Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Focus: Australian government photographers

Exhibition Review: Photography | Brian Rope

Focus: Australian government photographers | Multiple Artists

National Archives of Australia (National Office, Canberra) | 17 November 2023 to 10 June 2024

Supported by the National Collecting Institutions Touring and Outreach Program

Focus: Australian government photographers brings Australia's government photographers (who were public servants) out of the dark (of the records) into the spotlight provided by this public showing of their work. Between 1939 and 1996, dozens of such photographers were employed by agencies to capture Australian life. The agencies were the Department of Information, the Australian News and Information Bureau and the Australian Information Service. This exhibition explores the lives and work of various talented individuals who helped to preserve our rich visual heritage from that nearly six decades period.

The 200 works selected from the huge collection of 10 million photographs is a diverse selection which includes intimate nature photography, striking architectural shots and images that capture everyday memories from Australia's past. 

Some names will be familiar, especially to people with a keen interest in photography. I’m sure many of the names - Wolfgang Sievers, Athol Shmith, John Cato, Max Dupain and Mervyn Bishop (the latter being the first Indigenous Australian government photographer) would be known to most if not all photography enthusiasts. Other names may not be known to you at all.

People who lived in Canberra during some of the years covered may well have attended and, perhaps, photographed some of the events shown. For example, there is a Norman Plant image of dancers at the 1987 Canberra Festival.

Dancers perform at the Canberra Festival 1987 – Norman Plant, NAA: A6135, K13/4/87/25

 And a Bill Pedersen image of prayer time at a Yarralumla mosque.

Prayer time at a Yarralumla mosque, Canberra 1966 – Bill Pedersen. NAA: A1200, L54250

And if they attended the Australian Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at the Canberra Theatre in 1978, they’d certainly be interested in a John Crowther image of ballerina Marilyn Rowe preparing to perform.

Marilyn Rowe prepares to perform as Odette in the Australian Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan lake at the Canberra Theatre, Canberra 1978 – John Crowther, NAA: A6135, K16/6/78/4

There are photos taken at some favourite coastal retreats of Canberrans, including Narooma and Merimbula.

Coastline near Merimbula, New South Wales 1995 – Tim Acker, A6135, K27/2/95/73

And, regardless of where they live, exhibition visitors may well have been to other depicted locations – such as Mount Isa, Bell Bay and Falls Creek.

Snow bunnies at Falls Creek, Victoria 1965 – Keith Byron, NAA: A1200, L52260

Have you noticed that every photographer I have mentioned so far is male? That’s sad, but not surprising for those times. However, the work of Jocelyn Burt, one of few women then employed as a government photographer, is showcased in the exhibition. Burt spent a great deal of time visiting rural areas, and wrote stories about, as well as photographing, what she saw.

Taking an outback safari break on the edge of Sturt Stony Desert, near the borders of South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales 1971 – Jocelyn Burt, NAA: A6135, K22/10/71/1

There are shots taken in capital cities – including the North Sydney Olympic pool, Sydney Harbour Bridge toll booths and Melbourne’s Moomba Festival. John Tanner has a 1956 image showing workers at the BHP Steelworks in Port Kembla, which would have been taken very close to where I worked my first full time job at Australian Iron and Steel over the summer of 1958-9.

Workers at the BHP Steelworks, Port Kembla, New South Wales 1956 – John Tanner, NAA: A1200, L21338

Bill Payne is represented with an image of young people straining as they hoist the sails of the Young Endeavour off the coast of NSW in 1991. That also brought back particular memories for me as I had the opportunity in late 1988 to photograph a group of young Canberrans with disabilities aboard that yacht myself.

At least females are portrayed in many images. If you are a woman who ever sold raffle tickets for the Canberra Pensioners Club or played lawn bowls you might see a John Houldsworth photo of yourself. Others visiting the show might see themselves making purchases in a pharmacy or using a travelator - with the Embassy Fruit Market in the background.

Visit the exhibition – it’s free and is open every day - and experience the power of photography to shape perceptions, ignite conversation and preserve memories. Guided tours are available every Sunday - 11 to 11:30 am. Bookings are required – online here.

This review is also available on the author's blog here.