Image: Moshe Rosenzveig OAM, Head On Portrait Award 2012 at the ACP
Last week, the Victorian Government announced substantial support for a national centre of photography in its state, whilst here in Sydney, the photographic community learned that our own Australian Centre for Photography was closing its doors.
The announcement of the ACP’s closure came as no surprise to anyone who has been following the organisation’s journey over the past decade as numerous Chief Executives and Board Directors attempted to find a direction for the organisation.
Established 47 years ago, the ACP had a mission to be a cultural centre to advance the medium of photography. Indeed, over the years, it had many achievements - as well as a fair amount of challenges. It was the main venue in Sydney, perhaps the only one, to offer photographic education through its courses. It was also the place to discover new photographic talent as it propelled the careers of many leading Australian photographic artists; artists such as Tracey Moffat, Bill Henson and Magnum member Trent Parke.
However, the rapid uptake of digital cameras and smartphones led to a decline in demand for professional technical prowess, decimating ACP’s income from its education program and resulting in greater reliance on public funding.
But falling enrollments are not just due to technological advances or even the effects of COVID-19. The ACP appeared to adopt the Australian art establishment’s approach to photography that seemingly only values photography when equated with ‘fine-art’. The photographic community perceived this as straying from the ACP’s mission which alienated large groups of that very community the organisation served.
The artworld adopted photography as part of the visual arts in an attempt to commodify and commercialise it to its community of collectors. Yet, in Australia, prominent public institutions and commercial galleries still treat photography as the Cinderella of the arts, lagging behind most other countries where significant institutions and commercial galleries are solely dedicated to photography or have major annual photographic programs.
This elitist attitude of leading cultural institutions here in Australia is in direct contrast to the popularity of photography. The 2011 MCA exhibition by Annie Leibovitz attracted a record 180,000 visitors, yet, its program, on average, includes only one major photography exhibition every three years.
One wonders whether a significant reason for this anomaly lies with the Australia Council’s priorities and the composition of their assessment panels that rarely include photographers or curators specialising in photography.
Photography has a unique artistic language and a rapidly evolving history. Photography, in all its iterations - photojournalism, fine art, portraiture, landscape, street and more - plays a vital role in defining who we are as a nation, crossing cultural and demographic divides with its universal appeal. It gives voice to the voiceless and moves, informs and inspires us. The Australian funding bodies must recognise photography as an art form in its own right and support the few remaining organisations dedicated to this medium before we lose a significant part of our cultural life and access to participation in the arts.
Moshe Rosenzveig OAM
Head On Photo Festival Founder & Director