Australian Photography in the 1980s: Connoisseurs of the Code

‘Martyn Jolly: Commentary’, Anne Marsh, Look: Contemporary Australian Photography since 1980, Macmillan Art Publishing, Melbourne, ISBN 978-1-92-1394-10-2, p385.

I remember the graffiti that appeared on a wall in my first year of art school, it read: ‘Postmodern Cadets’. Postmodernism was the one word that described the decade. At art school I read Roland Barthes’ semiotic deconstructions of the photographic message, first published in English in 1977. Other touchstone events were WOPOP’s Australian Photography Conference held in Melbourne in 1980, the first issue of Art & Text in 1981, and Sydney University’s Futur Fall conference in 1984, at which Jean Baudrillard spoke. I loved (and still love) the traditions of photography — the fine print, the grabbed street shot — but the 1980s was the decade that made all those traditions problematic — another favourite 1980s word. Photography was no longer the product of its own discrete history but was now in dialogue with painting, performance, video and film. It was no longer just an art form but was now an integral part of the cultural discourse around the powers of the mass media, the desires and disciplines of the body, and the telling of history. From being relegated to the sidelines, the photograph suddenly found itself at the very centre of attention as the model for what was happening to reality itself — which was said to be becoming thin, brittle and increasingly defined by the exchange of signs. For photographers, the decade was marked by a schizoid relationship to the photograph — both suspicion and seduction. This tension produced an amazing variety of work, from the grimly declamatory to the extravagantly coloured. As photographs grew in size, ambition and self-importance, we all became connoisseurs of the code, sharing amongst ourselves our knowledge of visual styles, genres, modes, subtexts and connotations with a kind of guilty delectation.

Martyn Jolly

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