How photography-as-art came 'under siege': Bill Henson and Tracey Moffatt on the closure of the ACP

Kelly Burke
·5 min read

It has been 30 years since a young photographer working in Albury-Wodonga walked into the Australian Centre for Photography in Paddington, Sydney and showed the director her 4x5 transparencies of a new photographic series she had been working on.

The photographer was Tracey Moffatt and the resulting solo exhibition, Something More 1989 – with its now iconic images confronting race and rural disadvantage – put her on the art world’s international stage.

“I remember being so broke that I could barely afford to make the large prints and frame them,” she recalls.

That ACP opening, she says, was without doubt her big break.

  • Something More #9 1989. Tracey Moffatt

On 16 December, the ACP will close its doors. The term “hibernate” has been tossed about but the ACP director, Pierre Arpin, told Guardian Australia that after haemorrhaging money since 2016, the days of staging public programs, exhibitions and workshops is over.

“We’ll take some time to consult with the community to determine what form the ACP could take in the future, but what’s clear is that we can’t afford to manage programs in a space where we receive absolutely no public funding anymore,” he said.

Co-founded by David Moore in 1974, the ACP has exhibited the works and hosted major retrospectives of Australia’s elite cohort of photographers, including Max Dupain, Olive Cotton, Mervin Bishop, Bill Henson, William Yang, Trent Parke and Moffatt.

  • Max Dupain’s Sunbaker

“ACP was part of the cultural fabric of Sydney and it welcomed everyone in,” Moffatt says.

In particular, the centre fostered the work of female photographers, Moffatt says – women such as Anne Ferran, Jacky Redgate, Robyn Stacey and the late Sue Ford.

“[Ford] was a bold maverick and used her camera like a weapon.

“I worry that such artists like her don’t receive recognition but I now look on the internet and Sue Ford is all over it, thankfully.”

But the internet is no way to look at art or a photograph, she says.

“There is nothing like standing in front of the actual artwork in a real gallery with good lighting.”

Bill Henson had his first solo exhibition in the National Gallery of Victoria in 1975, at the precocious age of 19. He has exhibited a number of times over the decades at ACP, and during his lifetime he has watched the evolution of his chosen art form.

  • Left to right: Modernist photograph of a young model at a fashion shoot, circa 1939, Modernist photograph of tea cups, circa 1935. Olive Cotton

The advent of affordable easy-to-use instamatic cameras in the 1960s “democratised” photography, Henson says, and turned the camera into a household item. At the same time elaborate and costly photo assignments that had become the hallmarks of magazines such as Life and National Geographic were curtailed by the advent of image banks, opening up cheaper avenues for magazines and newspapers to illustrate their articles.

Professional photographers’ frequent remonstrance may be that the smartphone has turned everyone into a photographer, but Henson says that started happening decades ago, when the world was introduced to instant imaging technology by Polaroid in the 1970s.

Throughout this evolution, there has been changing public perception, he says, where photography now is no longer seen as “academic, of needing some kind of effort required and some knowledge of aesthetics and the visual arts” to something much more prosaic – the mass documentation of the minutiae of daily life, on Instagram and beyond.

“[Photography] was always ubiquitous but now it saturates the environment, it’s absolutely central to everyone’s lives,” he says.

“This casual documentation, to the point where this sort of pedestrian reportage has now become a very large part of the mainstream of photography-as-art – that’s had an effect on photography museums, galleries, and places like ACP.”

  • Untitled. Bill Henson

“Where you just don’t take a photograph but make a photograph, I think this has been under siege because of changes in technology and popular culture for some time.

“It’s an interesting conundrum and I don’t know what the answer is ... but I don’t think [the ACP] perhaps realised how much the world around them was changing,” he says. “I think they could have been a lot more assertive facing those changes.”

Henson’s advice to young photography students? To bear in mind that photography is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

“If they felt that they could draw closer to those things they don’t fully understand through another medium – whether it’s high tech or low tech, a lump of clay or digital imaging technology – they need to think about that.

“If I felt like I could get closer to the things that haunt my imagination by carving things out of wood, then that’s what I’d do. I’d stop [taking photos] and I’d do that.

  • Untitled (Cat6), 2001, from the series Dream Life and Beyond. Trent Parke/ Magnum Photos

Moffatt feels confident that the art form, and the way we exhibit that art, will continue to evolve.

“Venues such as ACP will appear again in a different form,” she says.

“Who cares if it might end up being a converted mine shaft on the outskirts of Lithgow? We will probably all still go and see the exhibitions. I know that I will.

“The camera and the photograph have now been around for 200 years. This art form is still magical and it will continue to develop. How could it not?”