders how problematic the women's issue remains. However, this coming to terms with women has involved openness, negotiation and intertextuality on the part of all Australians.

This article is not an exercise in droning on a litany of chauvinism but a vivid reminder of how the recent past can be a foreign country with strange practices. I have questioned the current silliness and potential regressiveness of certain emerging myths and metaphors of women's dominance and also of their exclusive ownership of the changes.

Gael Newton (1994)



  1. The committee were: photographers David Moore and Wesley Stacey; architect Peter Keys; graphic designer, Harry Williamson; and Craig McGregor (b.1933). McGregor has written essays, feature articles and 18 books on Australian society, politics and culture since the late 1960s. The books include Profile of Australia (1966), and Soundtrack for the Eighties: pop culture, Australia, suburbia, art and other essays (1983). His articles on photography include 'Click go the shutter boys'. National Times, 22—27 December, 1975, pp. 26-27. He has edited a number of photographically illustrated books (see n.14 below).
  2. In 1993 photographer, Lesley Goldacre curated Flowers, Herbs and Animal Breath for the Long Gallery, School of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong, an exhibition which surveyed the diversity of practice chiefly among 21 younger women artist photographers. Rather than trying to locate a specific feminist sensibility the exhibition was concerned with presenting a situation of multifarious activity and vitality.
  3. Jane Symonds of the Australian Picture Library in Sydney reports only a half dozen professional women in her files. HQ magazine actively provides showcases for women photographers. Signs of changing times can be seen also in the Photographer of the Year Awards given by ProTalk [KODAK (Australasia) Pty Ltd's professional newsletter] to Jacqui Henshaw and Anne Geddes in 1992 and 1993.
  4. Phillip Knightley, Good Weekend, October 16,1993.
  5. ibid.
  6. D. Ely, communication with the author, 14 April, 1994.
  7. See Gael Newton, 'See the woman with the red dress on...and on ...and on...'. Art and Asia Pacific, Summer, 1994, pp. 96—103. Also Eyeline #18, autumn, 1992, pp 6-8.
  8. Sydney Morning Herald, August 4,1981, p.8. Copy held in Max Dupain Reviews folio National Gallery of Australia Library. For the gender issues in Dupain's criticism see Helen Grace, 'Reviewing Dupain' Art Network, Autumn 1983, pp. 46—50.
  9. National Times, March 21—27, 1982, pp. 22—24. 'Whatever happened to the good old photojournalistic one-instant-of-significant-time tradition of the 'sixties, or the small black-and-white-precious-art-object-in an aluminium frame vogue of the 'seventies? Dead and buried, if you listen to some of the young turks who are behind, in front of, and upside down in the camera lens today. "I thought if I went to another gallery show of tiny black and white prints I'd be sick," says Gael Newton, Curator of Photography at the NSW Art Gallery.' P21.
  10. See Edwin Mullins, The Painted Witch: how western artists have viewed the sexuality of women, NY Carroll & Graf, 1985.
  11. Generally, art schools have failed to address issues in regard to post graduate outcomes and especially in regard to their predominantly female students.
  12. See also Moore's view of a museum curating bias against significant feminist work of the seventies in her article 'Museum Hygiene', Photofile #41, March, 1994, pp.8-14.
  13. The text was by George Johnstone. The sales figures come from the blurb on the jacket of the 1967 reprint, Rigby, Sydney.
  14. The book was published first by Southern Cross International, with a second edition in 1971 published by Golden Press/Lloyd O'Neil Pty Ltd. The writers were: Geoffrey Dutton (Culture), Harry Gordon (Sport), Douglas Lockwood (The Bush), Craig McGregor (Introduction: What does it mean to be Australian? and ch. 5, Pleasure), Ian Moffitt (The People), John Douglas Pringle (The Future), Gavin Souter (The Cities), Patrick Tennyson (Progress) and Richard Walsh (Young Australia). Of the photographers only Beverley Clifford, Pat Crowe and Jane Marston appear to be female. The women's whereabouts are unknown whereas the men's names are mostly well known and they are still active today. Life in Australia proved less successful than hoped and the authors recall dissatisfaction with the publishers for their remaindering practices.


Artist Page


Lesley Goldacre, 1988 from Rites of Passage



* Extra Links

Re-constructed Vision, Contemporary work with photography 25th July-23rd August, 1981

Australian Women Photographers: 1890-1950

Indecent Exposures: Twenty Years of Australian Feminist Photography   reviewed by Gael Newton

The Movement of Women, Art and Australia 1996


Notes on the photographs originally used in the eyeline article

The 1994 eyeline magazine published black & white images only. For this online version, where possible new versions of the photos have been copied from web sites in order to have better quality images. Where this was not possible, a scan of the image from the magazine has been used. Links have been provided to artist's web sites below to assist with further reseach on the artists.

Jay Younger

#1 Jay Younger gormandizer 1993 Installation from The Nature of Space, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane    Jay Younger - web site

Bette Mifsud

#2 Bette Mifsud, from Landmarks Watermarks, 1994, Black & White computer image from colour image, 30 X 40 ins
#3 Bette Mifsud, detail Mute, 1990 Black & White transparency, mounted on mirror, wooden frame. After Pierre Patel the Elder 96 X 69 cm Photo: Takaaki Uchida
Bette Mifsud installations - on her web site

Lisa Tomasetti

#4 Lisa Tomasetti, Piacere, 1994. Gelatin silver photograph. Courtesy the artist and Paul Greenaway Gallery Adelaide.    Lisa Tomasetti web site

Marian Drew

#5 Marian Drew, 1993, Installation, Brisbane Institute of Art. C Type colour photograph.    Marian Drew web site

Merilyn Fairskye

#6 Merilyn Fairskye, Invisible Painting, 1993 Installation Roslyn Oxley, Sydney, Installation photo by Sandy Edwards, Collection National Gallery of Australia
#7 Merilyn Fairskye, Invisible Painting, 1993 Installation Roslyn Oxley, Sydney
Works at Roslyn Oxley Gallery     Merilyn Fairskye web site

Lesley Goldacre

Artist Page: Lesley Goldacre, 1988 from Rites of Passage - this artwork was selected for the 'Artist Page' for this edition of eyeline.

eyeline publishing

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More essays and articles by Gael Newton AM



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