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A History of the Australian Centre for Photography 1973-2013– Toby Meagher, Research Paper–June 2013; Masters in Art Administration at COFA
Chapter 2: Introductory history of Australian Photography in the 1970s
By the early 1970s, Australian photography had developed a strong modernist style through the works of Max Dupain, David Moore, Olive Cotton and others (Annear 2007). Simultaneously, a solid documentary tradition had also been established by photographers such as Wolfgang Sievers (Marsh 2010). Black and white photography was still seen as the legitimate aesthetic stream, whilst colour work held strong associations with advertising and the commercial world.
Documentary work at this time used the same hard edged, modernist, aesthetics employed by 'art' photographers but there were wider-reaching tensions within the medium, which grew from work that was still linked with the public - and commercial - spheres of industry, architecture and fashion. Anne Marsh argues that Dupain's much celebrated work, within these spheres, was given a lesser 'art' status, as a result of the growth of a new concept of the 'photographer as artist' (and the celebration of an internal or subjective vision)(Ennis 1988a). The same could be said of Siever's architectural and industrial pictures.
These photographers often exhibited in different venues and many found their works equally at home in magazines and art galleries. As a result of this duality, there became a growing need to better define the role of photographer as artist. Anne-Marie Willis argues that the context in which a photograph is shown, often determines its classification (Willis 1988).
Australian photographers at this time understood this contextualisation of images and there was a growing call for contexts that would better present photographs as 'art' and photographers as 'artists'. Given the direct correlation between the exhibition of photography and the contextualisation of photography as a medium, any understanding of the role of the ACP, is based in wider bodies of research about the role of exhibiting (and publishing) institutions. Many authors have invested significant time to this aspect (Falk & Dierking 2002, Weil 1990, Dean 1994) with some looking more specifically at photography (Warner Marien 2002, Phillips 1989).
In the 1970s, photographers in Australia highlighted a real need for venues that promoted photography alone and aimed to accord photography the same status as other works of art. Helen Ennis argues that it was during the 1970s that photographers first began to be seen as artists. She states that there was a deliberate effort to promote this perception and therefore distance themselves from the commercial practices that had dominated the previous decades. (Ennis 1988a).
The population density of Australia at the time, naturally led to the east coast cities providing the most suitable locations to satisfy this growing need for photography specific venues. In Melbourne, these included the Pentax Brummels Gallery of Photography (1972) and The Photographers' Gallery and Workshop (1974); and in Sydney, The Australian Centre for Photography (1973). Light Vision magazine (1977) and WOPOP: Working Papers on Photography (1978) were both founded in Melbourne, to encourage critical discussion of photography by this new generation of artists and critics1 (Ennis 1988b).
In 1974, John Szarkowski, then Curator of Photography, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York visited Australia, to deliver a series of key lectures at tertiary institutions. Aside from these speaking engagements, Szarkowski, as a major taste-maker, had been invited to consult the first Executive Committee of the ACP.
The initiative was made possible by a special grant from the Visual Arts Board as a part of their wider campaign to elevate the professional standing of different art forms (Howe 1974). Helen Ennis notes that there was a very strong American influence on photography in the 1970s and this is one of the more pivotal moments in that history (Ennis 1988a).
Research into the narrative of 'the legitimising of photography as a medium,' and the wider international art-historical and critical movements in photography are covered by leading authors in The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (Bolton, Crimps, Phillips et al. in Bolton (eds.) 1989)
Szarkowski's cultural agenda in 1974 sought to affirm art photography that was distinct from photojournalism, documentary, activist and conceptualist uses of the medium. In other words, Szarkowski's position was driven by a desire to see art photography separated from society, so as to clarify its place as high art (McCaughey 1974, Marsh 2010). Szarkowski's position fitted well with Australian photographers' desires to better contextualize their photographs. Much of the debate at this time was focused on the nature of photographic 'truths'.
American writer, Susan Sontag's influential book On Photography, 1977, also helped to place these issues on the critical agenda (Sontag 1977). The text was reviewed at the time, in both Light Vision and WOPOP, adding to the local debate (Ennis 1988b).
Pentax Brummels Gallery of Photography was established by Rennie Ellis;
The Photographers' Gallery and Workshop by Paul Cox, Rod McNicoll, Ingeborg Tyssen and John F. Williams;
Light Vision by Jean-Marc Le Pechoux; and WOPOP by Euan McGillivray and Matthew Nickson (Ennis 1988b, Marsh 2010)
Some authors, such as Anne Marsh, argue that Szarkowski's viewpoint was out of step with the direction of the wider arts in the 1970s. The neo-avant-garde forms of art were attempting to close the gap between life and art - not clearly defining them, as Szarkowski's photography endeavoured to do. Marsh points to the emerging postmodern position and the rise of conceptual and performance art in the 1960s, as clear signposts that Szarkowski's medium specific position was inherently conservative (Marsh 2010). Undoubtedly, this conservatism was due in some part to the wider 'provincialism problem' (Sayers 2001) but further discussion of this issue, lies beyond the scope of this research paper.
Establishing the conceptual roots of photography at this time gives a clearer picture of the ACP's position, as an exhibiting and publishing institution and highlights the conscious effort that was being made to establish photography as a medium. Inviting Szarkowski to Australia in 1974 may have been a conservative move, but it did enable the ACP to be founded on the proven art-history of photography, as institutionalised in North America.
The Australia Council for the Arts was established in 1968 but was given its most significant budget and portfolio increase by the Labor Government, under Gough Whitlam, in 1973. Whitlam notes that there was no shortage of official arts bodies, boards, councils and funds of various kinds, but these had developed in an ad hoc fashion and were often without expert membership or representation by artists themselves (Whitlam 1985).
On the advice of a paper compiled by Jean Battersby, the first chief executive officer of the Australia Council for the Arts, Whitlam implemented a new council to subsume the multiple existing bodies and provide a foundation for the future administration of arts in Australia (Gardiner-Garden 2009). The supportive policy and funding structures created and promoted under the Whitlam Government were central to the establishment and continuation of the ACP. A broader, comprehensive analysis of government fiscal and policy support of the Arts is discussed in: Culture in Australia: Policies, Publics and Programs (Bennett & Carter (eds.) 2001).
Research into the economic and social conditions of the 1970s is critical to an understanding of the origins of the ACP, against a backdrop of the art-historical and critical discussions of the role of photography as a medium. Specific analysis of the economic and social experience of Australian artists in the mid-1970s can be found in multiple journals from the period (Withers 1983, Snooks 1979,1983 & 1984). This research clearly defines the economic and social pressures (distinct from the artistic) that gave rise to this new generation of artist photographers and shaped their desire to create artist run spaces, catering solely to photography. The growth in funding and arts focused policies under Whitlam, ensured that government support in the 1970s both encouraged and nurtured private initiative.
By the late 1970s, with thanks to specialised venues like the ACP and the North-American art-historical narrative, photography appeared to have secured its place within the art world. Photographs were being exhibited in specialised venues and photography publications were emerging throughout the later part of the decade. By the early 1980s, all State galleries were involved in collecting and exhibiting photographs.
The NGV had been the first, establishing a photography department in 1972, with Jennie Boddington as the inaugural curator and Athol Smith on the advisory committee (Ennis 1988a). Gael Newton had begun to function as the Curator of photography at the AGNSW from 1974 and the Australian National Gallery (ANG) had established a curatorial department of photography in 1980 under Ian North.
The opening of the ANG, in 1982, saw the country's most substantial national and international collection of photography become accessible. Despite the acceptance of this new form of art, photography still found itself marginalised for much of the 1980s, due in most part, to a schism within the medium between 'artists using photography' and straight 'photographers' (Ennis 1988b). Australian Photography lacked a clear voice and direction. Max Dupain was a vocal exponent of 'straight photography' and in a 1981 review, he chastised the processes which 'destroyed the intrinsic qualities of the photograph.' Museum support, whilst present, was tentative as a result of these ongoing internal debates about the medium.
The Australian National Gallery was integrating photographs into its displays of Australian Art, but by the end of the 1980s it was the only art museum to consistently do so (Marsh 2010). The Biennale and Perspecta Exhibitions, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, also began to regularly include photographs by practitioners from both sides of the schism. In recent histories of Australian visual arts published throughout the 1980s, photography was very rarely included (Ennis 1988b).
It was clear that in these embryonic decades of the medium in Australia, photography was still infrequently able to attract the attention of those outside photography circles.
Chapter 3: The 1970s: Origins and Vision
The ACP opened on the 21st of November, 1974 as the first Government-funded national organisation for the promotion of photography throughout Australia. It was a Thursday evening, and the recently completed Paddington Street gallery was 'at its best lit time, about 6-o'clock in the evening, when the shadows were extraordinarily long, the light strong, clear and bright, as Australian light always is.'(Graham Howe, Appendix B-iii). However, the story of the ACP begins almost four years earlier, when the concept of a national program of photography was growing in the minds of many practitioners and was finally brought to life through the initiative of David Moore.
The initial conception of the ACP can be found in a letter dated the 23rd April, 1970, addressed from David Moore to Wesley Stacey, Grant Mudford and David Beal.
The letter opens
Maybe it's time some of us got together to think about photography collectively and try to counteract the sort of crap which looks like being reproduced in 'Camera in Australia'....'
(See Appendix B-i for full letter)
The 'possible points for discussion' that Moore attached to this first letter, are worth reproducing here as they surmise the Zeitgeist of that period. They are a summary of the experience of Australian photographers in 1970 and they speak to the collective mindset of the practitioner-based initiative, which saw the rise of the ACP and the photographic medium, more broadly:
- What is the state of photography in Australia?
- Is it understood?
- Is it appreciated?
- Is there a new 'seeing' amongst younger photographers?
- Is there a new 'seeing' of our people and our environment?
- Should photography be i. promoted? ii. championed? iii. collected?
- Is it an essential part of the country's development?
- Could it do more?
- Should it be regarded on a higher plane?
- Is it necessary to society as a vital human factor
- What should be done or, in fact, what can be done?
- Form a discussion group?
- Collect and mount an exhibition?
- Merely make a collection with no exhibition?
- Should we try to involve a gallery? State, National or private?
- Should we try to sell superb photography to the public?
- Or have it purchased by a gallery?
- Or give it to a gallery?
- Should we try to involve a national newspaper or magazine?
- Should the philosophy of photography and the meaning of seeing be explained or taught to designers, artists and architects?
- Is it possible to make a statement that will affect the thinking of art directors, publishers and government organizations?
After three years of planning (mainly be David Moore), a guiding committee was established, in September 1973.
The committee comprised of David Moore (photographer), Wesley Stacey (photographer), Peter Keyes (architect), Daniel Thomas (curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales), Laurence Le Guay (photographer) and Craig McGregor (a writer).
This guiding committee established the Centre as a non-profit, cultural organisation with aims to research, exhibit, publish, collect and generally encourage photography in Australia.
After brainstorming the idea for three years, they eventually procured funding from the Australia Council, under the name: The Australian Foundation of Photography. This successful application was granted initial funding of $25,000 per annum from the Visual Arts Board.
The guiding committee then entered legal discussions, in order to establish the Centre as a properly constituted legal body. These negotiations necessitated a change of name, from The Australian Foundation ofPhotography to The Australian Centre for Photography, in order to be successfully accepted for registration by the Commissioner for Corporate Affairs.
In December, 1973 an information sheet on the ACP was printed and 500 copies were distributed to photographers from across Australia. The pamphlet invited photographers to submit work prints for selection in an exhibition titled, 'Why This Moment?' Response to the call out was strong but the exhibition was eventually deemed unworkable and abandoned.
Graham Howe was appointed as the inaugural Director in January, 1974 and re-directed this initial concept into nine months of nationwide research, that ultimately formed the basis of the ACP's first publication; New Photography Australia, in late 1974.
This publication presented a selective survey (primarily chosen by Howe) of 49 currently practicing photographers from around Australia. The inaugural exhibition compiled the works of'six outstanding photographers'; Ian Dodd, Ken Middleton, Grant Mudford, Max Pam, Phillip Quirk and John Walsh. The ACP's second publication, Aspects of Australian Photography (1974), was published alongside this exhibition and contained all the pictures from the show.
Michael Standley was appointed architect for the Centre's headquarters, at 76a Paddington Street, in January 1974 and commenced work on collaborating with the Committee to detail the design and administer the renovation work before the September opening.
The Executive Committee also considered the problem of hanging framed photographs in the new gallery space. David Moore designed a system of wall-mounted magnets that were used to create a modular hanging system that replaced the more traditional wall plugs or hanging wires.
This decision is worth noting, as it necessitated the use of standardised aluminium framing, that came to define ACP exhibitions and is now more widely seen as part of the vernacular of Australian photography from the 1970s. Florescent tubing lit the original exhibition space and the colour scheme was largely brown throughout, with brown-flecked haircord carpet, whilst the exterior of the building was painted 'a rich chocolate-brown colour' (Howe 1974, see Appendices B-iii to B-xi).
In May 1974, the ACP organised to bring John Szarkowski to Australia for a 22-day nation-wide lecture tour and as a consultant, at this formative stage, to the ACP. Szarkowski was the then Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and a world leading authority on the progression of the medium. His tour included six public lectures and four discussion groups in Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Hobart, Perth and Adelaide. The purpose of the tour was to 'liberate photography from the world of technique and commerce and to suggest that it could also be of absorbing artistic and intellectual interest' (Howe in Art& Australia, 1974). The decision to bring Szarkowski to Australia marked a clear move from the ACP to adopt the North American art historical narrative, in order to bring legitimacy to local photographic practice. The move was intended to make a splash, and it put many of the issues raised by Moore in his 1970 letter on the national agenda with multiple articles appearing, in The Sun (Melbourne), The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) and The Australian (See Appendices B-xii to B-xx).
This American influence continued in the exhibition program of the ACP throughout the 1970s. Notable solo shows included Ed Douglas (1975) and Diane Arbus (1976 & 77).
Szarkowski returned to Australia in 1977 to introduce a Lee Friedlander exhibition and the Bent Photography show, also in 1977, was shown in March and again in December by popular demand. Many of the exhibitions of American photographers hosted by the ACP were packaged by MoMA and reinforced the strong influence of North American photography.
This mirrored the close cultural links with MoMA in elite art circles at the time - Anne Lewis, Sandra McGrath and Penelope Seidler were all on MoMA's International Council and MoMA exhibitions in other fields, also toured the country from 1966. This American impact had a lasting effect on photography and photographers of the 1970s and the ACP's decision to push this agenda is, arguably, one of the most important moves of its history.
From 1973, the primary funding for the Centre was drawn from the VAB (Visual Arts Board) of the Australia Council, with supplementary funds arising from sales, minor donations and membership. In 1976, additional support was granted from the N.S.W Division of Cultural Activities.
With this additional funding came the expansion of the workshop program. By 1978, over 950 people had taken part in courses offered by the workshop, under the tutelage of 30 professional photographers. The classes were primarily 11-week courses that consisted of practical demonstrations of camera use, film developing (The Centre had two fully equipped dark-rooms), lectures, discussion groups and criticism of students' work. It is noted that several former students continued into full-time photography courses at Sydney College of the Arts.
Aside from the educational aims, the ACP had mounted over 50 exhibitions, representing over 200 photographers, from 1974-80. The ACP also pursued touring opportunities, with ACP exhibitions being shown outside the gallery on over 70 occasions in this period. Throughout the 1970s, visitation was averaging over 25,000 a year with the Centre receiving significant coverage in the national media (see Appendices B-xii to B-xvi).
Several key contemporary Australian photographers were represented in ACP exhibitions throughout the 1970s. These included; Wes Stacey (1975), John Rhodes (1976), Ian Dodd (1977), Athol Shmith and Paul Cox (1977), Laurence Le Guay (1978) and Carol Jerrems (1978). The Centre also held major retrospectives and historical shows. In 1975, it featured Max Dupain (1930-1975 Retrospective), and in 1976, David Moore (1940-1976 Retrospective). Shows on Henry King (1855-1923) and Dr. Charles Gabriel (1858-1927) were both held in 1975 and Henri Mallard's photographs of the Sydney Harbour Bridge being built, were exhibited in 1976.
The appearance of historical shows in the early days of the ACP shows a clear attempt to establish the medium, by legitimising a history of Australian photographers, as artists, through exhibition and publication. The limited role of State and National institutions, in the exhibition of photography at this time, heightened the need for historical shows and retrospectives.
As the decade drew to a close, there was a shift away from historical shows in the ACP records. This change correlates directly with the rising profile of photography in wider public opinion and in the growing collection and exhibition of photography by State and National institutions. The focus on the representation of Australian photographers continued to grow during this period and through to 1980 the Centre was holding 10-12 exhibitions per year, representing an average of 20-25 Australian photographers annually.
Bronwyn Thomas' had directed the Centre through these early years from 1975. At the conclusion of her tenure, Laurence Le Guay was then appointed as acting Director for a brief period between October, 1977 and February, 1978.
Christine Godden was then appointed as Director in February, 1978. Up until this time, there was a strict focus on photography as a pure medium. This was due, for the
most part, as a direct outcome of the strong American influence following the Szarkowski visits in 1974 and 1977, but was also symptomatic of the general move, towards establishing photography as a legitimate and definable medium. Godden's leadership would take the ACP into the 1980s with a broader interpretation of the medium, which was responding to both the rapid growth in new media works and the diversification of photo-media practice.
One of the more interesting and original opportunities pursued by the ACP in 1978 was the CSR Pyrmont Sugar Refinery Project (to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the site). The ACP oversaw a commission from CSR for six Australian photographers, to produce work which responded to the CSR site at Pyrmont. The photographers were Jon Rhodes, Mark Johnson, Lewis Morley, Sandra Edwards, Graham McCarter and Micky Allan. No restrictions were made by CSR and each photographer was given permission to freely photograph the site and the workers. The resulting works were exhibited and published and the success of the initial project saw it continue into the 1980s.
The CSR Project is important for two reasons. Firstly, it allowed the earlier industrial and commercial photographic language of Wolfgang Sievers and the other modernists, to be continued by contemporary photographers, in a decidedly 'artistic' context. Christine Godden highlighted this in the preface to the exhibition - that the show focused on the 'personal statement of interpretation' from each artist and should be 'appreciated in an art context' (Godden 1978). This exhibition marked a clear shift of focus for commission-based work - away from the commercial imperative towards an artistic one. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the CSR project set a strong example for private sector support of the visual arts (and artists) in Australia. It was a portent of the future.
The establishing decade of the ACP did not pass by without controversy. At the Annual General Meeting of 1978, concerns were raised about the narrow range of photographic activities pursued by the Centre. The AGM was only attended by 14 members, four of whom were staff. The meeting sparked a highly critical piece; 'A Constitution Lost', written by Anne-Marie Willis, which appeared in the May 11-17 edition of Nation Review and the first edition of (Working Paper on Photography) (See Appendix B-xxi].
The article quoted ACP member, Wayne Hooper and former committee member, John Williams as others dissatisfied with the ACP. It raised concerns about the Centre's lack of spending outside the Sydney region, questioned how the Centre was fostering research, raised complaints about the cost of membership and disputed the collection policy. Willis' major concerns were that the exhibition program, and the 'world class' venue, were being pursued at the expense of a focus on establishing a national role for the ACP. The article also explored points within the constitution which impeded the ability of members (particularly those from interstate] to participate actively in the ACP.
The rift was felt throughout the Australian photography fraternity, as photography at the time was almost certainly too small to be able to weather such public comment without backlash. The ACP's 1979 AGM documents a significant response from the ACP, not to Willis, but to its members. The response dealt with the concerns raised in the Willis article concerning the constitutional limitations of members and instigated multiple changes to remedy the points of contention.
The ongoing concern about the ACP's failure to fulfill a national role continued into the 1980s (Ennis, 1998b]. There were other cases of negative press throughout the 1970s, usually questioning the general appropriateness of government spending on the arts and calling for more tangible results for the VAB investment (which had risen to $39,000 by the end of the decade]. For the most part, the overwhelming majority of public opinion surrounding the Centre was positive (see Appendix B-xxiv] and the general consensus was that the ACP was having a constructive impact on photography in Australia. By 1980, membership had swelled to 104 (from 60 just two years earlier], with 25 active tutors and over 650 students.
By the late 1970s, the Philip Morris Collection had become a significant supporter of the ACP and Australian photography. The Collection was established in 1973, in support and development of'newer arts and artists' (Hurley 1980]. The initiative had close links with the National Gallery and was part of a wider campaign of soft sponsorship by Tobacco in advance of moves to
ban cigarette advertising.
In 1976, the Philip Morris Australia began a collection of contemporary Australian photography, much of which was purchased through the ACP. By 1979, the collection was purchasing almost half of the total sales of the ACP. This represented a significant proportion of the $14,000 in print sales that the Centre was amassing annually. Aside from the Philip Morris Collection, the Centre was also making significant sales to both the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Australian National Gallery - as good a validation as any, for the Centre and the artists it represented.
The ACP originated from a practitioner based initiative that yearned for photography to be seen as a legitimate medium, worthy of critical discussion, exhibition and publication. The ACP was founded to pursue a wider reach for photography.
In the 1970s the ACP was able to make significant headway for photography - both in terms of legitimising the medium and broadening its appeal. This was achieved through the active propagation of the growing North-American art-historical narrative and the establishment of a permanent exhibition space, community workshop, library and publishing agenda. The exhibition schedule allowed for strong representation of Australian photographers and funding support from the Visual Arts Board ensured the continuity of such a program. Despite some growing pains and difficulties, by 1980, the ACP was well on its way to achieving many of the 'points of discussion' raised by Moore a decade earlier.
As for those goals not yet achieved, the ACP had made significant headway towards placing them on the national agenda.
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Intro & Chapter 1 / Chapters 2 & 3 / Chapters 4 & 5 / Chapters 6 & 7 / bibliography / Appendices