Contemporary photography has only come into the spotlight in relatively recent times. One who could see the rise of contemporary photography, Sam Wagstaff (partner of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe), ended up selling his entire collection to the Getty Museum for millions. This writer highly recommends tracking down the film Black White + Grey, which not only explores contemporary photography, but as importantly, Wagstaff’s role in creating Mapplethorpe’s rise to fame.

The Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) in George Street, Fitzroy, has been tracking the rise of Australian and international photographers since 1986, when the centre was established. According to Pippa Milne, curator at CCP, Sotheby’s auction house has seen a significant rise in sales for contemporary photography, along with the rise of festivals and fairs, both in Australia and abroad.

Those fortunate enough to visit the latest exhibition, titled Unorthodox Flow of Images, will delight in some of the different ways photography is now expressed. “We take a broad view of photography, including makers who deal with ideas of photography; the way a lens is used or light manipulated,” says Milne, who works closely with the centre’s program manager, Michelle Mountain. “The media could be video, sculpture or even animation,” she adds.

The Unorthodox Flow of Images, on until 12 November, brings together an extraordinary range of photos, from as early as the mid-19th century. Many also tap into our more recent concerns with the environment, both rural and urban, whether it’s deforestation or the destruction of heritage buildings. There’s also been a strong movement to the sense of the hand, with some photographers hand-colouring their images. Others use light-sensitive paper and let the sun or even the light in a room take on the role of developing an image. “We call this technique ‘camera-less photography’,” says Milne.

Those who enjoy seeing pretty Watteau-style paintings (early 18th century), depicting the aristocracy frolicking in the French countryside, will be taken back by some of the photographs on display. The starting point for this exhibition is a print of a photo taken in 1880 of bushranger Joe Byrne, one of Ned Kelly’s gang members, strung up in front of a curious crowd. In a glass cabinet nearby is the original photo taken of Byrne, less confronting given its size.


An adjacent image on the wall is a photograph of a painting by the early Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca, The Flagellation of Christ, involving a whip, rather than in Byrne’s case, a rope. If you think this is grim, there’s a video by Katrin Koenning showing the last moments of a miner bird, limping before it finds itself under the wheel of a car. Other images, such as the one of Anne Frank’s bedroom wall in her attic in Amsterdam during the Second World War of movie photos she collected and displayed in a book, evoke sadness.

However, from the darkness, there is a move towards the light. Siri Hayes’ Plein Air Explorers, circa 2008, depicts an artist’s studio in the landscape. The male nude subject, painted by the students, depicts the Victorian landscape in a new light. An adjacent photo by Robyn Stacey cleverly brings the outdoors into the studio of the late artist Brett Whiteley. Rather than gum trees and rocky outcrops, the walls of Whiteley’s studio uses the technique of ‘camera obscura’ to project images such as Sydney’s Luna Park.

Michael Parekowhai, an Auckland-based photographer depicts a rabbit with its eye closely cropped gazing at the viewer. A photograph by Indigenous artist Leah King-Smith shows a grainy image taken in the days of early settlement. “I was seeing the old photographs as both sacred family documents on one hand, and testaments of the early brutal days of white settlement on the other. I was wrestling with anger, resentment, powerlessness and guilt,” says King-Smith, who reworked this image to transport the figure in the photograph to his homeland in the bush.

Prominent Australian artist Tim Silver is also represented in this exhibition. Silver is known for making casts of himself and seeing them decay. His Untitled (Oneirophrenia) circa 2016 depicts bread expanding in his clay model, literally creating a crevice across the artist’s head. Other photos, such as one by Indigenous artist Dianne Jones titledThe Meat Queue, sees her insert herself into the iconic Max Dupain’s Meat Queue. “Photographers, as well as fine artists, often appropriate well known works to say something new,” says Milne.

Contemporary photography captures stories, both past and present. It often also takes you out of your comfort zone and makes you look at things in a fresh way. Sometimes the message or idea is obvious, while other times the image, video, installation or sculpture needs to be explained. Those who want to see great photography as well as go beyond their comfort zone should take the time to visit any one of the 25 exhibitions held by CCP each year.

The 148 works currently on show make this one, if not the largest CCP exhibitions to date. The upcoming show, CCP Salon, from the end of November until Christmas, is not dissimilar to the Archibald Prize. Open to all Australian photographers, this exhibition will feature the work of school students to professionals, with all 800 works displayed. “It’s a democratic show where all photography is displayed. None of it is relegated to the back room,” says Mountain.

Text by Stephen Crafti.

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