The Photograph and Australia

David Moore, Australia 1927–2003 / Migrants arriving in Sydney 1966 / Silver gelatin photograph / Gift of the artist 1997 / Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales / © Lisa, Karen, Michael and Matthew Moore

‘The Photograph and Australia’, touring to QAGOMA from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is a comprehensive exploration of how our understanding of Australia has been shaped by the medium of photography. Drawing on her extensive knowledge, exhibition curator Judy Annear tells a story of the social and political power of photography in an Australian context, with a particular focus on the representation of people and country.

The exhibition opens at the Queensland Art Gallery this weekend. Tickets are on sale now. Adults $12, Concession $10 and Members $9. Bookings fees apply to all tickets booked in advance. Across the opening weekend of the exhibition, the Gallery will host a rich program of events, including an exhibition introduction and tour with Judy Annear, Senior Curator, Photographs, AGNSW, and Michael Hawker, and talks with exhibiting artists Patrick Pound and Rowan McNaught. Sunday 5 July sees the first in a series of monthly ‘Beyond the Lens’ floor talks with Michael Aird, ‘The Photograph and Australia’ publication contributor and freelance curator, researcher and writer.

The development of photography in the 1840s parallels the growth of the colonies and settler relations with Indigenous Australians. In ‘The Photograph and Australia’, Judy Annear, Senior Curator, Photographs, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, charts photography from its nineteenth-century wellspring through to the present day, depicting the radically diverse artistic and documentary approaches to photographic practice, what they say and what they help to define regarding Australia and its inhabitants. By doing so, Annear assembles a powerful amalgam of historical and contemporary photographic images prompting questions about how photography has fundamentally shaped our perceptions of national identity, of the world at large, and of each other.

What the exhibition so effectively captures is the phenomenal reach of photography: as historical and contemporary record; tool of mass communication; and esoteric, highly individualised art form. Annear has said that ‘there is nothing else quite like it, except perhaps the word, in terms of flexibility, visibility and ubiquity’.1 It is impressive that this encyclopaedic collection of images — potentially overwhelming in the context of a display — is so sympathetically presented to reveal photography’s aesthetic and technical evolutions.

‘The Photograph and Australia’ is assembled thematically rather than chronologically. Photographic groupings highlight different dynamics: the dialogue between photographer and subject; the construction of place; depictions of family and personal relationships; and the collection, classifying and distribution of images. We see also the dynamic between the amateur and the professional studio photographer. These juxtapositions ask us to reassess social and cultural constructs of people, place and identity.

Richard Daintree. England/Australia 1832–78 / Midday camp 1864–70 / Photograph overpainted with oils / Collection: Queensland Museum, Brisbane

Nineteenth-century photography was largely about recording what was encountered — the people and the landscape — as seen in the Queensland photographs of Richard Daintree. The early twentieth century witnessed greater artistic interpretation of the medium. Harold Cazneaux was one of the talented photographers who rose out of this movement, developing a unique style that foreshadowed the next wave of photographers, such as Max Dupain with his depiction of a rapidly changing Australia. This change was at its most confrontational point during the protest movements of the 1960s and 70s, with the emergence of the youth-orientated counterculture, the women’s movement and indigenous land rights. This period encouraged a new type of photographer, one who used the medium as a means of personal and artistic expression as well as a potent tool for recording relationships, and the concept of our time and place in the world. A powerful example of this is the diaristic and durational photography of Sue Ford. Photography as a practice underwent scholarly and curatorial re-evaluation in the 1970s and began to be collected seriously by public galleries. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, dynamic photographic practices, often studio-based, emerged and were informed by the theoretical discourses of postmodernism and feminism, in particular, and related the history of visual art to the various traditions of photography. Diverse new works challenged the way we looked at subject and medium, and proposed new social and artistic contexts for visual expression that continue to the present day.

Harold Cazneaux, Australia 1878–1953 / Spirit of endurance 1937 / Silver gelatin photograph / Gift of the Cazneaux family 1975 / Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales

The Photograph and Australia’ is accompanied by an impressive publication, which acts as a comprehensive exploration of the subject. Nothing of this scope has been produced since Gael Newton’s Shades of Light (National Gallery of Australia, 1988). Essays by scholars of photography accompany this lavishly illustrated publication, cementing its importance not just for experts but for all lovers of photographic image.

An Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition