What has the Australian Centre for Photography ever done for me?

‘What has the Australian Centre for Photography ever done for me?’, Art Monthly, September, 1999

This year is the Australian Centre for Photography’s twenty fifth birthday as an exhibiting gallery. It was a child of the ‘photography boom’ of the 1970s, but since then the ACP has not only been a major player in the appropriational use of photography 1980s, but it has also successfully accommodated the dispersal of media categories in the 1990s to now be in a stable financial position, secure in its own building, and with a new director with an international reputation.

But nonetheless, throughout its history, there has always seemed to have been something wrong with the ACP. And there’s always been somebody willing to point it out. Its problems were right there in its name. How could a gallery and workshop in Sydney’s Paddington  service the needs of photographers Australia wide? And what exactly did it mean by ‘photography’ anyway? Who were the photographers the ACP was set up to enfranchise? And through what means could a ‘Centre’ constitute them as a community in Australia’s limited funding environment and against a rapidly changing technological and cultural landscape? Any photographer anywhere in Australia could legitimately ask ‘what has the ACP done for me?’, and not get much of an answer.

The ACP has always suffered an uneasy, mutually suspicious relationship with its shifting and fractious constituency. It has never wholly escaped the manner of its birth: in 1973 it had been established as a ‘Foundation’ for photography, by decree of the Australia Council, after the successful lobbying of a small group of well connected men.  Since then it has seemed to be always already there, burdened by an accumulation of prior ambitions and allegiances, and perpetually  trying to reinvent its role for a mutating constituency.

But the fact that there was always something wrong with the ACP is what makes its history so fascinating. The ACP has never, in fact, been central to Australian photography. It was always one, albeit better funded and more stable, player amongst the many artist run spaces, quasi-commercial galleries, dealer galleries, small magazines, art school departments and art museum departments which all sprang up in response to the new interest in photography in Australia. By and large the ACP worked cooperatively and supportively with all these other players. But throughout it all it also managed to hang on to the lion’s share of public funding for photography, so that the quarter-century saga of the its internal coup d’états,  public self-flagellations, and internecine snipings are the only thread which runs consistently through recent Australian photography.

The ACP came into its own under the aegis of American museum based formalism. The grandly wild ambition of its founding fathers had conceived of it having an inclusive, populist, social role (somewhat akin to Edward Steichen’s papal role in gathering to the Museum of Modern Art the millions of photographs from which he selected the Family of Man exhibition), as well as an extensive 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 art photography to an art audience on a hybrid gallery/museum model — a model which persists to this day.

The personalities of its various directors have always defined the ambience of the ACP. During the tenure of some directors it seemed as though the place had a distinct chill that came from more than just its air conditioning. However directorial style and personality were also a lightning rod for various external disgruntlements. However it must be said that no director lacked vision or courage, and under each the ACP either expanded or consolidated itself as an institution. Nor did any director preside over an entirely homogenous exhibition program. Looking back over the ACP’s archival scrapbooks it is clear that although there were distinct directorial agendas, each director also attempted to answer the demands of the ACP’s rumbustious constituency — they programmed plenty of exceptions to my generalisations below. Nonetheless the succession of ACP directors is a convenient way of periodising the ACP’s style and direction.

In the formative years from 1973 to 1978, under Graham Howe and Bronwyn Thomas, the ACP established an educational workshop and imported American master shows, such as Diane Arbus, and American masters themselves, such as Lee Friedlander. After 1978 Christine Godden consolidated the gallery with an emphasis on professionalism, quality and presentation. Anybody who worked at the ACP during the 70s and 80s will remember its storeroom full of stacked aluminium frames in standard sizes: twelve by sixteen inches, sixteen by twenty inches, and twenty by twenty four images. The walls of the carpeted gallery were clad in sheet steel and wrapped in beige cloth, and the frames were attached in regular rows with industrial strength magnets. The problem was that the kind of photography that this unique hanging system was devoted to —the isolated fine print — was already problematic. The ACP was institutionally perpetuating an increasingly marginalised art ghetto when camera images were proliferating in quantity, dispersing in format, becoming the central theoretical object of postmodern theories of representation, and forming the lingua franca of contemporary art in general. Godden received much criticism from critics such as Anne-Marie Willis. But she was also responsible for moving the ACP from its cramped terrace buildings to a prime Oxford Street location. And she did program agenda-setting non ‘fine art’ shows such as Giorgio Colombo’s exhibition of criminological photography ‘A Suspect Image’, and the conceptual/political work of the Canadians Carole Conde and Karl Beveridge.

From 1982, with Tamara Winikoff as director, the ACP deliberately tried to broaden and connect itself to a wide variety of communities. It began to publish a tabloid format magazine — Photofile; lectures, talks and forums became more regular; the smaller gallery became ‘Viewpoints’ which was devoted to young and emerging photographers selected by a curatorium; and the Workshop became more sophisticated and elaborate in the courses it offered. The gallery program itself swung away from fine art and towards a British, community based, pedagogic model exemplified by the ‘suitcase shows’ it toured. Although this did tap into the expanding number of government grant categories, some found this style of exhibition uninteresting, politically exhausted and theoretically out of date as an art practice. However during this period the ACP also supported ambitious multi media installations such as Dennis Del Favero’s “Quegli Ultimi Momenti” of 1984.

Photofile was particularly exciting in the mid 1980s, after it moved to a magazine format with Geoffrey Batchen as editor. By then a whole range of sophisticated discourses had taken the photograph as their principal subject, and a new generation of relatively 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.

Denise Robinson, coming well credentialled from Melbourne’s hip and up-to-date Ewing and George Paton Gallery in 1986, imposed a theoretically driven style that attempted to bring the ACP to the cutting edge of contemporary Australian art, but which many found tendentious, pretentious, cliquish, visually unsatisfying and ultimately alienating.  But during the late 1980s staff discovered that they could paint the beige cloth walls white, they could drive nails through the sheet metal and even pull the carpet up for installations (although, come the early 1990s, the sheet metal walls finally defeated the new de rigour fashion for punctiliously pinning elegantly curled prints to the wall). The new wave of art school graduates were featured in the galleries, which also became important Sydney Biennale and Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardis Gras venues. However, whilst successful projects such as the 1990 billboard project ADD MAGIC were being staged, 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 in an epic legal, political and financial battle. However she also got Photofile back on the rails and revamped the Workshop into a technologically relevant professional education provider. The gallery, although closed for long periods, continued the trend of incorporating work of photographically related, particularly digital, media.

The current director, Alasdair Foster, who comes to the ACP from Britain after establishing the internationally successful photography festival Fotofeis, faces an entirely different climate from the one into which the ACP was born twenty five years ago. 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, performance and installation. As a cultural phenomena photography is no longer constituted by the simple accumulation of all the individual photographs published in the media and pasted into our family albums, now photography is a temporal-spatial ‘effect’ which haunts all art. Photography is no longer just a cultural presence, it has become culture’s central nervous system. To Foster this makes the role of the ACP, an institution whose gravitational centre will remain photo-based art, more vital than ever.

Standing in the cavernous, Gyprocked white cube of the ACP’s new gallery, trying to ignore the echoing clatter of cutlery and crockery from the La Mensa cafe at the front of the building and the roar of traffic from Oxford Street, it certainly seems that in one sense the ACP has come a long way from its original cramped terrace-house rooms. In another sense it is in exactly the same position as it has always been: needing to justify itself to sceptical funding bodies, sponsors, and an undefinable constituency of photo-based artists who will be always asking “what has the ACP done for me?”

Martyn Jolly was a student intern at the ACP in 1981, worked as a curator there between 1985 and 1987, had one person shows there in 1988 and 1998, and  has served on various ACP committees and sub-committees since 1982. He still tries to visit whenever he is in Sydney.

2 thoughts on “What has the Australian Centre for Photography ever done for me?

  1. on photographic criticism in Australia - Thought FactoryThought Factory

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