Melbourne snapshots

The 1970s can be seen as an end point in the historical trajectory of photography’s shift from a wider scientific and empirical discourse in the nineteenth century to an aesthetic discourse in the twentieth century under the influence of those members of the art institution invested in legitimating photography as an art.

At photography in the 1970s was about individualistic subjectivity or personal expression as opposed to documentary photography or photojournalism that had been central in the 1960s.

Sally Jackman, Gore St, Melbourne, 1977

Modernism’s tension and instability was premised on the antithetical impulses of what it opposed–the kitsch of mass culture and realism. Realism represented an old way of seeing that needed to be swept away to make way for a new modes of perception and style of image making that were appropriate for an “advanced” modern society, such as Australia in the 1970-80s.

Hence the demise of social documentary photography and the emergence of images exploring processes of identification and political subjectivity in a multicultural Australia.

After I left working on the tramways and studying photography I started to wander the streets around Melbourne to make photos. This is a style of working with pieces or fragments, rather than transforming the documentary status of the depiction of an everyday event into a pictorially composed, unified image as the poetic basis for art photography.

Fitzroy, Melbourne, 1979

Around 1980-81 I moved to Adelaide where I started the Bowden project and enrolled in Flinders University of South Australia to study philosophy and visual arts. I continued to work within the snapshot approach to photography as digging amongst the enchantments of the wish images and pleasures of happiness promised by a commodity culture.

I also kept on returning to an industrial Melbourne, as I saw it to be a centre of industrial modernity and the ascendence of art photography in a way that Adelaide was not. Adelaide, though a capital city, was more of a large country town bounded by its past; whereas Melbourne was a modern city saturated with the phantasmagoria of a commodity culture with mythic belief in progress, it orientation towards the future, and its emphasis on the ever new.

male mannequin, Little Bourke St, Melbourne, 1981`

This period–1960-2000– is in the process of being reframed as one of vernacular photography that puts forward the idea of an Australian photography that contributes to the formation of an independent Australian culture. Another possibility is that “Australian photography” has no schools, no centre, is always in between, its practitioners cultivating a individualistic frame of mind and fostering an outsider position.

This shift to cultural history is a change to the standard emphasis on both period style or form and the biographical and monographic approach of orthodox art history. The latter’s fortified settlements in academia and the art gallery function to establish and transmit the canon. This canon formation, which takes place within the professional disciplinary conventions, allocates photography a peripheral position in mainstream art practice and general art histories.

This canon is part of the classical, hierarchical view on art, which instigates binary oppositions between High and Low, central and peripheral, inventive and repetitive, avant-garde and academic.


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