The Photograph and Australia

April 4, 2015
Unknown, Australian scenery, Middle Harbour, Port Jackson, c. 1865
Unknown, Australian scenery, Middle Harbour, Port Jackson, c. 1865

Some exhibitions should come with a ‘Buyer Beware’ warning. Many will go along to The Photograph and Australia at the Art Gallery of NSW expecting to see a comprehensive historical survey of Australian photography. The AGNSW has encouraged such expectations by using well-known images by David Moore and Olive Cotton in its publicity material.

In reality these photos are among a handful of famous pictures in a monumental collection of minor works by mainly 19th century practitioners. With more than 400 items by 120 photographers this must be the largest show ever mounted at an Australian art museum, but the statistics are swelled by numerous, small cartes de visite made by Daguerreotype and other archaic processes.

This show could more accurately be called: The Daguerreotype in Australia, or – given the overwhelming number of images by Aboriginal people – The Great Indigenous Picture Show.

I had an inkling of this when I perused a PDF of the catalogue, in order to write a preview for last week’s advertorial wraparound. It was puzzling to find so few classic images and to note the absence of many important photographers. I imagined the show would somehow look different to the catalogue, but the works on the wall echo those in the publication.

The leading idea behind this exhibition is “How photography made Australia”, but the making is mostly confined to the colonial period. Curator, Judy Annear, has put together a relatively interesting book on the early history of photography in Australia that does not translate into a successful exhibition. For while it may be diverting to browse through a mass of small Daguerreotype portraits in a catalogue, it’s maddening to look at them clustered into glass cases in a darkened room. All viewers should be supplied with a flashlight and a magnifying glass.

A curator is not an archivist – he or she must make an intelligent selection of works and give some thought to the spectacle that is being constructed. Annear has become so involved with her own research she has failed to put herself in the shoes of a member of the public expecting to see great and memorable photos. One cannot disregard the idea of an exhibition as a spectacle and expect to reach a mass audience.

This survey will appeal to specialists and alienate everyone else. The decision to organise the show thematically rather than chronologically sets up its own special confusions. Even the catalogue is awkwardly planned, as Geoff Batchen’s Postscript would make an ideal introduction. For a more coherent narrative one should seek out a second-hand copy of the catalogue of the National Gallery of Australia’s 1988 survey, Shades of Light.

A problem with the thematic format is that the five sections: Time, Nation, People, Place, Transmission, are riddled with crossovers. Many of the pictures included in one section could easily be transferred to another. Even Annear’s catalogue essays, which demonstrate an impressive amount of research, tend to return to the same themes. The carte de visite, for instance, is almost an obsession.

There are two simple observations to be made about this selection. Firstly, the human face is intrinsically interesting, whether we are looking at a tiny portrait from the 1850s or an image on Facebook. Secondly, we tend to invest older images with greater significance, as a valuable window onto the past.

We should still be able to admit that banal, formulaic images have been made at all times and in all places. In an exhibition the fascination of the face soon palls when we are confronted with hundreds of similar pictures. Was there any need to include three antique photos of ferns in a single room? Did we require old aerial shots of both Adelaide and Ballarat? Were we hanging out for dozens of nondescript colonial-era photos of buildings? Such needless repetitions tend to obscure the key works. It seems that Annear’s guiding principle was: “Why tell the story with one or two pieces, when 20 will suffice?”

In order to include such an avalanche of unremarkable pictures, many famous names in Australian photography, and dozens of iconic images, have been omitted. It is almost unbelievable that one can do an exhibition about the history of photography in this country with only three images by Max Dupain, two each by Olive Cotton, David Moore and Axel Poignant. Other notables have missed out altogether. There are 47 self-portraits of variable quality by Sue Ford, but that maestro of Australiana, Jeff Carter, is represented by a book cover. It’s bizarre that a show with a special focus on landscape has photos by Rosemary Laing and Simryn Gill, but nothing by Richard Woldendorp or Bill Henson.

As a general rule I try to review the show as selected, not the show that could have been selected, but in this instance the omissions are too glaring to be ignored.

Where is Harold Cazneaux’s The Wheel of Youth (1929)? Wolfgang Sievers’s industrial photos? Jon Lewis’s pictures of Bondi Beach? Pictorialism might never have existed.

In a show that purports to be about the construction of Australian identity, why leave out David Moore’s classic image of Harold Holt bowing to President Johnson? Or Laurence Le Quay’s ? Why include Frank Hurley’s images of Antarctica but ignore his World War 1 composites?

Considering this is the centenary of the Anzac landing it is staggering that the only World War 1 images come from an album of deadpan views of former battlefields by historian, C.E.W. Bean. In both the catalogue and the wall labels WW1 is acknowledged as a turning point in Australia’s sense of identity but there is no imagery from that conflict. Neither does the Second World War or Vietnam fare much better.

Even if the curator has a distaste for war, or considers there will be enough WW1 photos on show elsewhere this year, the absence of such pictures leaves a big hole in a so-called ‘historical’ survey. On the other hand, the over-emphasis on Aboriginal themes turns a crucial topic into an ideological juggernaut that pushes other aspects of Australian photography out of the frame.

Even when a photographer is well represented, the choice of images may be problematic. There are brilliant pictures by Charles Bayliss, for instance, but too many ordinary ones have made it into this selection. The same goes for Cazneaux. His photo of a gnarled gum tree, Spirit of Endurance (1937), is one of the most celebrated pictures taken in this country, dripping with popular mythology. In this display it is included with three other Flinders Ranges photos with no label to point out its significance. It becomes just another photo of a tree.

Harold Cazneaux, 'Spirit of Endurance', (1937)

Harold Cazneaux, ‘Spirit of Endurance’, (1937)

Should it be objected that I’m venturing a populist view of a highly intellectual project there are parts of this show that might make any art historian bristle. A wall label for a section called Critique explains: “By the early 1900s, strength, athleticism, and a love of the outdoors had come to publicly define Australian life.” We learn that “the narrowness of these myths”, supposedly perpetuated by Cazneaux, Cotton, Dupain and Keast Burke, was “powerfully critiqued in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s” by David Moore, Merv Bishop, Carol Jerrems and Michael Riley.”

This is nonsense that exposes the entire show to ridicule. It yokes together photographers over decades in the most arbitrary way, turning them into goodies and baddies. It is a caricature of the issues surrounding Australian identity dramatised by World War 1. A student essay that posited David Moore’s images as a “critique” of Max Dupain or Olive Cotton would be failed.

The Photograph and Australia is the greatest wasted opportunity since the wretched Royal Academy show of Australian art in 2013. Theory and ideology has created an “historical” show whose version of history doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The exaggerated inclusiveness of the early selections, and an apparent desire to avoid well-known images has produced an ocean of ordinariness in which the highlights disappear beneath the waves.

Charles Bayliss, Group of local Aboriginal people, Chowilla Station, Lower Murray River, South Australia (1886)

Charles Bayliss, Group of local Aboriginal people, Chowilla Station, Lower Murray River, South Australia (1886)

There are some wonderful photographs in this exhibition such as Fred Kruger’s pictures of the Aboriginal settlement at Coranderrk; the immaculate tableau vivant of Bayliss’ Group of local Aboriginal people, Chowilla Station’ (1886), and other indigenous images by J.W. Lindt, Conrad Wagner and John Hunter Kerr. There is almost nothing better than an anonymous photo of Australian scenery, Middle Harbour, Port Jackson (c. 1865) – a miraculous compositions that turns a piece of scrub into a scene from a fairy tale.

Don’t expect the non-indigenous images in this show to be nearly so good, and don’t go along anticipating a blockbuster. Visitors must abandon any idea of a sweeping survey and get ready for a show detailing the origins of photography in Australia.

The Photograph and Australia
Art Gallery of NSW, until 8 June.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 4th April, 2015