David Moore, 1989
‘Photofile’, Vol. 7 Number 1, Autumn 1989
“Certain [of his] photographs have become ‘classics’ — icons imprinted on Australia’s visual memory.” Sandra Byron Curator of Photography Art Gallery of New South Wales
The publishers of David Moore Australian Photographer thought this such an apposite quote that they used it to open the blurb on the inside flap of the book’s dust jacket. I, also, can find no better way to open my review.
The quote comes from the introduction to the book — immediately preceding David Moore’s autobiographical ruminations which make up the bulk of its text. The introduction also serves as a de facto statement of curatorial intent for the exhibition which was mounted at the Art Gallery of New South Wales to coincide with the publication of this major two-volume monograph. The quote therefore neatly links the ‘gallery retrospective’ and the ‘definitive monograph’ — tandem representations of “the achievements of a life in photography spanning almost fifty years.” (Book blurb)
Any differences between two such representations of a photographer’s life are worth considering, not in the search for any ultimate historical veracity, but in order to explore some of the various ways ‘lives’ and ‘life-time achievements’ are written.
These days the art gallery and the coffee-table book seem to just naturally go together, but their alliance often feels somehow unholy. All those Treasuries of Golden Summer Greats rely on the enduring authority of the museum for their immediate appeal, just as museums themselves are increasingly encountering the necessity of popularity in a funding environment where fickle corporate philanthropy is replacing government obligation in the maintenance of the cultural estate.
In this case, however, the marriage was sanctified. The publishers, Chapter and Verse, provided the AGNSW with a luxurious accompanying monograph for its exhibition which it could not have otherwise afforded. In turn, that exhibition became a launch pad for sales of the book (including a signed limited edition, copies of which came complete with your choice of one of four hand-crafted photographs.)
The life of David Moore, as described in the Art Gallery’s well researched introduction to the book, is exactly congruent to his career as an Australian artist. The multiplicity of his work — adolescent experiments, international photojournalism, selfconsciously artistic architectural constructions — is given an oeuvral coherence by reference to larger art-historical narratives. Moore’s life is woven in and out of the procession of great Australian photographers and artists, and regularly stitched into the background pattern of American and European Modernist art and photography. Thus in 1949 he is found working in the studio of his mentor Max Dupain, but also purchasing books by Brandt, Brassai and Kertesz for his library. In the mid 1970s he is instrumental in setting up the Australian Centre for Photography, whilst also being strongly influenced by international Hard-Edged Abstraction.
Each of his major photographic moments — Sydney documentarian, overseas reporter, Australian iconographer, or seventies abstractionist — is evaluated as either like, or not like, a global equivalent. We are shown how overseas models were customized by Moore. For instance, his work from the late 1940s may look like the Farm Security Administration Project, but it is not, its precepts have been retooled to suit the photographer. His photography is naturalistic, not humanistic: motivated by aesthetics, not concern. In fact the persistent geometry of his compositions, although changing angularity in ratio to international tastes, is found to be the scaffolding upon which his entire oeuvre, and his life, is built.
The AGNSWs ‘life’ adroitly lodges the artist on its storage shelves under ‘M’ for Modernist. In contrast David Moore’s self-account indulges nothing but his own copious recollections and opinions. In his ‘life’ we lose all reference points to oeuvral intention or art-historical placement. He is continually seduced by himself, writing his own career as one of intrepid determination punctuated by fortuitous moments. Its narrative spreads itself along intricate pathways. As readers we are carried along with him, observing all the things he observed, participating in his moments of revelation, experiencing the global coverage of his travels, and sharing in his vividly recalled excitement at actually being there — then. His mastery of the art of photography is assumed, we are only asked to look at his world with his eyes.
Although both were large and comprehensive, the exhibition and the book each contained a slightly different selection of images, further inflecting the twin lives of David Moore in line with the tandem texts.
Certain images specifically chosen for the AGNSW exhibition firmly locate the artist within the received history of Modernist photographv. Images like “TAA Aircraft Detail” cl948, “David Potts Sleeping On Yacht Deck” cl948, or “Pedestrians Martin Place” cl949 — none of which were deemed by the photographer to be worthy of inclusion in his monograph — become key images to the AGNSW, strongly recalling for the viewer as they do classic images by other Modernist masters such as Callahan, Bay or Moholy-Nagy. The exhibition also de-emphasises Moore’s colour work, comprising one whole volume of the two-volume monograph, while devoting more attention to his ‘experimental’ work of the seventies. His career is thus given a monochromatic, formalist consistency within itself. It is made continuous with the work of other major figures in the Gallery’s collection (as well, of course, as the photography collections of other art museums). For the AGNSW Moore’s life becomes canonic to the international collecting logic of art museums, which is onlv fit and proper.
In contrast the selection Moore himself made for the monograph is open and discursive — following the meandering anecdotal pathways of his autobiography. Images of personal revelation, images of historical interest, or images to which simply an exciting story is attached — all are given equal billing, all are the bustling incident which crowd an adventurous life. Rather than being streamlined around a central artistic thrust, the photographer’s own selection extends in all directions at once in grand abandon.
The art gallery and the coffee-table book demand two lives — the canonical and the anecdotal. Here each interpenetrates the other in happy partnership. In whose life, however, were those iconic classics imprinted on Australia’s visual memory?
No other Australian photographer since Frank Hurley has been as aware of, to use one of David Moore’s own chapter titles, “The Overseas Market from Australia”. His seven years in London in the 1950s, the closing decade of the Golden Age of picture magazines, taught him the rules and regulations of the foreign photo exchange market. Working freelance for a variety of picture editors and agencies he became one of an elite corps of photojournalistic globe-trotters. Plugged in by cable communication to the instantaneous demands of his big-city clients he was able to, by virtue of expense account and grim determination alone, penetrate the outer reaches of the globe at their command. It is this almost omnipotent ecstasy of instantaneous image production which he is most eager to share with us in his text; even to the point of devoting one whole chapter to the “Magic of Cables” in the colour volume of the monograph.
By the mid 1960s he had staked out just about the entire Asian and Pacific region as his patch. Assignments from the Time-Life Books Division World Library Series and National Geographic led to such images as “Pitjantjatjara Children” (1963), “Newcastle Steelworks” (1963), and “European Migrants Arriving in Sydney” (1966). These national icons were taken with the same professional diligence as his other assignments from the same period: his coverage of indigenous Asian sport for Sports Illustrated or Polynesia for National Geographic, for instance. Those images which are now so familiarly ‘ours’ — reproduced in a thousand books, magazines, postcards, social studies texts, and popular history exhibitions — were originally made to be ‘theirs’: obedient responses to the call from the centre for images of its exotic periphery.
Is it this import/export dynamic which gives the most famous of Moore’s images their unambiguous, summary clarity? Is this why the Rousseauian Pitjantjatjara Children, the steelworker’s sons on their suburban bikes, and the apprehensive European Migrants, seem to all perform, as though on cue, for some unseen audience — initially American, now us? For instance, the emotional contradiction of “European Migrants Arriving in Sydney” is neatly presented in the latticed choreography of an extended family of faces emerging from a velvety background, behind a framing handrail, and beneath a proscenium arch of supplicant hands. This staging is given an almost epic quality by the way their anticipatory gazes knit together as each generation strains to penetrate the nether regions somewhere behind the photographer’s left shoulder. The original colour transparency is now usually printed in black and white to further abstract the particular towards the
Moore’s icons have quickly outgrown the inten-tionality of their moments of creation. One of his anecdotes is illuminating. Wandering down a Redfern lane on an aesthetic mission from Modernism, Moore was accosted by a desperate woman who mistook him and his borrowed Speed graphic as possessing the politically useful authority of a newspaper. “Take a picture and print it,” she demanded. “Redfern Interior” (1949) was the result. Persuaded by Max Dupain not to destroy the negative the rest was safely allowed to become history: inclusion in the Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and elevation to the heights of classical iconicity in Australia followed. The picture wasn’t really taken under false pretences as Moore feared. At the time he may not have possessed the authority of a press photographer, but his manifest destiny invested him with a greater authority. The woman’s immediate distress was dissolved in the universal image of ‘stoicism in adversity’ she became.
Similarly, many of his other images have gone on to lead complex ‘lives’ on their own account. Throughout his career Moore’s closest colleagues have been editors, designers and writers. The vintage magazines displayed at the exhibition demonstrated that the visual syntax of mass reproduction and public display has neatly interconnected with Moore’s own carefully nurtured formalism. His photographs are most commonly composed of bold horizontal and vertical blocks tautened with delicate diagonal braces. Their dynamic design irresistably hooks the browser’s roving eye; their precision engineering tightly interlocking with the margins, headings, edges and columns of type on page layouts and display panels to form a single high-performance graphic unit. This, Moore’s essential skill as a photographer, is what steadily pumps his images through the capillaries of our visual culture.
His marvellous artistry lies in his ability to neatly package complex social issues into visual aphorisms. Of course this is the basic language of photojournalism, with a noble lineage. However, the somewhat glib summations of Moore’s ‘classics’ — the Brave New Migrants, The Stolid Redfern Matriarch, the Obsequious Prime Minister — are given a further emphatic certainty by his dourly efficient compositions. A photograph like “President Johnson and Prime Minister Holt at Canberra Airport” 1966 (taken for LIFE magazine but never used) has almost mutated into a political cartoon. It squeezes an entire geo-political relationship into a few deft strokes and a cheeky punchline.
The formal mechanics of Moore’s photographs perfectly mesh with the design machinery of their reproduction and the cultural industry of their dissemination. Is this the process which gradually elevates particular journalistic events to national icons, imprinting them on our collective visual memory? Neither the canonic life of the gallery artist, nor the decisive revelations of the intrepid photographer, seem sufficient to explain this phenomenon by themselves.
However, it is certain that, from keen student of the Modernist canon to eager functionary within the global circulation of signs of ‘otherness’, Moore has been a willing worker, driven bv the desire to lead an interesting life.
I would like to thank Sandra Bvron and David Moore for their cooperation and help. Martyn Jolly