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.

on the margins of the art institution

It is commonly accepted that though many artists deploy photography for critical commentary on all sorts of issues in society, the modernist appropriation of documentary photography  within the gallery and museum art context has caused a rethinking of this mode of practice and its traditions and legacy in the 1970s.

The basic line of argument, as articulated by Alan Sekula's volume of early writings and photoworks entitled Photography Against the Grain (1984),   centred around working against those  modernist strategies that succeded in making documentary photography a formalist art.

This form of resistance starts from the view of photographs as common cultural artifacts rather than privileged art objects for the art market, thereby positioning   the photos on the margins of the art institution and highlighting how an image's possible meanings are produced within an economy of statements and discourses.

What emerges is the introduction of a certain fictionality into the work though  images or text fragments there by introducing the  element of the constructed, the edited or  the narrative. For Sekula it is the text that carries the critical weight not the image.The latter is a hindrance to critical knowledge.

So we have taken steps along the pathway to an anti-aesthetic position that has framed art history, photography and aesthetics since the 1970s. This uses photography to challenge the autonomy of art and its functions within our culture.The inference is that the image  can only offer us knowedge at   bargain basement prices.

What emerges is  a  documentary photography as a visual rhetoric, a mode of address that is both a document and a work of art. Hence its uncanny power. The same photograph can move between the contexts of dicument and art work and many more contexts. Notable examples are the work of Eugene Atget and Walker Evans.

documentary evidence

 Historians often regard documentary photographs as a critical form of documentary evidence that hold up a mirror to past events. Public and scholarly faith in the realism of the photographic image is grounded in a belief that a photograph is a mechanical reproduction of reality.


Susan Sontag captured the essence of that faith in her series of essays entitled  On Photography when she wrote “Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it.”  

 This conception of pieces of  the image as the product of a machine and therefore an objective artifact  does not make sense of the Farm Security Administration (FSA work)  of Walker Evans, whio carefully arranged the position of objects and people when he was using his 8x10 on a tripod.  Jacob Riis did the same before him,  as did Mathew Brady  with his representations of the American civil war. 

Yet the subjectivity of the photographer is not factored in when we look at a documentary image.  Unlike a film or a written history we are unwilling to read documentary photographs  as particular  interpretations of a scene or event.

It appears  to be more important  to hang onto  the assumption of  of photographic realism as pure or unmediated. Yet we don't treat photographic images of consumer products in advertisments this way. We remain comfortable with  the old myth that documentary photographs  don't lie --or tell the truth--even though we know that the pictures  are constructed, are shaped by aesthetic conventions and that photographic meaning is culturally enframed.  The myth is what is important.    

boring images

The vast majority of photographic images on Flickr, the photo sharing site,  tend to be predictable, conservative and repetitive in both form and content. As a consequence they do not fit easily in the standard art historical narrative that is still focused, however anxiously and insecurely, on modernism's Romantic ideas of originality, innovation and individualism.

So they are routinely excluded by the art institution as the detritus  or junk of mass culture--- the antithesis of romantic originality and creativity that is so prized by art history. The Romantic idea is one of  the artist as an independent creator rather than a skilled craftsperson; one who creates an art work that is original and exclusive, which the modernist art institution exhibited in a white cube gallery, which is then experienced in terms  of  a specific aesthetic judgment along Kantian lines.     

Boring images are not just amateur snapshots---or tourist snaps--- many  documentary pictures are boring, especially when they are a part of a series.  Even when they do  more than illustrate, documentary photographs are seen to be visual cliches, that is they are trite, hackneyed and formulaic.  They deny individuality. 

It is true that photographs typically remain secondary as we continue to enact a hierarchy that places words above pictures and locates the written word at the centre of our critical thinking about our visual culture. 

Could we not think with photos when they are a  picturing of place? Think with photos in terms of what goes around the photograph as well as what takes place within it, even when they are commonplaces.  After all our  visual commonplaces or pictorial conventions are often containers of memory and embody history.

Though I have lived in many cities in both New Zealand and Australia Adelaide is my home and it has been so for severl decades. It is a place I know even though I have not known  it from childhood  like Christchurch in New Zealand. I knew Christchurch  in a bodily way, where my tacit  knowledge and understanding was built up slowly from an accretion of bodily memories over time. 

 I  know Adelaide differently  to  Melbourne.  I know Melbourne from working on the trams for several years --my body has a sense of the urban  rhythms of the  inner city. Adelaide is different. It's more a sense of fragmented memories of different sounds, the way the light shaped a building during the different seasons, the intensity of the summer heat, walking the dogs and so on.  

conceptual documentary

Melissa Miles in The Drive to Archive Conceptual documentary photobook design  in Photographies (Volume 3, Issue 1, 2010)  says that there is an international trend in contemporary photography that is known as Conceptual Documentary. This is characterized by a desire to explore a single, often banal idea from many different angles and it seeks out and frames its subject according to a pre-determined idea or scheme.

Conceptual documentary can be understood as a symptom of the larger “archival impulse” that pervades contemporary culture. Conceptual Documentary’s emphasis upon seriality and its framing of documentary photographs according to a pre-determined scheme attest to a rejection of the decisive moment that is spontaneously “captured” by the documentary photographer, and a comparable distrust in the notion of singular, authentic or original photographic meanings.

Miles says that  this appreciation for the contingency of photographic meaning owes a great debt to 1960s conceptual photography, and in particular to the use of seriality as a means of undermining the fetishization of the singular or discrete photograph. However,

Miles says that:

there is an important difference between 1960s conceptual photography and contemporary Conceptual Documentary. Like postmodernism, conceptual photography has been accused of treating the camera as a discursively neutral aperture through which the subject enters language. The conceptual artists Ed Ruscha and Robert Rooney both describe the camera as simply a tool for recording their serial photographs. Rooney famously described the camera as a “dumb recording device”.... In 1981, Ruscha similarly said of Twenty-six Gasoline Stations that: “The photography by itself doesn’t mean anything to me; it’s the gas stations, that’s the important thing.

Miles goes onto say that conceptual documentary is importantly distinguished from these earlier traditions because it is centred on a new self- awareness about the limits and possibilities of photographic technologies and their impact upon Conceptual Documentary projects.

The latter's emphasis on the viewer or receiving subject in Conceptual Documentary also counters conceptual art’s tendency towards emphasizing the power of institutions and systems of global capitalism in shaping mean ing, and points to another important distinction between 1960s conceptual photography with its asssumption of  the photographer as an expressive source of meaning  and contemporary Conceptual Documentary photography.