Photography | Brian Rope
Viewfinder: Photography from the 1970s to Now | Various artists
National Library of Australia Exhibition Gallery | 16 Sep 2022-13 Mar 2023
Viewfinder: Photography from the 1970s to Now explores fifty years in the life of Australia. 125 images from the National Library of Australia's collections reveal a changing Australia and the evolving nature of photography. It looks at powerful Australian documentary photography, from 1970s black and white images to recent vibrant high-definition images.
Quintessential Aussies feature, including shearers, dancers, infantry diggers, knitters, sporting heroes and bronzed bodies on the beach. However, there is a much bigger, far more inclusive story, including William Yang’s winged angels at Mardi Gras in 2003, migrant lives, Australian First Nations people, and the joys of family life.
William Yang, Rainbow Angel Wings, New Mardi Gras, 2003,
nla.gov.au/nla.obj-136950531, courtesy William Yang
A 1973 Jon Rhodes image of a ticket booth employee at a railway station would have meaning and memories for his family and all who remember those booths. Others, too young to remember, should also be interested in this snippet of history.
Jon Rhodes, Paul Jackson, Dubbo, News South Wales, 1973,
nla.gov.au/nla.obj-2147881601, courtesy Jon Rhodes
There’s a cyclist towing an older woman in a wheeled cart, itself towing a caged dog. Bruce Howard’s delightful 1985 image shows that such modes of transport are not new.
Bruce Howard and Herald and Weekly Times, On a bicycle built for ?, 1981,
nla.gov.au/nla.obj-148147368, courtesy Bruce Howard
Bill Bachman’s image of three Aussie blokes having a beer in 1995 is simply classic.
Bill Bachman, Council mechanics, Jack Western, Bob Mackenzie and Bryan Steele
having a drink of beer, Gascoyne Junction, Western Australia, ca. 1995,
nla.gov.au/nla.obj-138088597, courtesy Bill Bachman
Anne Zahalka’s colourful 1998 image of Star City Casino is of particular interest right now because it, and other casinos, have been in the news.
Anne Zahalka, Star City Casino (after Breughel), 1998,
nla.gov.au/nla.obj-150880157, courtesy Anne Zahalka
Matthew Sleeth shows us senior citizens on the footpath to see their much-loved Queen pass by in 2000.
Matthew Sleeth, Residents of a Retirement Home are Wheeled onto the Footpath to Watch the Queen, Western Freeway, Friday 24 March 2000,
nla.gov.au/nla.obj-145875044, copyright courtesy Matthew Sleeth and Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney
And, from 2007, Martin Mischkulnig shows us a very dusty Pilbara Aussie rules venue.
Martin Mischkulnig, Warralong, Western Australia, 2007,
nla.gov.au/nla.obj-691608047, courtesy Martin Mischkulnig
These are just examples of works from this wonderful collection which is never fully on view at any one time.
The exhibition also focusses on the evolving nature of photography as a way of recording our lives and highlights the significant technological advances and increasing diversity of styles, approaches and techniques utilised by photographers over the past five decades.
Walking through and taking time to look, study and absorb each work and the accompanying information, I was struck by a message for children under a self-portrait of Tracey Moffatt. It included this definition “A portrait is a painting, drawing or a photograph of a person”. Just 700m away at the National Portrait Gallery, another current exhibition is boldly proclaiming about the show being designed to make visitors think about “the ever-evolving and ever-expanding idea of portraiture”.
Does that mean the NLA is out of touch? No, because the images it is showing from its collection are primarily from the past, whereas the diverse artworks on display at the other institution are from collections that have a different focus. Any and all collections in national institutions have an important place and opportunities to view pieces from those collections are most welcome and, indeed, important. Being able to view both exhibitions at the same time is an especially valuable opportunity for us all.
So, back to the NLA exhibition. What does it tell us about Australia? The diverse works include well-known pieces that anyone with a modest knowledge of Australian photography will recognise. There are images most of us will not be familiar with, by photographers whose names we may not recollect having heard. Pleasingly, the indigenous country location is identified for each image.
The NLA describes its image collections as the photo albums of Australia. They certainly are an invaluable archive that can assist us to understand the story of this country. They reveal the communities we live in, the landscapes we inhabit, our history and moments both significant and ephemeral.
Documentary photographers – including you - capture images that assist us understand both place and people, and to plot our way forward in this uncertain world.
This review was first published online by The Canberra Times here. It is also available on the author's own blog here.