The Adelaide Photography 1970-2000 book begins

Today I  started work in a rather  low key way on the Adelaide Photography 1970-2000 book that  Adam Dutkiewicz and I will   work on  together after he finishes Volume 2 of A Visual History: the Royal South Australian Society of Arts 1856-2016.  The  Adelaide Photography book is to be published by  Moon Arrow Press, and   hopefully, if all goes well with the contributions from the Adelaide art photographers in this period   it will be published in late 2018. The book builds  on the Abstract Photography: Re-evaluating Visual Poetics in Australian Modernism and Contemporary Practice book that Adam and I published  in 2016.

Low key here means that I contacted several  people to see if they were interested in their work  being a part of the project;  and secondly, I  have started to read some tough going texts on aesthetics  that I’d  borrowed from the Flinders University of South Australia’s Library to help me  write an  essay on the aesthetics  of art photography for the book. The  questions I am addressing in the essay are: ‘what are  the aesthetic underpinnings for an autonomous  art photography after  it  has been accepted and incorporated into the  art institution? Secondly, if art is a form of rationality as  is assumed, then how does art’s rationality differ from the rationality of the natural sciences and economic rationality?

Adelaide plains

As well as the aesthetics essay there will be an art historical essay about the photography of this period. The centre of the book  is the portfolios of (approximately) 12 photographers which each photographer has about 4-6 pages for their pictures  including  an artist statement about their work.

Robert McFarlane has agreed to contribute to the book,  and his work  makes  an  ideal  start  to the book’s  portfolio section. In an essay written for Robert McFarlane’s Received Moments: Photography  1961-2009 (circa 2009) travelling exhibition Gael Newton addressed one of the many gaps in her influential historical survey, Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988, which was published in 1988. She says that McFarlane was:

a significant member of the somewhat neglected generation of Australian photographers whose careers began in the late fifties and early sixties. They slip between pre-war modernists and pioneer photojournalists like David Moore, and the ‘baby boomer’ personal documentary photographers of the 1970s who claimed photography as their medium and dismissed photographers of the recent past. The young photographers of the seventies – mostly using modern 35mm reflex cameras – redefined documentary photography as a subjective form of witness. Their preference was to show their work in books and art exhibitions rather than in mass market picture magazines.

In a footnote Newton mentioned that this “neglected group includes classic landscape photographers: John Cato (Melbourne), Richard Woldendorp (Perth), Wesley Stacey (all over Australia) and architecture and topographical artists John Gollings (Melbourne and Asia), and Richard Stringer (Queensland). The group includes documentary photographers Jeff Carter (South Coast, New South Wales) and John Williams (Tasmania). ”

It is good to see the acknowledgment  of topographical photography. It’s recognition in the Australian  art institution is long overdue.  

Newton, however,  fails to address two other gaps in her  historical survey.   The first one is  the absence of a regional approach to art  photography of  the late 20th century –that is, work  produced in places outside the hegemonic Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne triangle eg., in South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania. What would a regional approach look like?  Adelaide Photography 1970-2000 sets out to answer this question.

Secondly, the  art historical approach to art photography does not explore the aesthetics of art photography in the last quarter of the 20th century, and so  it does  not  suggest or outline  what distinguishes an autonomous art photography from the various forms  of commercial photography in the culture industries.The art historical texts –and I include those about  the visual arts in general– assume  modernism’s claim that photography is a medium—i.e.,  what makes photography a single, unified medium– and that it is indeed one. They  do not make the conceptual shift to pictures. The inference is that art historians in Australia are  indifferent to, or avoid,  the  advanced theoretical and conceptual analysis of their objects of inquiry;  and they do  not feel it professionally incumbent upon them to inform themselves about debates as to what counts as a photograph, photography, or a photographic process.

La Trobe Valley, Victoria

Art history and criticism stands to gain by getting clearer about its unreflective assumptions regarding its object of inquiry in relation to the philosophical conceptions of the medium. Art history’s aesthetic gap is problematic since the analytic tradition’s  writings on photography  have been influenced by  two papers published thirty-odd years ago: Roger Scruton’s “Photography and Representation” and Kendall Walton’s “Transparent Pictures.”  

Scruton’s argument is  that photographs cannot be a representational art in  that the “ideal photograph” (understood in a logical rather than a normative sense) cannot be representational art because it fails to represent its subject in the aesthetically relevant sense of completely expressing its maker’s thought about it.  Walton’s argument  is that photographs are transparent in that we literally, if indirectly, see through photographs to what they are photographs of because photographs do not depend on the mental states of the photographer but simply record how things stood in a given portion of the world at a given time.

These analytic philosophers  tend to take something like the snapshot (that is, an automatically recorded image) as paradigmatic of how photography in general works. They failed to recognise that conceptual and post conceptual artists artists were interested in the nonart nature of photography, whether professional or amateur, as a new resource or horizon of possibility for avant-garde artistic practice in a climate of increasing commercialization. That is, many artists valued photography in all the respects in which it seemed to evade, rather than mimic, art with a capital A—hence photography’s standing as the pictorial equivalent of the readymade. These  conceptual artists’ aligned photography with a critique of the (modernist) aesthetic.

If  Australian art history’s narrative of the evolution of  photographic style is placed in the context of the analytic tradition’s  writings on photography,   then we can see that it is in  opposition to Scruton and Walton’s arguments.  The emphasis in art history is on artistic intentionality (artistic agency) in order to support the  aesthetic character of photographic art and to underwrite  art history’s  account of artists inventing or reinventing the  photographic medium. Photography becomes bound up with,  and grounded in,  subjectivity.  Artistic intentionality is  assumed,  and this assumption reduces artistic agency to intentionality, thereby forgetting that though intention may require agency, agency does not require intention.  This assumption also ignores the deliberate abnegation of authorial control in favor of chance, accident, and automatism in  art photography.

Trunk, Riverland, SA

The 1970-2000  period  is one in which photographic art is no longer regarded as a subgenera apart,  and this was   accompanied by a corresponding expansion of its criticism and theory.  This period  is  the turning point  between modernist  and postmodernist art,  and it is one in which the key tenets of the modernist aesthetic–the idea of aesthetic progress  predicated on the criteria of the most advanced material and medium specificity are rejected and replaced by  a multiplicity of  styles and tendencies.

So there is a need to consider  the aesthetics of art photography.    The books on  aesthetics that I am reading are David Roberts, Art and Enlightenment: Aesthetic Theory after Adorno; J. M Bernstein, The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno; Andrew Bowie,  Aesthetics and Subjectivity: from Kant to Nietzsche; Douglas Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins. These texts are heavy going and they assume a working knowledge of the continental philosophical tradition from Kant and Hegel onwards.

I’m struggling.

 

Advertisements

One thought on “The Adelaide Photography 1970-2000 book begins

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s