May 14: Stills

Date #24May 24: Is this the era of endings in photography?

Today the Sydney photography gallery Stills opens its last exhibition, Curtain Call, which will run until to 30 June, 2017.

The gallery has for so long represented the best of Australian photography that one wonders at the impact this closure will have on our scene, following as it does the Queensland Centre for Photography shutting down its South Brisbane premises on 28 April 2014 after losing state funding.

Stills was opened in 1991 by founder Kathy Freedman and co-director Sandy Edwards, who later passed her role to Bronwyn Rennex. They announced:

…there’s a lot of very important and exciting work being done at present using photographic images. Stills will be providing the opportunity for people to see a wide range of current work.

One can pinpoint the date by remembering some other events; that year, Tracey Moffat, who is now representing Australia at the Venice Biennale and who had her first solo show Something More (1989) only two years before, was asked to curate In Dreams: Mervyn Bishop – Thirty years of photography 1960–1990 by Australia’s first indigenous commercial photojournalist, while Helen Ennis, premier historian of Australian Photography, curated The Life and Work of Wolfgang Sievers, which toured the country.

As if running a commercial gallery was not already a tough, demanding business, only two years on, the appearance of the first DSLR (1994), supported by already available digital imaging software, made the shift from film practical, so the nineties were to bring huge change to photography, revolutionary for the practitioners, collectors and fans of the medium.

The gallery itself, from humble beginnings at a time when their room sheet was bashed out on a typewriter and black & white prints were selling for around $200, has shifted and evolved to keep up with changes in the way we produce, enjoy and understand photography.

Trent Parke

Artists of the 90s were producing much larger works and installations. Stills responded by moving from 16 Elizabeth Street (now Blender Gallery) in 1997 to a disused Clark Rubber factory at 36 Gosbell St. within the same heritage-listed suburb of Paddington, and had architects Jackson Teece convert it to provide 550 square metres.

Andrew Styan
Andrew Styan and Merilyn Fairskye joint exhibition.

Then in 2005 the directors upgrade a further 230 square metres of space to provide increased storage, a new office arrangement and customer area in addition to increased exhibition/wall space.

For for directors Kathy Freedman and Bronwyn Rennex, closing their gallery after 25 years, and so many successes, must be a decision harder to make than opening it, though they say it will remain a gallery space but that it will be occupied by a new enterprise, to be announced later in the year.

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 10.47.49 pm
A screen grab of Stills gallery’s artists’ page.

Curtain Call beings together over 60 artists who have had work hung on the gallery walls over its time. It is a tribute to the fairness of the co-diectors that this list represents women and men so evenly in contrast to so many other galleries, and the industry itself, which is even today still male dominated, despite the overwhelmingly female population of most art schools. :

Paul Adair, Lili Amog, Narelle Autio, Juli Balla, Roger Ballen, Gilbert Bel Bachir, Mervyn Bishop, Pat Brassington, Jane Brown, James Bryans, Maureen Burns, Danica Chappell, Christine Cornish, Brenda L Croft, Melita Dahl, Dachi Dang, Huw Davies, Ruby Davies, Ian Dodd, Stephen Dupont, Ella Dreyfus, Michelle Eabry, Jackson Eaton, Sandy Edwards, Peter Elliston, Merilyn Fairskye, Anne Ferran, Chris Fortescue, Lesley Goldacre, Lorrie Graham, Megan Jenkinson, Petrina Hicks, Douglas Holleley, Mark Kimber, Pam Kleeman, Peter Jones, William Lamson, Ian Lever, Jon Lewis, Michael Light, Peter Lyssiotis, Steven Lojewski, Marketa Luskacova, Deb Mansfield, Mary Ellen Mark, Grant Matthews, Ricky Maynard, Peter Milne, Harry Nankin, Anne Noble, Polixeni Papapetrou, Trent Parke, Patrick Pound, Bronwyn Rennex, Jon Rhodes, Michael Riley, George Schwarz, Roger Scott, Rebecca Shanahan, Glenn Sloggett, Georgina Smith, Peter Solness, Van Sowerwine, Robyn Stacey, Suellen Symons, Jenny Templin, David Thomas, Danielle Thompson, Garry Trinh, James Tylor, Stephanie Valentin, Kawita Vatanajyankur, Justine Varga, Beverley Veasey, Wiliam Yang, and Emmaline Zanelli.

The work is hung salon-style to provide an illuminating cross-section of contemporary photographic practice in Australia (amongst some overseas greats). It is a rare event in the gallery scene to see directors so openly appreciative of their artists to make such a gesture:

We are really proud of the artists we have worked with and the exhibitions we have mounted over the years…we’ve enjoyed sharing their works with the world [and] we’ve also enjoyed the artworks themselves – looking at them (in the flesh), thinking about them, writing and talking about them – and of course selling them. We have relished their power to challenge and move us.

The gallery website, which has been a gold mine for my lectures, will be kept active until 2017 after which it will remain as an exhibition archive.

My own visits to the gallery have been few, probably only half a dozen (it is 9 hours drive and 876 km away), but each was a revelation of new and important work, usually of Australian contemporary photographers. This is a great incentive to revisit an important space.

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