a set of dead classics

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. 

signs in the desert

The promise of the avant grade in the  first third of the twentieth century (Dada and surrealism) was a rupture with the  art institution and art's autonomy in a world dominated by the means end rationality of capitalism's exchange value. The avant-garde's attack  focused on autonomous art represented by aestheticism as a necessary step in its project to overcome the separation between art and life. 

  Modernism, as it was usually presented in Australia, was a purely internal artistic phenomenon. Modernism's  claims to novelty, negation and non-trivial experimentation in the late 20th century had  finally diminished in their impact as they have become exhausted. The avant-garde’s attack on the art institution had failed. The art  institution had demonstrates its strength by embracing its attackers and assigning them a prominent place in the pantheon of great artists. Avant-garde categories such as rupture and shock gained admittance to the discourse of art, while at the same time concepts such as harmony and coherence  became suspected. The model of heroic transgression against repressive authority has lost its credibility. 

It is  the art  institution, rather than a work’s intrinsic qualities, that defines what counts as art. So artistic genius is not the source of aesthetic value. The art institution only allows a a few  photographers inside the gate it guards. 

We were driving back to a rust bucket Adelaide from Woomera and Andamooka when I saw this tree in the middle of nowhere. It was the Xmas decorations that caught my eye. The decorative signs humanise  the  empty landscape--what many see as the dead heart of Australia.  Hence the snapshot.

Australia's past: Andamooka

Things have meaning in part because of the way we see things, based on our own historical context.  An example is the conception of Australia as the Lucky Country  because it was the world's quarry.  Donald Horne, who coined the Lucky Country phrase,   used it in an  ironical mode. 

Horne was critiquing an Australia that did not think for itself; a country manacled to its past; and 'still in colonial blinkers'. It was meant as an indictment of an unimaginative nation, its cosy provincialism, its cultural cringe, its second rate politicians,  and its White Australia policy.  Horne's irony is usually  overlooked. 

Old resource based Australia  is  a particular  historical pattern of vision. A week in Andamooka, in northern South Australia indicated that  it was a strange place--a frontier land. The town was full of mine tailings  as was the surrounding landscape. This was a quarry economy. It  indicated  mining's "boom and bust" economics,  and  that  mining, by its nature, involves the environmental damage to  the land. This  often has serious consequences for the surrounding environment. 

living in a rationalised world

The turn to privacy can be seen in the re-embace of home cooking, the organic,  and slow food as a reaction to an industrial  food system degraded by pollutants and chemicals and corporate neglect. Many  are looking to domesticity in search of a simpler, more sustainable, more meaningful way of life because the government regulators cannot be trusted.  

Another return to privacy is  taking snapshots  for oneself on daily walks --such as the  Adelaide-Himeji Garden in Adelaide's south parklands. It is an activity that we perform  for our own satisfaction and pleasure whilst ignoring  the work of self-perfection that contemporary capitalism expects of us in public life. 

The Himeji Garden, which  was a gift from Adelaide's sister city, Himeji in 1982,  celebrates Adelaide's sister-city relationship with the ancient Japanese city of Himeji.  The enclosure, which  is one of only a few classical Japanese Gardens in Adelaide,  blends two classic Japanese styles, the lake and mountain garden and the dry garden. It is unimpressive. 

Preface: starting over again

This photo  book started out as  a Leica blog  of  the pictures that I'd taken with my Leica rangefinder--- a M4-P.   The blog form means that its roots are internet based.  In contemporary visual art, Internet-based art forms have for the most part remained in a media art ghetto with little exposure within the system of contemporary art biennials and contemporary art centers. 

I'd  primarily used the Leica M4-P  with a Leica Summicron 50mm f2.0 rigid lens.  Most of the early work with the camera was done using black and white  film (Kodak Tri- X) which I developed myself in a wet darkroom with chemicals.  

The Leica M system is seen as a reportage camera,  rather than a  versatile all-round camera, but the  tight integration of body and lens ensured  good performance, and  Leica's  focus was on simplicity of use and on basic photographic functions helped define the snapshot style of picture taking.  

Photography now means digital photography. Continual change  in digital technology and shortening of product cycles  is the rule,  and  Leica has responded by  shifting from  an engineering to a luxury company with  most of its new products now  positioned in the luxury class. In this  they follow the design rulebook of Apple. 

I gave up  film photography  when I was doing a PhD  at Flinders University of South Australia in the 1990s  and whilst I was  working in Canberra. Towards the end of the Canberra gig  I slowly came back to  digital photography to build a life after politics.  I started using the  M-system  with colour film,  which was processed and scanned by a pro-lab, with the  pictures uploaded to Flickr and a photoblog which are then  viewed on a computer screen. This digital  workflow is different to the experience of classical  film  photography, and it indicates  how  the Internet has changed the way we understand photography.