September 25: Success

Date #18September 25: What are the indicators that an exhibition has been a success; attendance, or re-showings and tours, or reviews, or perhaps sales? 

Here’s an exhibition opening sometime in the sixties; the fashion confirms that. A bunch of men—yes all men — mostly middle-aged, all sporting long sideburns, are variously dressed in suits, or less formally in cardigans and slacks, and there are even two turtle-necks and a hat, styles distinctive of engineers and technical officers, not of beatnik artists, though the turtlenecks do nod in that direction.

K97-12A-800The room is in a suburban cottage with old timber ceiling and overbearingly wall-papered in what is likely to be an orange and brown pattern. Through the matchstick blind on a casement window of some vintage, its bottom panes painted,  we can glimpse the sea. There is a female presence, but only iconic; a mother and child peer into the masculine crowd from a framed and glazed photograph. Reflected in the glass we can see the wallpaper too, and a bright strip of the upper portion of the wall against which a flash has been fired, freezing the acton in the room. Two men stand shoulder to shoulder in the middle of this tightly packed and quite tiny space, both fully engaged with the camera, while another, stage right, studiously ignores it with a wry smile. A much younger man regards the lens in gleeful complicity. There being little room for a photographer to stand, it’s quite likely that this is a selfie – the camera on a tripod, the shutter and bounce-flash being fired by the Falstaffian gent holding the wineglass in his right hand while squeezing a bulb-release in his left.

Entry to The Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, 1955. Photo: Ezra Stoller.

The gathering in fact gauges of the success of The Family of Man exhibition of 1955, which I have been investigating over recent posts. Attendances totalled 9 million as it traveled to thirty-seven countries on six continents…more than any photographic exhibition since. The majority of reviews were positive until the release of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies in which he panned what he regarded as ‘sentimental humanism’. But our photograph presents other evidence for its importance less often considered; the influence of an exhibition on other photographers. 

In the case of The Family of Man sufficient time has elapsed to see this effect in retrospect. Sustained influence is evident; ten years later the 1965 Weltausstellung der Fotographie (World Exhibition of Photography), which in imitation of Steichen’s show, traveled to 261 venues in 36 countries, and also was a selection from large numbers of submissions of mostly documentary photography, and it was followed up by a second  Weltausstellung in 1968. UNESCO mounted The Family of Children in their ‘Year of Children’  in 1971 in a similar format. Since then there have been a number of shows, including Oppositions: We are the world, you are the third world in 1990, family, nation, tribe, community: SHIFT (1996) and The 90s: A Family of Man? of 1997, some reacting to, and others sympathetic to, Barthes’ critique of Steichen’s exhibition. Each was an effort to treat the ideas of the 1955 show in contemporary context .

There were lesser-known, and older, shows responding on a local level to MoMA’s exhibition as it traveled, or not long after, even in Australia in the 1960s, then a far-flung backwater only beginning to receive the tide of modernism in photography largely through its intake of European refugees. As I have mentioned, only two Australian photographers made the cut into The Family of Man, but the show, which was exhibited here in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide in 1959, attracted the attention of photographers who, that year, formed themselves into Group M in Melbourne. 

The members, initially all men, believed in ‘straight’, unmanipulated photography that transparently represented its subject, declaring;

We are certain that the majority of people appreciate philosophical thinking and social comment expressed through photography

They mounted six major exhibitions between 1959 and 1965, all titled Photovision, at first open to international photographers, but from 1963 entry restricted to Australian photographers. Like The Family of Man there was an overall theme to each of the exhibitions and the display of work followed, in a more modest manner, the innovations of Steichen’s designer, the architect Paul Rudolph. The name ‘Photovision’ is reminiscent of a movement from the prior decade; the German ‘fotoform’ group of young photographers, founded in 1949 by Peter Keetman, Otto Steinert, and Ludwig Windstosser which was the nucleus of modernism in that country and especially what was called  in ‘subjective photography’ to contrast with the ‘new objectivity’ of the pre-war period. Though it focused on abstraction, design, and close observation, it also fostered new approaches to photo-documentary imagery. Group M however did develop a modernism as extreme, the tendency can be discerned in their presentation of large prints, some mural sized, in three-dimensional, walk-through arrangements. 

Group M Photovision exhibition (n.d.) includes international photographers.

In his wartime and several postwar exhibitions at MoMA Steichen’s emphasis was on photography as communication medium, orchestrating visual narrative sequences, rather than assembling discrete images, departing from the idea of the print as ‘fine art’ by treating the hanging in the gallery in the manner of a magazine photo-essay though cropping, enlargment and display of prints flush-mounted, unmatted and without glass. Thus photographs, rather than sitting “quietly on the walls”, were used “as a force” to lead an “assault’ on vision of the kind being experienced from public advertising and publicity of the kind (unlikely to have been seen by Group M members) in Australia’s display cases faced with hand coloured backlit transparencies for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The Photovision shows likewise exploited the attention-grabbing potential of blow-ups on panels without glass in a shift away from the camera club reverence for the fine print.

Wolfgang Sievers (1961) Photovision ’61, Museum of Modern Art, Tavistock Place, Melbourne,  (NLA).

The central figures in Group M were George W Bell (1920–2008), John Crook (1927–2012),  and Albert Brown (1931–2017), and other members were Cliff Restarick, Roy McDonald, John Bolton, Richard Woldendorp, and  Harry Youlden. The prime mover was John Crook, who like the others members was from a group of scientists and engineers in industry who happened also to be friends.

He, like many, experienced The Family of Man in the form of the catalogue of the exhibition which he saw when it was released in 1955, before he saw the exhibition. A keen photographer, he had grown tired of the stuffy Melbourne Camera Club and its perpetuation of a well-outdated Pictorialism. He and his friends formed the Moggs Creek Clickers out of their common interest in documentary photography and their investment in building a shared holiday house at Moggs Creek on the coast west of Melbourne. 

Irreverent and fun-loving, this is the group we see in the photograph which, with the addition of more members, became Group M. Ever ambitious, Crook came into the orbit of art critic and collector John Reed who had set up the world’s other MoMA – in Melbourne – but it was the older and more artistic George Bell (having trained in commercial and fine arts at Caulfield Technical School in the late 1930s) who suggested approaching John Reed, though Crook cemented that relationship to the point that he secured for the group an exhibition in Reed’s gallery, a small space that had opened in 1958 upstairs in Tavistock Place off Flinders Street before moving in 1964 to  the Ball & Welch emporium in 1964, and closing in 1966.

Albert Brown joined the Clickers rather late but he appreciated their humanist philosophy and was impressed with the Family of Man, and then discovered other important  documentary photography, relating strongly to Roy Stryker’s aim of ‘purposeful photography’ in his commissioning of the FSA which chimed with his own organisational capability. It was he that promoted the group and documentary photography to galleries, museums, and universities, and who was responsible for the push that created a Photographic Department at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 1966 and facilitated its first exhibition, the New York Museum of Modern Arts’  The Photographer’s Eye curated by John Szarkowski.

Photographer unknown (1963) Urban Woman at Lower Melbourne Town Hall, 1963, installation view.

Their 1963 show Urban Woman was, in name and format, a response to Family of Man, intended for general consumption. In documenting aspects of the contemporary urban woman’s life, it was in part a sociological and psychological study; a response to the phenomenon of the house-bound woman, isolated in the suburbs and frustrated after having participated actively in the military or the workforce during the war; a condition uncovered a decade later in Patrick Tennison’s 1972 The Marriage Wilderness A Study of Women in Suburbia.

Photographer unknown (1963) Urban Woman at Lower Melbourne Town Hall, 1963, installation view

The group researched their subject thoroughly over more than a year and produced about 200 prints that approached this subtle subject from a range of angles.  The show opened at the Lower Melbourne Town Hall and was designed by Max Forbes with The Family of Man as the exemplar for the large format prints, presented in a narrative sequence from youth to old age. The show toured  the country for four years, and was part of Australia’s cultural input to the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968. Unfortunately, when returned to the National Gallery of Victoria three years later its condition was poor and the entire show was subsequently destroyed.

Though Group M was short-lived and its exhibitions sparsely attended and rarely reviewed, merely tolerated by but not embraced into the art world of John Reed, its reach into the Australian photographic community was considerable. Exhibitors included Nigel Buesst (Newsreel cameraman and industrial photographer), Keast Burke (Sydney professional and writer on photography, Gordon De Lisle (High ranking member of the Melbourne Camera Club), Max Dupain, Margaret ‘Maggie’ Fraser (American advertising photographer, Laurence Le Guay, Zillah Lee, David Moore, Wolfgang Sievers, Marc Strizic, Bob Whitaker; significant local practitioners and many from overseas, and even my own father Brian McArdle (Editor of Walkabout) participated in their last show. That this effort at advancing serious photography in Australia was so soon forgotten is due to a number of factors; the practical problems the group faced in putting on their exhibitions, especially the demands and costs of making large prints meant that publicity was a further expensive inconvenience . In Crook’s view they “never had the time and resources,” and besides, most of the group “had challenging and reasonably enjoyable jobs in science and teaching,” and “the ultimate success was to do what seemed right, not that which made us famous”.

IMG0055-750Not all were strict adherents to the documentary genre, but one of the group, its youngest member, produced some imagery still significant today. Roy McDonald, who went on to be a teacher of Latin and classics at Melbourne Grammar exploited the fact that his mother worked in a mental health hospital to go and photograph some of the inmates and nurses.

What he recorded are archaic treatments and brute management of mental conditions not only of adults but also of young children who he said were so starved for affection that they clung to him as he tried to take pictures.

In his imagery and his sensitivity we see the impulse of The Family of Man and humanist photography in Australia 

Without the work of Philip Bentley this group would have sunk completely into obscurity. Not an art historian, his thesis Deeper Feeling, Wider Vision: Group M and the Moggs Creek Clickers was completed in his degree of Master of Arts in Public History at Monash University in February, 1996, available online thanks to Gael Newton and Paul Costigan, and is almost the sole authority on the subject. The information above comes from his interviews and the pictures from and from Curating Photography Prof. Daniel Palmer (RMIT University) and Assoc. Prof. Martyn Jolly at the Australian National University

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