The Photography Collection Handbook presents 400 images from the 4,000 photographs the Art Gallery of New South Wales holds in its unique collection.
A gift in 1975 from the Cazneaux family of 90 Harold Cazneaux photographs became the beginning of the Gallery’s photography collection. It is entirely appropriate that the collection began with the work of an artist who made photographs early in the 20th century responding to the unique Australian light. Cazneaux adapted the prevailing international pictorial style which had its genesis in the early debates over the role and function of photography and whether or not photography could be considered art.
Judy Annear, Senior Curator of Photography at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and contributor to the Handbook said the 1970s were heady years for photography in Australia. Several other art museums had already established photography collections. Internationally these had existed since the 1930s, in America especially, and in the case of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, since the 19th century. In Australia it wasn’t until 1976 that the Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW accepted a formal policy for the ongoing development of the photography collection. Over the ensuing years, major collections owned by members of the Sydney Camera Circle, in addition to bodies of work by Max Dupain and David Moore, were developed. This has enabled the history of Australian (specifically Sydney) pictorialism and modernism, and the relationships between them, to be told. The unfolding, in the early 20th century, of the arguments for photography as art and not only a straightforward record of people, place and events is a large part of the Handbook. Given there was no institutional support for photography and actual hostility towards such acceptance of photography as art it is remarkable how members of the Sydney Camera Circle survived and prospered.
In the last 30 years the Gallery’s collection has grown to number more than 4,000 photographs, of which 80 percent are Australian. Pictorialism and early modernism remain particular strengths, but the largest part of the Australian collection, some 50 per cent, is from 1975 to the present. Photographs by Fiona Hall, Micky Allan, Mark Johnson, Max Pam, Tracey Moffatt, Bill Henson, Lewis Morley and many others are held in the collection.
There is a small collection of 19th-century Australian photography which presents aspects of techniques in use in the medium’s early years. The major part of this area includes photographs by the large government and commercial studios of the time and represents the exploration and documentation of town and country.
The collection has a small amount of international photography by artists such as Francesca Woodman, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Yasumasa Morimura and Miwa Yanagi.
The collection has also formed the basis of the photography exhibition program. In the late 1970s Gael Newton, through her research into Australian pictorialism, modernism and contemporary photography, was able to curate groundbreaking exhibitions such as Harold Cazneaux 1975, Australian pictorial photography 1979, Reconstructed vision: contemporary work with photography 1981 and Axel Poignant 1982. She also began an important publishing program which included a monograph on Max Dupain and Silver and grey: fifty years of Australian photography 1900–1950, both 1980. This was continued by Sandra Byron, the second photography curator, with the publication of Down the Darling: the Charles Bayliss photographs 1991, and exhibitions such as City by the sea: Mark Johnson photographs 1993, Let it come down: works by Robyn Stacey 1994, Ingeborg Tyssen: 20 years of photography 1995 and Debra Phillips: works 1992–1995.
In recent years exhibitions have enabled the various facets of the collection to be shown in a variety of contexts, from the small Reflections in time: 19th century portrait photography, to the very large Bill Henson (both 2005).
The Handbook, which also covers surrealism, international modernism, fashion and celebrity and international photo-documentary, provides an overview of the collection which is not possible through exhibition alone.
The Photography Collection Handbook, published by the Art Gallery of New South Wales ($45) is available from the Gallery Shop, and online .