Introduction to Self-Portrait/Self-Image (1980)

Gael Newton  

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In my post institutional life as a consultant I am concerned to see the great bodies of seriously undervalued work by senior Australian photographic artists safely placed in public collections. This is very necessary as the weak private market for classic or vintage photography in Australia favours iconic images by a few really well known past photographers.

I went looking in my book shelves recently to find Micky Allan’s 1979 town and country ‘self portraits’ in Janine Burke’s 1980 Self-portrait Self Image show at the Victorian College of the Arts Gallery. The show toured six venues in Victoria and Hobart.

The NGA had bought the ‘country’ self portrait of Micky at Bendemeer in 2014 when we turned to expand the holdings of some of the artists first acquired in the 1970s and 80s. That exercise had reminded me of how artists are acquired at a peak time and then not purchased again for decades often due to sheer lack of curatorial time or opportunity.


Micky had moved away from photography after her move to Canberra in 2001 and was no longer on our radar in the photo department until her Canberra dealer Helen Maxwell, of Helen Maxwell Gallery, and art historian Jenny McFarlane nudged us along to the studio. Maxwell was formerly director of The Australian Girls Own Gallery (aGOG) Canberra from 1989 to 1998.

Going through an artist’s studio is always memorable and in this case the rich body of work by Allan whose career as photographer and painter has yet to be presented in a single retrospective.

The exhibition had been proposed and curated by Janine Burke then a lecturer at the Victorian College of the Art.

It was her sixth exhibition since her 1974 A Room of One's Own: Three Women Artists at Ewing Gallery, University of Melbourne–co-curated with Kiffy Rubbo and Lynne Cook.

That exhibition is regarded as the first feminist movement show in Australia. Burke has an impressive career as curator and writer and was also taking photographs.

The Self-portrait Self Image exhibition strikes me now as so much a part of the time. It crossed media and gender and broke the mould on what a self portrait and self image might encompass as the artist list shows.

The openness of the show and cross media work was very much the flavour of the early 80s expansion of photography to encompass what is now called photomedia.

The town and country self portraits are not self portraits in the sense of looking-in-the-mirror-artist-self portraiture but self made in the sense that the artist created the image by hand colouring applied to enlargements of the original snap shots taken by her friend, Queensland born poet Pam Brown.

The town portrait had been taken in Sydney and Bendemeer in northern NSW on a road trip the two took to Queensland in 1979.

Micky made a hand coloured portrait of Pam and pandanus and included an image of her figure holding the pandanus in the 1980 show in London.


October 2016/ updated 2020

Gael Newton AM lives in Canberra, Australia

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