December 21: The period of the 1970s is significant in world photography in that attention moved from the documentary to the art image. In Australia, the change affected, and was effected by, photography students at a small but important art school.
I have spent some time here examining the influence of The Family of Man. A duplicate copy of the 1955 show commissioned by the U.S. Information Agency reached Australia late in its world tour, opening in Melbourne at Preston Motors Show Room on February 23, 1959; then traveled to Sydney to be shown in the David Jones Department Store, on April 6, 1959; next went to Brisbane’s John Hicks Showrooms, May 18–June 13, 1959; and lastly to Adelaide, in the Myer Emporium, June 29–July 31, 1959, before being sent on to other nations in S.E. Asia.
The venues themselves are significant; the overweening conservatism of Australia would hardly permit that lesser medium—considered not art at all—to blight the walls of their fine art salons. And at any rate, there was no space in public galleries to show the work; the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales shared the fusty walls of their state libraries.
Though only two were contributors to the international show, several Australian photographers express their debt to the exhibition, including Australians Graham McCarter, John Cato, Paul Cox and Robert McFarlane. They in turn were influential on a next generation that was to appear in the 1970s, including students at Prahran College, amongst whom I was one.
Emerging from the stultifying conservatism of the mid-1960s, the 1970s may be characterised by the liberation of women, the embrace of openness in sexuality, recreational drug use, and a diversity in the cultures of film, music and the arts.
In advance of the apathetic progress in the other arts, in Melbourne the International Film Festival (MIFF) had been founded in 1952 (one of the oldest film festivals in the world) and in The Age my father was reviewing its offerings, sometimes taking me with him in the later years when we’d returned from years in London.
He moved on in 1959 to become the first full-time editor of Walkabout magazine. It was a publication that supported, and under Brian’s editorship credited, some of Australia’s most significant photographers and photojournalists; David Beal, Jeff Carter and Mare Carter, Beverley Clifford, Rennie Ellis, Maggie Diaz, Helmut Gritscher, Laurence Le Guay, Robert McFarlane, David Moore, Lance Nelson, Wolfgang Sievers, Mark Strizic, Richard Woldendorp amongst them. His driving ambition to make it a rival to LIFE, National Geographic and Réalités saw its contents include the arts amongst the tourist attractions of the country it publicised, its format enlarged, colour introduced, and the masthead modernised, all of which doubled its circulation.
However, a disruption was looming for both magazines and film, and for my father; television. Magazine sales started plummeting and cinema seats were empty. He refused to have the ‘idiot box’ in the house, only succumbing after our teenage tantrums wore him down. At the end of the 1960s, in the months before he died of a heart attack, my father had lost his job and all but wrecked his marriage, was hospitalised after a mental breakdown and received unsuccessful treatment for alcoholism, then retreated into a menial job at the Post Office, all the while ineffectually hiding from everyone his fall from grace.
At the height of his success, in 1963 Brian was included in an exhibition at the Melbourne Town Hall (my brother’s face appears centre left in the image hanging in the foreground above). The other exhibitors were from Group M which included one member who was a Walkabout contributor, Richard Woldendorp, and with large prints suspended in space, they hoped to imitate the radical presentation of The Family of Man that, as group, they admired. The title of the exhibition makes it a useful marker; it was called Urban Woman, though every exhibitor was a man.
By contrast and eleven years later, a book was hastily published in time for International Women’s Year and the beginning of the United Nations Decade for Women (1976 to 1985), and both author and photographer of A Book About Australian Women were women. The text by Virginia Fraser was from interviews with women from all walks of life, many famous or soon to be, and Carol Jerrems photographed 131 of them. The emphasis is on women making their own way in careers and in the arts, and though many were mothers, none are depicted as ‘home-makers’, or as living in support of men.
The publishers though were men, and sadly they hired a Cheltenham firm that printed local newspapers to produce the book amongst around 100 that Outback Press released in the ’70s; it is now rare to find a copy intact as most have disintegrated and their pulp pages have yellowed. It is, as much for its faults as its virtues, a landmark in the decade, and of the work of an important Prahran College photography graduate. It was Carol who painstakingly sequenced her own photographs; that she was trained in an art school rather than as a cadet on a newspaper is evident in the cinematic cross-fade of the reflections in each of the side-by-side portraits of fellow student Jacqui Mitelman and Grace Cossington-Smith, and in Jerrems consciousness of the veteran Australian painter’s Interior in Yellow as she sits for Carol in the same house as that in the prismatic painting.
…and in the fleeting expressions crossing actress Syvanna Doolan’s face in this sequential portrait.
What made Paul Cox refer in a rare mention in his autobiography to Prahran as the ‘Australian Bauhaus’, was the appointment as Head of Art of enlightened sculptor Lenton Parr, succeeded in 1970 by Dr. David Armstrong who removed the previous Principal Alan Warren‘s advertising cronies. During Carol’s last year of enrolment, he replaced advertising and ‘glamour’ photographer Gordon De Lisle (known for preferring students “with big tits who couldn’t run fast!”) with the cultured and urbane Athol Shmith as Head of Photography, who brought in John Cato, providing, with Cox who had already added cinematography to the department, a combination that inspired Jerrems, and students of the entire decade.
The capacity of photography students to take electives in drama, art history, cinema studies, painting, ceramics or sculpture, is reflected in Carol’s imagery, and if, like me, you wanted to draw or etch you could always sit in on legendary Pam Hallendal‘s or Fred Vallis‘ workshops, even though they both disliked and discouraged photographers from actually enrolling. After the excitement of aluminium casting in American John Gardner‘s classes at the school foundry set up by Caroline May, I ventured in second year into Conceptual Sculpture, taught by Caroline and John Davis.
Let that encapsulate another unique quality in the ineffable identity of Prahran; its location in a working class suburb. For me, May’s and Davis’ classes were themselves fairly conceptual; I didn’t attend more than a couple, being busy working off my maintenance payments. But they let me submit a piece of string.
In oblique homage to Duchamp’s ‘Standard Stoppages’, my string was attached to the door of college stairwell, and wound past the cramped weatherboard workers’ cottages of the suburban lanes, joining sites where I had taken street photographs, along Acland Street’s Jewish quarter, around Luna Park, onto the beach over the Esplanade, past St Moritz skating rink, skirting the sex-workers’ beats in Grey Street, past Mirka’s and George’s ‘Tolarno’, and finishing in a moth-ball-and-sweat-scented room crammed with candlewick-covered beds. I had rented a couple of hours in Vittoria Carbone’s notorious Gatwick Hotel doss house, and there I displayed for my examiners the photographs I was then taking in Luna Park. Luckily, my friend and painting student, filmmaker-to-be Jaems Grant, guided my lecturers over sections where cars had broken the brown twine…and I passed…got a credit in fact!
The suburb is the very substance of Prahran students’ images and their reflection of the decade. Neighbouring were aspirational South Yarra which even then was being gentrified, and wealthy Toorak…
…industrial Richmond, bohemian St Kilda, and the docks of Port Melbourne.
Photography at Prahran College coincided with a period of societal and political change, with the end in 1972 of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and of conscription, into emerging socialist perspectives on civil rights and the women’s liberation movement which swept a Federal Labor Government, led by Gough Whitlam, into power after 20 years of conservative rule. In 1974 fees for universities and colleges of advanced education were abolished, opening up educational opportunities previously denied the underprivileged. It spanned a major change in photography from a period in which magazine photojournalism and documentary photography had largely been displaced by television, and during which art photography had become collectible in a revival of the medium not seen since the 1930s.
Journalist Geoff Strong, a later graduate whose photo Global Repair (1981) heads this article, wrote about the period at the end of the 80s in The Thousand Mile Stare (1988). He launches his essay with a recitation of the financial futility of photographic activity in the 1970s, characterising the baby-boomer generation as ‘camera-clutching lemmings’ slavishly following American influence to make mostly ‘mediocre and imitative’ work as they tried to make photography ‘art’, against a parallel renaissance in cinema and film industry in Australia which dominated the government funding and and was more viable financially, favoured as it was for its employment of large numbers for film crews. The Prahran generation, he argues, produced nothing that was distinctively Australian.
From my College experience and watching the many successful fellow graduates’ careers since, I have to disagree.
If you are a graduate, and feel the same…go here.