Rupture, Generation or Continuity? The 70’s and an ’80’s Photography (A Speech from a Rostrum)
After the Artefact: An exhibition of Contemporary Photographic Practice
Wollongong City Gallery, 1984
At the end of 1983, as part of its normal exhibition programme, the Department of Photography at the Australian National Gallery held an exhibition ‘A decade of Australian photography 1972-1982’. The exhibition was drawn from the Philip Morris Arts Grant Collection, a corporate sponsorship programme that oriented itself around the work of ‘young bold and innovative artists’. The show was the latest of a succession of exhibitions and publications drawn from that collection, the largest and most significant collection of ’70’s Australian photography. It was not the exhibition’s intention to offer a significant reappraisal of the period’s photography, more to provide a curatorial summation of the collection itself. For these reasons the exhibition would have been largely familiar to anyone acquainted with recent Australian photography and the Philip Morris Arts Grant.
Yet something did distinguish this exhibition from previous Philip Morris Arts Grants exhibitions and publications: despite the fact that some works of quite recent execution were included, one couldn’t help but get the sense, when viewing the exhibition, that what was once a ‘now’ photography had become a ‘then’ photography, what was once ‘our’ photography had become ‘their’ photography.
The exhibition seemed to arouse little interest within the ranks of Australia’s newer photographers. This apparent disinterest in the work exhibited revealed, once and for all, that the photography ‘explosion’ of the early ’70’s, which had stopped the clocks for six or seven years, was now no longer even an echo. From the viewpoint of 1983 the ’70’s was, for photography at least, a long summer that didn’t so much turn into autumn as disappear over the horizon.
Not only were many of today’s emerging photographers ignorant of the emergence of their predecessors in the ’70’s, they were also disinterested. They seemed to find the work uninspirational and easily locatable within the larger histories of photography that they had been taught. To them, art-historical chapter-headings such as ‘formalism’, ‘expressionism’, ‘street photography’, or ‘feminist pedagogy’ accrued all too easily to the work exhibited.
Though they may have been ignorant of the photographers, they were not ignorant of the photography. They thought that they had seen it all before.
The exhibition revealed a distinct sense of rupture between the ’70’s and the ’80’s photography. This is, of course, only to be expected: historical rupture is a central tenet of Modernism, against whose bosom photography has always snuggled. (Postmodernism will be referred to later in this essay.) Yet if we closely examine Australian photography since the boom of the early ’70’s, we find that this rupture is more readily identifiable within the institutions of Australian photography than in the photography itself.
For instance the dealer photography galleries of Melbourne, to which the eager young photographers of the ’70’s came with their portfolios under their arms, have either closed or appear to be on the verge of doing so. The Australian Centre for Photography, which opened as a separate gallery and workshop in the heart of Sydney’s dealer gallery belt, has restructured in a single building on Oxford Street, intent on broadening its basis in both the general and photographic communities. The privileged pedagogy of one or two ‘leading’ art colleges, with its concomitant valorization of the guru-like teacher, has been expanded into a whole range of educational opportunities right across Australia. The photographic climate seems to have changed so much that a one or two person show at a dealer gallery, so highly valued on the CVs of the ’70’s, seems to almost have an air of presumption in the ’80’s, when photographers are just as willing to join together to hold group and theme shows at a variety of institutional spaces. (Witness the present exhibition.)
Hence we have those terms I have used so freely thus far—the 70’s and the ’80’s. But although the institutional changes within Australian photography clearly indicate such a distinction, it is not nearly as clear within Australian photography itself.
In fact the continuities of theme and practice are just as evident as the discontinuities. The phallocentric juvenilia of the 70’s—the soppy shots of nude girlfriends, the sepiaed ‘studies’ of nature, etc., etc.—has thankfully shriveled. The serendipitous snaps of ‘streetwise’ photographers, which certainly had more to offer, have been banished in the face of popularly read critiques of the single, coherent photographic image and its place in hegemonic visual culture (in particular liberal-humanist press, film and TV discourses). It is tempting to suggest that disdain for the single image is the mark of ’80’s photography, but it is not a mark that distinguishes it from the ’70’s. Many of the most important photographers of the ’70’s worked with serial imagery (e.g. John Rhodes) constructing narratives at various levels of interpretive ambiguity. Others (e.g. Carol Jerrems) constructed directorial, almost fictionalised spaces, implicating the photographer in, and therefore deneutralizing, the act of photographing itself. Other photographers (e.g. Micky Allan) overtly compromised the photographs glassy, windowlike surface with sophisticated, gestural handcolouring techniques. The cataloguing imperative, as a structuring process that defines the photographer as a self-conscious investigator of the limits of the photograph as an informational and aesthetic unit, is also common to both decades. It is not difficult to see the diachronic lines of continuity, influence and individual career that are deeply scored across both the ’70’s and the ’80’s. The rupture between the decades is a contextual and an institutional one, rather than a formal, stylistic, or thematic one.
But this fails to explain why newer photographers tend to find the work of their predecessors boring. The reason is, I think, in large part because they feel they have seen it, or else work very much like it, ‘all before’. To them it remains, for all intents and purposes, virtually indistinguishable from similar work produced by European or American photographers.
The only thing that does, ultimately, divide the two decades is that, during the 70’s, any regionalist problematic that may have disturbed, or even affected, Australian photographers was swamped by the sheer newness of their activity. The question of sustaining any artistic photographic practice at all usurped the question of sustaining any particularly Australian photographic practice. The commonality felt by the Australian photographers of the 70’s was a commonality of time, of nowness, rather than a commonality of place, of hereness.
The young photographers of the 70’s probably felt entirely untroubled by regionalist problematics as their eyes scanned the magazine racks for the silver cover of Creative Camera containing this month’s collection of portfolios by their fellow young photographers in Europe or America. Likewise, overseas visitors were invited to Australia for pontificate visits and treated with a fraternal familiarity when they arrived. ‘One could say that photography in Australia is on the same plane as elsewhere’ claimed the editorial of the inaugural edition of Light Vision, ‘Australia’s International Photography Magazine’.
Thus, although there are, of course, differences identifiable in retrospect between photography in Australia and elsewhere during the 70’s, any sense of continuity between the 70’s and ’80’s amongst Australian photographers themselves tends to be dissipated in the sea of ‘global photography’ to which they blithely subscribe. Because the difference between the practices of photographers in Australia and photographers elsewhere are scrupulously effaced there seems nothing in particular for one generation of Australian photographers to contribute to the next. Collections such as the Philip Morris Arts Grant appear to become vitiated by their look-alikeness before they are even complete.
The 70’s and the ’80’s, having lost hold of each, other, seem to be carried along independently by the currents of global photography with its global histories. (This is not to elevate ‘global photography’ to the status of a hegemonic bogey.
Neither is it to call for a parochial tradition of ‘Australian photography-Australian art has already gone through several re-runs of that episode. Nor is it to call for the invention of a paternalistic relationship between the two ‘generations’.)
However, if a sense of continuity could be established for Australian photography, going all the way back to when the boom began in the early 70’s, then perhaps a more complex, stronger Australian photography would result, one that felt more confident in itself and had a more substantial basis from which to contribute to the current upheavals in Australian culture generally and Australian art in particular. Australian photography still inhabits the peripheral: the longer it continues to construct itself as a series of youthful nowness, the longer it will maintain the familiar problematics that have accompanied it throughout its history. These problematics centre around the right, or ability, of photography and photographers to participate in the art discourse at all. And if so, at what level.
It is in the face of these weary, but continuing problematics that this call for continuity is made. Because, from the point of view of art in the ’80’s, to make a call for photographers to re-examine, or even just examine, such a thing as the 70’s for a sense of continuity may seem reactionary in the extreme. After all, the leitmotif of ’80’s art is, under the rubric of Postmodernism, precisely the ruptures and foliations of synchronic sets of cultural nownesses. But to regard such a call as reactionary or misplaced is to ignore the discursive formation of photography within art.
Quite simply there was little art photography of any consequence in Australia before the 1970’s. We have to go back, probably to the 1930’s, before we can again find photography locating itself in the art discourse. Nor can photography be conveniently counted as just another component of ’80’s Postmodernism, the site for which is, primarily, still the traditional art mediums. Photographic reproductive processes may be crucial to much Postmodernist art, but art photography is not; nor, on the evidence is it dead. (Again, witness the present show.) Although a good deal of current photographic activity, some even from this show, can be inscribed into Postmodernist discourses (as broad as they are becoming), much photography, some even from this show as well, could not.
Furthermore, most probably because of those very problematics of photography within art, photography still resolutely refuses to become institutionally integrated into art, or to die out. Despite the devout prayers of photographic and art practitioners alike it remains a discipline all too readily identifiable by that one word —photography. Although photography was warmly welcomed by art in the 70’s, the fact that it is still regarded from a safe distance is readily apparent when one examines the geography of the hanging of recent Biennales and Perspectas; photography’s representation and presentation by dealer galleries; the course structures of art schools; the books and magazines in which photographic writings appear; and even shows such as this one, the motivational rationale for which is, simply, that all the ten artists exhibiting use photography. The photographic medium, rather than the photographic practice, is still the fundamental criterion for evaluating and categorizing photographers.
Thus we are left with the situation of photography being a medium which, like it or not, is left largely to itself to determine its own status, write its own histories, and inscribe its own formation within art. It is from this position that a call for continuity can be regarded as properly made.
And it is shows such as this one, with its casually random mixture of the ‘older’ and the ‘newer’ photographers—photographers who were collected during the 70’s along with photographers who contributed to the institutional changes of the ’80’s and photographers who have only recently graduated from art colleges, which may be a very useful point from which to begin to establish a continuity stretching back further than just a year or two. In this way, part of the boom of the 70’s could be profitably recouped for the ’80’s.
Martyn Jolly March 1984