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

Marta Penner’s Pinhole Photographs of Brasilia

‘Marta Penner’s Pinhole Photographs of Brasilia’, Canberra/Brasilia, Shane Breynard and Marta Penner exhibition catalogue, edited by Jane Barney, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, pp23-26. ISBN 1875526 70, 2001

Marta Penner takes her pinhole camera, made out of an old coffee tin, off to the sides of the monumental boulevards and precincts of Brasília. She nestles it behind a foreground of rocky outcrops, shaggy trees and scrappy grass to take picturesque views of Brasília’s grand architecture in the background. These awry looks at Brasília’s symbolic public spaces form an affectionate critique of the place. Her quirky activities become a series of almost performative gestures, provocative towards utopian Modernism and the political hubris of nation states, but conciliatory to the possibility of a sort of ironic habitation of this living ruin.

First, the pinhole camera: cheap, portable — available. But certainly not chosen out of any artisanal nostalgia, since the resulting paper negatives are scanned, reversed and printed out to any required size by a computer. Penner’s use of the pinhole camera (the only kind of camera there is which to use is to each time rediscover afresh the wonder of nature picturing itself), in the context of the ‘Ideal City’ of Brasília, evokes for me the mythic origins perspective (and photography) in Fifteenth Century Italy. In Florence, for instance, the architect Bruneleschi (sic) famously performed an ad hoc but elegant experiment which provided a natural proof of the laws of perspective. He painted, probably with the aid of a camera obscura, a reversed view across a city square. He then punctured a eye-hole in the vanishing point of the image, turned it over and held the back of the painting to his eye to view the scene he had just painted. With his other hand he then brought up a mirror which reflected and re-reversed the painted image, and replaced, in perfect register, the real city with its manufactured image. The natural laws of perspective drawing thereby established had to be codified, geometrised and re-tooled for the functional purpose of projecting planned spaces and buildings across the tabula of the page. Perspective allowed planning not only spatially, but also temporally. Right from the start it seemed to produce automatically from itself the possibility of, and the plans for, an Ideal City of the future. Some drawings of a Fifteenth Century Italian Ideal City exist, perhaps by Piero Della Francesca, which feature classical colonnades and vast civic spaces all in an airless, isomorphic geometric space.

Penner’s wilful use of the pinhole camera’s ‘natural’ optic, which grants a universal depth of field and dilates as it grows out from the centre towards its cradling penumbra — is crucial. On one level the non-rectilinear ‘organic’ perspective of her pinhole images humorously chides at the isomorphic single-point perspective of the modernist architectural plan. And, on another level, it also allows us to return to the historical vanishing point of perspective itself, an originary time before perspective and the Ideal City had acquired any of the ‘fascistic’ ‘anti-human’ baggage which was destined to weigh on the Modernist Ideal City

Something about Marta Penner’s anachronistic activities with her coffee tin also reminds me of a later moment in perspective’s history, whenn Eighteenth Century travellers took their Claude Glasses and their portable camera obscuras on the Grand Tour, seeking an interesting angle or unusual vantage point — preferably featuring a gnarled knoll, blasted trunk, or craggy gap — with which to frame some Ozymandian ruin or other. In Penner’s perspective the trees and rocks and grass, initially carefully planned by the landscape designer Burle Marx, seem to be running wild and caught in the act of reclaiming for nature the serried public buildings along either side of The Esplanada dos Ministérios. Her pinhole pictures, again humorously and with wry affection, reverse the temporal projection of the Ideal City, not forward towards the social Utopia of a future Brazil, but back to the ancient ruins of the Twentieth Century

Brasília’s plan was initially drawn out freehand by its designer, Lucio Costa, on five small sheets of paper. The blank sheet of paper is the starting point for every Ideal City — on these particular sheets were inscribed the straight lines of the symbolic axis, the curved wings of the residential axis, and the loops of the artificial lake. This plan was then transcribed from the five sheets of paper onto the hot, high, savanna plateau of Brazil, a site chosen precisely because it was a tabula rasa, a potentially dangerous void in the centre of Brazil. By contrast, in our imaginings of the origins of the great historical cities (London, Paris and so on) they have grown organically. Initially jagged on, and then accreted around, some convenient natural feature, they lapped over and folded in on themselves, layering themselves up and compacting themselves down so that they eventually seemed to have emerged chthonically from the ground. This imagining may or may not be true, but it does mean that the remnant spaces of the historical city have a different valency, they may threaten the body of the city, but they share in the city’s history and its future.

By definition there is no remnant space in the planned city, only negative space to separate out its various sectors, or to be a ground against which the figures of its buildings will be contrasted. The swards and swathes of the Ideal City were drawn into its plans to add graphic structure to the vistas, dimensional amplitude to the scopic vectors, and symbolic scale to the public spaces But in practice, from an oblique anamorphic perspective on the ground, when the aerial plan loses its grip on the civic experience, the planned city’s negative spaces can become activated as loci for historical and social conflict. They can become positive spaces, adumbrating the city’s ideality with history and habitation.

In fact, I was told, the picturesque pictures of these negative grounds are specifically about habitation. From its inception Brasília has been surrounded and serviced by xmillionsx of poor itinerant rural workers. who live in satellite cities, There is great pressure on space within city of Brasília. These spaces need to be protected and policed, or else people will move into them, light cooking fires, dry their washing, and build shanties.

When I was told this I was somewhat shocked, this acute high-stakes politics of population and space seemed so foreign to the Australian experience. Then, on my way home I drove home past Old Parliament House and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.Here there were at least two kinds of spatial politics going on. Along the most symbolically charged scopic vector in the country, along Canberra’s land axis from Parliament House to the Australian War Memorial, there was a geometric jousting with the symbolism of the plan, running interference through strategically placed ceremonial fires, spear emplacements, murals and humpy like structures. But there was also the use of habitation itself as a politics: the embassy shed is an up front parody of the suburban house complete with letterbox and strangled shrub; and there is also a supporting encampment ensconced neatly within a snug crease on Canberra’s plan formed by two lines of bordering trees, it looks like a section of an outer suburban caravan park complete with council wheelie bin.

Marta Penner is bringing her coffee tin to Canberra. I wonder what pictures she will take.

The monumental axis/precinct/bouvelard


‘Motels’, exhibition catalogue essay in Motel, edited by Paul McInnes, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, pp3 – 5. ISBN 1 875526 67 6

The book Australia: From the Dawn of Time to the Present Day, published in 1964, devotes a whole page to what it calls “The Motel Trend”.

Domestic travel in Australia has taken a tremendous upsurge during the last six years, the greatest contributing factor being the ease of securing comfortable accommodation at moderate prices. This has been brought about by the advent of motels, which have virtually taken command of the accommodation race. Australia’s largest accommodation organisation is Motels of Australia Ltd., a company which operates a chain of Travelodge and Caravilla motels stretching from Northern Queensland to Tasmania and across the continent to Western Australia, with the capacity to comfortably rest some 4,000 travellers every night. The architectural pattern of these motels tends to variety, but all offer individual car parking facilities, and each has an air of charming informality which ensures complete privacy and comfort. Every room is equipped with tea making facilities, and special features include refrigeration, and bedside control of air conditioning, radio, television and background music. Many of these motels have swimming pools and a smart and comfortable restaurant provides first class meals for travellers and their guests.[1]

The Travelodge motel chain was itself part of a chain of related socio-cultural phenomena in Australia: post war prosperity, the family Holden, a national highway system, the American style business franchise, and technologised modernity.

Yet the motel didn’t arrive in Australia without a considerable amount of dark psychic baggage. In Hollywood’s imagination highway motels were already seedy, sexy and dangerous. They were places where those an the lam hid out, bending one or two slats of the venetian blinds with an anxious finger. They were places where blood was staunched and wounds hastily dressed as sweat broke out. By the time Janet Leigh made her particularly bad choice of motel accommodation in Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil, 1958, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960, the motel’s place as a mythic site of delay or decay was fully established.

Motels are so mythically rich becasue they are paradoxically suspended in the tension between travelling and lodging, propulsion and pause, extension and encirclement. The word ‘motel’ itself, like its most famous corporate brand name, is constructed by overlapping two antonyms: the motel is a hotel for lodging the travelling motor car. Generically, motels are nondescript places built nowhere in particular. They are either left on a lost highway after the new freeway has been built, or found just over the rise beyond the edge of town. Their location does not follow a geo-cartographic logic as much as a spatio-narrative one. They emerge out of darkness and intrude themselves into the driver’s peripheral vision just when they are needed the most—or perhaps the least. They are narrative interruptions, psycho-sexual vortexes lying in wait on the edge of someone’s story.

To Meaghan Morris motels are “transit spaces, charged with narrative potential. A motel should promise a scenario, and exactly the one you want: a hiding place, a good night’s sleep, a stint of poignant alienation, a clandestine adventure, time off housework, a monastic retreat … promise that need not have anything to do with what one subsequently does. Veering off the road and into the drive of any motel setting, we seek shelter, yes, and safety, but we also assess a script.[2] Australia: From the Dawn of Time to the Present Day tried (in vain as it turned out) to rewrite these scripts into just one — controlled domestic comfort. Travelodge incorporated ‘20th century concepts of comfort and design’ into their motels, their ‘charming informality’ was produced technologically and systematically.[3] Their architectural pattern did not, in fact, tend to variety; instead it was self-referentially repeated, with serialised differences, along the chain. By architecturally subscribing to a myth of the ‘Modern Universal’[4] they reterritorialised the Australian open road, and domesticated its randomly awaiting terrors. It is the psychic reassurance of standardised industrial management that I remember most from my few childhood motel experiences. For instance to order breakfast you ticked boxes on a slip of paper — a ‘continental breakfast’; cereal (in a little box) and juice; toast and tea (or coffee); or bacon and eggs — and left it at reception. The next morning a laden tray was anonymously slipped through a hatch by the door.

But it only took a few decades for Australia’s motley travelling public to do a thorough rewrite on the original Travelodge script and introduce desires and compulsions far beyond domesic comfort. By the 1990s precocious painters were OD-ing in seaside motels, prominent politicians were having fatal coronaries whilst on the job in Sydney motels, and mad letter bombers were hiding out in Canberra motels. Australian films like Kiss or Kill were also nationalistically inflecting the Hollywood myth of motels as the sites of ‘road-runner angst’[5] by placing them in outback settings.

Motel rooms are always very clean, but they are never entirely clean. For the psychic well being of their guests, motels have to erase the presence of the previous occupant. Surfaces are wiped and air freshener is sprayed, the first square of toilet paper is folded into a point, and a hygienic sash is placed over the toilet seat. Only rarely do guests encounter the abject horror an a unnamed, unknown, previous occupant’s pubic hair in the shower stall; but nonetheless the ghostly emanations of all the previous occupants, each as diaphanous as the residue of Jiff on a ceramic tile, slowly accumulate in each motel room. No matter how starched and stiff their sheets, sleeping at a motel is simultaneously private and communal; serial not only spatially, but temporally.

In the particular case of the Canberra City Motor Inn (formerly, as can be ascertained by the redundant signage left around the place, the Manuka Motor Inn, formerly a Flag Inn, formerly a Travelodge) the temporal accretion of historical presences is met, coming the other way as it were, by the crumbling, flaking decay of the building itself. This gives a pathos to the motel, an atmosphere at once full of the presence of the past, and empty of any projection into the future. In a sense this motel is equivalent to the many other spatial and temporal lacunae in our urban fabric: for instance those undefinable areas of waste ground on the edge of cities, or those abandoned inner urban industrial areas before they have been nominated for redevelopment as trendy housing or historical precincts. These littoral zones have long been used by artists, writers and photographers because they are empty places but potential spaces. Artists love to write new scripts for these locations and fill them with their own stories, images and associations.

This particular motel, however, is still being used. The artists installing work here will be guests amongst other guests (who are mostly lone public servants saving money on their Travel Allowances). Rooms are still cleaned. The systems originally set up to ensure domestic comfort still, more or less, operate like clockwork, even if the motel itself has run down. All this automatic activity gives a air, not of charming informality, but of suspended animation, like a space station that has drifted out of its orbit.

So this motel is not, yet, a picturesque ruin. Its state of functioning decay suspends its historical potential. The real probabilities that await it, of being renovated, or historically ‘themed’, or even bulldozed, are held in abeyance. But, ironically, the various uses to which it will be put by the artists in this exhibition presage all of those potential futures, which it will eventually be up to the motel’s corporate owners to plan — with an eye to the bottom line. Any artist who memorialises a poignant childhood motel memory, invites the finality of the bulldozer. Any artist who is pierced, as I was, by mnemonic punctums such as the painted corner reinforcements on the weary traveller kangaroo’s Globite suitcase in the original motel street sign, invites the reifying connoisseurship of the scavenging collector. Any artist who delights in the Brady Bunch styling of the architectural facade invites the trendy retro-marketeer to renovate the motel into a hyper-kitsch image of itself for the newly rich camp-savvy tourist market.

The franchise chains of the sixties have transcended themselves and are now a universal presence in our collective memory. But, at the same time, on every day of the week any piece of our built environment is up for grabs in the crass politics of urban renewal. This project exists at the necessary intersection of those two planes.


Martyn Jolly

[1]Australia: From the Dawn of Time to the Present Day, Oswald Ziegler, Sydney, 1964.p43

[2] Meaghan Morris, “At Henry Parkes Motel”, Too Soon Too Late: History in Popular Culture, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1998. p32.

[3]Australia: From the Dawn of Time to the Present Day. p43

[4] Morris, p35

[5]Ibid. p34