Collaboration exhibition in Adelaide

The SALA  Festival exhibition referred to in the previous posts of the blog (hereherehere and here)  has a title. It is  called Collaboration: Interrogating Melbourne's changing urban landscape and it can be seen  at Atkins Photo Lab. The exhibition's opening night was August 3rd,  and the exhibition runs from  August 4th to September 7th  during  the state wide 2018 SALA festival.  

This  exhibition is the first step in a project based on  large format photography (both black and white and colour)  interpreting  the changing urbanscape in Melbourne's  CBD, its industrial suburbs such as North Melbourne, Footscray and Sunshine,  and  the ever expanding western suburban edges  from a topographical perspective.  

Paul Atkins opened the exhibition and he talked about the transformative changes in the cities that we live in.  Then Stuart gave an artist talk about how he approaches his photography.  Stuart  highlighted how the has been working on this part of industrial Melbourne  for over a decade as a film photographer,   and he has an extensive archive of 5x4 black and white negatives.  This archive is a form of remembering  of what once was.       

photographing the industrial sublime

As mentioned in this earlier post on this low key blog about documentary  photography Stuart Murdoch and myself are having  a collaborative  exhibition  at the Atkins Photo Lab for South Australia's 2018  SALA  festival.   Two  outtakes for the  SALA exhibition from  Stuart's extensive archive  can be seen here on his blog.  The exhibition is  about an old industrial Melbourne that is rapidly disappearing in a post-industrial world.  

The large format  black and white and colour photographs in the Collaborations exhibition  are  underpinned by the conceptual framework of the industrial sublime rather than the industrial picturesque.  An  issue that comes to the fore with presenting these photographs of the industrial sublime is:  'how can a topographical approach to photography represent the industrial sublime'? How can photography represent the whole social context of capitalism's industrial  modernity in Melbourne,  after the demise of the long shadow cast by Greenbergian formalist modernism?

Though the sublime is a traditional category of aesthetics, it has recently seen a resurgence of interest beyond the passing whims of artistic fashion.  The sublime flashes up when confronted by an experience that is immense,  its scope is difficult to comprehend,  and the disparities allow the  emergence of new voices.  The sublime indicates a breakdown and an inability to represent. 

documentary photography in North Melbourne

This  photo of my  old Cambo 5x7 was taken by Stuart Murdoch  whilst we were on location in North Melbourne in the late afternoon in May 2018. At this particular moment of the photo session  I had briefly wandered over to the other side of the railway bridge  to scope the old  bridge and the city  with my Sony digital camera. 

At the time we  were in the process of making some photos for our  forthcoming  exhibition  at the Atkins Photo Lab for the 2018  SALA  festival about old industrial Melbourne.  The exhibition now has a title: Collaborations: Interrogating Melbourne's Changing Urban Landscape. This is collaboration in a substantive sense: subject matter, documentary photography of the object   as interpretation rather than depiction,  and  helping to develop an Australian tradition of a topographical understanding of  the human/nature relationship.  

 I have decided to  include some of my older Melbourne photographs in the exhibition, such as this one:  

The groups name  for the purposes of SALA is Australian Topographics with its references back to the American large format photography of the 1860s and the 1970s. The Australian reference is to David Stephenson's   photographs of Tasmanian dams  starting in  the 1980s,  which he interpreted in terms of the  technological sublime.  This interpretation of the sublime builds on, and works within, this body of work about the American construction of awesome technology--eg., railroads, pipelines, bridges and rocket launches at Cape Canaveral. 

Counterpath: returning to Melbourne

In an earlier post I mentioned that some of my documentary style photographs of  industrial Melbourne would be exhibited with those by Stuart Murdoch at Atkins Photo Lab during the SALA festival in August 2018.  The exhibition is about making things in the urbanscape visible, rather than a form of seeing what is already seen and noted. Photography is invested in the visible, but  the making visible is the sense of  making visible what is  ignored or overlooked. What people are blind to.    

This will be the first time the Melbourne work is exhibited. I don't have that much work in the archive of the reinventing documentary project--about 40 images.  This SALA  exhibition requires more phototrips to Melbourne  in order to  build up a portfolio of the remnants of industrial Melbourne. This will be after  the Mallee Routes exhibition at the Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery finishes in early May.

One  reason  for this lack of images  is that since 2012   I haven't been to Melbourne all that often to make photos.  Other projects, such as the Mallee Routes one,   took priority,  and the Melbourne project ended up  on the back burner.   It required a lot of  reading about Melbourne's urban development   and I didn't have the time. 

interpreting old industrial Melbourne

Whilst on a trip to Melbourne in early 2018 I was able to  briefly photograph around West Melbourne with Stuart Murdoch   in spite of the humidity and the intense heat. I was basically using a digital camera to scope images  for an exhibition with Stuart  at Atkins Photo Lab  in Adelaide during the SALA Festival in South Australia. This  festival is  around August 2018.

Whilst scoping the area in the railyards the will be transformed by the $11bn Metro underground railway project I  recalled that I had photographed in this area of North Melbourne  under the Citylink freeway and along the Moonee Ponds Creek with Stuart Murdoch.  At the time I couldn't recall what year that was. I just recognised the area,  remembered walking around the area,  and I recalled some of the images from that documentary photography photo session.  When I started to go through the archives  upon my  return to Adelaide I could see that I had been photographing around this area  in 2012.

I also realised that I didn't really know what I was trying to do with this documentary/topographic  style of photography in Melbourne. I just filed it under road trips,  and then forgot about it,  other than conceptualising it as reinventing a documentary style of photography in the 21st century.  

Why documentary photography is not art

I have come to realise that in Australia there is a division between documentary photography and art photography. Documentary photography is collected by the state libraries whilst art photography is collected by the art institutions. This is how curating is done in Australia.  

There are exceptions  to this, as always.  

Martin Jolly  has observed  that  the tradition in which the photograph as a historical and social information, and an aesthetic art object and exemplar of a tradition had co-existed within the formulations  for most of the 20th century  ruptured in the last part of that century was finally separated between libraries and galleries. This was when the primary aim of photography curating in the 1970s was to establish photography as art within the  ethos of the modernism whose histories of photography invariably privilege individual figures as geniuses.  

Today, photography is  photography is now deeply embedded in the art gallery/museum. Jolly says: 

"Over the intervening 40 years, since the establishment of various departments and the ACP, the boundaries of photography have expanded. However, galleries have largely kept to the historical trajectories inaugurated in the 1970s. In the 1980s, photographic reproductive processes became central to postmodern art, which had the flow-on effect of boosting photography’s place in the art museum (Tracey Moffatt, Bill Henson, Anne Zahalka, etc.). But postmodernism did not fundamentally alter the increasing focus of departments of photography on ‘art photography’."
Jolly goes to observe that  the mere integration of photography into the newly contemporary art museum all too easily elides is that photography’s place there has always been unstable, its ambiguous status as object and information continually threatening the grounds of the art museum’s hierarchies and collection policies.This 
 instability manifests itself in different ways in different periods, but as we have already hinted at, one of the underlying themes in photography in the museum is the constant exclusion of the vernacular and of reproducibility itself.We have seen this in Australia in relation to the location of photography between the library and the art museum, in terms of a split between information and aesthetics, a documentary database versus an aesthetic object. Photography’s recent insertion into digital networks reveals these tensions yet again, in a new guise. Within a modernist logic, the networked digital image, circulating as reproducible information, is guaranteed to be excluded. The potential for different kinds of photography in the art museum goes largely unnoticed.
As we know establishment of the canon of Australian  art photography  is based on a series of exclusions and documentary photogprahy is one of those exclusions.   These exclusions make it difficult  for documentary photography to  be a part of art photography. Maybe it could be done through collaboration?  


just getting by

The  fissures in Australia are deepening and broadening after the global financial crisis due to the  growing geographical inequality,  the changing nature of work in a neo-liberal society--the re-emergence of the precariat-- and the politics of austerity.  

Globalisation for many means the ongoing de-industrialization, which has seen the emergence of  a dispossessed and marginalizaed section of the working class,   the lack of secure and paid employment, the lack of affordable housing in the overheated Sydney and Melbourne housing markets, and people’s basic needs no longer being securely met.  

For many working poor families it is increasingly a case of getting by whilst being stigmatised   for excluding themselves  from society with their “wrongness”, their bad culture and bad practices; or for being leaners getting a free ride on welfare benefits. The poorest and the most vulnerable people in our society are deemed to be worthless by the successful lifters. 

documentary photography after the global financial crisis

It can be argued that documentary photography is a response to economic crisis--witness the 1930s (the Depression and the FSA in the US)  and in the 1970s  with its critique of the  liberal humanism (eg., Edward Steichen's The Family of Man) of documentary photography by John Tagg, Martha Rosler, and Allan Sekula in the form of  a politics of representation and the social history of art.

Tagg, for instance, in The Burden of Representation: Essays on the Photographies and Histories  was  sceptical about the capacity of social documentary photography to live up to its “act of compassionate looking”, a civic impulse which is, for Tagg, always subsumed into the liberal-capitalist machinery of the state apparatus beset to the right and left by the competing state forms of fascism and communism, before its impact can be registered. Documentary was the product of the continuing problematics of governance --crisis management in a shattered economic reality-- that turned on the management of public opinion to shore up the legitimacy and credibility of state-led solutions.

One  response to this analysis of photography being framed by the dominant economies of images and meanings in the  machinery of capture by New Deal reformism  is the idea of a historical understanding of documentary practices in photography as well as how it is produced and functions in specific historical conjunctures.  If so, then does  the after effects of the economic crisis resulting from the global financial crisis of 2007- 2008 correspond to a new documentary experience?

That economic crisis is not limited to 2008-9 as its after effects continue into the second decade of the 21st century.  By all accounts the global economy is in the worst shape in living memory. Deflation, stagnation, corporate and even government bankruptcy abound. Europe appears to be coming apart before our eyes. Even China has slowed sharply. Struggling to resuscitate growth, central banks have pushed real interest rates in much of the world to lows not seen for a very long time.  The politics of austerity is the response by the  conservative political elite in the US, Europe and Australia. 

a documentary style

We can discern a shift away from photography as a medium to photography as style. The shift is part of a movement in the history of photography  away from a recorded image towards its construction; a shift away from the traditional and more restrictive modernist notion of photography as a medium.

In an interview with Katz in 1971 Walker Evans  said: 

"When you say 'documentary,' you have to have a sophisticated ear to receive that word. It should be documentary style, because documentary is police photography of a scene and a murder....That's a real document. You see art is really useless, and a document has use. And therefore art is never a document, but it can adopt that style. I do it. I'm called a documentary photographer. But that presupposes a quite subtle knowledge of this distinction." (Evans W,  1983)

As a 'documentary style' photographer, Walker Evans created images that looked like documents and looked like they had a use, when in fact, according to Evans own definition, they were not documents, since they did not have any use. 

Documentary style, then, is the mode of an image that makes it appear to be a document when it is not. For Evans photographic reality as produced by the photographic apparatus coincided with the underlying reality if the image follows the conventions of realism. Evans and his successors  recognised a coherent aesthetic in the pile of mundane photographs that everyone knew and used, filed, or discarded as the daily occasion required. Walker Evans and others took photography from the streets and into their portfolios.

However, photographic reality and realism are two separate categories, a fact even further underlined when photographs are digitally manipulated. Because the documentary style is uniquely photographic, it becomes the blueprint for a 'photographic style' in general.


Evans W,  Walker Evans at Work: 745 Photographs together with Documents Selected from Letters, Memoranda, Interviews, Notes. London: Thames and Hudson, 1983







documentary photography and positivism

 The philosophical underpinning of the realism of documentary photography has been a  positivism that assumes the unproblematic existence of an observable reality, a neutral, detached and unified observing subject, and a form of inductivism derived from sensory experience.  

This is documentary photography's originary and formative way of thinking and it underpins the way that the focus of the camera apparatus  assumes the sovereignty of geometrical perspective--Euclidean geometry  as the cone of vision. This convention of perspective centres everything on the eye of the disembodied beholder standing outside the field of vision.   

This is deemed to be a natural representation, the way things really looked, the way that we see,and  the way things really are. The world is clear and distinct even at the margins, and the entire field of vision is measurable and visible. 

The picture  was objective and truthful. It was the emergence of digital technology that ruptured this mode of knowledge, representation and photographic realism not the philosophical critiques of positivism.