Australian Centre for Photography, Encyclopedia Entry, 2001

The Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

The Australian Centre for Photography (ACP) is a publicly funded gallery curating exhibitions of Australian and international photography, combined with a workshop offering courses to the public and access to photographic facilities. It also publishes the magazine Photofile.

The ACP opened in 1974 and it was very much a child of its time. Interest in photography as a creative art was booming in Australia in the early 1970s. Art museums were establishing departments to collect and exhibit international and Australian photography, art schools were establishing photography departments to turn out graduates in what was then regarded as the hottest new medium to be in to, entrepreneurial individuals were opening (mostly short lived) private photography galleries, and magazine and book publishers were experimenting with (mostly short lived) publications devoted to the new art form. The boom took off first in Melbourne, but spread to other capital cities. Australia was undergoing a general cultural and social renaissance during this period because in 1972 a progressive federal government had been elected which greatly increased arts funding.

In this climate a small group, led by the important Australian documentary photographer David Moore, successfully applied to the government for funds to set up a ‘Foundation’ for photography. Their initial plans were wildly grand: they  conceived of it having a populist, social role (somewhat akin to Edward Steichen gathering to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the millions of photographs from which he selected the Family of Man exhibition) as well as a professional role in supporting individual photographers — from giving them direct grants and commissions to collecting their work. But within a year or two of its opening it had settled into a mode of exhibiting curated shows of photography to an art audience on a gallery/museum model, occasionally touring exhibitions, and offering facilities and courses to the general public in a Workshop which was established in 1976.

The ACP has always suffered an uneasy relationship with its shifting and fractious constituency. In its formative years it was resented by some for draining scarce funds away from the other artist-run photography spaces, quasi-commercial photography galleries, and small photography magazines that were springing up and struggling to survive right across Australia. A single institution, located in the heart of Australia’s largest and wealthiest city, was always going to be subject to accusations of elitism and being out of touch with ‘real’ photography — whatever that was, since the term covered a constantly changing and expanding range of practices.

The ACP came into its own under the aegis of American museum based formalism. In its formative years the ACP imported exhibitions by American masters, such as Diane Arbus; and American masters themselves, such as the then Director of the Photography Department of the Museum of Modern Art New York, John Szarkowski, in 1974, and the photographer Lee Friedlander in 1977.  However the ACP also began to exhibit and support the first generation of Australian art school graduates, for instance Carol Jerrems, Bill Henson and Max Pam. It also began to bring important aspects of Australia’s photographic heritage to light, for instance by giving Australia’s most important photographer, Max Dupain, his first retrospective in 1977. Olive Cotton, now one of Australia’s most loved photographers, was virtually unknown when she held her first retrospective at the ACP in 1984.

Between 1978 and 1982 its director, the US trained Christine Godden, established a new level of museum professionalism in the gallery, and succeeded in moving the ACP to its present location in a busy and fashionable shopping precinct. But during this period the ACP was criticised for institutionally perpetuating an increasingly marginalised formalist photo ghetto, when camera images were exponentially increasing in quantity, proliferating in format, becoming the central theoretical object of postmodern theories of representation, and forming the lingua franca of contemporary art in general.

From 1982, with Tamara Winikoff as director, the ACP deliberately tried to broaden and connect itself to a wider variety of communities. In 1983 it began to publish Photofile, which contained reviews and longer historical, critical and theoretical articles.  The gallery program now often featured community based and issue oriented exhibitions exemplified by the ‘suitcase shows’ it toured, which were inspired by the radical socially aware practices of British photographers like Jo Spence.

Photofile was particularly exciting in the mid 1980s, with the critic Geoffrey Batchen as editor, because by then a whole range of sophisticated discourses had taken the photograph as their principal subject, and a new generation of theoretically savvy art school graduates placed the photographic image — if not the idea of photography as an autonomous, historicised, fine art medium — at centre stage in Australian art.

During the 1990s, with Denise Robinson as director, this new wave of art school graduates, such as Tracey Moffatt, Anne Zahalka or Robin Stacey, were all featured in the gallery, which also became an important Sydney Biennale and Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardis Gras venue. At the same time, however, the Workshop was languishing, Photofile was disappearing under a miasma of thick prose and arch imagery, and the ACP was falling into debt.

Much of the tenure of the next director Deborah Ely, appointed in 1992, was involved with successfully negotiating the re-financing and extension of the ACP’s building, as well as upgrading and updating the Workshop and revitalising Photofile. The gallery, although closed for refurbishment for long periods, continued the trend of exhibiting work in photographically related, particularly digital, media.

The current director, Alasdair Foster faces an entirely different climate from the one into which the ACP was born. Photography is no longer a young medium impatiently knocking on the doors of art. As an art practice its edges have long since dissolved into digital media, film, performance and installation. It is now a pervasive cultural and psychological phenomena. The ACP is no longer the sole ‘foundation’ for photography in Australia, it is now just a small part of a vibrant and well established matrix of museums, libraries, galleries, magazines, and art schools right across the continent.

Martyn Jolly

Further Reading

Ely, Deborah, “The Australian Centre for Photography”, in The History of Photography (Australia issue), 23, no. 2, (1999)

French, Blair, editor, Photo Files,  Sydney: The Australian Centre for Photography and Power Publications, 1999

Newton, Gael, Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1988

Willis, Anne-Marie, Picturing Australia: A History of Photography, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1988

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