Wall Power

Like most conquered and colonised lands brought to heel by the firepower and sheer numbers of European invasion, the evolution of photography in Australia followed a similar, historically recognisable pattern. The earliest uses of photography were to record Australia’s flora and fauna, its notable and wealthy citizens, and its unique landscapes. While these approaches were largely in service of 19th century scientific disciplines such as geology, biology and anthropology, and to flatter bourgeois tastes for portraiture and genre subjects, subsequent advances in photographic art in the 20th century were largely built on these foundations, practices that were at once peculiarly specific to their place and time, yet also universal, as Australian artists and photographers engaged with global developments.

Much contemporary Australian photographic practice draws its inspiration from the work of artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the colonial period, artists, illustrators and graphic artists were widely employed to record Australia for audiences in England and Europe. Much of this work was both imperial and scientific in nature, but as artists on the far away continent began to feel the influence of Romanticism of the mid-19th century, a tradition of grand painting arose to remake Australia as a dark and moody dreamland of hidden dangers and neo-classical idylls. Marian Drew’s Wombat and Watermelon [2005] and Joseph McGlennon’s Thylacine Study [2013] make explicit reference to this art history, reconfiguring the style of colonial artists in photography, while Bill Henson and Tamara Dean’s works consciously connects to Romantic and neo-Classical traditions in artfully composed contemporary tableaux. The tradition of landscape photography – long a staple of Australian art – is here seen vividly in the work of Murray Fredericks, whose sublime, minimal image suggests abstraction from the simple placement of a mirror in the landscape, while Indigenous artist Nici Cumpston’s hand-coloured images evoke both the work of Aboriginal painters such as Albert Namatjira, and quasi-objective scientific documentation of photography.

Until the 1980s, photography in Australia was regarded as a related but largely separate field of practice to what might be considered contemporary art. That division began to dissolve as the technology to make large-scale, colour photographic imagery became both more widely available and, not coincidentally, happened at about the same time that the effects of what was later called postmodernism became apparent in Australian art. The mark of this photography is often found in studio-bound work that does not hide the artificiality of its making, but rather celebrates it. Works such as Petrina Hicks’s Venus [2013], Deborah Paauwe’s Blue Curtain [2007] and Polixeni Papapetrou’s Heart [2016] – which celebrate symbols of the feminine – share common ground with the work of Joan Ross and Catherine Nelson, two artists who use openly manipulated photography to reconstitute the landscape in satirical-historical and scientific terms respectively. Fabian Muir’s Urban Burqa [2017] series of images represent a broad stream of performance art-photography practice, staged actions to create political and poetic narratives, a practice pioneered in works such as Rosemary Laing’s Flight Research [1999].

One of the artists who was a key member of the 1980s generation of early post modernists was Tracey Moffatt, whose Something More #1 [1989] also serves as an important historical marker for Indigenous artists using photography to reinterpret, question and critique Australia’s colonial heritage – and its contemporary attitudes. Michael Riley’s Untitled (Boomerang) [2000] presents the titular object as a work of minimalist beauty. Brooke Andrews’ Sexy and Dangerous [1996] looks back to the early anthropological records of Aboriginal people to repurpose contemporary notions of singular identity, while Tony Albert’s Mid Century Modern [2016] and Destiny Deacon’s Axed [1999-2003] find new narratives for racist kitsch. Christian Thompson’s This Brutal World [2017] – a response to Australian Modernist photographer Max Dupain’s iconic The Sunbaker [1937] – suggests an alternate interpretation of the country’s sunburnt shores.

This sketch history of Australian photography represents three broad trends presented in this collection. Some outliers here, such as Narelle Autio’s Shark Tattoo [2001], Trent Parke’s No. 178, A Candid Portrait of a Man on a Street Corner [2013] and Shaun Gladwell’s Self Portrait (Linework) [2005] represent the poetic possibilities of street and documentary photography, both highly significant aspects of contemporary Australian photographic practice.

Can we say then that Australian photography is significantly different from trends and developments elsewhere? There is a widely held assumption that, because of its geographical location, Australia is also culturally remote. This is not true, nor has it ever really been the case. Australian art has kept abreast of what happens globally but also, because of its physical isolation, those influences mutated into idiosyncratic local variations. Indeed, one could argue that Australian photography is unique in the world because of the strange admixture of its historical circumstance. Where cultural exchange between Australia and the world was once limited by the speed of freight and mail carriers, it is now instantaneously connected. The work here then represents Australian photography, both what it has been, and what it will become.

Essay commissioned for Wall Power: Contemporary Australian Photography, touring exhibition, London, Cologne, Berlin & Paris, September 7 2017 – November 11, 2018.

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