Traditionally photography does not have, as the saying goes, the ear of those in power in the art institution. It has been historically viewed unfavorably by the art world, and advocates for a photography museum/gallery did not receive a sympathetic hearing until the last quarter of the 20th century. Art photography eschewed functional and directly commercial applications of photography (e.g. snapshots, advertising) and defined itself in opposition to this. Its conception of art’s autonomy was generally understood as the distance that art takes from the world and its gestures of rebellion and resistance were few and far between.
Art photography’s achievements in the lat 20th century were based largely on an aesthetic of the photographic – meaning that there are distinct inherent properties of the medium itself that give it value as an art-form, and the skilled practitioner can employ these properties in order to produce expressive work.
A core tenet of Szarkowski's New York modernist tradition's outlook on photography is that it, as a specific medium, is fundamentally different from other picture-making processes in that it is based on selection rather than synthesis: – the photographer takes elements of the real world for his picture, whereas the painter makes the elements of his picture from scratch. Szarkowski's aesthetic reason assumed that the painter selects from their imagination, whereas the photographer must select from the real world.
The notions of art, autonomy, and progress in the contemporary art practices of the second half of the 20th century were divorced from the historical European avant-garde's commitment to the project of destroying the false autonomy of bourgeois art. The concern of the art institution and the academic discourses and institutions was to establish a canon of Australian photography to highlight Australia's modernity.
We experienced the shock of the new in a set of dead classics. This discourse identified the avant-garde with a selective canon of modern art, whereby this exclusive canon valorized, furthermore, as an inevitable historical trajectory the move of advanced artistic practice from Europe to the United States then to Australia.