Photography as history

Do we look at photographs in a different way from other artforms? Or to put the question another way are there things that photography does that are special to it as a medium?

One feature of photography in spite of all the photo-shopping, set-ups and fakery that we know are possible is that it often has a relationship to reality that sets it in time and place with a truth factor that has a strong appeal. It means that photographs include details that the photographer didn’t control, that show us slices of life with a certain familiarity so that we recognise and trust that the understandings we receive from them have a basis in fact. Photographs are witnesses, records, proofs.

It is said that people who have never seen photographs take a while to see them as more than flat marks on paper suggesting photography is culturally specific but what about the experience of the camera obscura in which a simple hole projects the world in fine grained detail though admittedly upside down? Humans may have invented cameras but the process that cameras use is embedded in the world, in the mechanics of the eye and the nature of light. That is why we recognise the truth of photographs, we don’t invent them, we take them.

Many photographs achieve an iconic status almost from when we first see them. In the two important national touring exhibitions of photographs Robert McFarlane: Received Moments at the Flinders University City Gallery and Ricky Maynard: Portrait of a Distant Land at Tandanya there are many photographs which have become icons for example McFarlane’s image of Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins on his way to Sydney University. The fact that the 1965 Freedom Ride through western New South Wales with which Perkins is associated involved travel on a bus is somehow present in this image of a thoughtful man who fought discrimination and made history.

Adelaide-born McFarlane was also one of the photographers taking images for the 1988 publication After 200 years: photographic essays of Aboriginal and Islander Australia today.  The engrossing image Cherbourg Wedding from this book shows three generations of an Aboriginal family watched over by a framed photograph of Winston Churchill. Time capsule seems a good word for McFarlane’s exhibition in general where many images show an Australia that is now gone in small black and white images that evoke newspapers and newsreels. By “received moments” McFarlane, also a well-known writer on photography, refers to a kind of gift or grace that the photographer looks out for and then if he or she is ready with camera in hand can harvest.

Tasmanian-born descendant of the Big River and Ben Lomond people Ricky Maynard was also a photographer for the After 200 years project in 1988. All of Maynard’s photographic project is deliberately a recording of indigenous life and history. He sees photography as necessarily collaboration. In his words: “Standard photographic technique is essentially an act of subjugation, in which people are invariably reduced to objects for the use of the photographer… To build an alternative practice, a convivial photography, we need to abolish this oppressive relationship. Co-authorship must be established beforehand. It is impossible to fight oppression by reproducing it.”

Maynard’s portraits show us direct gazes and long histories in the faces of people into whose eyes we may not have looked so deeply before. They ask us to empathise, to reflect and to recognise a common humanity. Portrait of a Distant Land features more than 60 photographs drawn from six iconic bodies of work – The Moonbird People (1985-88), No More Than What You See (1993), Urban Diary (1997), In The Footsteps of Others (2003), Returning To Places That Name Us (2000) and Portrait of a Distant Land (2005- ).

Maynard often uses oral history in extended titles. The accompanying words for The Healing Garden, Wybalenna, Flinders Island, Tasmania 2005 are from Aunty Ida West in 1995: “It’s pretty important you know, the land, it doesn’t matter how small, it’s something, just a little sacred site, that’s Wybalenna. There was a massacre there, sad things there, but we try not to go over that. Where the bad was we can always make it good.”

When we look at the photograph The Healing Garden and see these trees surrounded by a low fence we can imagine the feeling of sanctuary they contain as well as the sound of the wind in them and the scent of their shade. We know we don’t know what happened there but we sense a presence as in a cemetery. Maynard says: “These pictures will live on in history, showing the moment to itself, showing what needs to be changed and hoping some day we can look back and see how far we have progressed as a society.”

Stephanie Radok

Robert McFarlane: received moments: Photography 1961-2009

Flinders University City Gallery

29 October – 1 December 2011

Ricky Maynard: Portrait of a Distant Land
Tandanya
24 November 2011 – 12 February 2012

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