book review: performativity and photography

anne marsh, look: contemporary australian photography since 1980
Published by Macmillan, Melbourne, 2010

It’s been a long time since a major history of Australian photography has been produced. Before Anne Marsh’s book was published late last year, the most recent scholarly book would probably be Catriona Moore’s 1994 text on feminist photography, Indecent Exposures: Twenty Years of Australian Feminist Photography. Before that, the bicentennial year of 1988 produced two comprehensive histories: Anne Marie Willis’s book Picturing Australia: A History of Photography and Gael Newton’s exhibition and catalogue, Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839–1988, which included essays by Helen Ennis and Chris Long. Of course there have been other publications on Australian photography over the last two decades—thematic studies of photography, introductory texts, exhibition catalogues and more focused books on genres of photography, individual artists and so forth—but no one has attempted to create a coherent and comprehensive narrative of photographic developments of the last forty years. For this achievement alone Anne Marsh is to be heartily congratulated.

This book is a very welcome addition to the literature, as well as being a terrific resource. It should be in every university library and on the bookshelf of every photo-media student in the country. The text is very generously illustrated, making this the kind of cross-over book that should appeal to collectors as well as a more general audience for contemporary art. That said, the quality of the reproductions is not consistent. The colour reproductions in particular are often very poor representations of the original images.

The book has an unusual structure for a scholarly history, instead of a continuous text with embedded images, it is comprised of three very loosely connected parts. At the launch of the book at Stills Gallery in Sydney in March 2011, Anne Marsh said her model for the book was the Phaidon series, ‘Themes and Movements’, and in particular the volume titled, The Artist’s Body. One can see the influence of the Phaidon series in the size and overall structure of the book and most particularly in the first (and largest) section, which is comprised of a collection of images organised thematically. The themes are: identity, life, experiment, space, and environment. There are sub-themes to further refine the classification of the photographs.

Each photograph in this section is accompanied by a short description, which reads like a wall-text for a museum exhibition. The Phaidon volumes, on the whole, have excellent short descriptions of the illustrated works. The descriptions for Look: Contemporary Australian Photography are more uneven, perhaps because they were compiled and written by one of the research assistants for the project. Some of these descriptions are very useful and instructive, however, some are composed of the kind of vague, low-grade artspeak that I consistently try to dissuade students from emulating. To give just two examples of the latter, we are told that David Rosetzky’s Without Jeremy (2004) ‘reflects the tension between our desire for control and a world that is increasingly fractured’ (108). The photograph that has attracted this description is a composite image that appears to splice together an image of a man and woman. The woman’s face is uppermost with small sections of a man’s face, indicated by the coarser textured chin and prominent adam’s apple, peeping through the lace-like structure of the upper image. This strange amalgam of two different bodies is not mentioned in the caption, which merely concludes with one of those stock postmodern phrases that could describe a multitude of images: ‘subjectivity is reframed as a profoundly fragile and fragmented thing’.

Similarly, Anne Ferran’s two photographs, Scenes on the Death of Nature I and II (1986), are described as free of ‘narrative’ and supposedly this ‘ensures that the photographs remain open to a range of possible meanings and interpretations’ (53). Leaving aside the strange implication that narrative generates a singular meaning, a shock no doubt to unsuspecting literary critics, I’m trying to imagine when a photograph is closed to a range of meanings and interpretations. Surely this is a very rare phenomenon, while it barely rates mentioning the openness of art to interpretation. At least these captions are all very short—generally two sentences long—unlike the prolix (and similarly vague) wall-texts much loved of contemporary art museums.

The second part of the book is a substantive history of approximately forty years of Australian photography starting in the 1970s and organised roughly chronologically into five chapters. I say ‘roughly chronologically’ as the chapters focus on particular time frames, organised consecutively, but they also indicate the recurrence and perseverance of various genres and styles of photography. This is a very accessible text, which deftly weaves together local and international developments in photography. As well as providing an historical framework to make sense of the last forty years, it also discusses individual photographs in a lively and informative way.

The first chapter, ‘Maverick Photography’, considers three currents prevalent in the 1970s: conceptual, activist and documentary photography. Marsh draws together existing Australian scholarship on photography as an ‘alternative practice’ (Helen Ennis) and ‘oppositional photography’ (Martyn Jolly), which is perhaps the most familiar characterisation of Australian photography of the 1970s, while also connecting this local history to the dominant international trend of the 1970s: conceptual photography. Marsh notes, for example, Robert Rooney’s familiarity with the serial propositions of Ed Ruscha such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962).

Serious considerations of the contribution of photography to conceptual art have only arisen in the last ten years or so, with exhibitions such as The Last Picture Show: Artists using Photography 1960-1982 (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2003) and Postmedia: Conceptual Photography in the Guggenheim Museum Collection (Guggenheim, New York, 2000). Mark Godfrey has noted how photography prised open the self-referential, solipsistic character of serial art, as it were, bringing the world in.1 This interpretation of conceptual art could be further developed to consider the specific Australian situation where the blurring of genres, such as documentary, activist and conceptual photography, is common, as Marsh indicates in the work of artists such as Wesley Stacey, Ian North and Virginia Coventry. In this chapter, Marsh provides both a framework and a stimulus for further research into the complex mixture of activist and conceptual strategies.

The second chapter examines more familiar territory: appropriation and postmodernism. The photographic domination of the 1980s is examined alongside key ideas investigated in that period such as the gaze and masquerade. The chapter moves easily between explaining these contemporary ideas and showing their pertinence for photographic practice.

In the third chapter, Marsh draws attention to the theatrical past of photography clearly building on her earlier work on performance and photography.2 More specifically, this chapter examines the upsurge of directorial photography in the 1990s and links this to the idea of ‘performative photography’. Directorial photography is a term coined by American photo critic, A.D. Coleman in 1976 to describe the fictional orientation of photography, that is, the construction of deliberately staged events specifically for the camera. In her explanation of this genre, Marsh draws an analogy with film, describing these types of photographers as directing ‘photo shoots much like directors of art house movies’ (355). Australian artists, such as Rosemary Laing, Bill Henson, and Tracey Moffatt, are then aligned with international practitioners of this genre, which, according to Marsh, includes Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, and artists more usually associated with the Dusseldorf school of photography, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth.

The link between American feminist Judith Butler’s idea of performativity and the directorial mode is an interesting argument that Marsh proposes here. While I am not a fan of the idea of gender as performance, preferring instead the approach to sexual difference proposed by Australian feminist Elizabeth Grosz which focuses on the body rather than gender, Marsh nonetheless gives an excellent account of an important approach to sexual politics and its application to a range of contemporary practices.

The fourth and fifth chapters outline more familiar art historical preoccupations and periodisations. Identity politics, which dominated the art of the 1990s, is the subject of chapter four. The final chapter addresses the idea of a reinvigoration of the medium provoked by Rosalind Krauss’s recent criticism of the post-medium condition.

The third and final section of the book has a timeline, which gathers together details of major exhibitions, galleries, publications and events. It also includes brief comments from educators, curators and critics of Australian photography. This resource will be invaluable to researchers. In sum, this is a book that should very quickly become the standard reference book for contemporary Australian photography. Let’s just hope Macmillan will consider publishing more of these types of important reference books. 

notes: 

1. Douglas Fogle, The Last Picture Show: Artists using Photography 1960–1982, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2003; Mark Godfrey, ‘From Box to Street and Back Again: An Inadequate Descriptive System for the Seventies’, Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970, ed. Donna De Salvo, exh. cat., Tate Publishing, London, 2005, p.33.

2. See Anne Marsh, Body and Self: Performance Art in Australia 1969–1992, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993 and The Darkroom: Photography and the Theatre of Desire, Macmillan, Melbourne, 2003.

 

 

 

Anne Marsh, Look: Contemporary Australian Photography Since 1980
RRP $130.00, Hb, ISBN 9781921394102
Published November 2010
400 pages, colour throughout