The rationale for the Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia is a simple one. It comes from an insightful observation made by Gael Newton in her Preface to Photo Files: an Australian Photography Reader in 1999 about one way to map the new territory for photography within the Australian art institution. Newton says that:
One of the ironies of the past decades is that Photofile has provided continuity in a field in which book publication on Australian photography has been erratic and disappointing. Currently there is a dearth of books in print on the most obvious topics. Huge amounts of work needs to be done in standard publishing of historical and contemporary research of a sustained nature.
This signposts a pathway to re-interpret the written history of photographic culture in Australia; a pathway to uncover what happened, but which has faded, has been forgotten, and is considered obsolete until it is rediscovered. The past informs or shapes the present through legacy, memory, trace, retrieval, mourning, commemoration.
The legacy of the past istelos of the canonical art history of Australia’s visual artwas constructed under the influence of the formalist modernist aesthetics developed and defended by Clement Greenberg, John Szarkowski and Michael Fried, and by art institutions such as the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the National Gallery of Australia (ANG). This modernist art history of photography, with its assumptions of the autonomous artwork, the original artist, medium specificity, a high/mass culture divide and an oeuvre was constructed during the 1960s when critics were starting to become aware that this kind of formalist modernism was problematic. This resistance lead to the formation of October in the mid-1970s and the formation of a critical postmodernism.
The Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia is situated in that empty space of conventional art history. This is an empty, silent space because the art photography or photo art in Adelaide has been consistently overlooked by the modernist art historians and curators. The history of art photography in Adelaide from the 1970s—2000 has also been ignored in the national timelines of photography in Australia, as constructed by Daniel Palmer and Martin Jolly in their online Curating Photography project. If this past has been buried as if it never happened, then the photos in the Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia were made from the borderlands of Australian visual culture.
This borderland is becoming porous with the pictorial turn, as several books by Adelaide photographers have been produced the first two decades of the 21st century. These include Alex Frayne’s Adelaide Noir and Theatre of Life, Mark Kimber, Deborah Pauuwe, Stavros Pippos, Che Chorally’s Sky Sea Me, Gary Haigh’s Mysteries of the Ordinary and two texts by Gary Sauer-Thompson and Adam Dutkiewicz: Abstract Photography: Re-evaluating Visual Poetics in Australian Modernism and Contemporary Practice (2017) and Adelaide Art Photographers c1970-2000 (2019). Do these suggest an alternate history?
These books do help to fill in one of the regional gaps in the national art history of photography. They suggest that there was a particular way in a given historical or social context that art is identified as art; a critical discourse of photography emerges through a questioning of a modernist aesthetic detached from history or politics. The historical context is one in which the gate keepers of art photography in Melbourne and Sydney in the late 20th century ignored what happened in the regions outside of the Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney triangle. Gate keeping implies power/knowledge relations and multiple points of cultural resistance inscribed with the networks of power as an opposite.
The Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia has its roots in an uncompleted MA by dissertation and photography. It is based on a form of memory work involving an active seeking out and an interpretive and reconstructive approach to the past. It consists of four sections: the first is snapshot street photography in the 1970s and 1980s; the second is the photos made in Adelaide/Port Adelaide; third is documentary photos of Bowden, Adelaide during the 1980s; and fourth are the road trips in the 1980s and 1990s. Each of these sections has a text which deals with the particular aspects of the photographic culture in Australia. The book, which is constructed from my unruly 1980s photographic and text archives, is a form of memory work that adopts an interpretive and reconstructive approach to the everyday of the past through weaving together image and text.
What unfolds is a collage of images and writings that stand at the margins of being systematically and/or instinctively ordered. Academic convention demands the former. Though the MA was in a university it was not systematically ordered, and it was abandoned. My memories of this past are vague, diffuse or unspecific. The kaleidoscope of images and text mean that the Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia is an image text that breaks with the modernist type of photo-book, which consists of images with a minimal introductory text, thereby challenging the modernist dichotomy between image and text.
As a composite work The Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia rejects the idea of the literal image — that photographs are a direct, unmediated copy of what they represent—in favour of a historical account of images based in conventionalism in which pictures are a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies and figurality. It is a crossover in that text and image are intricately entangled in a narrative web, work in collaboration, or are supplementary. They tell a complicated story about a particular place though opening up a clearing within a world of a forgotten past. The narrative in the book is reinvented, text and images are combined in weird assemblages, and the reworked pieces of the past have been over layered in some new sense.
The reason for this approach is that I don’t have a clear memory of my photographic past, only vaguely recall my thinking about the photographic culture of that period, and have a slippery awareness of what I was trying to argue in the written material about photography based on what I was then reading. So I have to reconstruct or reassemble my experiences from various materials from the archive and library. The result is that the different pieces gathered into a single context as a visual parataxis.
Photography, archive, text and memory are closely connected. Walter Benjamin showed that modern memory relies on the materiality of the trace, or the visibility of the image. My personal memories of the 1980-1990s are flawed, fragmentary and malleable and they have become foggy, or faded like old photographs. Many of my experiences and memories have been forgotten, and there are many blank years. Memory is selective, elusive, vivid in parts, and open to embellishment as well as loss.
My memories, by and large, are associated with, and depend upon, the abandoned photographic and the textual material of the MA —- abandoned to do a PhD in philosophy. As such my memory is “archival”, in that it extensively relies on the materiality of the trace and the visibility of the image and text. This process of recuperative memory through returning to the archive is not simply remembering the past – recuperating it – but remembering memory itself, where it appears to have slipped away. The photographic/textual archive filters and mediates what is preserved and recalled.
We associate photographs with memories; they are the relics of our time. Kodak, for instance, commodified memory in that the snapshots they processed offered consumers the means to preserve their personal memories. As with human memory, we can no longer verify the original experience or sensation of the photograph, and so the photographs do not enable the past to be truthfully known. The photos are of a time but they do not show what happened before and after the shutter closed, or what was outside the frame. Still, the ambiguities in the black and white photos and text are a guard against cultural memory loss, as well as being a step into a history of the present. They have the power of reactivating sediments of earlier meanings from the past that emerge into the present through their affective impact on the viewer.
Photography is bound up with the processes of remembering, forgetting and interpreting. These archival black and white photos with their transfiguration of the commonplace help to inform the imagining of different histories to those we have inherited and, hopefully, to interpret alternative futures in the present.