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Photography in Australialocked

  • Helen Ennis

Photography in Australia has many parallels with that in other countries but it also has many significant differences that are the result of specific historical conditions and circumstances. Features in common include the rapid acceptance of photographic technologies, the importance of portraiture and the view of trade in the 19th century, the engagement with international styles such as Pictorialism, the prominent role of illustrative and advertising photography from the 1920s onwards, and the impact of modernism, Post-modernism, and post-colonialism. These features are not unique to Australia—they can be seen as manifestations of photography’s globalizing impulses—but nonetheless they do have a particular local or national inflection. Equally important are the aspects of Australian photographic practice that are different to photography elsewhere. Chief among these is the photography associated with relations between indigenous and settler Australians. Photographs of Aboriginal people were prominent in the 19th century and photographs by Aboriginal people have been central to Australian photographic practice and the broader visual arts since the early 1980s. Also conspicuous is an orientation towards the external world and the prevalence of realist approaches, which can be related to materialist preoccupations and anti-intellectual traditions that have underpinned national life in some periods.

1. Colonial photography

Photography was an intrinsic element of colonial life. The first known photograph—a street scene in Sydney—was taken by Captain Lucas in 1841, only 53 years after the establishment of the penal colony in New South Wales (the photograph’s whereabouts are unknown). At the time, Australia’s European population was around 200,000 people; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were excluded from the census until 1967. Early photography reflected the concerns of the colonists. Portraiture was the mainstay of the photographic industry, followed by photographs of towns and cities whose growth was fuelled by the influx of free settlers after the discovery of gold in 1851. The first extant photographs are daguerreotype portraits from 1845 by George Baron Goodman (d 1851), one of the short-term visitors attracted by commercial opportunities. The 1847 daguerreotypes made by Douglas Kilburn (c. 1812–71) in 1847 are the earliest known photographs of Aboriginal people. Travelling or itinerant photographers were common during the 1860s and early 1870s, taking carte-de-visite portraits of settlers living in communities separated by considerable distances. As in Europe, scientists and artists were involved in the production of significant early work. They included the chemist Professor John Smith (1821–85), the geologist Richard Daintree, and the portraitist and former convict Thomas Bock (1790/93–1855).

Charles Bayliss: Sydney Harbour from Fort Macquarie, albumen photoprint, 17.9 × 22.9 cm, 1881 (Sydney, New South Wales, Blue Mountains City Library, Local Studies Collection); courtesy of the Blue Mountains City Library / CC BY-SA 2.0

Australian photography from the mid-1840s to the early 1870s is characterized by a tentative quality that can be explained by technological as well as social factors. The subject-matter reflects the pioneering phase of colonization with towns, buildings, farms, and gardens in the process of being constructed rather than already completed. Albumen prints produced before the 1870s are generally light-toned and almost fugitive in appearance. Any suggestion of tentativeness had disappeared by 1875 when the convergence of photographic technology and expertise, and an expanding, more prosperous clientele gave rise to assured work by Charles Bayliss, Charles Nettleton (1826–1902), Captain Samuel Sweet (1825–86), and numerous others. Large-scale panoramic views of Sydney produced by Bayliss for his patron, German-born entrepreneur B. O. Holtermann, were indicative of this newfound confidence and delight in the photographic medium’s extended visual possibilities. They were ambitious in scope and were conceived for exhibition overseas as a means of attracting migrants to Australia. Bayliss’s mammoth glass plate negatives—the biggest in the world at the time—represented a major technical achievement (see Seventh Panel of Panorama of Sydney Harbour and Suburbs from the North Shore, 1875).

In the 1870s landscape photography became lucrative as urban-based customers sought views of distinctive Australian scenery to display in their homes or to include in their photograph albums. Popular sites, including the Blue Mountains in New South Wales and Healesville in Victoria, were located close to major cities and accessible by train. The situation in Tasmania was different, with substantial parts of the rugged countryside largely inaccessible. However, due in part to the efforts of keen bushwalker and environmentalist J. W. Beattie (1859–1930), images of the Tasmanian landscape became available to the general public. His work in the remotest areas of the state in the 1880s and 1890s was the precursor to a distinctive Tasmanian tradition that culminated in the wilderness photography of Olegas Truchanas (1923–72) in the 1960s and 1970s and Peter Dombrovskis (1945–96) in the 1980s. Landscape and environmental photography has continued to be important in Tasmania in the 21st century.

At the outset, landscape photography represented the viewpoint of the colonizers and assumed a European viewer. Whether or not the settler presence was overt—through the inclusion of humans or activities such as farming—it was always implied. When Aboriginal people were depicted in the natural landscape they were typically shown to be disenfranchised, living either in impoverished conditions or on mission stations in remote areas of the outback where, from the 1880s onwards, they became the subject of anthropological inquiry. The photography undertaken at Coranderrk, a government mission established in Victoria in 1863, was a significant exception.

Photography played a key role in the construction of national identity during the 1890s, in the lead-up to the federation of the colonies into the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. The recent past had already become the site of nostalgia, with images by Nicholas Caire and Charles Kerry celebrating the pioneering spirit and life in the bush. By this point, practitioners were more likely to be Australian-born, rather than migrants or visitors to the colonies, and the settler population was already highly concentrated in towns and cities, especially along the eastern seaboard.

2. Photography and modernity.

From the outset, the camera’s use was oriented towards contemporary experience, to imaging the present. In contrast to Europe, there were no conventional signs of an ancient past, no architectural ruins and remnants from other eras to photograph. Photography therefore was inextricably bound up with modernity. In the 19th century this was manifest in the preference for the medium’s scientific, objective basis and its descriptive powers.

Harold Cazneaux: Departure (When Liners Tear Themselves Away), gelatin silver photograph, 229×276 m, 1928 (Canberra, National Gallery of Australia); photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

In the 20th century, photography’s relation to modernity came to be expressed differently due to the advent of modernism, advocated as both an approach and a style. Signs of modernism in photography came later than in painting and other media. They were signalled in the work of Cecil Bostock (1884–1939) and Harold Cazneaux in the 1920s (see Departure (When Liners Tear Themselves Away), 1928), and displayed to full effect by 1935 in Dupain, Max’s photography in particular. Cazneaux’s reputation as an important transitional figure was later confirmed by Dupain’s description of him as ‘the father of modern Australian photography’ (M. Dupain: ‘Caz—An Appreciation’, Cazneaux: Photographs by Harold Cazneaux 1878–1953 (Canberra, 1978), p. xi).

Modernist photography displayed the characteristics of the international style of New Photography: the use of sharp focus, unusual viewpoints and bold, geometric compositions. Australian practitioners were not involved in a revolutionary programme of social and political activism, as in the USSR and Germany, but were passionate in their identification with progressive elements of modern life and their desire to embody the spirit of their own times. Modernists were keen to differentiate themselves from Pictorialists, who favoured the use of generalized, timeless subject-matter, soft-focus, and hand-worked printing processes such as gum bichromates and carbon prints. There was, however, a crucial link between Pictorial photography, which dominated the photography scene from c. 1897–c. 1935, and modernism. This was the interest in Australian conditions, especially the qualities of Australian light. Eric Keast Burke (1896–1974) and Cazneaux championed the ‘sunshine’ school of photography, which made the most of bright sunlight, while Dupain went further to argue that working outdoors was another essential ingredient in the formation of a national photography.

Modernists such as Dupain, Laurence Le Guay (1917–90), Axel Poignant (1906–86), and Athol Shmith (1914–90) benefited from the explosion of activity in the commercial fields of illustrative and advertising photography, including fashion and celebrity portraiture. With its strong graphic qualities their work was ideally suited to publication in magazines. These photographers were innovative stylistically but remained committed to realist approaches in their long careers. Their engagement with Surrealism, for example, was relatively short lived, confined mostly to staged imagery and the production of photomontages. Abstraction and radical modernist experimentation did not gain a substantial foothold in part because of the apolitical nature of the majority of photographic practice.

Max Dupain: Sunbaker, gelatin silver photograph, 3.77×4.32 m, 1937 (Canberra, National Gallery of Australia, Gift of the Philip Morris Arts Grant, 1982); photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

Dupain’s photography is informed by vitalist philosophy and is distinguished by its drama and an intense physical energy. This is evident in Sunbaker (1937), probably the best-known Australian photograph produced to date. The male bather is muscular and fit, ready to spring into action, his pyramidal form dominating a beachscape which, although generalized, is immediately recognizable as a typically Australian location.

Olive Cotton: Papyrus, gelatin silver photograph, 3.68×3 m, 1938 (Canberra, National Gallery of Australia, purchased 1987); photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

In the modernist period women photographers became more conspicuous. They had been involved in the field as early as 1858 (e.g. Louisa Elizabeth How (d 1893), Australia’s first woman photographer), had assisted in businesses run by their husbands and families, and had worked in large studios such as Charles Kerry’s in Sydney. However, it was the 1920s before photographers such as the sisters May Moore (1881–1931) and Mina Moore (1882–1957), and Ruth Hollick (1883–1977) established their own studios. Olive Cotton (1911–2003) adopted a modernist idiom around 1935, using unusual vantage points in her photography of the natural world (see Papyrus, 1938).

Wolfgang Sievers: Manufacture of Matches at Bryant and May, Melbourne, gelatin silver photograph, 6.2×5 m, 1939, printed 1982 (Canberra, National Gallery of Australia); photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

Another key aspect to Australian modernism was the contribution made by European émigrés who arrived in 1938–9 or after World War II. They included Austrian-born Margaret Michaelis (1902–85); German-born Helmut Newton, Wolfgang Sievers, Henry Talbot (1920–99), and Mark Strizic (1928–2012); and Dutchman Richard Woldendorp (b 1927). Their ages and backgrounds varied but they had in common a direct experience of European modernism, including the heritage of the Bauhaus. Thus, in the fields of portraiture, fashion, and architectural and industrial photography, Michaelis, Newton, and Sievers respectively regarded their commercial assignments as their creative work (see Manufacture of Matches at Bryant and May, Melbourne, 1939).

3. Art photography in the 20th century.

From the 1840s onwards photography attracted talented practitioners who demonstrated a command of the imaginative possibilities of their medium and of aesthetic conventions. In the 19th century their efforts were largely tied to commerce, but by the turn of the 20th century the Pictorialists established an independent art photography scene, exhibiting their work in photography salons overseas and in Australia. However, art photography as it is now understood did not emerge until the late 1960s, when a new generation of practitioners championed photography as an expressive form. Most chose not to work in the commercial sphere and aimed to earn a living from their art practice. They set up photography galleries, including the Australian Centre for Photography founded in Sydney in 1973, and campaigned for institutional support. Curatorial departments were established at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and the Australian National Gallery, Canberra (opened 1982; now the National Gallery of Australia). Photography also began to be taught at art colleges around the country. Key figures involved in the early years of the art photography movement were David Moore, Wesley Stacey (b 1941), and John Williams (b 1933).

In the 1970s photographic practice could be categorized into two broad areas: one advocated the unique and specific qualities of the medium, while the other was aligned with other areas of the visual arts, especially painting and performance. Realist approaches that had long been dominant were revitalized in documentary work by Rennie Ellis (1940–2003), Max Pam (b 1949), Jon Rhodes (b 1947), Roger Scott (b 1944), and others. Their work engaged with contemporary life on different levels, ranging from the sensory to the political. Highly personal, self-expressive photography—notably by Bill Henson—flourished and, for the first time, conceptually oriented approaches became prominent, as in the case of Peter Kennedy and Robert Rooney.

Carol Jerrems: Vale Street, gelatin silver photograph, 202×303 mm, 1975 (Canberra, National Gallery of Australia, Gift of the Philip Morris Arts Grant, 1982); photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

Feminism underpinned a great deal of dynamic new work. Carol Jerrems (see Vale Street, 1975)), Micky Allan (b 1944), Ruth Maddison (b 1945), and others were instrumental in developing a consensual approach that depended on their subjects’ cooperation or collaboration. Sue Ford (see Discussions between Bob Hawke and Galarrwuy Yunupingu, 1988) and Virginia Coventry (b 1942) in the 1970s, and Julie Brown Rrap (b 1950) in the 1980s, were particularly concerned with issues involving the politics of representation.

Fiona Hall: The Real Thing, Polaroid photographs, 680×530 mm each, 1994 (Sydney); photo courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

Photography cemented its place in the visual arts in the 1980s and research into Australian photographic history began to flourish, culminating in the publication of two histories of photography in 1988 (see G. Newton and A.-M. Willis). Significant developments in the area of practice included the influence of post-modern and post-colonial theories in the 1980s and 1990s. This gave rise to a self-conscious or constructed style of photography by Fiona Hall (see The Real Thing, 1994) and Robyn Stacey (b 1971), among others, that coincided with the preference for colour, large-scale prints, and commanding forms of installation.

Anne Zahalka: Cole Classic, from series Leisureland, type C photograph, 11.5×14.5 m, 1999; photo courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

The advent of digital photography in the early 1990s did not result in the death of photography as was anticipated. Pat Brassington (b 1942) created unsettling, manipulated imagery, which drew from Surrealism and psychoanalytical theory, while others continued with documentary approaches and an engagement with the ‘real’. This includes the diverse work of David Stephenson (b 1955; Minimalist Antarctic landscapes), William Yang (b 1943; a personal perspective on the effects of the AIDS/HIV epidemic), Ricky Maynard (b 1953; portraits of indigenous elders), and Anne Zahalka (large-scale photographs of leisure pursuits; e.g. Cole Classic, 1999). A conceptual approach to documentary was explored by Simryn Gill, while Justene Williams (b 1970) and Darren Sylvester (b 1974) have dealt in different ways with the mundane nature of contemporary life.

Rosemary Laing: groundspeed (Red Piazza) #4, type C photograph, 12.4×23.3 m, 2001; photo courtesy of the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

Crossovers between previously discrete areas became increasingly common, with the blurring of boundaries between documentary, fashion, and advertising photography. The base for photographic scholarship broadened as well, with serious attention given to anthropological photography, police photography, and vernacular traditions. Also important was the internationalization of Australian practice. Bill Henson and Tracey Moffatt frequently exhibited at international venues and Henson and Patricia Piccinini each represented Australia at the Venice Biennale (1995 and 2003). Piccinini has worked with sculpture, video, and photography to consider the interrelationship of nature and technology. Other practitioners have engaged with the legacy of colonization—Rosemary Laing through landscape (see groundspeed (Red Piazza) #4, 2001) and Anne Ferran (b 1949) through responses to elements in women convicts’ history.

4. Indigenous photography.

Photographs of Aboriginal peoples have undergone a number of phases since 1847. In the earliest images—for example, by Douglas Kilburn (c. 1812–71), Antoine Fauchery (1823–61), Richard Daintree, Charles Woolley (1834–1922), and Henry Frith (fl 1858–64)—the subjects have considerable presence and gravitas. By the 1870s the representations had often hardened into stereotypes. Common to both approaches, however, was the view that indigenous people were ‘primitive’, destined to extinction in an urbanized and industrialized world (see also Anthropology and photography).

J. W. Lindt: Family Group, Ulmarra Tribe, Clarence River, NSW, gelatin silver photograph, 308×241 mm, 1872 (Canberra, National Gallery of Australia); photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

Although the photographs are mostly of individuals and groups, the subjects are usually un-named and cast as generic types. J. W. Lindt (1845–1926) deployed a range of studio props in his series Australian Aboriginals (1873–4; see Family Group, Ulmarra Tribe, Clarence River, NSW). Such photographs were not commissioned by the subjects, as in the case of settlers’ portraits, but were initiated by photographers themselves, keen to capitalize on the appetite for images of typical Australian material: scenery, flora, and fauna. Aboriginal people were also subject to scrutiny for scientific reasons by Paul Foelsche (1831–1914), a policeman based in Darwin, and by anthropologists including fine amateur photographers Baldwin Spencer (1860–1929) and Donald Thomson (1901–70).

By the turn of the 20th century, Aboriginal people were no longer a staple of commercial photography, except in postcards. Their disappearance reflected not only the brutal facts of colonization but also what anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner referred to in 1968 as ‘a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale’ (W. E. H. Stanner: After the Dreaming: Black and White Australians, An Anthropologist’s View (Sydney, 1968), p. 25).

Destiny Deacon: Over the Fence, Lambda print from Polaroid, 8×10 m, 2000 (Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased with funds provided by the Photography Collection Benefactors’ Program 2001); image © Destiny Deacon, licensed by VISCOPY, Sydney

In the 1970s Aboriginal subjects began to reappear in photographs but on the politicized terms of self-determination and land rights. In 1986 the first indigenous photography exhibition was held, and in 1991 Tracey Moffatt curated an exhibition on the work of Mervyn Bishop (b 1945), the first professional indigenous photographer. This flurry of activity signalled the emergence of a talented group of urban-based, art school-trained indigenous practitioners who transformed the photography scene. Their approaches have been diverse, ranging from the conceptually based practice of Destiny Deacon (see Over the Fence, 2000) to the elegant spirituality of the work by Michael Riley (1960–2004).

A major concern, first evident in Tracey Moffatt’s Some Lads (1986) and continued in the work of Fiona Foley (b 1964), Brook Andrew (b 1970), Christian Thompson (b 1978), and Michael Cook (b 1968), has been with Australian history and the historical archive. Nineteenth-century imagery, including photographs and anthropological studies, has been reclaimed and re-imagined by indigenous artists, curators, and writers in an emphatically contemporary context. Brenda L. Croft, herself an artist and curator, provided an indigenous perspective on post-colonialism in her writings on photographs by J. W. Lindt and others.

Incorporating photography from the past into the present introduced different ways of thinking about time and also served as a testament to the survival and resistance of Aboriginal people. In Australia from the mid-1980s onwards, photography by indigenous artists emerged as a touchstone for wide-ranging debate on matters of identity, history, the legacy of colonialism, and Australia’s place in an increasingly globalized world.


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