Photography at AGNSW

Review: New matter : recent forms of photography

It is always good to wander into the Art Gallery of NSW and visit their photography exhibitions.

Any exhibition of photography is welcomed.

However not every exhibition in a photography gallery is about photography. Sometimes the curators bring together artworks that are based on uses of elements of photography and the medium’s techniques. Such works are very graphical and often abstract.

These works have been crafted as if the artists are doing whatever they can to avoid having a final work look like a photograph – having little recognisable imagery.

This is one of those exhibitions.

The uses of photography techniques as portrayed in this AGNSW exhibition has been around for many decades (if not more) and has always presented lovers of photography with a challenge as to whether the works they are viewing belong in the world of photography. Such works have always hovered around the fringes of photography. They are not the mainstream.

Should many of these works be shown – or at least considered- as being part of contemporary visual arts alongside other abstraction, paintings, and graphic arts- rather than being viewed as being photography? (don’t know the answer to that question)

This exhibition is of interest. However after spending about 15 minutes walking from work to work, reading the captions and then sitting in the middle of the room, and coming back the next day (to see something else as well) I have to say that it was hard work to feel as though the exhibition was engaging.

Access to what the works was not assisted by the museum labels containing text written that presented seemingly complicated concepts. In many cases you read a sentence or two and then had to stop and wonder just what did that mean. Labels should provide a basic level of information than allow the artwork to do the rest.

In many cases the text provided seemed to want to over-explain the work as if there was a lack of confidence in the capacity of the artist to make their own statement through their works. The effort in translating the label back into plain English (many times unsuccessfully) was a serious and unwanted distraction from the visual engagement with the work.

There was one work that was particularly appealing and definitely did not require the over-explanation provided. The text denied the viewer the opportunity to engage with the photograph and to work through your own interpretations.

The above text requires a serious edit – for instance lose that last sentence and knock the rest down to two points of information. I wish curators would learn to keep such text simple and allow the viewer to do the rest.

All the wall labels in this exhibition required editing back and translating to being text that does not compete with the works for the viewers time and imagination.

Extra text, research and views are important and should be available to aid the viewer. Instead of distracting wall texts (besides the basics), I would encourage room brochures and/or more online resources and papers to inform about and provide background to the exhibition, the artworks, the artists and the curatorial approach.

Back to the exhibition:

As I said earlier, this AGNSW exhibition is less about photography and more about presentations of graphics and abstraction using photographic techniques to produce art.

Photographers and many other artists have often experimented with abstraction in photography or with using photographic techniques to construct graphical works and/or photographic abstraction. Some of the greats in the visual arts have done so successfully and have been very influential. Many of these works in the AGNSW have been influenced by these artists.

There always will be artists who experiment in this area. The results are interesting – and in the history of the arts, sometimes hugely successful.

It would be a mistake to consider that works such as these were the mainstream practice of contemporary photography. This area of work remains a fascinating space for such experiments but is not where contemporary photography is heading internationally.

I had great trouble being enthusiastic about this exhibition. One of my tests for summing up an exhibition is whether I would later recommend the exhibition to others. I have not so far.

Here’s a link to the works in the exhibition – click here. Remembering that viewing any artwork online does not replace the experience of standing in front of the artwork/photograph.

and here’s a link to the AGNSW’s page on the exhibition – click here.


and – I did enjoy the four works upstairs in the Australian Galleries – where the gallery has laid out four works by Ed Douglas.

and  – upstairs there was the special (free) exhibition of contemporary visual arts from Japan – including Yasumasa Morimura’s Las meninas reborn in the night 2013, a series of eight large photographs taken over the course of a night at the Prado Museum.

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