Rewind: Three Photographic Exhibitions at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in the 1980s

Polixeni Papapetrou, Portrait of Arthur Hibbert, Sculptor and Painter, 1986 (detail). Courtesy the artist and ACCA Archive

By Elizabeth Gertsakis

During the 1980s the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art grasped both ends of the decade’s stick with three significant photographic exhibitions: The Thousand Mile Stare curated by Joyce Agee – an Australian Bicentennial photography survey project, produced by the Victorian Centre of Photography; and two exhibitions of feminist artist/photographers, Anne Ferran’s Scenes on the Death of Nature and Sue Ford’s New Photographic Work.

The Thousand Mile Stare (11 March – 10 April, 1988) was a selection from the eclectic nature of photographic practices in Victoria across two decades (and earlier) incorporating traditional photographic genres as well as the more experimental, political, commercial and ideological/activist uses tied to the camera. The exhibition emerged from the nascent establishment of the Victorian Centre for Photography as well as from a collective attempt to embrace a great number (54 photographers and over 100 framed works) of individual practitioners who, as photographers, belonged to very different aesthetic and technical generations in terms of definitions of photographic practice and political allegiances to what public and private photography looked like and what it was meant to be and do.

Anne Ferran, Scenes on the death of nature I, 1986. Courtesy the artist, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and Stills Gallery, Sydney

Geoff Strong’s essay in the accompanying exhibition catalogue ‘The Melbourne Movement – Fashion and Faction in the Seventies’ succinctly underwrites the emergence and clash of individuals, groups and institutions that had either influence, authority or ambition for using or making photography as a documentary or more self-consciously, artistic medium.  Beatrice Faust’s press review (The Age, 30 March, 1988) gave recognition to the acceptability of most works in the exhibition, and points out that the conspicuous omissions and underrepresentation were significantly those of ‘fine print’ work, community photography and photojournalism.

The other two important photographic exhibitions of that decade clearly embraced dedicated feminist, ‘self and others’ exploratory work by Sue Ford (1943–2009) and the psycho-theoretical interrogative use of the photographic medium as both aesthetic inheritance and criticism in the work of Anne Ferran. Ferran had established a specifically intellectual and literary relationship to photography with her earlier project Carnal Knowledge (1984). She advanced on historical referentiality of past times and patinas that evoked familiar female imagery, subjectivity and subjectification in the iconic ACCA exhibition Scenes on the Death of Nature, produced in 1986 and exhibited in Melbourne in 1987.  

Sue Ford’s project New Photographic Work (11 May – 11 June, 1989) continued her commitment to working collectively and skill sharing. During Australia's 1988 bi-centennial, Ford completed 3 significant projects; The Barunga Festival in Northern Territory, and images from her time teaching Tiwi women photography and film making on Bathurst Island. These photographic images, many of which were in the ACCA exhibition, were both documents and windows into the collective resistance by indigenous communities in the face of official political grandstanding during the Bicentenary. Ford was an activist and her legacy during this period is that of recorder and witness.

Sue Ford, Lajamunu Women Dancing "Yawulu", 1989. Courtesy the artist

ACCA’s commitment in the 1980s to photographic practice was fixed in the medium and its optic essentialism – The Thousand Mile exhibition ‘stared’, Ferran reminded us of the blind ‘gaze’ and Ford ‘witnessed’ the inexcusable. All three exhibitions were remarkable pivots of photographic observation and processes; spinning impulses of and toward visual continuity, recognition of the photographic and the photographer as playing with engagement and disengagement with others, separate and yet shared spasmodic linkings to ideas and the epic acknowledgement of the malleability of photography to fantasy and imagination.

If anything these exhibitions set the foundation for continued theoretical struggle around the historical ‘gaze’ which became a much more academic if not orthodox prescription for photographic thinking in the 1990s when earlier debates continued to rage around observation and the observed, presence and absence, play and authority, technique and skill versus accident and ephemerality.