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SALA in Adelaide: photography + history « Previous | |Next »
August 11, 2014

It's SALA Festival time in Adelaide.

The annual SALA Festival is a state wide celebration and promotion of the diverse talents of South Australian Living Artists. There are hundreds of exhibitions across the state--too many for one person to see.

One exhibition that I have managed to see is the Everyday Memories one at the Light Gallery, run by the Centre of Creative Photography (CCP). This is an exhibition of black and white photographs of the ordinary and commonplace in South Australia's rural and urban landscapes by Louisa Cowling-Tziros (landscapes), Rosalie Wodecki (Cheetham salt fields) and Victor Wodecki (architecture).

It stands out from the deluge of colour images on social media, with their apparent loss of the referent amid a postmodern (Baudrillard) hall of mirrors. The hall of mirrors metaphor rejects the view that photographs are mirrors with memories and states that a postmodern representation inevitably succumbs to a depthlessness of the simulacrum, or that it gives up on truth to wallow in the undecidabilities of representation.

The series in the exhibition that intrigued me was Victor Wodecki documentary photographs of the old suburban buildings and corner shops. This is informed by, and tied to, historical memory, and it establishes a link between Australian history, public memory and personal experience. It reminds me of the work of Richard Stringer in Brisbane.

This is a documentary photography with an intimate eye on Adelaide's urban history whose present is marked by the closing of many small businesses after the global financial crisis. Wodecki's picture below of a shop in Holbrooks Road in Adelaide's western suburbs is a good example of the process of historical reconstruction and photography's relationship to historical meaning.

WodeckiV-Holbrooks Road.jpg Victor Wodecki, Holbrooks Rd., 2014, silver gelatin print

Wodecki says that in the 1950s and 1960s people used to go to the corner shop to buy newspapers and lollies. Those corner shops have now disappeared because they are inefficient and anachronistic compared to the suburban retail mall owned by Westfield. Consequently, many of these shops now stand abandoned and empty. What is left, apart from the decaying buildings, are the private memories of a former mode of urban life.

Walter Benjamin, as a chronicler of modernity, called for a history which could redeem the past by yanking it into the present. His figure of the Angel of History whose face turns towards the past as she is blown into the wreckage of the future might also represent the documentary imagemaker who can only make images within the historical present, even as it evokes the historical past.

Documentary photography is usually a reconstruction-a reenactment of another time or place for a different audience-----a graphing of history, in and through, the photographic image onto the present.

WodeckiVLubritorium.jpg Victor Wodecki, Lubitorium, 2014, silver gelatin print

Is this a nostalgia for a past that is already lost?

Wodecki, in photographing a disappearing species in the form of traces of the past is providing a stability to an ever-changing historical reality, in the form of a visual archaeology that uncovers the past we have forgotten. What is presented to us is a collection of fragments. The photographs in themselves "are dumb" and their meaning is constructed in the web of interpretations that we give them. The importance of Wodecki's personal memories is that they indicate that his photography does not so much represent this past as it reactivates it in images of the present.

This is an example of a rethinking of documentary photography--- a recognition that photographic representation does not simply hold up a mirror to past events, since the representational refers to the codes, conventions, and social schemata within our specific culture. Wodecki's personal memories help us to make sense of his Sorry, We're Closed series. The mundane and ordinary architecture is embedded in a history, placed in relation to the past, given a new power, not of absolute truth but of repetition.

This deconstructs the all too simple dichotomy between, on the one hand, a naïve faith in the truth of what the documentary image reveals—the discredited claim to capturing events while they happen—and on the other, the embrace of fictional manipulation. Of course, even in its heyday no one ever fully believed in an absolute truth of documentary photography, since as they recognized it as a genre or style rather than the essence of photography.

The ground Sorry, We're Closed stands on is not an unearthing a coherent and unitary past; it is one that deploys the many facets of the hall of mirrors to highlight the depth of the past's reverberation with the present.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:31 AM | | Comments (6)


"Of course, even in its heyday no one ever fully believed in an absolute truth of documentary photography, since as they recognized it as a genre or style rather than the essence of photography. "

The strategies and styles deployed in documentary photography change; they have a history.

The initial form in the 1940s by Max Dupain worked within the Griersonian documentary tradition. This was centred around an objective authoritative voice that spoke the truth about things---photographs as factual documents. Hence there are important records of a changing society.

The traditional conception of documentary photography in Australia was that photographs bear witness and so they need to be true. They are seen to be material for the archives of history. It has involved into a documentary photography that tells stories that might not otherwise be told by the mainstream media.

Documentary photography Dupain-style has changed into photojournalism.

The current mode of documentary photography in Australia is story telling. Thus the Oculi collective say that they offer:

a poetic visual narrative of our times and our region....Oculi was born of a collective response to the lack of support for local independent documentary storytelling. As acclaimed practicing photographers we shared a sense of frustration with the limitations in publishing and recognition of our uncompromising stories and images here in Australia.

It is both art and documentary as they say that Oculi has established itself as a powerful and poetic art movement for our times and through it’s growing body of work is now seen as the leading contemporary influence in Australian photographic documentary and art practice.

Oculi is an art-house movement in Australia, an unoccupied photographic space, which will continue to expose, exhibit and promote images of contemporary culture in Australia and the surrounding region.

The most influential kind of documentary photography in Australia was the 1955 Family of Man one curated by Edward Steichen at MOMA. This was a Liberal photographic humanism as Steichen's intention was to prove, visually, the universality of human experience.

This Anglo-American documentary style lasted until the 1970s when it was challenged by the New Art History generation – e.g., John Tagg, Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, Jo Spence . This was in the name of the “dismantling modernism and reinventing documentary”, as Allan Sekula put it in his seminal essay.

It is still photojournalism that depends on the transparency of the photographic medium to fulfill its task of making events in the world immediately available. Hence its key concern with manipulation and use of Photoshop.

A transparent medium for this tradition is that one forgets one is looking at a mediated reality instead of reality itself. Transparency is held to be the medium-specific characteristic of photography in relation to other visual media.