Another image from my wandering the streets in Bowden, Adelaide. On this occasion the picture was made with a Leica M4. The picture is an unfashionable form of documentary photography, made when South Australia’s industrial decline was underway.
Australian photographic history in the late 1980s was premised on a narrative about being modern that was based on exceptional images produced by a few celebrated photographers and their transcendent achievements. This art history, based largely on the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, was written in the context of the establishment of photography as an accepted and publicly funded art form.
These kind of histories of art photography were uncritically dependent on formalist art-historical narratives and standards of quality formulated in the US. Their narratives one of a move within Australian culture from an insular provincialism toward a more modern (and by that is usually meant “more international”) sensibility. Australian photography came of age with its embrace of Modernist formalism. This narrative ignored, or gave little coverage to, the regional character of photography within Australia. For example, the diversity of photographic work made in Adelaide in the 1980s was overlooked. That regional history has yet to be written.
The 1970s in Australia saw the formation of the ACP in Sydney and the Photographers’ Gallery in Melbourne (both in 1974) and the appointment of specialist photography curators for the first time in the state galleries of Victoria (1972) and New South Wales (1974). Max Dupain’s work provided a ready- made genealogy, an extended history as well as an avant-garde tradition, on which an argument for Australian art photography could be built. The 1980s then saw the development in Australia of a substantial art world economy that made art photography possible: a supportive network of schools, galleries, museums, magazines, and public funding that had been unknown in Australia in previous decades.
The 1980s can be seen as the decade of the professionalism of a new generation of artist- photographers, the diversity of their backgrounds, the interest of many of these photographers in French poststructuralist theory, the emphasis on grand, studio-induced images that suggest “excess, artifice and decadence,”and the ability of these images to deny photography’s traditional claims to truth and realism.
This kind of documentary /street photography in Adelaide was squeezed between postmodernism adopted by the professionally trained artist-photographers and those who used photography as an alternative to established art practices, and who allied themselves to the conceptual and counter-cultural movements then being embodied in other aspects of the art institution. Documentary photography is a relatively marginal photographic tradition in Australia. Despite Max Dupain’s documentary photography in the 1940s, this type of photography is usually seen as not art photography–it is usually held to be a form of photo journalism that we see in newspapers and magazines.
This is the old dividing line of between the work of art and the documentary image, between subjective interpretation and objective representation. What is usually ignored is that the objective documentary image and the subjective, artistic approach is not contradictory as the recent tradition has accustom us to accept. Documentary photography, as distinct from a document, implies image making that has been shaped by indexicality, interpretation and an agenda project. It both shows a specific situation within the regional specificities of Australian life and informs the viewer about it means.
This kind of photography has been pushed to the margins in order to delimit what is and is not proper to the art history’s enterprise in Australia. There is a lacuna in photography’s history; an absence, if you like that would undercut the historical judgements of photography’s Australian historians about art photography being the history of styles—from naturalism to modernism, to postmodernism, to contemporary photogoraphy –and the notion of the artwork on which their art-historical chronology is based.