Review: The Photograph and Australia

Photography is a unique art form because photographs are almost never just images that we look at for their own sake. We don't get lost in a photograph the way might in a great film or novel. With photography we are always conscious that this image is connected to a much bigger world, and that we are looking through the lens at something that once happened (unless it’s fake and then we look for what is real in the fakery). This is why photography moves us so much, and why it can tell such powerful stories. It’s also why the latest show at the AGNSW is so entertaining. There’s a handful of works by major Australian photographers like Olive Cotton and Simryn Gill, but the most memorable images on display are by anonymous photographers of mostly unknown people.

Prudy and I visited the AGNSW's latest big show without any real expectations. I certainly wasn't expecting anything so sweeping. It's a survey of all photography in Australia from its emergence in the early 19th Century and includes examples of its early use as affordable portraiture, the work of great modernist masters like Max Dupain, and a sample of contemporary super stars like Tracey Moffatt. If there's anything wrong with the show it's that it jumps from historical artefacts and momentos, to images of colonial industry, to giant contemporary landscapes printed on aluminium without a clear narrative.

It's unusual to go to an exhibition with so much variety. Much of the show is presented in low glass cases, like museum pieces, but hovering meters above are giant works of contemporary art that speak an entirely different language. This is probably why 'The Photograph and Australia' has had some negative reviews (no one would ever attempt a show like this of Australian painting), but it is also why you are almost certain to find something here that stays with you. Since Prudy and I first met at Vaucluse House, and we happened to be seeing it with a friend who was once the curator there, we were tickled to find a photo of the front garden from the late 19th Century. No doubt you'll find something that will mean something to you too.

Another real delight for us was the extraordinary physical presence of old photographs, and getting to compare the qualities of all the different early forms of photography like tin-types, albumin-photographs, ambrotypes, salt-prints and gelatine-prints. The most impressive were the daguerrotypes, which still shine because the image is laid on top of a mirror.

A broad variety of pop-cultural material and ephemera is also an unusual treat in the AGNSW. These include humourous publicity photographs of performers, including a sophisticated globe-trotting Chinese giant, and an array of cartes de visite. A carte de visite, the Victorian equivalent of a business card or Facebook profile, was often printed with a photograph of the owner on one side and their name on the other. Often kept by the recipient as a memento, the result is a strangely familiar glimpse into the everyday social lives, and senses of humour, of people over a century past.

'The Photograph and Australia' is showing at the AGNSW until the 8th June. Perhaps it doesn't quite live up to its ambitious title, but if you are in the mood to poke around an extraordinary selection of visual objects, without expecting to come away with a very coherent idea of "Australia," I expect you'll have a pretty good time.