The 1970s-1990s period was a melting away of all that was once solid and stable with the emergence of flux and flow in Australia’s neo-liberal culture and economy. Australia celebrated its opening up to the rest of the world whilst photography was onside, and aligned with, the progressive thinking in the 1970s. Optimism banished pessimism.
This was a period of societal and political change, with the end in 1972 of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and of conscription, into emerging socialist perspectives on civil rights and the women’s liberation movement which swept a Federal Labor Government, led by Gough Whitlam, into power after 20 years of conservative rule. Photography was gaining a place in the art institution and in art history, with its notions of artistic genius, innovation, vision, technical excellence, period style and rarity and aura. Art photography was heavily promoted by the Photography Gallery in theform of a ‘fine-print’ tradition of photography as an autonomous modernist art, and it was experienced as darkly framed black and prints on a white gallery wall. There was little to no colour work being shown apart from Eliot Porter.
I’d studied photography at the Photography Studies College (PSC) in Melbourne under John Cato during 1977-79, whilst working as a conductor on the Melbourne trams. These were heady, optimistic days: American photography exhibited circa 1977-9 included Wynn Bullock Ralph Gibson, William Clift, Oliver Gagliani, Aaron Siskind, Emmett Gowin, Les Krims. This was in stark contrast to the advertising/fashion work that had dominated Melbourne photography; or the 35mm street photography with its celebration of subjective vision of the first generation of artist photographers from the Prahran College under Paul Cox, Athol Shmith and John Cato, that was shown at Brummels Gallery in South Yarra.
Prahran stood for creative art photography compared to RMIT, which emphasised commerce and industry. The body of work produced by these creative artist photographers in the 1970s was premised on individual freedom of expression, and it helped to revive the medium as an art form in Australia; a medium that art historians were saying had been in a deep freeze since the Pictorialist era at the beginning of the 20th century.
Modernism circulated through the various public and private photographic galleries in Melbourne, such as the Photographer’s Gallery in South Yarra and the Church Street Gallery in Richmond. Modernism’s form was that of Greenberg’s formalist modernism that had been reworked by John Szarkowski, curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), to assert the aesthetic value of the photographic medium against the mass culture of journals, magazines and television. This concern in the Photographer’s Eye is with photographic style and tradition and the shared vocabulary of photography that belongs to photography alone. The formal characteristics he identified were modes of photographic description, since Szarkowski stopped short of the move to abstraction, in that he left untouched the classical classical system of representation that depends on the assumed transparency of the picture surface.
I left a dynamic Melbourne for the historically conservative city of Adelaide at the end of the 1970s, as I wanted to establish a critical distance from both the American fine art print tradition and a formalist modernism. Going to the periphery of the regions was a way to establish a critical distance as there were no resources in Melbourne’s photographic culture to help me critically assess the American understanding of art photography. No one I knew in the art institution was reading or talking about the essays in October.
The emergence of art photography in the 1970s was one in which art photographers were taking pictures and looking at pictures without worrying too much about what constitutes a picture, or the ontology of photographic pictures. This street photography in the 1970s worked within pictorial realism without being bothered about the epistemic value (namely the value pictures possess insofar as they may furnish a viewer with knowledge of the things they depict) compared to handmade pictures such as paintings or prints.
The on-the-street snapshot photography, lies within the broad realist tradition and the common place; and, as a commonplace expression, it is part of the popular, vernacular image culture with all its paradoxes and polarities. The background was two influential exhibitions of snapshot photography were Edward Steichen’s famous show from 1955, The Family of Man and John Szarkowski’s 1964 exhibition The Photographer’s Eye. The former emphasised the message of the photographs to the exclusion of the medium, whilst the latter emphasised the medium to the exclusion of the complex social and political network to which the snapshot is bound. If both exhibitions foregrounded the role of the curator, not the artist, re-situating aesthetic genius (or the photographic visionary) from photographer to curator, they also tacitly suggested that snapshots, to paraphrase Hegel, were “the prose of the modern world”—the central mode of visual perception. Visual understanding is snapshot understanding.
The snapshot aesthetic is usually understood as an informal photograph taken quickly, typically with a small, handheld, high quality 35mm camera. Realism is often interpreted as a ‘styleless’ or transparent style, a mere simulacrum or mirror image of visual reality; realistic looking snapshots often seem to have no style at all, or appear unstylized. As photo historian Geoffrey Batchen puts it, the form of amateur photographic practice snapshot photographs is “predictable, conservative, and repetitive in both form and content”. The snapshot is the antithesis of romantic imagery, creativity and narrative.
Snapshots, far from being innocent, are pre-meditated, culturally defined, and oriented toward a very particular end. They have long been culturally inscribed, their form and content determined before anyone presses the button. This “absence of style” is itself a style. For example, it has been used in advertising where it is used to provide glamour, aura, and refinement to countless products, brands and organisations within a visual rhetoric of authenticity.
One of the features of the pictures made within a snapshot photography has been its ability to arrest the linear course of events, and to offer still’ slices’ of the undetermined flow of time and movement. These ‘frozen’ fragments of reality have been interpreted as both preserving a lasting memory of what has been to a photo-image making as an immediate experience of everyday life. There is a duality in this aesthetic: spontaneous yet composed; authentic yet constructed; realistic yet sophisticated. The visual style is constructed precisely to seem unconstructed, manufactured to be read as spontaneous.
The modernist usage of the snapshot aesthetic is in art photography of Robert Frank, Garry Winograd and Lee Friedlander. Underpinning this art photography was a key tenet of a modernist aesthetic: that an art photograph functions as an expression of the photographer’s interior, a vehicle for his/her thoughts, feelings and so on. If art photography’s achievements are based largely on an aesthetic of the photographic – meaning that there are distinct inherent properties of the medium itself that give it value as an art-form—- then the skilled practitioner can employ these properties in order to produce expressive work (this is outlined in Szarkowski’s ‘Introduction’ to The Photographer’s Eye.
An entrenched convention of snapshot culture is street photograph’s ethos of shooting and hunting on the urban streets, the camera as a gun always ready to shoot, and the photographer as a hunter looking for meaningful, memorable moments to record for artistic or personal use. This longstanding notion of photography as an inherently aggressive act in which the snapshot photographer exercises power over what is photographed is most closely associated with Susan Sontag’s critique of it in her On Photography.
However, a snapshot culture has the potential to express one’s own vision of oneself and of history as exemplified in the work of Carol Jerrems, Ruth Maddison, Sue Ford and Ponch Hawkes. This use of photography as an intimate expression of individual concern to counter photography’s masculine gaze and its aesthetics of detachment. The snapshot aesthetic lends itself to the creation and validation of a personal history, alternative modes of social belonging, and the potential to aid the construction of alternative group identities. An example is Nan Goldin’s snap shot photography of the hard-drug subculture of the Bowery neighbourhood in New York in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and of herself, her friends, family, and community in the latter Soeurs, Saintes, et Sibylles (Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls).
The snapshots in the Bowden Archives are out of kilter to the experimentation in narrative, hand-colouring and sequential images. It was also out of kilter with Robert Rooney’s idea of the camera as a “dumb recorder” of the most ready-at-hand patterns of daily life; his serial production of artworks deprived from Minimalism; and his use of Kodak’s industrial methods of production to question the fetishisation of the unique original art work and to displace notions about creative authority.
A snapshot photograph becomes like a relic that keeps the memory alive. Snapshots are the clichés of visual culture—containers of old experiences; they contain, in a sense, the experiences and observations of former generations. As sites of memory, photographic images offer not a view on history; they act rather as mnemonic devices in that they are perceptual phenomena upon which a historical representation may be constructed–in this case a memory of Australian modernity and photographic culture in the last quarter of the 20th century.
This diverse use of the snapshot indicates the snapshot currency as a central mode of understanding of the transitory, fleeting character of industrial modernity. Painting had been pushed to the edges. We see the world in terms of the snapshot. In the flash of recognition past and present become conjoined for a fleeting moment. The snapshot opens up the unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to our unconscious impulses. The snapshot’s mimesis facilitates the possibility of forging a link between self and other through our desire to seek similarities in the world as a means of relating to it and to empathise with others.
The 1980s in Australia was the period of postmodernism’s resistance to, and critique of, the frozen assumptions of Clement Greenberg’s style of American modernist formalism, and the deconstruction of the legacy of modernist photography as a fine art. Street photography was equated with photo journalism, whilst documentary photography continued to remain unfashionable as it was interpreted as being intrinsically transparent to its subject and this transparency. This renders photography impossible as an art work because in merely giving us the subject it cannot have aesthetic significance. The theoretical attack on both snapshot photography’s assumptions about truth and on photographic realism as a positivism was widespread and influential. Realism and positivism were treated as identical.
Despite realism and documentary photography being seen as dated and obsolescent by postmodernism, there was a critical discourse around documentary photography in the 1980s which opened up a critical space to think about the significance of photography. Photodiscourse: Critical Thought and Practice in Photography edited by Kurt Bremerton in 1981 was the first book in Australia to bring together critical thought and theoretical writing and practice in a dialogue. Working Papers on Photography (WPOP) was produced by ex-students at Prahran Art School between 1978-1983 and it was the most overtly photographic publication in Australia at the time. It endeavoured to provide a critical discussion about photography, develop the idea of photographic critique and explore the ideology of the image.
WPOP put on a photography conference in Melbourne in 1980 where Allan Sekula keynote talk was ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ . He argued that the meaning of a photograph, like that of any other entity, is inevitably subject to cultural definition and where he critically engaged with a photographic discourse. Sekula showed that photography’s indexical relation to the world was more complex than the mirroring one of positivism, and that the various meanings of a photograph is constructed by both its referential status as well as by various cultural systems. Secondly, art photography traditional response to the positivist conception of photography as a window on the world was to get around photography’s transparency by saying that the picture was mediated by the photographer’s creative decisions, interventions, manipulations and artistic vision.
Postmodernism was a part of this critical discourse. It took the various forms of studio practice, appropriationist art practices, issues of identity and the body, conflation between realism and positivism, rejection of the purity of specific artistic medium in favour of the tradition of a mixed and hybrid media. This postmodernism, in highlighting the importance of pictures, indicated a significant change in our cultural world: the excess of images outside of the institution of art, the sense that the primacy and exclusivity of “pure” or “high” art was giving way before the vernacular visuality of everyday culture; and the separation of art history from visual studies.
Hence the exploration of the field of photography itself, consumer imagery, and the commercial applications of photography in advertising. Often they are a tentative playing in the field of the image and they employ a strategy of appropriation to question and comment on photographic practice itself, rather than employing elements of the photographic aesthetic as an expression of the artist’s interior world or subjectivity. They begin to engage in photography about photography, or maybe image-making about the image.
The optimism of the 1970s had faded by the end of the 1990s. This was marked by John Howard in government after 1996, and the emergence of a conservative and affirmative cultural programme that was interweaved with the euphoria of a commodity culture ideology and the cultural wars. This affirmative culture was increasingly wrapped in the commercial logic of the market. Art galleries became immersed in corporatism, dealers imposed themselves on the art world, the art market became a determinant of artistic significance whilst an independent critical discourse about art became beside the point. Artists were recast as celebrities and celebrity was used to demarcate an art brand.
This presaged a world where no one was interested in aesthetics and there was a rejection of theory following the end of postmodernism. Art critical writing would become the equivalent of a press release, commercially successful art identified as good art and a good investment, and the curator is the person establishing artist’s reputations through group shows and biennales. The anxiety of the art institution was the fear of the liquidation of art as we have known it by the excess of images where all images are deemed equal.
Candid Camera: Australian Photography 1950s-1970s, Julie Robinson, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2010.
Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses, Caroline Jones, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2006.
Illuminations, Walter Benjamin, trans Harry Zohn, Fontana, London, 1973.
On Photography, Susan Sontag, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1977.
Photodiscourse: Critical Thought and Practice in Photography, edited by Kurt Bremerton, Sydney College of the Arts, 1981.
Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973–1983, Alan Sekula, Mack Books, 2016.
Photography At The Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis,1994
Photography: Theoretical Snapshots, eds. J. J. Long, Andrea Noble and Edward Welch, (Routledge, London, 2009)
Realism, Linda Nochlin, Penguin, New York, 1971
Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images, Catherine Zuromskis, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2013.
The Photographer’s Eye, John Szarkowski, MOMA, New York, 1966.
What is This Thing Called Photography?: Australian Photography 1975-1985, edited Ewen McDonald and Judy Annear, Pluto Press, London, 2000.