Opening this week, Art Gallery NSW’s latest exhibition, Australian Vernacular Photography, explores the Australian photographic landscape of the late 20th century.
Hal Missingham, photographer and director of the gallery from 1945 to 1971, said in 1947:
In a country supposedly occupied by people indulging in a vigorous outdoor life, where are the [photographic] records of beach and sport … where are the photographs of the four millions of people who live and work in our cities? What are they like – what do they do – what do they wear, and think?
This proved to be a catalyst in the creation of an Australia photography landscape – a vernacular of sorts that this exhibition lets viewers define.
Eleanor Weber, the exhibition’s co-curator, said the collection was not trying to pin down exactly what “vernacular” might be.
“I guess we’re just trying to think about the particular way Australian photographers in the second part of 20th century treated Australian subjects or landscapes or scenes and, in so doing, actually put forward an idea of Australian photography.”
Sixteen Australian photographers including David Moore, Robert McFarlane and Sue Ford are represented by some 27 photographs taken from the 1960s to the 2000s.
The Family of Man
In 1959, Edward Steichen’s photography exhibit The Family of Man travelled to Australia from New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
According to Weber: “It was essentially the introduction of international photography of a specific nation’s vernacular to Australian audiences in material form.”
It was a turning point, that saw photography in Australia change with each decade that followed – the 1960s saw greater access to photographic technology, courses and collection institutions emerged in the 1970s, and the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s saw a more critical approach to the art.
“It wasn’t idealising, or trying to create an idea what an ‘Australian photograph’ might be – but rather, starting to photograph what was actually there – the reality,” said Weber.
The frank and unflattering
The frank, and sometimes unflattering, images on show provide a stark and realistic scope of Australia amidst changing social times and awareness.
“There’s this photo of these guys at The Rocks (see above image), just drinking beer - not particularly looking at the camera, and that’s from the early 70s, by John Williams - he’s very much into his street photography,” said Weber.
Another piece in the exhibition, Blacktown Man by Gerrit Fokkema (feature image), was taken 10 years later, and provides a very different contribution to the vernacular.
“I think that shows an interesting shift. The fact he’s looking at the camera shows he’s obviously very aware. And it’s this whole desolate, and benign, suburban scene, and the particular light that is very Australian – these types of threads that would go towards creating a vernacular.”
Associate Professor of Art History and Art Education at the University of New South Wales Joanna Mendelssohn said she was surprised by the selection of works in the exhibition.
“I’m surprised not to see any work by Sandy Edwards in the exhibition. As much as I admire Fiona Hall and Anne Zahalka, ‘vernacular’ isn’t the term that comes to mind when I think of their work. Both are well known as mistresses of the staged composition.”
“I’m also surprised not to see any pictures by Mervyn Bishop, Ricky Maynard, Brenda L.Croft or Peter Yanada McKenzie. Not having a single Indigenous photographer in an exhibition called ‘vernacular’ is notable. It looks like a very skewed exhibition indeed.”
Australian Vernacular Photography runs February 8 to May 18 at the Art Gallery NSW. Full details of the exhibition can be found here.