Out of Time: Essays Between Photography & Art

‘Out of Time: essays between photography and art’ by Blair French, review in Photofile 81, 2007, p76.

Out of Time: Essays Between Photography & Art
Blair French
Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, 2006
$25, 120 pp B/W  illustrations

In the 1990s Blair French was a curator at the Australian Centre for Photography (ACP) and managing editor of Photofile, before completing a PhD at Sydney University on the photograph’s central role within contemporary art. These sixteen short essays were mostly written following on from that PhD. Some were originally introductory catalogue essays, some were reviews, and a sequence of five, which are the most substantial in the collection, were commissioned by the CACSA for its Broadsheet. French not only analyses the key tendencies currently defining art photography, but also urges a continuing criticality on behalf of us, the viewers. He does not mean the ability to identify ‘good’ and ‘bad’ photographic genres, but a self-reflexive discrimination towards each specific photograph within its historical moment.

And this is a historical moment of posts: post postmodern simulacra and appropriation, post poststructuralist theories of representation, post the supposed threats of the digital revolution, and post the easy comforts of naïve humanism. But what we are not post, as this collection makes clear, is the reality of social experience, and the privileged indexical connection photography maintains to the real. At the same time, more than ever photography has become a heaving mass of imagery merged and flattened into a representational homogeneity which tends to commodify the image into banal spectacle. It is against this background that French tries to throw into critical relief the practices of a variety of contemporary  Australian and New Zealand photographers.

The essays concentrate on two groups of photographers. Initially he looks at those, such as Selina Ou, Darren Sylvester and Anne Zahalka, who work in the familiar style which has dominated art photography recently — the large, singular, seamless, hermetic, constructed pictorial scene. Later, he expands his attention to those who, in various ways, reprocess the direct presence of history, memory and death in the photograph, such as Lyndell Brown & Charles Green, Silvia Velez, or the New Zealand street-photographer Peter Black.

He writes in intelligent support of many of these photographers, but has thoughtful criticisms to make of others. For instance, although Deborah Paauwe’s photographs of sexualised adolescent girls knowingly mobilize a potent set of photographic conventions and social histories, for French they fail to connect with any tangible experience, so they ultimately don’t make any real trouble for the viewer, as they should. In another nicely nuanced reading of Selina Ou, French is worried by the stultifyingly conventional sense of detachment the photographs relentlessly give to their subjects. He occasionally widens his focus to encompass photography’s institutions. For instance he is critical of the installation of Trente Parke’s show Minutes to Midnight  at the ACP, where he finds the artist’s tendency to ‘optical hyperbole’ exacerbated by the overbearing theatricality of the hang which overcooked it into mere visual distraction.

Although I thought his rather forced discussions of artists like Derek Kreckler and Geoff Kleem needn’t have been reprinted, with perhaps more space spent on reproductions, this collection establishes Fernch as a serious thinker and an astute reader of the contemporary Australian photography.

Martyn Jolly

Martyn Jolly is Head of Photomedia at the Australian National University School of Art

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